Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

the trailer contains a massive spoiler, so here's the Morricone theme instead

"Everybody's got a right to be a sucker once."

It's the classic opener: the gunslinger stumbles upon a damsel in distress in the middle of the desert. This time the gunslinger is Clint Eastwood and the damsel is Shirley MacLaine. The two of them play Hogan and Sara. After Hogan guns down the group of would-be rapists, Sara puts her clothes back on.

Hogan's thrown for a loop when he sees the habit and the rosary. He doesn't feel right leaving a nun all alone in the desert, so he agrees to take her with him, even after he discovers Sara's in deep shit with the French for providing money and support to Mexican revolutionaries.

Two Mules for Sister Sara is a comedy that sometimes forgets it's also a western until it overcompensates in its climax, which is jarringly and uncharacteristically violent. The rest of the film is pretty funny, sure, but it must have been disappointing to see it during its original run, only a year after the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is really funny and a lot more evenly cooked.

The running gag: although she's a nun, Sara says and does some unlikely things. After Hogan helps her climb into a tree, he sincerely apologizes for touching her bottom. "It's no sin that you pushed me up the tree with your hands on my ass," she says. Hogan's double-take is priceless.

But that's pretty much all it is: funny. There's some amusing dialog, good writing, and a touching moment or two, but it's little more than a solid entertainment that feels like it's playing it a little too safe. It comes from a time when westerns were like Marvel movies and the studios were just as reluctant to adjust the formula as they are today. That so many people seem to consider Two Mules for Sister Sara to be some kind of classic sets the bar for classics just a little too low. It's a good movie and I'll probably even watch it again someday, but I personally wouldn't say it's great.

And that's just fine.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Midnight Movie: Sonny Boy (1989)

Note: The version I saw is six minutes shorter than the unrated cut (spoilers in that link) which was only released in the UK. Thankfully, there's a special place in hell for proponents of film censorship.

I would have rather seen it in this aspect ratio

Wow. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie modified for 4:3. Especially one with such incompetent panning and scanning. Unfortunately, VHS is probably the only way you can see Sonny Boy, a weird little film that apparently never made the leap to disc or digital media. Pan and scan this terrible is like trying to watch a movie through a telescope, but someone else is holding it to your eye. It's a pain in the ass, but it's worth watching it this way until someone tracks down the rights and gives the film a proper release.

Sonny Boy opens on a secluded motel where a young couple are being spied on by a good-for-nothing desert thug named Weasel (Brad Dourif), who looks pretty much how you'd expect a guy named Weasel to look. Weasel murders the couple and takes off in their convertible, which he tries to sell to the local crime boss, Slue (Paul Smith, who played Bluto in Popeye). Slue is a grown-up bully who lives in a junkyard of stolen merchandise with his transvestite wife, Pearl (David Carradine, who also provides the theme song). As Slue and Weasel are negotiating the price of the stolen convertible, Pearl notices there's a baby boy in the backseat and she immediately adopts him as her own.

So what happens when a baby is raised by a trio of monsters? First, they give him "the gift of silence" by cutting out his tongue. Then, in a montage of Sonny Boy's formative years, we see how Slue and Weasel physically torture Sonny, against Pearl's wishes, in order to toughen him up for the real world. These games of abuse culminate in Sonny Boy's rite of adulthood, in which Slue ties the boy to a stake and Weasel lights a ring of fire around him. You'll see Pearl off to the side, desperately trying to put the fire out with a tiny bucket of water. She's shaking her head as if to say, "Oh, boys will be boys."

I know all this sounds horrific, but it's kind of sweet—perhaps bitterly so—in the surreal context of the film. The film makes no excuses for the way its characters behave, but it's clear this is the only way these people know how to raise a kid, a kid they clearly love and care about. You begin to wonder if the reason they lack a moral compass is the same reason Sonny Boy lacks one: perhaps they were raised like animals, too. Anyway, one day Sonny sees himself in the mirror for the first time, face covered with the blood of Slue's enemy, which inspires the boy-in-a-man's-body to begin the long, difficult process of deprogramming himself...

Or something like that.

