Smackdab in the middle of my week I completed the first of my New Year's Cinematic Resolutions, Birth of a Nation. Don't know if I could have handled the nearly four hours of racial hate alone, but thanks to my stalwart Dork companion, I was able to finish this lesson in history. Painful viewing, but necessary, I think. The real thrill of the week was my Macaroni Western Night. First movie party of 2013, an event where I subject various friends to films I love whether they like it or not. For the most part, I think I was successful.
Gangster Squad: "King Kong Ain't Got Nothing On Me!!!!!" Wait, that's a line from a different movie. But it feels like it should be spitting forth from Sean Penn's cartoonish hammerheaded Mickey Cohen, and he's the only fun thing about this wandering gangster picture. The film doesn't know if it wants to be Sin City, The Rocketeer, or The Untouchables. It meanders through its narrative and I can practically see director Ruben Fleischer's confused expression. Josh Brolin & Ryan Gosling head up the squad but their characters are a brittle summation of the blank women they choose for themselves. Emma Stone feels like she's stumbled from a speeding Delorean, wrong place, wrong decade. As Brolin's wife, Mireille Enos exists solely to be pregnant and disapproving - she's excruciatingly boring. Making up the rest of the squad, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Giovanni Ribisi are some of my favorite contemporary character actors, but they do very little than hold cgi muzzle flashing Thompson guns. The HD photography is abysmal. Just when folks like David Fincher & Michael Mann are proving the painterly style of the new technology, Fleischer is muddying the argument with some of the worst blurring I've encountered outside of Once Upon A Time In Mexico. But Sean Penn? He's chewing the scenery. He knows to have fun, and work that beautifully hideous Dick Tracy skull.
Django Kills Silently: "In front of a senora, you take off your sombrero." Much better than I was expecting. George Eastman's Django is a terrible bore. He lifelessly walks through the balsa wood sets, waiting for the energy of horrendous dubbing to light a spark of enthusiasm to his stillborn performance. But thankfully there are a couple of demented Spaghetti Western moments to excite the audience. Federico Boido has a bit role as "The Nervous One," a twitchy henchman itching to gun down Django. His High Noon gunfight at the center of the film is a highlight for its pathetic execution and perfectly cruel triggerfinger assassination. Eastman may be a dud, but Django's still a bastard.
Django's Cut Price Corpses: This is more like the crap I was expecting. Other than a rather amazing title, Django's Cut Price Corpses offers very little for the Spaghetti Western aficionado. If George Eastman's Django was a bore than Jeff Cameron's Django is pretty much Dead On Arrival. There's something going on about a kidnap fiance and an evil Mexican gang, but you'll be fighting so hard for consciousness that you'll find it nearly impossible to follow the plot. That is until Django rapes a woman. Yes, apparently "No, No, I'm A Widow" means "Yes, Yes, Yes" to Django DOA and the vicious morals of the genre cork my entertainment here - I can only speculate that the complete lack of craftsmanship, or character do not allow for pleasure here, where other more creatively deplorable films grant vision through nightmarish landscapes.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: After getting a little too chummy with the target of an assassination, the daughter of Leslie Banks & Edna Best is kidnapped by the wonderfully scummy Peter Lorre. It's another wrong time, wrong place kinda thriller from Alfred Hitchock that's elevated by the presence of Lorre, and his beautifully icky forehead scar. Frankly, I cared very little whether the daughter lived or died (and we all know she's gonna live), but I was riveted every moment the sickly smirk of Lorre got a closeup. Plus there are a couple of fantastic set pieces sprinkled throughout - the dentist chair deception, the crushing chair fight crossfire, and the final ricochet shootout. Hitchcock is still building to mastery here, but there is still plenty of fantastic cinema to be found.
Zero Dark Thirty: "I'm The Mother Fucker Who Found This Place." Jessica Chastain spearheads the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin in this hypnotic torture procedural. I enjoyed the film, but I was kind of left scratching my head over the amount of praise being lauded upon this glorified HBO movie. The film is not about character. We're given very little to hang our emotions onto...other than our own history with 9/11. Jason Clarke is a bearded tough guy, ready to physically devastate his captives in the neverending quest for intel. Jessica Chastain cusses with the big boys and only sheds tears when the final credits give the queue. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the quest play out, and the final storm on the compound is riveting storytelling, but I never felt a connection with the players. And I felt the strain behind the performances. Chastain is an actress I generally praise, but her tough girl routine felt like show - in particularly, her pushy screaming towards Kyle Chandler's Joseph Bradley - I didn't buy the bite behind the bark. And my real question is this, will Zero Dark Thirty hold any significance five years from now? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? I have my doubts.
