Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond

In January, the PFA had a six film series titled The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond.  The series was inopportune as it was partly scheduled opposite the Mostly British Film Festival and Noir City XI.  I was still able to catch four of the films.

Duck, You Sucker starring Rod Steiger & James Coburn; directed by Sergio Leone; (1971)
The Mercenary starring Franco Nero & Tony Musante; with Jack Palance; directed by Sergio Corbucci; (1968)
Navajo Joe starring Burt Reynolds; directed by Sergio Corbucci; (1966)
Sabata starring Lee Van Cleef; directed by Gianfranco Parolini; (1969)

The Mercenary is probably best known today for the song L'arena by the prodigious Italian composer Ennio Morricone (still scoring new films at age 84).  Quentin Tarantino famously used the song in Kill Bill Vol. 2.  Tarantino also used at least two of Morricone's songs (A Silhouette of Doom and The Demise of Barbara and the Return of Joe) from Navajo Joe in the Kill Bill series.


As I mentioned, Duck, You Sucker (the title frequently ends with an exclamation point which makes for an unusually over-punctuated title) was part of a loose trilogy by Sergio Leone.  With the seemingly outrageous casting of Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit, I wondered how the film would turn out.  Of the three films in the trilogy (the other two are Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), Duck, You Sucker is my least favorite.

Set during the Mexican Revolution, Duck, You Sucker lacks the epic feel of other well known Leone films.  Focusing on the friendshp between Steiger's Juan and James Coburn' John, an IRA expatriate, the film behaves like a buddy film at times.  When Juan's banditry and John's revolutionary zeal coincide, they form a friendship while robbing banks and attacking the Mexican Army. 

Duck, You Sucker never captured my full interest. There are backstories (including a creepy slow motion threesome in a Irish meadow) and betrayals but they seemed like contrived diversions.

The Mercenary was my favorite of the four films.  Tony Musante plays Paco Roman, a Mexican peasant turned revolutionary.  Franco Nero is Kowalski, a Polish mercenary who serves as Roman's advisor on military & strategic decisions.  Jack Palance is Curly (same character name as his role in City Slickers), a gunfighter looking for gold.  The interests of three characters converge and diverge throughout the film as their motivations and loyalties shift.

The plot is difficult for me to remember.  The three lead actors strut around the screen with great flamboyance.  At one point, Palance has a nude scene in the desert.  The highlight is a scene where Paco (dressed a rodeo or circus clown) and Curly duel while Morricone's trumpet dirge plays on the soundtrack.  The Mercenary is very stylish and stylized; reminding me of scenes from various Tarantino films.


Navajo Joe had a particularly memorable soundtrack.  In one of his earliest lead roles, Burt Reynolds plays a solitary and taciturn Indian.  I can't recall if his tribe was ever identified but one can only assume Joe was from the Navajo nation.

I'm not quite sure what Navajo Joe has going for it.  It has a predictable plot which doesn't think highly of the audience's collective intelligence.  Reynolds doesn't mug or ham it up probably because he doesn't have much opportunity.  I'm wondering if Joe's quiet nature is mainly to restrict Reynolds' opportunities to derail the film.

Navajo Joe does have a couple things going for it.  First and foremost is Morricone's soundtrack (for reasons unstated, credited as Leo Nichols) which was inspired by Indian chants but with his inimitable stylings.  Second, Reynolds and/or his stuntman perform some great old school stunts.  Finally, watching the film in 2013, with full recognition of Tarantino's use of the songs, gives Navajo Joe the patina of importance which would otherwise be lacking.


Lee Van Cleef has always interested me.  He played in three of the greatest Westerns ever made - High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence & The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  After the Leone film, he had a career making Spaghetti Westerns of decreasing quality and importance.  Although PFA curator Steve Seid said Sabata was filmed before Van Cleef's descent in irrelevance, I wouldn't have known it otherwise.

Perhaps, the popularity of Sabata made it cliche in hindsight.  Again with the threesome (what is it with Spaghetti Westerns and threesomes?), Sabata (Van Cleef), Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and the silent Indian acrobat Alley Cat (Aldo Canti).  With a plot that I cannot fully recount, the film moves from a bank robbery with acrobats to a gun battle at the villain's fortified ranch to fake death to a final showdown with a guy who has a gun hidden in his guitar.  How many different films and TV shows have recycled these plot devices?  The Wild Wild West, The Quick & the Dead, Desperado, etc. It's unfair to judge Sabata by the films that came after it but the imitators (at least Desperado) outdid the original.  It didn't help that Sabata had its tongue firmly in cheek.