There's a lot that's wrong with the film (such as an overly explanatory voiceover, a cheat of an ending, and a hamfisted message about tolerance, acceptance, yatta, yatta, yatta), but it's clear the movie was a labor of love. There are plenty of creative shots, surprisingly great casting, and an unwillingness to make the film something it isn't in order to satisfy more commercial audiences. According to the grapevine, the subject matter of Sonny Boy was so disturbing, theaters pulled it from showings within days of its release. I don't buy that because the film simply isn't that disturbing. I think the real reason it was pulled is couldn't have been a crowd-pleaser in 1989, which seems to be the year moviegoers began demanding more of a film's budget than the content itself.

Mere minutes into Sonny Boy, I was reminded of a type of film I haven't thought about in a long time. Growing up in the late eighties and nineties, there was no shortage of small, "quiet" films on HBO and Cinemax, films I'd never heard of before they simply came on one day and unexpectedly hooked me. I honestly don't know how to explain these types of movies, and I'm sure the TV programmers only acquired them for filler content, but they were kind of like the younger, unknown siblings to "slice of life" films like Something Wild. In other words, they were smaller versions of mainstream movies when movies had more in common with novels than video games.

Ultimately, that's what's most satisfying about Sonny Boy: its unexpected restraint. I probably would have liked it just as much if "the joke" was that you get to see the star of Kung Fu in a dress, but amazingly, it doesn't go there. Sure, there are people who get thoroughly blown up by artillery shells, but if you're looking for a raunchy exploitation film to show a drunk and rowdy crowd, Sonny Boy isn't the one. That doesn't mean it's not worth a watch on a hungover Sunday morning, though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Django (1966)

I figured if I'm going to start a weekly feature on the western genre, I might as well kick it off with one of the best. Django is among the finest spaghetti westerns that doesn't have Leone's name on it. I was also disappointed that last Monday's midnight movie (The Visitor) didn't have more Franco Nero in it, so here's to rectifying that problem. (I have a feeling a lot of the movies in this feature are going to have Nero, Lee Van Cleef, and/or a director named Sergio.)

The story of Django opens with the gunslinger himself (Nero) dragging a coffin through all manner of mud. Later, when he finally makes it to a saloon, someone asks him if there's a body in the box. Django replies, "Yeah. His name is Django."

I won't spoil who's actually in Django's coffin, but you'll find out for yourself less than a third of the way into the movie. I'm getting ahead of myself, though.

Seconds after the opening credits, Django happens upon a gruesome scene: a gang of bandits are preparing to bludgeon a prostitute to death. You expect Django to intervene, but he doesn't. Instead, he watches from afar as a second gang swoops in and lays waste to the first. You think the prostitute's life has been spared until you realize the men are only untying her to retie her to a cross, which they intend to torch. "Burnin's a lot better than getting beaten to death," they assure her.

You get the feeling Django has been praying he doesn't have to get involved with this bullshit. By then it's clear it's no longer his decision to make. He's operating on autopilot when he approaches the men and says in his surreal, dubbed voice, "If I bothered you, would you accept my apology?" A split second later his pistol comes out, blazing hell-fire, and drops the five men in the blink of an eye.

Eduardo Fajardo as Major Jackson

It sounds a lot more clichéd than it is. Django's the real deal—a character of such popularity and charm he's kind of been portrayed by a dozen different actors in dozens of movies (although a lot of those movies just slapped "Django" onto their titles for commercial reasons). Like a lot of legends, the details change depending on who's telling it, but overall the important stuff remains the same if not outright ripped off.

No, Django doesn't merely have clichés, but employs them to leverage the action forward. Director Sergio Corbucci is well aware his audience already knows everything we need to know about saloons, hookers, and bandits, so there's no time wasted on introductions. Besides, the character himself is a consolidation of only the finest elements that gave the clichés staying power in the first place. 

Maria (Loredana Nusciak) and General Hugo (José Bódalo)

After saving the prostitute's life, Django takes her to town, finds a room, and meets the leader of the local Klan, Major Jackson. Jackson gets his rocks off on hunting innocent Mexicans for sport. After gunning down over forty of Jackson's men, Django finds himself at the center of a war between Jackson's gang and General Hugo Rodriguez's bandits. Hugo's an old friend of Django's, so the two of them team up.