Les Miserables: Good golly. What a train wreck. This goes down without a doubt as the worst direction of 2012. Tom Hooper foolishly films every single sequence with oppressive Sergio Leone closeups. We get it!!!!! You recorded the musical numbers live on set! That doesn't mean you have to concoct the most claustrophobic musical ever conceived, nor does it mean you have to fill it with the lamest ducks in Hollywood. I get it. Sure, Hugh Jackman's a song and dance man. But he falls flat on his numbers. He's better than this performance. And Russell Crowe, what were the producers smoking when they recorded his vocals? He's laughably bad. And so soon after The Man With The Iron Fists? If he's not careful, he'll be entering his Nicolas Cage era of parody (and I'm speaking as a Cage fan here). Sure, the extreme closeups work for Anne Hathaway's main number. Her "I Dreamed A Dream" is stunning and her performance through the song will punch you square in the gut. That is, if you haven't already checked out in the first twenty minutes.
A Man Called Django: "You're condemned to defend yourself." This shares a couple plot elements with Django Unchained. After his wife is shot down while defending herself from a pack of rapists, Anthony Steffen's Django goes on a bounty hunt for her killers. He partners up with Stelio Candelli, a bandit with knowledge of the villains. The rest of the film plays out like a video game; Steffen & Candelli working their way through the level bosses. Some good, grimy dialog matched with harsh violent staring contests. Not brilliant, but passable.
Batman #16: I'm really curious to see how Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo's Death of the Family arc is going to read in trade, cuz in singles I'm just not feeling the excitement that the rest of the internet seems to be experiencing. Batman storms the gates of Arkham Asylum, charging his way through one nightmarish ambush after the other, and all leading to the Joker's demented Sword in the Stone torture climax. Things are most certainly heating up, but I just don't see how this is going to resolve itself in a satisfying manner with just one issue to go. And the last page had me asking, "WHAT'S IN THE BOX?!?!?" As much as I don't want it to be Alfred's head, anything less will feel like a cheat.
Archer & Armstrong #6: There's very little here dealing with Archer, Armstrong, or The Eternal Warrior. Instead, most of this issue involves the succession of the new Geomancer, Kay McHenry. But ya know what? Despite the lack of our favorite bickering Valiant heroes, the latest issue is still excellent and delightfully irreverent. Kay attempts to block out the thoughts of plants as she discovers her destiny as the guardian of Mother Earth - represented here as a Roman robed orangoutang. And what's it all got to do with Blackbeard the Pirate? Not sure, but I can't wait to find out.
Indestructible Hulk #3: I'm still waiting to fall in love with the comic. Mark Waid has been having some serious fun with Daredevil & The Rocketeer but I'm just not feeling it with Hulk - Agent of Shield. Maybe the problem is Leinel Yu. His art is just too dang serious for the amount of fun I should be having. Nobody can draw 'roid rage quite like him, but I think what this book needs is a Mark Allred type. He's taken, but there has got to be a cartoon guy for this book.
New Avengers #2: The plot thickens and I like the hint of cosmic terror where this book could be going...but, I'm not loving Hickman's writing. Both this and the regular Avengers book are chock full of exposition, and I couldn't help but feel bogged down in the weight of the book rather than rushing to see the outcome. And I just don't like the team dynamics of this book. Everyone seems to just hate each other, and it's not in that fun Marvel versus kinda way - just painful, self-loathing. Black Panther & Namor need to get it out of their system quick.
All New X-Men #6: The high concept promise of this book is starting to get delivered. It looks like Hank McCoy's time travel scheme will result in some serious shifting in character for the original members of Charles Xavier's X-Men. Teenaged Jean Grey is naturally traumatized by the knowledge of her future, and I love how this knowledge could potentially turn her against the budding romance with Scott Summers if not her teammates all together. Young Cyclops, obviously, can't deal with her potential absence and goes running & screaming from the school resulting in a classic confrontation with teacher Wolverine. The roster is shaken here, time for Bendis to have some fun. Hopefully he really veers these characters into new directions - don't let them be Status Quo Part II.
