Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Movie Reviews 421 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

January 10, 2020

During the midst of the Italian Spaghetti Western craze other countries started to get in on the action, so to speak. Two Mules for Sister Sarah is a Mexican production that has the odd pairing of Clint Eastwood, the predominant Goombah oater at the time, with the whimsical Shirley MacLaine best known for her comedic talents.

What brought back memories of this movie was watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained and hearing the distinct whistling of Ennio Morricone’s great “The Braying Mule” theme song from this movie (you can hear a mule bray if you listen carefully) as well as “Sister Sara’s Theme” later in the film. But the relationship to Django Unchained is actually something of a triangle as there are distinct plot elements here that were lifted right from the original Django. For starters, this movie begins with our protagonist Hogan (Eastwood) meandering in the mountains when he suddenly comes across a damsel in distress, Sara (MacLaine) about to be raped by a group of armed thugs. With precision gunslinging Hogan picks of the ravagers like a 5-7-10 bowling split and ends up being accompanied by the woman, shocked to find out that she is a nun, the rest of the film. This is not only the exact same beginning as Django but the revelation of Sara’s true identity – which I’m not going to mention here as it would spoil the movie – is also nearly identical.

Hogan is on a mission to aide Mexican revolutionaries take out a French garrison in the city of Chihuahua with a promise to get half of the gold being held there should they succeed. As it turns out, Sara has intimate knowledge of the layout and defence of that garrison. A fortuitous meeting for a pair made in heaven – well at least the nun.

While evading the French cavalry who have a particular sore to settle with Sara, the duo avoid rattlesnakes and dynamite the odd trestle bridge making their way to the city. Dealing with her constant prayers, huge silver cross that Sara brandishes to ward off evil and her feisty temperament that is conveniently flexible to catholic doctrines whenever necessary, Hogan must fight off the urge to get his hands on his lovely companion who is much more than she claims to be. The two trade barbs as Brother and Sister children, polar opposites pitting his carefree, vagabond lifestyle against her feigned abstinence and purity.

The revelation isn’t much of a surprise but both the comedy and action are more than enough to sustain this odd western. The climactic battle pulls no punches and even has a bit of gore that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. Entertaining, but make no mistake that this is not anywhere near Eastwood as his Man with No Name spaghetti best.

Call this one a spaghettini western with a bit of salsa.

Movie Reviews 416 – My Name is Nobody (1973)

December 6, 2019

There are almost as many western films that ruminate on the final days of legendary crack shot gunmen as there are ones that have then merely going on killing sprees whether they be samaritan bounty hunters or charcoal wearing villains. My Name is Nobody is the former with Henry Fonda as the aged shooter who just wants to sail off into the sunset – literally in this case.

The plots of these movies basically have wannabe replacements hoping to earn their reputation by besting the veteran in a shootout. But Jack Beauregard (Fonda) has a slightly different problem. Sure he has more than a few eager guns hoping to take him on, but one particular fellow who doesn’t have a name (Terence Hill) isn’t inclined to have a shootout at all. Although he is clearly as good as, even better than Jack, he just turns up at every corner pestering Jack with a steady stream of advice and guidance, whether wanted or not.

As Jack makes his way towards New Orleans (and eventual passage to Europe) his voyage includes making a pit stop in search of his brother The Nevada Kid (an acknowledged scoundrel and outlaw) and shutting down the owner of a dry goldmine (Jean Martin) who is using stolen gold as a replacement for extract. The mine owner doesn’t take to kindly with Jack’s interference and assembles a small army of marauders to hunt him down. All this leads to a finale in which Jack is stranded next to train tracks in the middle of nowhere as the cavalcade of fifty armed horse riders descend on him.

The symbolism of the cherubic Nobody representing Jack’s guardian angel is as plain as the outline of wings projected by the saddle that he carries on his back throughout the film. Able to recite the day and foes of every gun battle Jack ever fought, his guidance proves to be divinely appropriate despite Jack’s reluctance to heed it at times.

If you haven’t picked it up yet there are plenty of homage references to Sam Peckinpaw and The Wild Bunch including that final battle.And just like it’s inspiration, there are plenty of battles and the blood that goes with it. But this is no mere oater bloodfest.

