Director’s Cut trailer: Penn Jillette’s crowdfunded film

Leave it to Penn Jillette to make a feature length film that’s completely unmarketable. I have no idea what this mess of a movie is trying to accomplish. All I know is I can’t wait to see it, even though something tells me I’ll like it roughly as much as I liked Penn & Teller Get Killed… not much at all.

On the other hand, I really like Penn, Missi Pyle, Lin Shaye, and Gilbert Gottfried. It couldn’t be any worse than most of the shit coming out in theaters this weekend, that’s for sure.

The Great Silence (1968) [Western Wednesday]

My favorite stories tend to put the heroes and the bad guys in the same room long before the final showdown. Early on in The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci puts his three most combustible characters in the same stagecoach, which will take them to the little town where the final shootout will brutally go down. And boy, I do mean brutal: the resolution is so alien to what casual audiences are used to, Corbucci was forced to shoot an alternate ending, which I believe is lost by now. Any copy you can track down today will have the original ending in all its hard-hitting, don’t-give-a-fuck glory.

The hero of the film is Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who had his vocal cords cut when he witnessed his parents’ murder as a kid. Legend says they call him Silence because the silence of death is the only thing that remains in his wake. His holster is a wooden box, which can also be attached to the end of his pistol like a makeshift rifle stock. Instead of killing bad guys, he shoots their thumbs off so they can never hold a pistol again. According to Wikipedia, Corbucci got the idea for a silent gunslinger from Marcello Mastroianni, who always wanted to do a western like this, but couldn’t speak English.

Then there’s the sheriff who’s played by Frank Wolff, an American-born actor who made his career out of foreign films and westerns like this one. He’s an honest, scared, and competent lawman who’s investigating the town over allegations that its bounties aren’t ethical, even though they’re technically lawful. The character immediately distrusts the latest addition to his stagecoach: a bounty hunter named Loco who cheerfully ties his victims’ corpses to the roof. It’s obvious Loco is a man who didn’t give a damn about the law until it became corrupted enough to protect him.

Here’s the thing about Loco. When you create a hero as bad ass as Silence, you’ve gotta work hard to come up with a worthy villain. So Corbucci cast none other than Klaus Kinski. Director David Schmoeller made a short documentary about the legendary difficulties Kinski was known to create on movie sets. At the end, Schmoeller suggests a reason why directors like Werner Herzog continued to work with the maniac: few actors were as compelling.

Here’s the full vid:

Please, Kill Mr. Kinski from Tromadance Vol. 1

When Loco kills the husband of Pauline (the beautiful Vonetta McGee of Blackula fame… or infamy, depending on where you stand on blacksploitation films), she sells her house to the banker who’s responsible for creating the corrupt bounties. She plans to use the money to hire Silence so that he can set things right. Silence, who’s fallen in love with Pauline, tries and fails to goad Loco into a shootout. The problem is, Loco is as clever as he is sneaky. He refuses to partake in a shootout until the conditions favor him 100%.

It’s a slow burn to the explosive ending, which makes it clear the filmmakers are unwilling to dilute their message for commercial viability. This is probably the reason the film never saw a proper release in the United States until a few years after DVD players came along. What I just watched was one of those earlier DVDs and it only makes me hurt more for a proper Blu-Ray release.

Ultimately, I’ve enjoyed other Corbucci films a little bit more for keeping true to the entertaining style and convention of spaghetti westerns, but few have been as masterful—or risky—as this one. It’s a great movie because it’s harder to digest than traditional films. Love it or hate it, you won’t be unaffected.

Scream Factory releases Sonny Boy

This is great news. In my review for the American VHS release I wrote, “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.” And here the godlike powers at Scream Factory come along with a proper release.

There a million reasons to love Scream Factory to begin with, but here’s another. Sonny Boy is weird (and flawed) in ways you wouldn’t expect from a movie that puts David Carradine in a dress.