Captain America #3: Three issues of Dimension Z, three issues of disappointment. I just don't understand where Rick Remender is taking this character. I get the desire and need to branch off and do your own thing separate from Ed Brubaker's Cold War soldier but this is just painfully lame. And the final page reveal? WHAT. THE. HELL. Does that explain the seemingly crazy continuity at play in the world of Marvel Now or is this a seriously lame incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles interdimensional villain, Krang? Either outcome is stupid.
BPRD 1948 #4: Anders is loosing his mind. The desert might be full of radiated monsters, but the real threat in this era of the BPRD is this shellshocked soldier with a few too many bats in the belfry. But my favorite bits of this story still revolve around cute little Hellboy. He's been hanging around the fringes of this book so far, but I've got ideas that the kid is going to play big by the final issue...if not the following Vampire story arc.
Django Unchained: I just can't stay away. Fourth viewing. Love it more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow. Took Mom to see it this go around. Was curious to see if she would respond as positively as I did. After all, it's cuz of her that I'm the film maniac I am today. She was the one who introduced me to Alien. She allowed me to see Predator 2. And we both sat in a dark theater reveling in all the pleasures and horrors of Species. But I know she can sometimes respond poorly to onscreen violence, and I was none too sure how she'd handle the depictions of slavery. Well, I knew fairly early into the film that she was enjoying herself. She responded enthusiastically to Christophe Waltz's bounty hunter confidence, and to the moment where Jaime Foxx finally unleashed his vengeance upon the despicable Brittle Brothers. But when I looked over at her during one of the squib explodey gunplays near the climax, and she was giddy with laughter, that's when I knew the film had truly won her over. Django Unchained is a thrilling film. Jaime Foxx is dragged through the most heinous of muck, but he charges through the hellfire like the purest of heroes of King Schultz's german legend. His triumph over evil is not just exhilarating, it's uplifting. Mom's final review of the film as the credits rolled, "Bloody Good Show." That pretty much sums it up.
Birth of a Nation: Going into the film, you know you're in for some heinous racism. But whatever depictions of hate I was expecting to find were nowhere near as vile as the actual film itself. This is not just one or two moments where The Klan rides to the rescue, protecting poor helpless damsels from the horror of black faces. That's there. And it's ugly. But the whole film is deplorable. There are not just one or two moments of awkward shuck and jive - it's constant, it's fearful, it's fear mongering, and it's consciously evil. And nearly every second of it is painful to watch. But I am so glad that I did. And I think you should too. It's important to not hide from our shame. We should stare it down. Recognize it, and dare not let ourselves repeat it. But maybe, just maybe, you should start with Birth of a Nation and follow it up with Django Unchained. You might sleep better.
Slaughter: After Coffy, Jim Brown's Slaughter is my absolute favorite Blaxploitation hero. "It's his name, and his business." They killed his mom and dad. Big mistake. Slaughter invades South America in a hunt for Rip Torn's shaggy, joker faced hitman (and to bag his kept lady, the amazingly curvaceous Stella Stevens). The film is jam packed with gruesome goons, violent shoot outs, the terrifyingly ugly Don Mario, and the beautifully sideburned sidekick Don Gordon. Jim Brown is the very definition of badass, and the manner in which he terminates his climactic opponent is the ultimate in Mad Max vengeance. People ask me where to start in this genre, I point them to Slaughter.
Black Dynamite: "I threw that shit before I walked in the room!" What's so dang impressive to me about this spoof is how Michael Jai White can act like an utter buffoon, and still be so utterly badass. How'd he do that? Well, cuz he's Dynamite. The film walks the fine line of a Blaxploitation send up and an actual entry within the genre. And for the most part it succeeds. Of course, I wish the film climaxed with the kung fu treachery of the fiendish Dr. Wu, but I guess there are a couple chuckles with Tricky Dick and the destruction of the White House fine china. Black Dynamite is the kind of film that you can enjoy in Youtube clips as much as the whole, and sometimes its the perfect medicine for a bad day. May I suggest the Chicago Wind bar fight.
Justified Season 4 "Where's Waldo?": The mystery that looks to be at the center of the fourth season begins to unravel, but the real joys of these first two couple of episodes come from Walton Goggins' snake charmer problem. We all know that this religious fool is gonna have to die, but will it be soon enough for Goggins to claim a portion of Wynn Duffy's Detroit Empire? Boyd's gonna come out on top, and poor Ellie May is doomed - I see her death coming from the hands of Ava Crowder, the new Mags Bennet.