Il mio nome è Nessuno (original Italian title) was directed by Tonino Valerii (with a helping hand from Sergio Leone) and departs from the usual gritty Spaghetti Western in many other ways aside from the heavenly inferences. While maestro Ennio Morricone provided the score his theme is decidedly bubbly to go along with the story, even going so far as playfully adapting Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries. The script straddles the line of comedy and drama and is more like a collection of stringed skill shooting skits than a linear narrative. The comedy does go over the top at times with sped up sequences resembling Keystone Kops or even Stooge-like.

If you want your westerns to be pure spit and dust this is probably not what you’re looking for. To be sure, there is plenty of that but be prepared for a light hearted approach and little fantasy thrown in as well.

Movie Reviews 333 – 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

February 23, 2018

I’ve watched all kinds of bizarre and uncategorizable movies over the years but the one that always stuck out first for me was 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Is it a western? A fantasy? A comedy? A fable? It’s all of these and more.

The movie begins with the elder chinaman Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) riding on a golden donkey who flicks his thumb to produce a flame that he then uses to light his yandaiguo pipe as a precariously balanced fishbowl rests on the saddle front. Dr. Lao, owner and operator of a travelling circus, has ridden in from the dusty great plains and enters the old western town of Abalone. His first stop is the local news printshop where he wants some of his circus event posters to be printed. As he awaits being served he overhears the first rumblings of trouble in the town as the newspaper owner/editor/writer Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) is visibly angered by a visit from Clint Stark (Arthur O’Connell) who chides the editor for some negative press he has been writing. The local business man Stark has buying up all the houses and real estate that he can lay his hands on while having the mayor in his pocket. Cunningham fears for the towns future although is isn’t quite sure what game Stark is really playing. And while Cunningham seems to be the only one who wants to hold the town together, the only person that seems to have the same mindset is Angela the lovely, widowed town librarian (Barbara Eden) who is cold to Cunningham’s advances.

The movie plays out as a sequence of scenes played out in the confines of the tent circus. The stars are Dr. Lao’s menagerie of mythical figures and creatures including the Abominable snowman, Merlin the magician from King Arthur’s court, three ancient Greek figures; Pan (god of love), Medusa the Gorgon who turns all who look at her into stone and blind fortune teller Apollonius of Tyana, and finally a slithering, talking serpent (whose face looks exactly like Stark).  Most of these play out scenes with the cast of human characters, digging deeper into their real issues and problems. Angela for example loses her inhibitions after being mentally aroused when she stumbles upon Pan, while the root of Stark’s greed is deconstructed by the serpent. Viewers will be quick to note that all of Dr. Lao’s charges are in fact played by Randall which was quite a formidable feat for the actor.

Unsurprisingly, this movie was directed by George Pal best known for his special effects laden classics of the era that include The War of the Worlds, Destination Moon and The Time Machine. Also notable is that Charles Beaumont was the writer, a man very familiar with the bizarre as a Twilight Zone regular. Alas, this is one of those movies in which my memories were better than my recent viewing experience. Most of the special effects are still fine but the overall story and the delivery now suffer a bit with my more mature adult assessment. But the movie is really a comedy which excuses the candy coated ending. Still a fun watch even if only for the the special effects and gags.

Movie Reviews 311 – Django (1966)

August 29, 2017

When people hear the term Spaghetti Western they immediately think of Clint Eastwood in any one of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) which created the genre. But most audiences have no idea of how big that mania was in Italy itself and the hundreds of those westerns that were made between the mid 60’s and 70’s before it sputtered along with the fall of traditional Hollywood westerns. Moreover, the Man with No Name himself was but one of many heroic characters that spawned entire series of films. Those other series included Sabata, and Trinity, and Sartana, the latter being featured in more than a dozen movies alone while the subgenre made stars of Gian Maria Volontè,Tomas Milian, Lee Van Cleef, and for comic relief Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

But without a doubt the next best thing to those Sergio Leone movies was created by another Sergio and close friend of Leone himself. Sergio Corbucci’s Django character, played by Franco Nero began with the self titled Django is by far the heir to the throne behind the Man with No Name.  Recently re-imagined by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained., the new movie has little to do with the original but Tarantino was wise enough to reuse the famous title track by academy award winner Luis Bacalov and sung with a powerful Elvis flair by Rocky Roberts.