Altered Carbon Netflix adaptation is in the works

Richard K. Morgan reportedly quit his day job when Joel Silver purchased the rights for an Altered Carbon film back when movie options could cost ridiculous amounts of money. Now the project is reportedly being made into a Netflix miniseries and I don’t know what to think, exactly. I guess my usual cautious excitement will have to suffice.

Although I never read the sequels, Altered Carbon is something I think is almost as good as Neuromancer and Snow Crash, the landmark novels which—in my mind—respectively created cyberpunk and more or less put it to bed. My knee-jerk reaction to the news was eye-rolling, but this is Netflix we’re talking about here. I haven’t seen all of their original programming, but what I’ve seen is pretty much on par with HBO’s quality. Even though I find The Expanse to be more than agreeable, I’ve never trusted SyFy with projects like this, so I’m glad Netflix got it instead of them.

What do you think?

Western Wednesday: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I used to know this movie like the back of my hand. Unfortunately—and here’s a good case for never watching a movie more than twice in a single year—I eventually saw it so many times I grew bored. That was right around the time I discovered spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch, which made the film seem a little too sleek in comparison. Fast forward to my thirties and I’ve forgotten just enough of it to enjoy it again, but not quite enough to love it.

I know I voice my hatred for certain aspects of the Hollywood machine a lot, but that’s misleading. I love Hollywood when it’s at its best. When you’ve got Robert Redford and Paul Newman, you’re getting damn close to the territory I prefer. I don’t care about celebrities, but I love movie stars. Here are two of the best.

Like so many westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is set in a time when the gunslinger is becoming obsolete. In The Wild Bunch, the main characters knew it the moment they laid eyes on their first car. In this film, Butch and Sundance should have known it from the very moment they acquired their first bicycle. After botching their latest train robbery, the duo realize the rules of the west have changed and they somehow never got the memo.

Knowing there’s no way they’ll be able to survive if they continue their old ways, Butch and Sundance find themselves at a crossroads. They reluctantly discuss their options around a table owned by Sundance’s patient love interest, who probably would have been Butch’s love interest if he’d been the one who met her first. Butch, who’s always been the know-it-all of the duo, suggests they should pack up and head for greener pastures in Bolivia. But when they arrive they find their destination is little more than abandoned farmland and dust.

There’s a reason William Goldman’s screenplay is analyzed to death in film seminars and screenwriting classes. The story, which equally indulges in and pokes fun at the idea of myths and legends, has a lean simplicity to it. The banter between the characters is a not-very-distant ancestor to the kind of humorous dialogue that appears in Hollywood blockbusters as recent as The Force Awakens. The filmmakers quickly establish the main characters, the female lead, and the gang whose leadership is hanging by a thread. Minutes later, Butch and Sundance are on the run, chased down by an all-star team of man-hunters whose faces we never see.

That first half of the movie deserves its classic status and then some.

Unfortunately, the best scenes all occur before the midpoint. I’m referring to the long sequence of chase scenes in which they’re desperately trying to throw the unseen antagonists off their trail, crossing desert, rock, and water to do it. They occasionally pause to watch their pursuers from afar with an even mixture of dread and awe. “Who are those guys?” they ask repeatedly.

Nothing else after it really compares until that final, iconic freeze frame.

Despite its bottom-heaviness, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is still an entertaining popcorn flick. That’s pretty much all I feel like saying about it at this point in my life, which is part of the reason I like stories so much—they can change as much as I do. Maybe I’ll love it again the next time I see it, but I don’t plan on watching it again for a very long time.

Space Cop trailer

Although there’s been no word on how many copies they started with, the Space Cop Blu-Ray reportedly sold out within hours, which suggests it sold better than they ever dreamed. Then again, maybe they only made two or three copies. Who knows?
I only started to pay attention to Red Letter Media last October when I was doing 31 Days of Horror. I had just seen From a Whisper to a Scream and, naturally, got on YouTube to watch more clips of Cameron Mitchell (no, not the Glee actor—the real Cameron Mitchell). It turned out the RLM hack-frauds (their words, not mine) are just as fascinated by the late character actor as I am. In the time since, I’ve seen every episode of RLM’s Best of the Worst, starting with this one.
They still haven’t provided a digital download for the movie yet, but when they do I’ll feature it here as a Midnight Movie. I’m cautiously excited to see it.

