Monthly Archives: June 2012

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Sergio Corbucci’s ‘The Mercenary’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me as classics-in-the-making.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Criticism is a great thing.  By thinking deeply about art, we can arrive at an understanding of where humanity stands at the time the art was produced.  When criticism is utilized by the art itself, we can be treated to works of entertainment that speak to both society in general and the currently accepted concept of art.  Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) and television auteur Dan Harmon (Community) are perhaps the most famous examples of the critic-as-artist phenomenon.   But they are not the first.  Italian director Sergio Corbucci led the way for the Tarantinos and Harmons of the world by injecting postmodern conceits and film commentary into his movies, like the spaghetti westerns Django and the film I watched the other day, 1968’s The Mercenary (or A Professional Gun depending on where you saw it).  He may not have been wholly successful, but his contributions to this filmic sub-genre are nonetheless important.

I think I need to own this poster.

The Mercenary‘s opening credits set the B-movie tone nicely, with blood red title cards introducing animated versions of the cast members, propped up by the obligatory Ennio Morricone score.  Per usual, Morricone displays an innate ability to create sounds that define western frontier life.

As the credits fade, the saturated Technicolor hues of a bullfighting pit enters our view.  So, too, do little people dressed as clowns, mugging for the crowd.  Another, larger clown enters and wrangles a “bull” (two people wearing a bull costume like grade schoolers in a play) while the crowd laughs.  Sitting in the stands is Corbucci’s frequent lead actor of choice, Franco Nero, projecting anti-hero bravado as he swipes a match across a stranger’s hat without caring what the man thinks.  Like most spaghetti and revisionist westerns, The Mercenary makes no effort to live up to conventional Hollywood Old West tropes; instead, Corbucci acknowledges those tropes for the manufactured falsities they are, and pokes fun at them.

Nero as Kowalski.

The plot serves as a vehicle for what Corbucci wants to say about the western genre, filmmaking in general, and, I contend, his own insecurities as a director.  The film centers on Nero’s character, Sergei Kowalski (the world’s most Italian man playing the world’s least convincing Polish man), the mercenary of the film’s title, joining forces with Tony Musante’s Paco Roman, a Mexican revolutionary with the intention of overthrowing the Mexican government.  Kowalski won’t help without being paid, and the power struggle between the two men dominates much of the film’s runtime.  To complicate matters, Jack Palance’s villainous Curly hunts the two men for vague reasons — probably money — and Mexican Colonel Alfonso Garcia wants the revolutionaries dead to preserve the Mexican union.  If this plot sounds familiar, that is because it’s clearly a huge influence on 1971’s Duck, You Sucker, directed by the more famous Sergio of Italian spaghetti western films, Sergio Leone.

Despite Corbucci getting the jump on Leone for this particular plot, Leone’s (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) presence hangs heavy over The Mercenary.  Every tool in Leone’s stylistic repertoire is yanked by Corbucci for this movie.  The extreme closeups, the power zooms, the aforementioned Morricone score, the even-if-it’s-in-English line overdubbing, the stark rural-Spain-as-Old-West landscapes, everything is there.  Except under Corbucci, it doesn’t feel fresh or interesting.  Even if Corbucci is trying to make a statement about Leone’s success, he does not do it in a way that acknowledges his intent to make a statement.  This is an instance when a wink and a nudge to the audience would do Corbucci well; instead we get warmed over aping of a better director’s techniques.

Of course, I could be projecting here, but I think this says a lot about Corbucci’s faith in himself as a singular director.  He may not be confident in the film’s story or his ability to tell that story successfully, so he needs to make it fancier in order for it to compare to his influences.  Studio pressure probably played a role, too.  It’s hard to argue with trying to make your movie more like one of cinema’s finest directors.  But doing that removes any possibility of Corbucci fully putting his stamp on the work.  Instead of The Mercenary definitively being “a Sergio Corbucci film,” it requires a  “… with an assist from Sergio Leone” caveat.

While he does not achieve what he wants by critiquing specific films like Leone’s, Corbucci succeeds in The Mercenary by skewering western filmmaking as a whole.  His lead female character, Columba (Giovanna Ralli), does not play the “submissive female” role prevalent in Hollywood at the time (and, let’s face it, to this day).  She is strong, confident, idealistic, and ultimately loyal to both her cause and Paco, the man she deems worthy of her.   Columba is the only truly righteous and capable character in the film; it should come as no surprise she is the one with enough skills and savvy to save the day in the end.

