Django Unchained (2012): Long Spaghetti Western Love Letter

Poster of Django Unchained

I had to wait a long time to see this film, I was going to rent it on blu-ray and then I happened to see a non-blu-ray version for sale for a tenner and I grabbed it.

From the first frame of the film, it looked like a 1960’s opening for Sergio Leone-ish type spaghetti western, the colours were spot on and the rocks in the foreground could have been transplanted from those locations in Spain and Italy where the original features were made. The consistency of the film even looked the same, hard to describe, but it looked right.

Of course this wasn’t maintained throughout the film and there was no need. Once the music started up for the first scene after the “freeing” of Django, Tarantino told us with his initial score piece what was going to go on.

The first bit of music was a re-mix of the Two Mules for Sister Sara main theme. For those who haven’t seen the 1970 film, in a nutshell, it was an Italian spaghetti western film that wasn’t. The music was done by the master of off-beat magical themes and scores himself, Ennio Morricone. The film was directed by Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the original man with no name ,played Hogan. The film itself was a sort of homage to the genre that gave Eastwood the huge boost he needed to start his career in the right direction, away from television.

poster

The very second I heard the “jackass” toot-tweet of the music and listened to the subtle changes to the original music, I knew that Tarantino was making his intentions clear about the film. The choice and the remix was telling us, “This is a spaghetti western that isn’t. It isn’t even really going to follow the formula too much as I am going to mix up Siegel and Leone and Django.”

And that is what he did.

I even detected bits from Blazing Saddles (and Quentin, if I’m wrong buddy, I’m obviously giving you too damned much credit) in the amusing scene about the eye holes and the head bags. There were a few other nods and winks but I’ll get off this particular train right now.

Anyone who has ever watched the amount of these pasta opuses that were so popular at the Drive-in’s of the time, can remember the sounds of the guns in the films. The other obvious clue that the director gave us was the complete and total lack of the spaghetti western gunshot.

Quentin’s Django Unchained gun fire merely sounded loud. Gone was the ever present whine of the shot bullet and the almost flat, but very loud, crack of the guns. But the important part of the Italian western was that whine. He was telling us again, that yes this is a long love letter to the genre, but I’m not going to copy it 100%.

The casting of the film was phenomenal and I’m not going to go into the discussion too much. (Well not at all actually) Enough reviews and writers and critics have gotten there before me and I’m not in a hurry to join the din. Just as I’m not going to address the use of the “N” word. (Allcaps because of the amount of fury and un-political correctness that has been mention too damned often by too damned many.)

I will say this, though. The same people who would rather “rewrite” real history, who want to believe that in those halcyon days of yesteryear that people would not have referred to folks of a different hue using this highly offensive word at all, let alone as much as they did in the film, are the ones who want to rewrite nursery rhymes so that they do not offend.

The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.
The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.

Why? because they don’t believe in showing the truth, what is worse, is that they don’t really want to think that we were that uncouth, uncivilised, and downright nasty, truth be told.

But that sentiment is not true gentle people, not true at all. The same people in our American shores who referred to other human beings as; who called our brothers and sisters of the human race that name and other equally foul and disturbing names did do just that.

Because that was the culture back then.

These are the same people who cheerfully murdered Native Americans (and yes, that took place before the Civil War as well) and stoutly declared that the only good indian was a dead indian.

But I am not playing any “ethnic” minority game here, setting up my ancestors against yours my friend. I only point out the obvious, our American ancestors did a lot of things back then that was called, “good.” Tarantino opted to show it how it was versus the new modern trend of “gilding the lily.” Not, as claimed by most if not all the denigrators, to shock.

(Again, Quentin, if I’m giving you too much credit, I’m sorry.)

My last word on the subject, I promise, if it bothers you that much, don’t watch it.

There, all done, I told you.

Back to the film.

I loved it. I didn’t care for the soundtrack all that much, but like I said at the start, Tarantino picked music to fit “his” homage not anyone else’s. The clue was in that first piece of music, the faux Ennio Morricone that plays us into the opening of Django’s first day of freedom in a town.

I’d have to give this a full 5 out of 5 stars for the effort that went into this and for the long love letter that Quentin wrote using the film. I’d also like to give it another half star for the presence of Franco Nero who, in keeping with the 1960’s touch of the time, had that obvious moment where the “old” Django met the “new” Django.

A new classic.