The Hills Run Red was an interesting series but it seemed to diminish the significance of the films.  Maybe it was the films themselves but the Spaghetti Westerns didn't age well.  I often say that but in this instance, the films seemed very much a product of their times and the subsequent cheapening of the genre by wholesale imitators reduced the luster of the genre for me.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013 Mostly British Film Festival

The 2013 Mostly British Film Festival ran from January 17 to 24 at the Vogue Theater.  I saw 15 films.

Hunky Dory starring Mini Driver & Aneurin Barnard; directed by Marc Evans; (2011) - Official Facebook
Jump starring Nichola Burley; directed by Kieron J. Walsh; (2012)
Odd Man Out starring James Mason & Robert Newton; directed by Carol Reed; (1947)
The Deadly Affair starring James Mason, Simone Signoret & Maximilian Schell; directed by  Sidney Lumet; (1966)
This Happy Breed starring Robert Newton & Celia Johnson; directed by David Lean; (1944)
This is England starring Thomas Turgoose & Stephen Graham; directed by Shane Meadows; (2006) - Official Website
Once starring Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová; directed by John Carney; (2006) - Official Website
Swerve starring David Lyons, Emma Booth & Jason Clarke; directed by Craig Lahiff; (2011) - Official Website 
Burning Man starring Matthew Goode; directed by Jonathan Teplitzky; (2011) 
56 Up; directed by Michael Apted; documentary; (2012) 
Stella Days starring Martin Sheen & Stephen Rea; directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan; (2011)
Stand Off starring Brendan Fraser & Colm Meaney; directed by Terry George; (2011) 
Backbeat starring Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee & Ian Hart; directed by Iain Softley; (1994)
Black and White starring Robert Carlyle; directed by Craig Lahiff; (2002)
Shadow Dancer starring Clive Owen & Andrea Riseborough; with Gillian Anderson; directed by James Marsh; (2012) 

As Festival Director and SF Chronicle movie writer Ruthe Stein said twice, Stand Off used the title Whole Lotta Sole in the rest of the world.

A few items about the festival itself.  The organizers moved the festival up in the calendar.  In past years, the festival followed Noir City but in 2013, the festival preceded Noir City.  By following Noir City, the week-long Most British conflicted with the first week of the SF Independent Film Festival.  Now the three festivals have no overlap.  Indiefest begins four days after Noir City which began the day after Mostly British.  I wonder how Mostly British will fare when Berlin and Beyond moves back to January in 2014.

The festival was well attended.  I notice Mostly British draws an older audience than other film festivals. 

With three days left in the festival, one of the board members of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (SFNTF), which runs the Mostly British, announced that the 2013 festival was in the black and box office receipts for the final three days were pure profit for SFNTF.

One of the festival programmers is a jaunty Englishman named Tony Broadbent.  He introduced some of the best films this year.  He's been a mainstay at the festival for as long as I can remember.  Curious about him, I learned he is a fiction writer.  I stopped by the library and checked out a copy of his first novel, The Smoke.  I have not started it yet so I cannot give an opinion.

Two of the films from Mostly British turned up on the 2013 Cinequest program (February 26 to March 10 in San Jose).  Hunky Dory (the opening night film at the Mostly British) and the Aussie musical The Sapphires (which I missed) are playing at Cinequest.

I stopped by the Jewish Community Center on California for a bite to eat twice during the festival.  The food at Community Table, their cafe, was not very good.  Ordering a middling falafel on my first visit, I decided to go with the Reuben sandwich on my second visit.  The bread wasn't toasted, it was rye much less Jewish rye and pastrami was a tough.  Maybe I was stereotyping but I assumed a cafe in the JCC would make a better Reuben.  That area around the Vogue needs some better mid-level restaurants.  I have to hoof it down to Divisadero to get something to eat.  The food at the Cheese Steak Shop is a particular favorite.

They scheduled some very long breaks between films.  I was told it was to give plenty of time for format changes (e.g. film to digital and vice versa).  When I stayed in the theater, I never saw them do video or sound checks between screenings.  Of course the long breaks allowed me time to get a King of Philly sandwich.


My favorite film was Backbeat, a little known 1994 film about the Beatles early days in Hamburg, Germany.  Set in 1960 and 1961, the Beatles were a quintet in those days JohnPaulGeorge, Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Peter Best on drums.  Paul played second lead guitar with George.  Sutcliffe was an artist and childhood friend of John's.  The two formed the Beatles although John was always more serious about it according to the film.