Broken City: Have you seen the trailer to this movie? If the answer is yes than you've practically seen every twist and turn of Broken City. Corrupt cops & corrupt politicians. Is there anything new to be said on the subject at this point? I'm starting to think not. Mark Wahlberg does his tough guy act, and I think he might be on my "Don't Bother" list at this point...well, when he finds himself in comedies (The Other Guys, Ted, and hopefully Pain & Gain) I find him to be quite charming, but his brute acting style seen here feels phony baloney. As for Russell Crowe? At least he's not singing. And I like it when he hams it up for villainy. He's fun here & in The Man With The Iron Fists, but as stated above, it does feel like he's venturing into Nic Cage lunacy. I have no problem with that as long as he owns it the way Cage totally owns his Mega Acting.
Macaroni Western Night: Our first Movie Party of the year was a Sergio Corbucci quadruple feature, and I made sure people had fun whether they liked the flicks or not. Obviously, Matt seemed to appreciate the films. And The Wife really enjoyed both The Mercenary & The Great Silence. But the other half dozen folks seemed to enjoy the camaraderie and the food more than the movies themselves. And that's totally cool. You can't force a batch of 60s era Spaghetti Westerns on a modern audience and expect them all to fall in love. I just wanted to show folks a bit of the flavor Tarantino was tasting when crafting Django Unchained.
The Mercenary (aka A Professional Gun, aka Revenge of a Gunfighter): "Shoot him! No, not him, the one who wanted justice." Franco Nero is The Pollack, a gun for hire who falls bassackwards into the Mexican Revolution after agreeing to escort a parcel of silver across the border. Jack Palance, in full-on rage face mode, is the murderous Curly, who takes perverse pleasure in turning peasants against each other. The film is goofy, violent, surreal, and wickedly jovial. Not only does it contain one of cinema's greatest fistfights involving weaponized chickens (see also Emperor of the North), but it also has the most memorable Mexican standoff outside of The Good The Bad And The Ugly - two words: rodeo clowns. Franco Nero takes great delight in playing the scalawag, and he's impossible not to root for even when he's screwing over numerous poor people. Maybe not the serious genre picture some people crave, but The Mercenary is one of its most entertaining entries.
The Great Silence: "I keep eating and eating and still I'm miserable." There's nothing fun about The Great Silence. It's a bleak western filled with mountains of snow and buckets of unstoppable dread. Jean-Louis Trintignant (see him in the Oscar nominated Amour!) is Silence, a mute gunfighter who wanders into a desolate Nevada town looking for the men who took his voice as well as the lives of his parents. Klaus Kinski, looking like one of the kids from The Village of the Damned all grown up, circles the town endlessly while picking off various innocent bystanders. Both characters march towards each other, but the miracle of The Great Silence is that it does not offer the heroic deeds we come to expect. This is probably one of the most brutal and uncaring films that Italy has to offer, and it most certainly does not provide the high entertainment required for a joyous movie party. I probably should have started or ended with this beast; it definitely felt out of place as the night's second movie. Oh well, it's still one of Corbucci's badass best.
Django: "Just keep undressing, and don't pay any attention to anything I do." Here it is, the film that sparked fifty knockoffs. And you can totally see why. Franco Nero's wandering stranger is all confidence and devious wit. He's quick on the draw, but he also knows when to whip out the gatling gun. The first half of the film is easily the most entertaining with Django setting up shop in the West's muddiest whorehouse, and similar to A Fistful of Dollars, playing one rival fraction against the other. Once Django butchers thirty or forty baghead badmen, the film gets a little bogged down in the politics of the Mexican Revolution. But there are plenty of bursts of orange blood violence to keep your attention as it marches to the typical showdown resolution. As fun as Django is, I do find myself gravitating to the absurdity of Corbucci's The Mercenary & Companeros more than this somewhat routine international sensation.