Another interesting note about The Mercenary from a critical standpoint is its setting.  As it is clearly a western, one would expect the time period to be in those short years following the American Civil War during the country’s Western Expansion phase.  But Corbucci does not go that route.  He toys with audience perception by setting the entire movie in Mexico during the time before their revolution, far from John Wayne’s stomping grounds.  This accounts for the film’s distinct European flavor: social justice is important, whereas greed goes punished (see the American Curly and, to a lesser extent, Kowalski).  Seeing an early airplane in a western also helps throw off the audience in a good way.

Corbucci’s direction shines brightest in the gunfight sequence between Paco and Curly, once Curly finally catches him.  Back where the film started, Paco is revealed to be the taller clown, hiding out after his initial revolution attempts fail.  Curly arrives after Paco’s show, with the former still in his garish clown makeup.  Accepting Curly’s challenge, a darkly comic face-off takes place.  Corbucci had heard the criticisms of Django; many bristled at its violence.  This gunfight in The Mercenary was him hitting right back, showing just how silly it is to worry about violence in films.  By positioning the goofy clown against the slick, attractive villain, Corbucci shows how everything is a theatrical lark, and he relishes in the “just having fun” aspect of making a film.  In doing so, he achieves The Mercenary‘s only scene that matches the tension and pure craftsmanship of the superior Leone epics.

Sergio Corbucci understood the importance of film criticism.  His pictures, like The Mercenary, paved the way for the postmodern filmmaking we enjoy today.  Perhaps he struggled with his self confidence when placed next to cinematic giants like Leone, which may have affected his ability to create a truly great film.  Therein lies the problem with filmmakers like Corbucci: Sometimes their critical minds get in the way of telling a thrilling, original tale.  Luckily, though, Corbucci’s influence has provided us with people like Tarantino, who never sacrifices entertainment or storytelling for academia or “see what I did there?” tricks.  Hopefully Tarantino’s upcoming Corbucci-and-Leone love letter, Django Unchained, will continue on that path without falling into the traps Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns did.


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Anthony Rizzo Era Begins; Temper Your Excitement

Being a Chicago Cubs fan is a tough pill to swallow. After years of oppressive losing, we’ll get a ray of hope (in my lifetime those rays have been winning seasons like 2003, 2007, and 2008, and prospects like Corey Patterson and Felix Pie).  But none of those have yet brought us the baseball catharsis we all want: A World Series championship.  And who’da thunk it, shiny new beacon of light, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, will not singlehandedly bring that, either.

Rizzo’s first start for the Cubs is tonight at Wrigley Field against the New York Mets.  After lighting up scoreboards across Triple-A the last couple seasons, Rizzo has nothing left to prove in the minors.  Yes, he struggled last year while called up by the San Diego Padres, but since being sent back to their Triple-A affiliate and being traded to the Cubs, he’s been even better.  Those 23 home runs and 1.110 OPS are certainly exciting given how miserable the Cubs’ offense has been this year.

But don’t get too giddy.  After all, this is still the same Cubs team with a .342 winning percentage.  Even if he replicates his Triple-A production in the majors, Rizzo will only be worth a few extra wins from here until the end of the season.  He’ll also have to deal with crushing expectations from irrational fans and media.  I reiterate: The Cubs are going nowhere this year except the top of the 2013 Draft board.

Where Rizzo’s value lies is in how he fits into the changing organizational culture the Cubs — spearheaded by the new front office brain trust of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McCleod — have started this year.  For the first time I can remember, they have a stock of interesting offensive prospects — Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, Junior Lake, Josh Vitters, 2011 first round pick Javier Baez, and the newly added Cuban prospect Jorge Soler and 2012 first rounder Albert Almora — but the Cubs’ pitching prospect cupboard is laughably barren.  Even if all these hitters develop the way the Cubs hope (they would be lucky if one or two realized their potential), and they create a formidable core with 22-year-old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro (some might), the team would still need a windfall of pitching help to contend.

So remember, even if Anthony Rizzo reaches star status, something that is never assured even for the best prospects, the Cubs won’t be much better until their other young hitters ripen and they import some quality pitching into the organization.  Relax, lay off the Kool-Aid, and enjoy what the kid can do on a diamond.

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Can’t Wait: Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Pretension can be okay.  After all, I’m the guy who has watched eight foreign films in the past two weeks.  But nothing in the movie world makes me happier than a crackerjack genre picture.  Writer/Director Rian Johnson knows precisely how to make those, and his third effort, Looper, appears to be exactly what I want.