In 1961, the Beatles were refining their music and stage presence.  The music in the film was played by an all-star band consisting of musicians from Nirvana, REM, Sonic Youth and other bands.  The music was played at a faster tempo than the Beatles played.  It gave the music a bit of punk rock flavor which was intentional on the part of the film maker.  I liked the soundtrack quite a bit but then I always preferred early Beatles music.  Focusing on the rhythm and blues inspired hits of early rock & roll, the music I can recall from the film included 20 Flight Rock, Money (That's Whay I Want), Twist and Shout, Long Tall Sally and more.

Backbeat captured the youthful and raw energy the Beatles had.  Pre-moptops and matching clothes, the early Beatles had a rough edge befitting their Liverpudian roots.  A memorable scene had John & Stuart shagging two German birds on a bunkbed; it's like something out of Fargo.

Although the music and hijinks have a large part in Backbeat, it's really a love triangle between John, Stuart and German photographer Astrid Kerchherr which propels the film.  Never a skilled or even interested musician, Stuart's artistic desires are stirred when he encounters Kerchherr and her coterie of artists.  Stuart falls hard for Astrid and begins to think his lark as a musician has run its course.  Despite Paul's vocal complaints about Stuart's stage presence and musical skills, John stands fast by his chum.  This is made more difficult as John has ambivalent feelings towards Astrid.

The three actors who play Stuart (Stephen Dorff), John (Ian Hart) and Astrid (Sheryl Lee) are outstanding.  Hart as Lennon really captured his anger although the most memorable quote is from John to Astrid - "Sister, I'm not angry...I'm desperate."  So convincing were they that I forgot Dorff and Lee are Americans.  Hart was extra convincing most likely because it was the second time he had played Lennon in a film.  His first turn was in The Hours and Times (1991).

The relationship between the three is complex and no one character is the "bad guy" although Astrid has instances where she is a victim.  Backbeat benefits from telling a story about a largely unknown period of the Fab Four's career when a few small changes could have changed the course of musical history.


Last year, the Mostly British screened the entire Up series - seven documentaries about a cohort of British youths who were first interviewed at age seven.  Every seven years, director Michael Apted returns to his subjects and updates the audience on their lives.  I think the first two installments had different nomenclature but since then, all the films have been titled 21 Up, 28 Up, etc. where the number is their age.  This year the festival screened the latest installment, 56 Up.

I enjoyed the films tremendously last year but for some reason 56 Up felt a bit flat.  I don't think there were as many surprises as in previous films.  Most troubling is the effect the film series has had on the participants.  It's a classic conundrum - you watch people to see how they behave, but when people are aware they are being watched, they behave differently.  One participant dropped out for 3 or 4 installments and returned in 56 Up but it seems he has returned for the primary purpose of promoting his musical group.  Several of the subject who have participated in each installment talked about the effect the films (they are presented on television in the UK) have had on their lives. 

This "meta" effect combined with the natural tendency for 50somethings to be set in their ways left me thinking the Up series is showing its age or is decidedly middle-aged.  If Apted continues the series, we may be in for more emotional installments as these individuals are forced to cope with their own mortality and by extension take stock of their lives.

As always, the cheeky East End lad Tony has the final chapter (each film closes with a profile of Tony).  I have read he is by far the most discussed subject.  With an accent right out of Mary Poppins and driving a taxi, Tony is all pluck but in this latest entry, Apted accuses him of being a racist as he rants about the foreigners (mostly Muslims) who have moved into the East End neighborhood of his youth.  Tony reacts with dismay and clumsily hurt pride but I thought Apted stirred the pot a little too vigorously with his comments.  He interjected his opinions and biases a little too much to maintain he is a detached documentarian which is one of the main criticisms of the Up series.


This is England was an emotional story about a boy who gets involved with skinheads.  Set in England during the 1983 Falklands War, the film follows 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) whose father has recently died in that war.  Feeling isolated at school and being bullied, Shaun falls in with a group of older boys/young men led by Woody (Joe Gilgun).  Multicultural and lacking hateful attitudes, Woody's practices an apolitical "skinheadism" closer to old fashioned hooliganism.  Soon, Woody's leadership position is supplanted by recently released ex-convict Combo (Stephen Graham), whose speeches are filled with ultra-nationalist comments and whose personal comments include racist comments.

Shaun chooses to align himself with Combo who actively cultivates a father-son relationship with the boy.  Combo even says Shaun reminds him of himself at that age.  Combo's nationalist rants hide his sociopathic tendencies which come to the forefront during a confrontation with Woody's best friend Milky, a Jamaican.

This is England which has spawned two television miniseries, was fascinating for me.  Through Combo, it explained the roots of the skinhead movement in the UK.  I had no idea that skinheads were influenced by Jamaican culture and ska music.  In addition, the economic malaise of the 1970s and early 80s as well as the diminishing British influence on world affairs gave rise to disaffected youth.  Within this context, Shaun's embrace of Combo and the skinheads is understandable, even expected.  This gives a human face to what is typically vilified.