Western Wednesday: The Revenant (2015)

Note: I know I said I would watch this a lot sooner than I did, but I got sick the week it came out and the following week shit happened, as it’s wont to do this early in the new year. 

I’ve always wondered why we’re drawn to stories in which a hero we can relate to is put through absolute hell. I think the first stories ever told were about untrustworthy companions, rival tribes, and dangerous animals like bears and wolves—the very things The Revenant is about. It’s in our nature to wonder “What if…?,” especially when the terrifying scenario involves us personally. What if your family was murdered? Would you have the strength to avenge them? Or, as one character puts it, is revenge best left to “the creator?” I love a good revenge story as much as the next guy (calling The Revenant a revenge story is kind of misleading, by the way), but I think I would have liked this movie a lot more had it been about how something like that can eat you up. I think you might agree after you see it in its entirety. It would have made the conclusion a lot more powerful.

I have mixed feelings about featuring this film for Western Wednesday. It’s no more a traditional western than a horror film. In fact, the best horror movies I’ve ever seen have more in common with The Revenant than the impotent shit that passes as horror today (this week’s dishonorable mention is The Forest, the latest in a long line of PG-13 horror films starring attractive blondes who will never be actual movie stars). I don’t know why it’s so compelling to see good people put through terrible situations, but it is, which is why I don’t understand moviegoers who shrug off the entire genre as an invalid art form. Yes, ninety percent of horror movies suck, but ninety percent of anything sucks. (See: Sturgeon’s Law.)
What makes The Revenant so much more compelling than a lot of horror films is Leonardo DiCaprio’s willingness to get the shot. There is so little cheating here: when you see him plunging into freezing-ass water or crawling through the snow without a stitch of clothing, it’s really him and it’s all real. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won the Best Director Oscar only last year, wants us to know it’s real, too; he doesn’t bother using a different take when his actor’s breath—or blood—gets on the camera lens. It’s one of the most authentic films ever made and I’d say DiCaprio is a shoe-in for Best Actor if the Oscars didn’t inexplicably snub him every chance they get.
It’s the early 1800s and Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his “half-breed” son are trackers in a fur trapping outfit. Fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has a problem with Glass because he’s the kind of blowhard who has a problem with everyone. When another character suggests their lives are worth more than their pelts, Fitzgerald argues his life is his living and his living just happens to be pelts. The money isn’t just more important to him than his own life, but the lives of everyone. 
Fitzgerald is, without a doubt, the biggest asshole in movies this year. People like him still exist to this day and we all have met them—they’re usually found seeking easy-to-obtain positions of pseudo-power in home owner associations or the DMV when they can’t get their own radio talk shows. You don’t love to hate him like most villains, you just fucking hate him, period, the way you hated Nurse Ratched and Dolores Umbridge. Those characters are so easy to hate because they’re the kind of confident idiots you know in real life who simply know what’s best and everyone else is a fucking moron. When Glass is gruesomely mauled by a bear, what Fitzgerald thinks best is suffocating him so that he can no longer slow the others down. When Fitzgerald’s son tries to stop him, he stabs the boy in the belly and hides the body. This incident incites Glass to crawl out of his shallow grave and seek revenge.
The Revenant is a beautifully nasty movie, shot on lenses so wide the vast landscapes almost curl around the edges. There’s at least one ham-fisted visual metaphor, which you wouldn’t expect from an Oscar-winning director in his prime, but overall I enjoyed it a little more than Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, if only because Iñárritu forces himself to step much farther from his comfort zone… again. Yet beyond its lead performances, the only thing The Revenant really has going for it is its technical accomplishments. I don’t think it will win Best Picture, if only because Iñárritu’s last film did, but it’s almost good enough to deserve it.