With only two movies under his belt (and a couple great episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers), Johnson has shown a proclivity toward gleefully playing with classic American filmmaking genres.  In Brick, he combined the Dashiell Hammett detective film with high school angst and perfectly balanced those seemingly warring conceits on an entertaining tightrope.  The Brothers Bloom was a clever, breezy con artist movie with beautiful European cinematography and plenty of twists.  And now Johnson’s set his sights on sci-fi with Looper, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to kill his future self, played by Bruce Willis.  Plus Jeff Daniels with a beard.  Neat, right?

It also helps that Johnson is a really easy guy to root for.  He’s a humble person who always has interesting things to say in interviews and he’s quick to reply to questions on his Twitter account.  His coolest bit of fan service is his Looper production diary on Tumblr, on which he posts set photos, new posters, trailers, and the occasional Calvin and Hobbes strip.

Here’s hoping Looper lives up to the hype in my head.  Based on that trailer, this movie has the potential to be in my 2012 top five.  Fingers crossed.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

I like to feel informed about my passions.  I can dress up my reasons for that by saying it’s because I like being able to have deep, nuanced conversations about those passions.  While there is truth to that, I really just like to be right and show off.

Sometimes, though, I reach a mental block in that quest to inform myself.  Nine times out of ten, that mental block is created by someone — or many someones — being so excited about something that they insist I must see/hear/experience it immediately.  That attitude led to me being disappointed by the good-not-great Blade Runner and avoiding other “best thing[s] ever” like The Wire and, until Friday night, John Carpenter’s 1982 update of The Thing.  

And what do you know, The Thing is a remarkable film.  It has everything I look for in a genre movie: “Real” effects work without a reliance on CGI, an impeccable execution of its themes, and Kurt Russell.  With a beard.  Being the most awesome.

Today, if you see a film open with a flying saucer crash on Earth, you expect unhealthy amounts of kabooms, nonstop action, and razor-thin characters spouting half-assed dialogue.  None of those things are on Carpenter’s mind with The Thing, as evidenced by the movie’s dialogue-free second scene: A helicopter shooting at a seemingly defenseless Husky on the Antarctic tundra.

What follows is a story of dread, seclusion, and the logical extreme of overfamiliarity, with large helpings of body horror thrown in.  Oh, and the scariest score of Ennio Morricone’s career.

Director Carpenter.

Carpenter’s mastery of the technical side of filmmaking pays off in spades.  This being 1982, computer generated imagery had not made its way into the realm of palatability, so he had to employ the best model makers, animatronics experts, and makeup artists to create The Things signature Scream-like monster effects.  There are few things more satisfying in a filmgoing experience than seeing practical effects employed with such skill.  When these monsters are actually bursting from human bodies, you can’t help but be disgusted by the grotesqueries on the screen.  These monsters have depth and mass, both of which create a real connection to what is happening to the characters, far more so than in today’s CGI-paloozas.

Further enhancing those monster effects is Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography.  Any movie that uses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio automatically grows in my estimation; it immediately signals your brain to think, “I am watching a film.”  Cundey’s camerawork and lighting make you know, not feel, that danger is around every corner.  The deep blues of terrifying darkness become violently offset by the explosive oranges and yellows of Kurt Russell’s MacReady shooting a flamethrower at his attackers, of both extra- and regular-terrestrial varieties.

While those flamethrower attacks are spectacular and exciting, The Thing is a quiet movie for most of its runtime.  Its characters, like MacReady, Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair, and Keith David’s Childs are trapped doing monotonous scientific research in a place the Middle of Nowhere would call remote.  These men have spent far too much time with each other, and they may have a harder time dealing with one another than with the alien threat descending upon them.  These men have been away from home for a long time.  Nothing but snow encompasses them for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles.  They’re sick of their jobs, their surroundings, and each other.  I get the feeling they were on the verge of turning on each other even before an alien started killing them.

That distrust between characters only exacerbates their problems.  They cannot or will not believe each other, so how can they work together to beat the thing of the film’s title?  It doesn’t help that the alien can shape shift, either.  This says a lot about where Carpenter’s head was while making the movie.  In the world of The Thing, nobody can be trusted because all people are liars only looking to preserve their own safety at the expense of anyone who gets in the way.  This causes immense paranoia for the characters and perpetual excitement for the audience.  At no point does it appear the men will put aside their suspicions of each other to defeat the threat, which is a fundamentally uneasy and thrilling feeling; the outcome is constantly up in the air, and it never appears headed toward happy things.

Russell searching through the Thing’s handiwork.

