Monday, May 4, 2009

pesto westo...

If you check the comments on my last entry, you'll see a post from the Scandy Tangerine Man that sums up the problems with the WOLVERINE movie much better than I did. Y'know, I've been reading comics since I was a kid, and the movie still failed to generate even the mildest level of excitement for me, there was nothing I saw that was like, "wow, they finally put that on the screen." I think the only thing that kept me from totally hating it was the fact that my expectations going in were sooooooooo low, and to the movie's credit, it did exceed them, but that's really not saying much...

Anyway, I'm kind of stuck. Having not posted for such a long time has left me with a huge backlog of film I'm interested in writing about, while simultaneously keeping me out of practice and out of the habit of writing. Being something of a self-loathing perfectionist control freak, the idea of putting up some substandard entries kind of spooks me, but I realize that the only way out of this rut is just to write. Still, I feel like a bozo. Of course, this blog was never specifically meant to be a showcase for my best writing, but it's become such a major outlet for me, it's hard not to take it seriously and not just as a diversion or a side project.

Anyway, I've been on a big spaghetti western kick lately. It's such a rich and varied genre full of so many different kinds of filmmaking and storytelling, which many filmmakers using the western backdrop as a means of exploring various ideas while simulataneously entertaining with stylish gunplay and tough guy pathos.

Though the most famous of the spaghetti filmmakers is easily Sergio Leone, the best, for my money (or we could just say my favorite, since who's to say who's better who's better who's best?) is Sergio Corbucci. I've probably mentioned his GREAT SILENCE before, it's my favorite spaghetti western, bleak and snowswept, scored powerfully by Ennio Morricone (the theme was later adapted by Ryuchi Sakamoto for his score to the awesome miniseries WILD PALMS, from Bruce Wagner's comic strip) and driven by powerful performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant (as "Silence), villainous Klaus Kinski and sexy Vonette McGee (later in REPO MAN).

Corbucci was a versatile filmmaker. While THE GREAT SILENCE is grim and wistful, his COMPANEROS, starring Franco Nero and Thomas Milian, is imbued with a kind of breezy humor, well-balanced with action and politics. It manages to be simultaneously funny and serious, though not necessarily stoic in the way many westerns (including THE GREAT SILENCE) are, it's a serious film. Nero and Milian are a mismatched duo thrust into the violence and hypocrasy of the Mexican Revolution. Nero is a Swedish mercenary torn between following the money and doing what's right. Milian is a bumbling toilet cleaner also torn between self-aggrandizement and serving the best interests of his country. Both start the film with the main motivation of trying to cover their own asses and wind up emerging as something more heroic. Between them and their repdemption is bounty hunter Jack Palance, who chain smokes joints and seems to be having some kind of love affair with his pet falcon.

It's a busy, complex film with tons of energy and spirit. The characters are flawed but human. Milian brings an unabashed goofiness to his portrayal of a lifelong fuckup finally given a chance to be and do something more. Nero, a regular in spaghetti westerns and always a treat to watch, starts the film as cooler than cool, wry, fearless and smooth, and gradually becomes more human as the film progresses. Palance proves yet again what an underrated actor he was (until late in his career, anyway). Fernando Ray puts in a quiet, subded performance as a pacifistic revolutionary, while Iris Berben makes for a strong female lead who's more than a love interest as a rebel leader. Morricone's theme song, "Vamos a matar, Companeros" is simply among his best.

Corbucci and Nero were, of course, also responsible for DJANGO, among the most famous of the non-Leone Italian westerns. DJANGO is not quite as serious a film as THE GREAT SILENCE or COMPANEROS, but it's certainly entertaining and visually quite arresting. Nero's performance as the title character is a wonder of restraint, he does so much with his eyes. Even Corbucci's lesser films are highly entertaining, including THE HELLBENDERS, with Joseph Cotton as a crazed ex-Confederate leading his family through the desert with a coffin full of stolen loot, and NAVAJO JOE, with Burt Reynolds (all of people) as a Native American on a campaign of revenge against the gang who massacred his tribe.

Franco Nero did some remarkable work without Corbucci as well. Enzo Castellari's KEOMA came late in the game (1976) as is perhaps the last of the great Italian westerns. Nero plays the title character, a halfbreed gunslinger who returns to his family home, only to find it riddled with plague and ruled under the gun of a vicious land baron and Keoma's own hateful half-brothers. After saving a pregnant woman whose husband was killed for being infected, Keoma teams with his father and an ex-slave (the incomparable Woody Strode) to take on the killers.

Like THE GREAT SILENCE, KEOMA is a grim film. It's dirty, mean and violent, with little humor, although it does have a very human side, dealing as it does with family. Nero is perfect as the steely eyed warrior confronting the corruption of his past. The long final battle and showdown are marvelously orchestrated, and Strode puts in a superb performance as a broken drunkard battling for his dignity. The score, by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, plays homage to Leonard Cohen's music for Altman's McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, and while some people seem to hate it, I loved the swirling acoustic guitars and mix of screechy and gravelly vocals.

So, I guess that's some of what I've been watching lately. There were alot of Spaghetti westerns and fortunately many of the better ones have shown up on DVD. I'll continue to cover these as I watch more, and in the meantime will provide some commentary on other interesting films I've seen recently, I hope. Practice makes perfect, or something.

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