The great rebagging of 2016

If you don’t see me around much this week, I’ve got a bit of a project on my hands:

I swapped out the bags and boards on a hundred issues today (the three stacks in the middle) and have about four hundred more to go. This is not my favorite activity in the world and I don’t envy anyone with a bigger collection… well, I do, but not when it comes to doing this. On the bright side, I shouldn’t have to do this again until 2022, at which point I hope I have enough money to switch to mylar.

I would tell you all about my key issues and prized possessions, but I just collect what I liked when I was a kid and what I would have liked as a kid. 2000 AD, EC horror and science fiction reprints, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Marvel’s What If…?, stuff like that. Mostly silver and bronze here and these days I rarely buy anything if I can get it digitally.

So yeah, I probably won’t post much this week, but I do have plans for Western Wednesday this week and next.

* * *

Speaking of EC horror, M. Night Shyamalan is apparently reviving Tales from the Crypt… and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be on HBO or feature the Crypt Keeper. I think the article I linked to says it best for me: “Meh.”

Western Wednesday: City Slickers

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” 

— T.K. Whipple (Also quoted in the beginning of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove novel, which is where I first read it.)

Billy Crystal’s character is thirty-nine, an age which seemed like a million years away when I first saw City Slickers twenty-five years ago. Like Logan’s Run, it’s a movie I can better appreciate now that I’ve got some perspective on this thing called age. I’m kind of going through a phase in which I’ve been inexplicably drawn to reading and watching westerns damn near exclusively. I’ve never considered myself much of the camping type, but taking two weeks off to drive cattle sounds a lot more attractive than a trip to Disney World.

I get this movie. I get it because it gets it. What is “it?” I don’t know. I guess it’s rather like Curly’s one thing. Don’t click that link if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

if you think you recognize the kid you’re right, it’s him

Crystal’s best friends, played by Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, have talked the neurotic hero into running with the bulls in Spain. It’s suggested that every year they concoct semi-idiotic vacations and drag their unenthusiastic wives along with varying results. Fast-forward a year later and their latest scheme indulges a western fantasy, in which well-to-do city folk can pay money for the opportunity to become genuine cowpunchers. Crystal is reluctant to go until his wife points out that he’s forgotten how to smile. Even then he goes along cautiously because the stakes have suddenly been raised: he thinks that if he doesn’t remember how to smile in that two-week span, he’s a lost cause.

The biggest fault with City Slickers is it just isn’t all that successful as a comedy other than some obviously improvised Billy Crystal lines. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly deep character story—so much so I found the three main characters to be a lot more three-dimensional than the Oscar-winning portrayals in Terms of Endearment, which I also revisited this week. In that movie, I found the brash ex-astronaut was little more than a brash ex-astronaut while the overcritical mother had surprisingly little range beyond that.

In City Slickers, though, the leading characters are so much more than their summaries. Stern, who often pretends he’s fallen asleep so he doesn’t have to speak to his overbearing wife, has a lot more wants and fears than one would expect from a character who more or less fell into the role of a career grocer. Kirby, who’s an even better actor than Crystal, is much more interesting than the playboy owner of sporting goods shop we’re introduced to—particularly after he reveals why he’s so weird about women. A lot of comedies would have dwelled on his strange job, but this one doesn’t.

some of the best stuff in the movie

Then you have Curly, who’s played by Jack Palance. He’s one of my favorite actors for his uncanny ability to chew the scenery with complete believability (I still think he would have been a better Joker than Jack Nicholson). In lesser comedies, he would have merely parodied his former screen persona for a cheap laugh. Yet City Slickers isn’t content with being routine because he warms up to the lead about halfway through. It’s actually quite refreshing what they do with Palance, despite the fact they completely undo all that hard work in the terrible sequel. (I’m not kidding: in City Slickers 2, it turns out that Curly has a lost twin brother. Zzzzzz.)

So yeah, as a comedy it’s kind of a dud—the knowing music can be as insistent as a bad laugh-track while a lot of the minor characters are stupidly over-the-top, particularly Stern’s wife whose face is often filmed with a bit of a fishbowl lens to exaggerate her supposedly comedic features. But although I’ve seen much funnier comedies than City Slickers, few of them were as good. I feel prepared for thirty-nine.