Testament to the haunting paranoia that runs through The Thing is its star, Kurt Russell.  Marking his second straight collaboration with Carpenter, Russell shows his range by dropping the closed off, Man With No Name vibe he owned as Snake Plissken in the previous year’s Escape from New York and embracing vulnerability and desperation in The Thing.  MacReady, the research station’s helicopter pilot, has a penchant for avoiding others, drinking bottle after bottle of J&B while avoiding others, and wearing the coolest piloting hat ever when forced to not avoid others.  He is a smart person, but may not be as smart at the other men at the base, and he can certainly be bested by the alien.  He knows this and tries his hardest to quickly get an advantage over the other men, then compartmentalize the situation by tying them up and systematically testing their blood to see if they are infected.  That’s a logical approach to the situation, but even logic can’t overcome everything, especially with an unpredictable life form threatening everyone.  It also doesn’t instill much trust in the non-aliens he tied up.

Wiford Brimley, as Dr. Blair, is another of the film’s revelations.  Having never seen him outside his medical supplies commercials, I didn’t know what to expect when I read his name in the opening credits.  Yet, like everything about The Thing, Brimley frightened me with his non-campy approach to the doctor-losing-his-mind role.

Brimley as Blair.

Blair is the source of perhaps the film’s  scariest scene.  After he has a meltdown and shoots at several of the men in the base, MacReady disarms Blair and locks him in a shack outside the main living quarters.  Later, when MacReady goes to check on him, Blair states matter-of-factly, “I’m all better now.”  The coldness and lack of conviction would be enough to cause alarm, but the noose hanging between MacReady and Blair without either acknowledging it is what sends this exchange into the stratosphere of disturbing.  Has Blair been infected by the alien?  If so, when?  If he hasn’t been turned, the exchange explores even more the frightening fragility of the human psyche.

And now, a few words about the ending.  It boils all the film’s pessimism into one dark exchange.  It does not leave you feeling confident in the remaining characters’ fates, the world of the movie, or humanity as a whole, but that exchange perfectly caps a thoroughly thought-provoking and engrossing piece of filmmaking.

“How long will we make it?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”

The Thing simply blew my mind.  Carpenter’s ability to direct creeping horror had reached a crescendo with this picture.  Despite its director’s prodigious talents, the film could still have easily failed if it were not for the breathtaking practical effects work, especially the best use of animatronics I have ever seen.  The performances, the tone, and the score all roll seamlessly into a cohesive, perfectly entertaining whole.  No wonder why The Thing is often mentioned in the same hushed tones as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as prime examples of how great a schlocky genre like horror can be when in the right hands.


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Friends are Great, Especially Dave, So Read His New Website

And he’s single, ladies.

I met my friend Dave five years ago during our college freshman orientation week.  Since then, we’ve bonded over our mutual love of movies, Batman: The Animated Series, good beer, and facial hair.  As he is currently a swim coach and fitness professional, it shouldn’t come as a surprise he’s been instrumental in my attempts to live a healthy lifestyle in the time I’ve known him.

He has taught me many things about proper lifting techniques, the importance of supersets, and the dangers represented by weight machines as opposed to free weights.  One of his recommendations, The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle, by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove, had me in the best shape of my life a couple years ago.  I fell off the fitness wagon a few months back and needed to climb back atop it, so I figured I’d ask Dave.

Always willing to help a friend, he recently tailored a workout plan for me, which I began today.  I’m tired and sore but not suffering like I have been after several workouts in the past that did not account for my history of lower back issues.  I’m ready to get back on track and bulk up for good, and he will continue to be a part of that.

As a small repayment, I would like to extend a link to his newly launched blog about fitness, friends, and whatever else comes to his mind.  He knows his stuff and can help you with your own health goals.

The website should be easy to remember, as it’s just his fancy professional man name,  Read it, follow him on Twitter (@djbromberg), and learn to be a better, healthier person.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Howard Hawks’ ‘Scarface’

I love movies.  I’ve always wanted to work in the film medium in some way, but have yet to figure out how.  Sure, I’d love to make them, but if that doesn’t happen, what will I do?  “Aha!  I’ll just write about them,” I — and every critic ever — said.  To write about them, I need to actually write.  Therefore, it’s time to stop neglecting this website and start a regular column in which I write about film.  I don’t care if they’re sparkly new 3D releases or scratchy DVD transfers of old classics; I’ll write about whatever strikes me as worth discussion.  I hope you like I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, with today’s inaugural film, Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster picture, Scarface.

Man, gangsters were dapper.