Although Combo is shown to be thug, he has moments of lucidity and inspired oration which crystallizes the appeal of the skinheads at that time and place.  The effect is to make This is England a frightening film; frighteningly realistic.  Gilgun is ferocious as Combo but doesn't overplay the role.  He shows human emotions and vulnerability.  Matching him is Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, whose vulnerability is at the forefront.  It's not hard to imagine Shaun evolving into Combo based on the plot and the two actors' performances.

I thought This is England was a tremendous film.


The Friday night of the week-long Most British Film Festival has become British Noir night.  A double bill has occupied this time slot for a few years.  This year, two James Mason films were screened - Odd Man Out and The Deadly Affair.

It wasn't until partway through Odd Man Out that I realized I had seen it.  I cannot recall where & when I saw it and I may have only seen a portion of it (likely on television).  Odd Man Out is set in Northern Ireland.  Johnny McQueen (Mason) is an IRA cell leader.  When a robbery goes bad, Johnny is shot in the arm and abandoned by his compatriots.  He tries to make his way home where his family and neighbors will shield him.  However, the police dragnet, cold weather and his wounds make this difficult.

As Johnny staggers across town, I was reminded of two stories/films.  One was Ulysses, the James Joyce version.  McQueen encounters all sorts of interesting characters as he tries to make his way across town at night.  The other story was the film Night and the City (directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark).  In that film, Widmark is a desperate two-bit con man trying to survive the night as local gangsters have put the word out that he is to be killed on sight.

That sums up the films.  McQueen's condition worsens as the film progresses and he frequently loses consciousness.  The other character's reaction to him encapsulate the feeling towards the IRA which runs the gamut but largely is one of not wanting to get involved but also not wanting to cross them.  As McQueen lurches to his destiny, he takes on mythical even Christlike qualities.  That reminds me that Odd Man Out reminded me of a Graham Greene novel or two.

Mason, director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker achieve a heightened sense of foreboding and "poetic realism" that gives the film much of its memorable style and subsequent critical acclaim.  They took a simple story, stripped out the political overtones as much as possible, added fabulous black & white cinematography and allowed Mason and the plot move to a delirious state.  Odd Man Out has little of the Wellesian panache that The Third Man (1949; directed by Reed) has.  It's a darker film with its Irish fatalism.  The films establishes a mood more than tells a story.

The Deadly Affair was based on John le Carré's first novel Call for the Dead, a George Smiley book.  I have never been a fan of le Carre's novels and The Deadly Affair didn't do much for me.  Do to legal issues, Smiley's character was renamed Charles Dobbs (Mason) in the film.  Mason holds his own in a decent potboiler, but I found the character of his wife (Harriet Andersson) to be distracting.  An avowed nymphomaniac, she seems like a definite national security risk being married to an MI6 agent.  Their relationship must have been shocking or outré in 1967 but seems ridiculous now.

Veteran character actor Harry Andrews is memorable as a retired police inspector working with Dobbs to solve the "suicide" of a government official.  Simone Signoret, looking aged and unrecognizable compared to her youth, does the most with her small role as the widow.  Mason, as always, is solid as the persistent government agent.


The festival showed a pair of early David Lean films - Brief Encounter (1945) and This Happy BreedHaving seen Brief Encounter on screen as well as a stage adaptation, I passed on it.

This Happy Breed was a remarkable film for several reasons. First, it was a color film filmed in Britain during WWII.  Rather than film in the controlled environs of a sound stage, Lean filmed several scenes outdoors amongst the London tenement houses.  Without any blitz bombing damage in the background, I was amazed that such a large swath London was undamaged.  Lean, in his first color film, seems to have no troubles with the medium.

Vaguely similar to a few films I cannot recall, This Happy Breed tells the story of the Gibbons family over a twenty year period (1919-1939).  Patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) is home from the war and moves into his new house with his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson), two daughters, son, sister-in-law and mother-in-law.  As the years progress, we see the family members live their lives with historical events marking the passage of time.  Tragedy, triumph, humor, death, etc.  A personal tale of one family's travails, This Happy Breed is an ambitious film by Lean and presages his later epics.  Rather than the vastness of the Saharan desert or grandeur of the Russian revolution, Lean gives his full treatment to the Gibbons family, mostly within the confines of their modest home.  Frank, who represents the voice a reason and hindsight, is too pedantic at times but serves as the locus around which his family revolves.  Seemingly wanting nothing more than to enjoy a pint with his neighbor and war buddy (Stanley Holloway), Frank stoically endures the tragedies and indignities which befall him and his family.