Companeros!: "How would you like some fresh Swedish meat?" Franco Nero & Tomas Millan (two Djangos for the price of one!) team up to capture Fernando Rey's revolution crazed professor while fending off the one-handed, marijuana crazed, friend of falcons everywhere - Jack Palance. The film is every bit as zany as Corbucci's The Mercenary, but thanks to an even hammier Palance (is such thing possible? YES!), Companeros! explodes with humor and absurdist cowboy violence. As good as everyone is in their cooky roles, it's Franco Nero's show and it's his performance as The Penguin that completely sold me on The Cult of Nero. He's all blue eyes, smilies, and mustache. He holds an infinite charm that's impossible to ignore, and he's got the swagger and the cutthroat bravado essential for the very best of exploitation magic. Granted, at two hours, Companeros! is far too long but when everyone is having this much fun it's hard to complain. Most of the guests had left before this film started, but for those that stayed, I think Companeros! was a highlight of the evening.
FF #2: It's probably mostly due to Mike Allred's art, but I'm enjoying FF much more than the main Fantastic Four book. I really love all these kids (which were perfectly set up by Jonathan Hickman's previous run on the book), but I'm intrigued by how Scott Lang's loser Ant-Man is going to handle the job now that it's obvious that Reed Richards & Co are not coming back anytime soon. Plus, the longer narrative thread introduced in the last few pages is potentially fascinating with its Days of Future Past possibilities. Two issues is too soon to call it, but I'm really looking forward to the next chapter (which I think is next Wednesday!).
The Black Beetle #0 & #1: Favorite Dork Artist, Francesco Francavilla writes and draws a pulp adventure detailing the heroic exploits of The Black Beetle. Set on the homeland during World War II, The Black Beetle navigates the seedy world of the occult as Nazi Agents invade the museums of the fictional Colt City. Fun, moody stuff. Francavilla is obviously a dork after my own heart, and he's achieving true pulp sensibilities here where folks like Garth Ennis seem incapable of capturing in Dynamite Entertainment's Shadow reboot. And of course, the art is amazing. Eagerly awaiting the next issue.
Bloodshot #7: Valiant begins setting up its first crossover mini series with this flashback issue. It's all well and good as the Bloodshot of yesteryear invades some undisclosed military base detaining the mindbending children known as Harbingers. Can't really say I'm eager for the crossover, but I dig Bloodshot - especially during this timeframe where he's such a sad sack puppet. But let's get back to the main story, and keep Bloodshot on his vengeance path.
Savage Wolverine #1: It's so good to have Frank Cho drawing Shanna The She Devil again...even if it has to happen in yet another Wolverine book. There's a mystery here with Logan being plopped down into The Savage Land and S.H.I.E.L.D sneaking around in the jungle, but this book is all about the crazy cartoony T & A and I LOVE IT! Don't care if it's simply appealing to my thirteen year old brain or not, Shanna the She Devil is super sexy and she kills dinosaurs for a living. That's just awesome. More please.
Saga #9: The Will gets some much needed screentime as we learn more about his twisted relationship with The Stalk as well as Marko's asskicking ex, Gwendolyn. I love their pairing even more than Marko & Alana (there, I said it) and I have great hope for further adventures surrounding their devious deeds. At the very least they need to take down Prince Robot and do it quick. I'm still not madly in love with Saga, but I'm enjoying it more than most monthlies.
Fantastic Four #3: This was ok. Reed & Family are finally out there exploring dimensional space and for their first mission they encounter a planet eater....or an eating planet. Fun. But not terribly engrossing. The Thing still calls people dummies and Mr. Fantastic is still keeping mum about the degenerative disease. I'm not really sure where this book is going yet, and that keeps my enthusiasm to a minimum.
Star Trek - Deep Space Nine Season 6: The Wife & I completed another round of DS9. She is madly in love with this show, so much so that she actually exclaimed Benjamin Sisko as her favorite Star Trek captain. Blasphemy, I say! We all know that Kirk is The One True Federation Captain. But if she wants The Emissary to lead her blindly to the celestial temple than I'll let her enjoy her delusion. All kidding aside, the last two seasons of Deep Space Nine are amazing television and definitely some of the best Star Trek out there. But man, this season really leaves you on a downer. The Dominion War is in full affect. Casualties are occurring - something not too common in the House of Roddenberry. And by the final episode, Ben Sisko is left devastated by multiple catastrophic events. The moment the last shot of the sixth season occurred, The Wife demanded that we pushed on to the seventh season. To think that once upon a time we had to wait nearly six months between seasons 6 & 7...that was real torture. But thanks to the miracle of Netflix Instant we can go from one depressing episode to the next.