Hawks’ eleventh film in six years (say what you will about Golden Age Hollywood’s assembly-line production style, but prolific is prolific), Scarface opens curiously, as a title card screed rails against gangster culture, claiming how the protagonists of the film are ruining American culture.  “Well, all right,” I said as I registered that counterintuitive way of introducing characters about whose fates I’m supposed to care.

As soon as that anti-crime title card disappears, we’re treated to a visually flashy sequence in which a shadow guns down crime boss “Big” Louis Costillo, top dog of Unnamed-City-But-Really-It’s-a-Thinly-Veiled-Chicago-So-Let’s-Stop-Kidding-Ourselves’s booze racket.  This sets the stage for the new gang in town, led by Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) and his right-hand man, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), the film’s eponymous character.

The film tracks the rise of that gang, and the loose-cannon Tony in particular.  Through a series of fire bombings, hospital hits, and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-esque tactics in which Tony’s underlings pose as police officers and murder rival gang members, firing squad-style.  Hawks and company aren’t even trying to fool anyone into thinking this is something other than a biography of Al Capone, with Tony’s rubbing out of the men who stand in his way (Lovo, the “North Side” booze runners, et cetera) following Capone’s career arc.

Hawks was a director who inherently knew the importance of entertainment.  He’s famous for working in nearly every genre and doing interesting, if not thrilling, things within each. That includes large sections of Scarface.  However, three key sequences derail Hawks’ otherwise superb pulp tale.

The first we’ve already discussed.  If the film is indeed an indictment of the prevalent criminal activity of the time, then that should be — and having seen the rest of the film, I’d say it succeeds in doing this — apparent by the story and character actions displayed within it.  There should be no need to open the thing with a “No, seriously guys, the stuff in this movie is bad.  VERY BAD INDEED.”  It cheapens what comes after it and plays like what it is: a weak attempt by the producers to appease the censors into allowing them to show the film to audiences.

The second ties directly into the first.  About halfway through the film, someone I assume to be other than Hawks inserts a scene featuring characters not seen at any other point only to expound on the opening title card’s insistence that crime is ruining the nation.  “Give the Deportation Act some teeth!” is one of many strange, overtly xenophobic things shouted in this back room conversation by the WASPiest of WASPs, as if Italians were the only people committing crime in the thirties.  Again, it feels like something done to make the censors happy, by stating in the most on-the-nose manner just how bad this gang activity is.  But I contend marinating in the film’s gangster world would do a much better job of convincing the average Joe not to enter the criminal life; show, don’t tell, and all that.  Instead, what we get is the laziest of soapbox morality, stopping cold all the film’s forward momentum in the process.

The third sequence is the one most likely attributable to Hawks himself.  At the film’s climax — and if you have misgivings about spoilers for a 70-year-old movie, you know where you can shove them — Tony murders his sister’s new husband, and his former associate, for being in the same room as her; big brothers can be overprotective, I guess.  Justifiably, she rats on Tony to the police.  She doesn’t want the cops to get her revenge for her, though.  She beats them to Tony’s compound, gun in hand.  After the cops surround the place, she finds she can’t shoot him out of revenge, and decides out of nowhere to join forces with her brother to shoot at the cops she herself called.  Not the most logical storytelling.  Of course, to give Tony a reason to go totally berserk, she gets shot and killed by police gunfire.  He gets a few shots off before the police toss a tear gas can into his house.  Blinded and bewildered, he heads down the stairs to be greeted by police officers tearing down the front door.  He rushes past them to the street where he’s shot down by a machine gun-wielding cop.  The end.

Obviously, Scarface is a flawed film.  At times, those flaws threaten to overwhelm its good parts.  But those good parts are really good.  Hawks shows off considerable visual flair in the opening scene in which Tony, as the murderous shadow, whistles his way toward his first killing of the film, without a care in the world.  Another segment distills just how cool cinema can be with a bit of creativity: During the montage of Tony’s rise to power, Hawks employs a visual of a Tommy gun shooting the pages off a daily calendar to show the passage of time.  That simple yet elegant trick made me grin ear to ear.

Despite my heavy gripes, I’d say Scarface marginally earns its status as a “film classic.”  It’s probably on the lower end of the Hawks totem pole, but well worth seeing nonetheless.  For a movie shot in the 1930s, its visual ingenuity and violent story represent a dramatic leap forward during a time of strict censorship, something even this film was unable to fully avoid.  Besides, if you’re like me, you get to be “that guy” who has only seen the ORIGINAL Scarface, gangsta lifestyle be damned.

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