Ultimately, This Happy Breed was a war film, so Frank's indomitable spirit (no doubt representative of the English people), quietly prevails.  The film is much more than wartime propaganda though.  Lean crafts an engaging narrative and the plot and actors draw the audience in.  In other words, we begin to care about what happens to this family...or at least, I did.  It was a little old fashioned but enjoyable nonethelesss.


Black and White was a engaging film, reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, who has built up a nice career with films such as The Stone of Destiny & The Full Monty, plays Australian lawyer David O'Sullivan.  Based on a true story from the late 1950s, O'Sullivan and his law partner Helen Devaney (Kerry Fox) defend Max Stuart (David Ngoombujarra), an Aborigine accused of raping & murdering a nine year old girl.  Encountering racism, corrupt cops, inconsistencies in timeline of the murder and interrogation and finally a judicial system more interested in legalities than justice, the two lawyers defend Stuart through his trial and appeal process.

While showing some Rashōmon style flashbacks, the film is squarely of the opinion that Stuart's confession was beaten out of him.  O'Sullivan seems overmatched by the prosecutor (Charles Dance in a nice performance) and Devaney is a functioning alcoholic more interested in the partnership's financial bottom line.  Eventually, the two are moved by the injustice done to Stuart and champion his appeal.

Although some of the police officers are portrayed as brutish thugs, the film is surprisingly understated in its depiction of the major characters.  It's easy to dislike the imperious prosecutor but a pivotal scene shows that he is convinced of the man's guilt and blind (but not willfully so) to potential misconduct by the police.  Ngoombujarra plays Stuart as a simple man who understands the racism he faces but maintains as much self-respect as he can.  I won't give away the ending but will say they didn't whitewash it for a happy ending.  Black and White kept me engrossed throughout the film.  It helps to not know the ending which I've partially given away.


Stella Days felt like a near miss.  Martin Sheen plays an Irish priest sent to a small Irish town in the 1950s.  Eager to return to the Vatican so he can resume his research, Father Barry pines and schemes for the day he can leave.  More liberal (and sophisticated) than the small town folk (people look at him with suspicion because he studied in the US), Barry strikes up a friendship with a young teacher at the parochial school.  With his support, Barry plans to open a movie theater and use the box office to satisfy the bishop's insatiable need for funds to build more churches.  Barry runs up against the McSweeney (Stephen Rea), the conservative town mayor who objects to filth being screened on movie screen paid for by church donations.

A bit like some Pat O'Brien/Bing Crosby priest, Sheen plays Barry as a flawed but congenial man.  Rea looks like he is constipated throughout the film.  I doubt he cracked a smile once.  Stella Days (Stella is the name of the movie theater) has a skimpy plot which roams freely across the Irish countryside.  It was hard to relate to the characters; not because they were dislikable but because they weren't very developed.  Rea's character evoked an active dislike but I was mild about everyone else.


Everything else was fair to middling.   

Hunky Dory wasn't a bad musical.  It was interesting to see some 1970s rock-n-roll songs adapted to a high school production of The TempestOnce was also a musical with some surprisingly recognizable songs...songs that I've heard on the radio but never knew the title of.  The two lead actors were musicians who have acted in much before or since.

Jump is a film about three or four different plot threads told in non-linear fashion.  By the end, the threads come together.  It involves a gangster, some stolen money, the gangster's daughter and vehicular manslaughter.  The film reminded me other films of the genre such as 11:14, Ten 'til Noon and a film that played at Indiefest several years ago called InterMission...except I like all those films better.

Swerve was an Australian noir which I felt was overscripted - a few too many plot twists.  Burning Man was about an Australian chef going through a self-destructive period following the death of his wife.  The plot was difficult to follow because of non-linear storytelling but the main issue I had was Matthew Goode's overwrought performance.

Stand Off was a mildly amusing dark comedy.  Brendan Fraser didn't seem to have his heart in the performance which was low key.  The characters around him were flamboyant enough but forgettable performances and a contrived plot made for an underwhelming impression.

Shadow Dancer, the closing night film, was my least favorite.  Actually, it reminded me of a John le Carré novel.  I was feeling worn out by that night and snoozed for a few minutes which likely affected my enjoyment.  I was able to follow the plot despite my catnap.  The festival guide described this film as a slow-burning thriller; I would have preferred a more combustible film.  The fact that I could nap during an espionage thriller says something in and of itself.  Gillian Anderson has been showing up in a lot of European films lately.  I wonder if she has moved to the UK.  In Shadow Dancer, she is nearly unrecognizable with an Irish brogue and platinum blonde hair.