Everything I've described is enough to fill a routine western to the brim, but in Django all this happens in the first third of the movie. Sure, it's mostly style over substance, but Django is tragic, shamelessly entertaining, and absurdly violent. If you've never seen it before, be prepared to get amped.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Midnight Movie: The Visitor (1979)

The Visitor opens on a plane of unreality in which a force of good (John Huston) comes face to face with a force of evil. When the evil flings off its sacramental robe, it reveals it has taken the form of a little girl. Cut to a different plane of existence: Franco Nero, in Christ-like garb, tells a group of bald disciples the mystical backstory concerning these forces. I'll be damned if my eyes didn't glaze over at this long, dull explanation, which is probably why I had so much trouble following the rest of the movie.

Maybe I would have been lost anyway, but it's worth noting a great deal of The Visitor suddenly made sense in the end. Whether or not the rest of it means anything is up to the individual viewer.

You'll probably want The Visitor to take you on a cosmic trip. With exposition like Nero's, though, the film is like winning a free vacation, but only after listening to a sales pitch for timeshares. I'm not saying it's a bad movie. It's actually quite good for borrowing so heavily from so many different sources. (Rosemary's Baby and The Omen came to mind for me. Others have compared it to everything from The Exorcist to Star Wars.) Despite these obvious influences, you've never seen anything like The Visitor and you'll never see anything like it again.

Following its dreamlike prologue, the audience is whisked away to the un-magical land of a basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia. When the away team nearly turns over the score in the final seconds, a little girl in the front row uses her supernatural powers to make the basketball explode in the player's hands. (No one seems to think it's weird that the basketball blew up like a gunpowder-stuffed piñata. You'd think any ref who witnesses something like that would at least call interference.)

The eight year old girl responsible for the exploding basketball trick is accompanied by her mother, played by Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters). Nail's character is being courted by Lance Henriksen, the owner of the basketball team. Henriksen proposes to the girl's mother, who refuses his offer despite creepy persistence. We soon learn Henriksen is an agent of evil when we see him in the boardroom of rich and powerful Illuminati types. The mysterious figures, led by Mel Ferrer, remind Henriksen that their evil plot hinges on Nail getting pregnant again. Apparently their goal is the sort of event that happens whenever the gatekeeper comes into contact with the key master. 

Meanwhile John Huston's character, the inter-dimensional traveler from Nero's plane of existence, arrives on Earth. He can freely hop between realms, but requires a commercial airliner to take him to Atlanta. When the little girl discovers her arch-nemesis is on Earth, she angrily uses her Omen-like powers to turn a birthday gift into a loaded gun and promptly shoots her mother in the spine. This "accident" leads to a couple more surprisingly high-profile talents: Shelly Winters and Glenn Ford, who play the new nanny and a police detective. Later the film will introduce Nail's ex-husband, a doctor played by Sam Peckinpah. 

Seriously. All these people are in this movie. If you only like one of these people, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

The problem with The Visitor (and I'm nitpicking here because the more I look back on it, the more I like it) is it has too much plot for what it wants to be. And it's a plot that will be just a little too familiar for fans of pre-Halloween horror. I usually love movies like this and I'm no stranger to psychedelic journeys, but no one's asking directors of acid films to stitch together their visual exercises with coherent—but ultimately pointless—plots. I just feel The Visitor would work a lot better if it didn't try to be so damned routine in between its short bursts of wonderful lunacy. 

The Visitor is a film for viewers who love film itself. I couldn't recommend it to anyone else.

Friday, November 13, 2015

MST3K's new Kickstarter has already raised over a million bucks

As much as I like RiffTrax, it just doesn't have that public access charm that Mystery Science Theater 3000 managed to retain despite moving to The Comedy Channel and, later, Sci-Fi Channel. Be sure to read Joel Hodgson's "5 Burning Questions About #BringBackMST3K" on the Kickstarter page. He eases most of the doubts any fan might have.

As usual, you can catch up on your MST3K viewing on Netflix as well as ShoutFactoryTV, which, until a few moments ago, I didn't even know was a thing. And what a glorious thing it is.