Scene from Django Unchained

Priest (2011): The Searchers for the Apocalypse

Unknown

I tried to watch Priest once before. At that time, I just couldn’t get into the film. For whatever reason, it just didn’t click. I honestly could not tell you why. Either my bio-rhythms were off or the fact that Carl Urban appeared to bite the “big-one” at the start of the film or a combination of the two, put me off the film.

When I saw a copy of Priest going for 3 pounds at the bargain DVD section at Tesco, I picked it up. I figured that for 3 quid, I’d give it another go. I’m actually glad I did. Because despite the film’s Korean graphic novel beginnings, it really turned out to be a western. And not just any western either, it was The Searchers revisited; sans Natalie Wood, Jeff Hunter and The Duke.

The Creators:

Directed by Scott Stewart  with a screenplay written by Cory Goodman and based on Min-Woo Hyung‘s graphic novel of the same name, Priest really is an almost perfect western movie. I know, I know; some purists out there are going to scream to high heaven about not being faithful to the “original” concept. Which seems to be the clarion call of all “fan’s” of work adapted from a “manga-type” source.

But, I don’t care. In case the folks in the cheap seats missed that, I’ll repeat; I don’t care. Because I’ve never read the original graphic novel and apart from seeing the cover of it in a comic store downtown, I would have never known of its existence if it were not for IMDb and Wikipedia.

The ever-beautiful and kick-ass Maggie Q.
The ever-beautiful and kick-ass Maggie Q.

The Plot:

It is a future version of a world torn apart by war. The church has become all-powerful and in this verse, vampires have existed since the dawn of time. These are not the suave and sophisticated vamps of literature and film. These vampires are animalistic and more of a “hive” insect with a queen who’s lays vampire “eggs.” A legion of Priests were created by the church to battle the vampires and in a long epic battle they were defeated and the remaining creatures were put in “reservations.” (Sound familiar?)

The Priests are disbanded and forgotten. Years later, in an outpost in the Wasted Lands, a farmer along with his wife and daughter are breaking their backs trying to make a living out of the desert soil. As they sit down to their evening meal, they are attacked by a horde of vampires and the daughter hides in the basement only to be discovered by something.

The Cast:

Paul Bettany
Karl Urban
Cam Gigandet
Maggie Q
Lily Collins

*Cast courtesy of IMDb.*

The Device:

Just like today, you cannot trust the guys in charge and refusing to give up is good.

The Twist:

Family is in the eye of the beholder.

The Story:

After a long protracted battle between vampires and men, the men win and put the surviving vampires in “reservations.” It turns out that they’ve been pretty damned busy down there and when an outbreak occurs the leaders of the church refuse to believe that there is a problem. One priest (Paul Bettany), whose family it was that got attacked by this upsurge of vamps, goes against the church and decides to rescue his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). He is aided by the local lawman, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and a fellow Priestess (Maggie Q).

Carl Urban as Black Hat all that's missing is the serape.
Karl Urban as Black Hat all that’s missing is the serape.

It turns out that the renegade vampires are being led by a former Priest, Black Hat (Karl Urban) who was lost to the vampires at the beginning of the film. He’s kidnapped Lucy to draw the Priest to him.

The Characters:

Paul Bettany as the Priest is all guttural angst and stoic grimness. He pretty much feels like Ethan in The Searchers but without the great lines that The Duke had in his film. Karl Urban as Black Hat is just, well, Karl Urban; there is not part that I’ve ever seen the man portray that doesn’t enthral me. Despite his tiny amount of screen time, when he is on-screen he blows everyone else away. Lily Collins, who was a relative newcomer when this film was made, did a brilliant job and even when she had snot running down her lower lip; still looked amazing.

As did Maggie Q as the kick-ass Priestess who helps Bettany track down all the bad vampires. Cam Gigandet’s sheriff was good at filling the Jeffrey Hunter role as the young guy who wants to make sure that girlfriend Lucy survives her reunion with her Uncle Priest.  And in the cameo department,  Brad Dourif was brilliant as the Snake Oil salesman who is touting the effectiveness of his “holy water.” And  Christopher Plummer  was great as the treacherous and “holier-than-thou” head of the church who banishes the Priest for even daring to presume that vampires have again become a threat.

The Verdict:

Despite the dismal reviews that this film garnered, I liked it. The second I made the  western connection, I was on-board and enjoying the show. The sets combined with the shooting locations and the CGI all made for a believable western-type apocalyptic arena for these “cowboys and indians” to do battle.

It’s pretty obvious that the creators of the film, loved western movies. The sets and the “frontier” towns would not have looked out-of-place in a Leone Spaghetti western. This combined with the epic scenery throughout the film made it look like The Searchers married to Once Upon a Time in the West.