Dragging a coffin which is always at his side, Django is a drifter but one with revenge on his mind. He rescues a prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) who is about to be flogged by a group of outlaws on the outskirts of a ghost town consisting of not much more than a saloon and hotel. In town he learns that the town’s barren status is accountable to two warring factions. On the one hand there is confederate Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) who was responsible for sending his red bandana clad men to kill Maria. They are at odds with an equally vicious Mexican revolutionary named General Hugo Rodríguez (José Bódalo) an old acquaintance of Django.

Django already had a deep grudge against Jackson and now after a deadly confrontation with his men in town he convinces the Rodriguez to help him steal Jackson’s horde of gold being guarded by the Mexican army in a fort. In a daring heist Django successfully empties Jackson’s gold coffers, but then finds Rodriguez hesitant to give him his share. When Django is forced to kill one of Rodriguez’s men pinning for Maria he makes a brazen escape but this time he gets stopped at a crossing bridge where an argument with Maria has the gold fall into a quicksand pit just as Jackson arrives to enact revenge in a final battle.

The battles are all monumental with both theatrics and clever ruses. As is the case delineating spaghetti versus Hollywood westerns, the blood flows freely especially when Django unleashes his favorite weapon. I mentioned that Jackson’s men sported red bandanas in the opening sequence but that red is pervasive for all of Jackson’s henchmen and by that I do mean that some (most!) actually wear red henchmen hoods – eye slits and all. I could not figure out why they would do so – the civil war being between the blue and the grey after all – but it sure made distinguishing his men from others easily.

While the dialog is mostly stilted and flat, there are a few good lip synched one liners, like Django telling Jackson to come back with the rest of his men after their first encounter and Jackson responding with “I will. With all forty-six of them” which is exactly what he does.

Whether it be the Man with No Name, Django or any other of the myriad of spaghetti westerns, the parallels are obvious in that they are often blatant copies of one another. The lone traveler is reserved and low voiced but a crack shot. He is a man onto himself at the beginning and remains so at the end. He will save a woman or two in his journey, but never ends up with one at the end. He has vengeance in his blood, and just a touch of greed himself. Most are already familiar with the Man with No Name, but other spaghetti westerns never got the respect of the Leone movies, which is a shame particularly in the case of Django and a few other spaghetti westerns that deserve better recognition.

But when it comes to spaghetti westerns there is one warning that needs to be heeded. The producers of these films were notorious for cashing in on fads which was why Django and his facsimile brethren were created in the first place. But that does not mean that all scripts were created with those characters in mind. Of the many “Django” titled movies that followed, many were just generic western scripts which miraculously became Django titles overnight – whether there was a Django in it or not. So not all Django’s are – well, Django. Also keep an eye out for the many cross over titles pitting Django, Sartana, and Sabata together.

As for myself, Mama mia, I’m hungry for more.

 

Movie Reviews 308 – Welcome to Blood City (1977)

July 28, 2017

When four men and a woman wake up in a desolate and remote region without knowing one another or any idea of where they are, how they got there or even why they are there, all they have for a clue is a slip of paper in each of their pockets telling them they are murderers and how many people they have killed in the past.  Picking a random direction in search of answers they encounter two mangy frontiersmen who kill one of the men and rape the woman before being rescued (sort of) by a black shirted sheriff wearing a conspicuously large Red Cross patch with a sewn in ID number.

Thus begins Welcome to Blood City as sheriff Frendlander (Jack Palance) leads the ragtag group to the outskirts of the titular frontier town in which similar black shirted ‘citizens’ run the show, Frendlander being the so called top gun. The others in the town are either hired security men or, like the new arrivals, basic slaves that do all the work. We soon learn that the working framework of this society is based on a brutal scoring system in which one’s place in the hierarchy is based on the number of kills they make. The protagonist among the new arrivals is Lewis (Keir Dullea) who is soon ‘provoked’ (a code word meaning coerced) into a battle with one of the citizens looking to get another point. But when Lewis ends up winning against those stacked odds he learns that he basically takes the place of his attacker and is now not only a ‘citizen’ but the town dentist, having inherited the losers possessions.