A real 4 star out of 5 for me, just because of the loving “homage” to a great western that did not follow the original too closely and left things open for a sequel which, sadly, will probably not happen due to the poor performance at the box-office.

If you like/love westerns you’ll probably enjoy this film.

Bettany "searching" on the back of his "steed."
Bettany “searching” on the back of his “steed.”

Sukiyaki Western DJANGO (2007): Takashi Mike & Tarantino Ride…

When Tarantino’s Django Unchained opened last December the first thing I thought of was his appearance in the 2007 film Sukiyaki Western DJANGO. This is a film that I had mixed feelings about when I first watched it so I popped it back in my laptop to revisit the film and see if my opinions had changed any. We’ll talk about those opinions a bit later, but for the minute, let’s talk about the film’s bona fides and the opening scene.

Co-written (the other writer was Masa Nakamura) and directed by the iconic Takashi Miike based on characters created by Sergio Corbucci‘s spaghetti western Django, Sukiyaki Western DJANGO is a mix of styles; a clash of homage’s; and has a sly tendency to laugh at itself. Miike has all his characters speak English with English subtitles for a sort of “camp” clarity. The film has an added bonus of Quentin Tarantino in the role of Piringo.

In the area of “homage’s” and historical references Miike throws in everything but the kitchen sink. His deference to the spaghetti western genre is very apparent with his attention to details of the original Django film: the Gatling gun in the coffin, the death of the sheriff. But his main protagonist (and to a large degree Tarantino’s character) Miike has decided to follow the lore of the Dollar’s trilogy by Sergio Leone; most notably the plot of Fistful of Dollars taken from the original Japanese jidaigeki film Yojimbo. The historical references follow the Genpei War and the War of the Roses. The film itself is set a “couple of hundred years” after the Genpei war between the Genji and the Heike clans.

Quentin Tarantino as Piringo.

In the film the clans become gangs (reminiscent of the plot of Fistful of Dollars) and the “lone” gunman who rides into their town pits both sides against the other.

The beginning of the film shows an upward angle shot of the sky and what looks (and sounds) like an eagle. To the left of the bird is a windmill water pump whose vanes seem to be gold-plated. The camera changes angles and we see a dead man lying just outside a building. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the dead man and the bullet hole in his forehead. We then see a snake slithering through a row of chicken’s eggs, the camera then zooms out for a long shot of the body, chickens moving around it. The eagle drops onto the snake and grabbing it with its talons, takes off again flying over the man in the serape sitting on a log. Just as the eagle flies over him the man fall backward off the log drawing his pistol and shooting it as he falls. We see feathers and the snake fall down to the man.

In a swift couple of movements (accompanied by the ubiquitous whoosh sound) the man catches the snake and cuts out the egg it had just eaten. Just as he liberates the blood covered egg, he realizes he is not alone. We are then treated to the first scene of Sukiyaki DJANGO and are introduced to the Japanese actors speaking English with English subtitles and Tarantino speaking English also with English subtitles. He sounds like a poor man’s Elvis impersonator right up until he relays the story of the Genpei war; he then speaks like his Japanese co-stars  and it adds to the strangeness of the opening scene.

After a long-winded recounting of the war, Quentin’s character Piringo throws the egg up into the air and dispatches the men surrounding him. He finishes off the leader with a second shot, holsters his gun and catches the egg on its return to earth. He then cracks the egg into a bowl, pulls out some chopsticks and “beats” the egg. A young woman shows up proclaiming her love for Piringo and we see him eating a bit of meat that he has dipped into the raw egg. After chewing and swallowing he leans back and sort of howls at the sky.

Only after this do we get the title screen and the opening credits begin.

I will admit that this film initially caught my interest. The incongruity of the western garbed Japanese gunmen intermixed with characters in traditional Japanese dress was a great mishmash of styles and cultures. The moment I heard the single solitary shot from Piringo’s pistol, that spaghetti western version of a gunshot, I knew that Miike was going to do his best to emulate the Leone style of making movies; from the extreme close-ups and “authentic” soundtrack the film looked to be a winner.

Despite having all his actors speak English, Miike’s plot is a bit hard to follow at times and his inclusion of so many different elements in the film tends to hurt the films cohesiveness. But the film has a brilliant cast, with the obvious exclusion of Tarantino as his acting has never been his strong point:  Masanobu Andô (Battle Royale), Kôichi Satô (Gonin), Kaori Mamoi (Geisha), are among the many experienced actors that Takashi cast in the film.


Masanobu Andô almost as scary as his character in Battle Royale.

But the film does look fantastic and the gun fights and sword fights all have been done with a panache that can be breath-taking. I enjoyed the film and although I have kept it as part of my Takashi Miike collection, I’ve not watched it too often. Mainly because of the dialogue and the (sometimes) un-necessary subtitles and because of Tarantino’s ham-fisted acting. I love Quentin’s films but only the films he directs. The only performance of Tarantino’s I loved was his Richie Gecko in From Dust till Dawn; in that film director Rodriguez kept Quentin’s dialogue short.

The film is worth a look for at least a couple of reasons: 1) because it is Miike’s first, and as far as I know his only, foray into the western genre; 2) despite having Tarantino in a speaking role, it’s not too bad.

So there you have it, a film worth seeing that is definitely better than The Happiness of the Katakuris but is not on par with Audition. Hey, it’s Takashi Miike! His films always deserve a chance even when that chance doesn’t result in a favourable review. This film is a “renter” most definitely and a “keeper” only for the most die-hard Miike fans.

Takashi Miike.

Unforgiven (1992): How the West Was Bleak

Cover of "Unforgiven [Blu-ray]"
Cover of Unforgiven [Blu-ray]
Directed by Clint Eastwood (insert film titles here) and written by David Webb Peoples (Soldier, Accidental Hero, Twelve MonkeysUnforgiven is a bleak, grim picture of the old west.

Eastwood is Will Munny an ex-murderer, robber, gunfighter, and he’s an alcoholic. His wife has died and he is raising his two kids and hogs in a derelict area of countryside. His hogs are all dying from some sort of fever and times are beyond tough, they look miserable.

The film starts with a prostitute getting her face savagely beaten by an unhappy customer. She has been left horribly scarred and her ‘pimp’ demands restitution. The local sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) decides that a couple of horses will even things up. Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) decides to take matters into her own and the other prostitutes hands by offering a bounty for the death of the two cowboys she deems responsible.

The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives at Munny‘s farm while he is working his hogs. Tired and muddy, he listens to the ‘Kid’ about the bounty and initially rejects the offer of teaming up with him to collect the money. That Will has changed his mind is evident when he takes his pistol out and starts practising. Discovering that his aim isn’t what it used to be, he switches to a shotgun.  He goes to see his best (and only) friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who he rode with in “the old days.”

He talks Ned into accompanying him and the Schofield Kid to Big Whiskey, Wyoming where the bounty can be collected. They catch up to the Kid and find that he is as blind as a bat without his glasses and can hardly see with them on. Undeterred the three ride up to Big Whiskey to collect the bounty.

At Big Whiskey, Little Bill has found out that “them whores” have offered a bounty and is furious. He knows that his town is going to fill with gunfighters and bounty hunters. He enforces a new law that requires all people entering the town limits to relinquish their weapons before they enter.

English Bob (Richard Harris) enters the town with his “biographer” W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who is writing Bob’s life for the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ so popular in the old west. English Bob is an infamous gunfighter and he refuses to hand his guns over to the deputies who control the town line.

Little Bill tackles Bob in his saloon and getting the advantage over him with the aid of his deputies arrests Bob and beats the hell out of him. Little Bill is an overbearing bully who relishes in telling Beauchamp the “truth” about English Bob’s exploits. Gleefully, he points out how Bob usually ‘back shot’ his victims and that he is, in fact, a coward. He turns Bob loose with his gun ruined and Beauchamp decides to stay in Big Whiskey and write about Little Bill.

Will, Ned and the Kid have arrived in Big Whiskey. Will has picked up a pretty good dose of pneumonia and is very ill. He rides into the saloon delirious from fever. He is so sick that he doesn’t see the sign posted at the town limits about turning in his guns. He is in the saloon when Little Bill and his deputies confront and then beat the sick man.

Will passes out and when he comes to, he is being seen to by the prostitute who was beaten at the beginning of the film. After recuperating, Will, Ned and the Kid go to kill the first of the two cowboys, Ned, it turns out, no longer ‘has it in him’ to kill anyone, Will has to use the Spencer rifle to shoot the cowboy. Later he and the Kid go to the cowboy’s ranch and the Kid shoots the other cowboy to death in the outhouse.

When he and Will return to their camp, they find out from the prostitutes that Little Bill has captured Ned and beaten him to death. Will starts drinking from a bottle of whiskey and turns deadly. He rides into town to kill Little Bill and his deputies. After dispatching the law force of Big Whiskey, he rides off admonishing the townspeople to “Bury Ned Right.” Or he will return and kill them and their children.