But Lewis is more interested in helping out his original acquaintances,especially Martine (Hollis McLaren) the woman in that group who is now held in the town jail for her own protection as she has a number of citizens hoping to claim her, either by rights or other means.

Almost as soon as we’ve grasped the inner workings of this new world we’re lurched to a scene depicting a modern (make that 1970’s contemporary) electronics and computer laden control room with two white robed scientists peering into monitor screens and overseeing the events unfolding in Blood City. In the background we see a slabbed body wired to apparatus and other scientists muddling about. The twerking body is that of Lewis, reacting to his immersed state in Blood City. Meanwhile the male operator is berating his co worker Katherine (Samantha Eggar) for having inserted a simile of herself into the ‘game’ and as she smiles and counters his arguments while watching her doppelganger ‘citizen’ perched on a horse, both observing and hinting Lewis.

It’s never made exactly clear the nature or reasons behind this game although the operators are briefed for updates by some administrator/politician (Barry Morse) with some sense of urgency to the overall mission at hand discussing possible ‘Termination’ at some points. Lewis and the others also suffer from momentary flashbacks to their past, more tranquil days prior to their current predicament.

The film begs comparison to Westworld with the similar blend of Science Fiction which incorporates a virtualized wild west world despite the visitors being convicts instead of vacationers. But were Westworld excels in presenting a cohesive and believable scenario Blood City tumbles trying to be too smart for itself as a even a tenuous scrutiny of the plot reveals glaring holes in logic. As a pairing of political and science fiction thriller it also fails on both accounts. There was no political intrigue at all presenting only a veiled suggestion of what the project overseers we’re trying to achieve with the experiment and how this would fit in some worldwide order. Based on the administrators (Morse) character I even had doubts as to whether we were watching good guys or bad guys. Was it normal and lawful to have murderers treated as they were or was this some rogue underground operation? As for the science it too was only hinted at and never fully explained. Were only one or two of the residents in Blood City being tested or were they all? Katharine’s role within the game is nothing more than a tease instead of being some sort of bridge between the real and virtual that would have been beneficial to the bereft plot.

What made this an especially tough viewing for me was the dreadful state of the video transfer on my DVD (a double feature DVD paired with a movie called God Said to Cain and with this movie simply titled on the cover as Blood City). It was bad enough that it was a ‘pan and scan’ 4:3 formatted transfer but it was also muddy as hell and obviously had some other cropping done since it contained a lot of scenes where the characters heads were at the utmost top of the frame and in some scenes even had the heads lopped off completely. Perhaps some well meaning editor was trying to warn me that this was going to be a brainless movie. Honestly the Youtube clips for this movie look better than this particular DVD release.

I didn’t feel particularly welcome, it was a small town not a city and despite all the killing there was no blood. Time to rewatch Westworld to remind myself how a well made Sci-Fi Western can be entertaining.

Movie Reviews 303 – The Wild Bunch (1969)

June 16, 2017

The western was once a Hollywood staple, born in the silent era at the nascence of the film industry itself, it reigned supreme along with the romance and crime mysteries from the 40’s on through the 60’s. It competed with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the form of the weekly serials used to entice kids to return for Saturday matinees. Legendary stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and even director John Ford were synonymous with the format. But somewhere along the late 60’s it began to lose it’s lustre and fell out of favour, and the genre has been only sporadically revisited since.

The popularity of westerns in it’s heyday could be attributed to one factor: the promise of some action  But while those old westerns featured gunfights, showdowns and Cowboy and Indian war battles, the inflicted wounds were moderated to keep them mostly family friendly – well as family friendly as a gunshot or piercing arrow can be – bloodless and without realistic injuries. Director Sam Peckinpah changed all that with The Wild Bunch, throwing the sugar coated oaters a dose of reality.