Throughout the film Eastwood makes sure that the audience knows that Will Munny was a very bad man. His badness stemmed from the alcohol he drank. We learn that Munny killed women and children when he was under the influence. We also learn that his wife, made him change his ways and besides loving her, he was grateful to her for changing his life.

Will Munny is a tragic figure. He is haunted by his past acts and he is haunted by the death of his wife. No wonder that at the start of the film he is raising hogs in what must be some sort of penance for his previous misdeeds. That he feels remorse for the horrible things he did when drunk is obvious, he is constantly asking Ned to reaffirm that he is “no longer like that.”

Eastwood as a director has taken great pains to “de-glamorize” the west and the violence that was it’s everyday existence. Eastwood’s west is grim and bleak and muddy. The deaths of everyone is dirty and small. Will says to the Schofield Kid, after he admits that he has never killed anyone before, “death is a helluva thing, takes away everything a man is and everything he’s ever gonna do” [sic]

Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood’s last western and his own homage to two of his mentors, directors Don Siegel  and Sergio Leone.  As a western swan song it is nigh on perfect. Little wonder that the film got as many awards as it did (four just from the Academy in case you were curious). It was also listed in  2007,  as the #68 Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute.

I don’t know about that, but I’d say I think it ranks among the top ten westerns of all time.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008): A Kimchi Western

The Good, the Bad, the Weird
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written and directed by Jee-woon Kim (I Saw The Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters) and starring Kang-ho Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Quiet Family), Byung-hun Lee (I Saw the DevilG.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and Woo-sung Jung (Demon Empire, Daisy) The Good, The Bad, The Weird is Jee-woon Kim’s loving homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.

Winning four awards and receiving nine nominations, TGTBTW is the second highest grossing film from South Korea only being beaten by Speedy Scandlal.

Set in 1930’s Manchuria, the film begins with The Bad(Byung-hu Lee) being paid to get hold of a Japanese treasure map being transported by train. Unfortunately for The Bad, someone else has just beat him to it. The Weird (Kang-ho Song) is already on the train and disguised as a snack vendor makes his way into the guarded rail car that has the map.

The train is stopped by The Bad and his cronies who have blocked the track. The Weird uses this opportunity to escape from the train, with the map, on his side car motorcycle. The Good, a bounty hunter (Woo-sung Jung) attempts to shoot both The Bad and The Weird.

The Good finally decides to chase after The Weird. They all wind up in a village where the Ghost Market operates from. The Ghost Market is a black market meeting place and since everyone seems to know about the treasure map, a gang of Manchurian bandits also want it.

Cue a brilliantly choreographed shoot out between all of the warring factions.

This film does mimic the Sergio Leone classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to a degree, but only in rough terms of characters and the overall plot. Byung-hun Lee is the Lee Van Cleef of the picture, Kang-ho Song is the Eli Wallach, and Woo-sung Jung is the Clint Eastwood.

Jee-woon Kim adds just the right amount of pathos and humour to the film. It is paced perfectly and does not waste a single frame of film. The only complaint that I might possibly have about the film is the casting of Byung-hu lee as The Bad. He was so charismatic and charmingly bad that I actually liked him.

..at the opening night gala for the 2005 Hawai...

Kang-ho Song as The Weird, almost steals the film. He is both comic relief and deadly enemy. He is also the slowest of the three mentally, but what he lacks in brain power he makes up in sheer enthusiasm. He is a bumbling bad man and only chances upon the Japanese treasure map by accident.

Woo-sung Jung is very, very good…as The Good. He lacks the stoic ability of Clint Eastwood’s Character but he makes up for it in his taciturn attitude about bringing the bad guys in for the bounty.

The group of bandits also provided a lot of comic relief, but they also were very deadly if somewhat dense foes.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird is Jee-woon Kim at his finest. He has so far done a couple of horror films, a gangster film, a psychological thriller and an epic western. I cannot wait to see his next venture. What ever it is, I sincerely hope that is has room for Byung-hun Lee,  Kang-ho Song, Woo-sung Jung and maybe Min-sik Choi.

I really feel that South Korean Cinema is leading the rest of the world in producing brilliant films. I also think that they are one of the few countries that still see the director as Auteur. That French invention that likens the director to a sort of demi-god status.

Asian Cinema seems to have more than its fair share of writer/directors and for the most part what ever accolades that they’ve received for their works is well deserved. I think that Jee-woon Kim has earned the title Auteur and may he continue to make films to prove it.