The story is about a band of grizzled outlaws who roam along the periphery of the Mexican border as they pull their heists. The movie begins with the gang disguised in cavalry uniforms entering a small town and staging a bank robbery. But just as they are about to make their getaway they notice guns poking along the nearby rooftops. But the lawmen, forewarned and waiting for them, have not planned well. Evident that they are about to be ambushed by the waiting posse the outlaws take advantage of a badly timed celebratory parade including women and children leading right up to the bank porch. The outlaws exit the bank with guns blazing, instantly barraged by return gunfire. What follows next is a prolonged scene of frenzied carnage that leaves casualties on both sides, but mostly with the young and innocent bystanders. This opening scene clearly establishes the realism to follow.

The ragtag group of outlaws keep one step ahead of their pursuers while at the same time try to get one last good robbery with visions of a comfortable retirement dangling before them. Their trail is hindered not only by the lawmen and bounty hunters hot on their trail but also by a former gang member who got caught and coerced into cooperating with the gangs capture. Their escape plans are further complicated by the Mexican revolution, rebels, corrupt authorities in both factions, arms dealing, gang infighting and another thwarted heist.

Amid much soul searching and questioning the meaning of life, the grim outlook is inescapable leading to both desperation and eventual resignation. The gun battles are palpable and with blood red flowing freely along with bits of body and flesh. The handguns and shotguns are reinforced with a prized machine gun with becomes the centerpiece of a bloody finale. Other brutal acts which include a slit throat and a man dragged within and inch of his life are just as authentically portrayed.

The stellar cast is led by William Holden as the gang leader, Robert Ryan as the former member leading the hunt, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and even Strother Martin as one of the feckless bounty hunters.

Not for the faint of heart, the brutality in the film still stands as a benchmark today. The film also pushes the realism and ruthless boundaries in other ways such as showing kids torturing scorpions engulfed in ants and how ragged Mexican women would prostitute themselves for a few gringo coins, subject matter that would normally be hinted at and not explicitly shown on camera.

Peckinpah would once again adopt this ultra-violence format in Straw Dogs, another film that was proved to be controversial, but just as great cinematically.

Movie Reviews 196 – High Plains Drifter (1973)

October 20, 2014

High Plains DrifterThe Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western career. Part of director Sergio Leone’s “Man with no Name” trilogy, it was where Eastwood would define his stoic, silent gunfighter persona and what would turn out to be his big break in film. But while the other movies in the trilogy are fine (A Fistfull of Dollars and For a few Dollars More) I would rate High Plains Drifter as my second favorite Eastwood western.

While it was his second feature directorial stint (he’d already made a mark in the director’s chair with Play Misty for Me) he clearly shows his talent for blending the gun battles with drama and characters, even if the character he plays is a thinly veiled copy of “the man with no name”, simply called “the stranger” in this movie.

The story is not very complex, but plot manages to retain a few lingering questions that really make it all the more interesting. Clint silently rides into a desolate small town and immediately raises eyebrows from all the town folk. After taking care of a few amenities mostly silently but not without incident he heads over to the barbershop. As he sits in the barbers chair for a much needed shave three gung-ho cowboy who he seems to have ticked the wrong way pile into the shop but before they can pull their twitchy triggers Clint mows them down with nary a flinch.

Trouble is, those gunfighters were hired by the town because three other gunmen put into jail a long time ago are scheduled to be released from prison and they’ve let it be known that they intend to return to the town to avenge their jail sentences. The town then tries to convince Clint to hang around and take care of the three men on the way. Clint decides to take on the town at the promise that they would “do anything” in return upon which Clint tests their resolve and the definition of “anything” often with comic results.

But there is much more to the history between the jailed outlaws and the townspeople that the stranger was led to believe. A dirty little secret where most in town aren’t as innocent as they portray themselves to be. The three men jailed killed the Marshall but the rest of the town just stood back and let them, turning their backs as the crime was being committed.

We eventually learn the whole truth of course but even so, there remains a nagging feeling that perhaps the stranger coming in as he did was no coincidence at all. All for you viewers to decide as you watch this underrated and somewhat forgotten dusty gem.