Branded to Kill (1967)

When I last discussed Seijun Suzuki in my post on Tokyo Drifter, I touched on the fact that the director had become bored with the meager, stereotypical offerings from Nikkatsu Studios, as he found their scripts to be lacking in ideas and vision. The legendary director had been churning out comedies, pop musicals, dramas, war films, and action flicks at a rate of 3 to 4 a year since 1956 when he left Shochiku Studios for the supposed greener pastures of Nikkatsu. The end result was a feeling of stagnation, frustrated that his directorial voice was being muted or, in the worst case scenario, not being recognized by the heads of the studio as they believed him to be a B-movie specialist, nothing more. After seeing 39 films to completion, Suzuki, fed up with the restraints imposed on him and his art, would release his magnum opus on the world, a film that Japan, and most important his studio, would not be at all prepared for, resulting in the auteur’s firing and 10-year exile, which would ultimately turn him into a counterculture icon.

Branded to Kill is a film that is wildly eccentric, a cinematic effort that could only have been directed by Suzuki himself. Much like Tokyo Drifter, the story is conventional and straightforward, even if the execution isn’t. The (nontraditional) narrative follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third-ranked Japanese underworld hitman, an abnormal, secretive man riddled with peculiarities. In between the execution of his masterful hits and audacious escapes he enjoys the aroma of cooking rice; so much in fact that it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, used it to arouse him for ferocious rounds of lovemaking with his faithless girlfriend Mami (Mariko Ogawa), assuming of course that the notion of beating her brains silly doesn’t take him first. Goro’s vacillating lifestyle goes further down the tubes when he bungles an unmanageable hit provided to him by Misako (Annu Mari), a mysterious woman he meets one night after his car breaks down on his ride home. Goro’s hubris in taking on an impossible contract results in demotion from his number 3 ranking in the hitman universe and, worse yet, causes him to become the target of the underbelly’s mystical top-ranked assassin, No. 1 (Koji Nambara). The setup leads to the final segment of the film, in which Goro becomes nothing more than a plaything for No. 1. As Goro’s metal state is broken down slowly by No. 1’s psychopathic mind games, he finally snaps, which leads to a metaphorical showdown in a boxing ring, ending the film in a stylized duel that must be seen to be believed.

While the story seems simple enough, only a renegade director such as Suzuki could tell it in this fashion, one that left the studio heads baffled at first, then furious once the initial shock of what they watched had worn off. Branded to Kill had somehow managed to break almost all the filmmaking conventions present at that time, taking the style employed in Tokyo Drifter and ramping it up to a level where the film would, for the most part, only appeal to cineastes. Still jarring even by today’s standards, Suzuki’s masterful piece of cinema jettisons any attempt at a normal narrative structure as exposition and explanation of character is omitted in favor for a game of genre deconstruction so intense in its abstraction that the film’s only counterpart (that I can think of) is Jean-Luc Goddard’s Made in U.S.A. The director regularly cuts away from his narrative thrust to, what appears to be, extemporaneous subject matter, resulting in shots that are disconnected from the film—and by extension, film reality as most know it to be—that begin and end abruptly without explanation, which can leave the viewer disoriented. Action scenes are shot in a fashion that discards the time-honored tradition of an establishing shot, turning Goro’s imaginative kills into mini-cartoons shot through the prism of a fever dream. Sexuality, and by extension nudity, is ramped up as well, certainly pushing the censorship envelope in Japan and obliterating the American Production Code standards at the time, making us look like total prudes and outdated by half. Goro’s girlfriend prances around nude in most of her scenes, even the ones in which it becomes obvious that sex is the furthest thing from the twisted hitman’s mind, and when sex does show up it always involves a healthy dose of hip-thrusting, which was not allowed in Japanese cinema at that time. All of these stylistic flourishes, these visual shenanigans—Suzuki on steroids if you will—add incredible amounts of intensity to every frame as even the most seasoned of moviegoers hasn’t a clue as to what the director has in store for them next.

The film was unsuccessful upon its release, confusing audiences just as much as it did the high-ranking studio heads, and would be pulled from distribution by the president of Nikkatsu himself, Hori Kyusaku, after its initial, contractual play dates had been fulfilled. By ignoring the “play it straight” warning he received after directing Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki had run out of goodwill, entering an exile that would take 10 years to emerge from. Efforts to overturn his blacklisting proved futile for long periods of time as his lawsuit against the studio, which claimed breach of contract and wrongful dismissal among other charges, didn’t yield results until 1971. Despite winning his suit, an act that shook the Japanese film industry and turned the director into a legend, he wouldn’t direct another feature until 1977 when he released A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness; instead, he had to live on the salaries collected from directing commercial and television work.

It wouldn’t be until 1980 that Branded to Kill assumed its rightful place among cinema classics and cult cannons. In that year, Suzuki saw a swell of good fortune as retrospectives and, in some cases, film festivals dedicated to his work began to dot the cinematic landscape. By the time it was released on home video in the States, it had turned into a cult classic with high-profile directors such as Quentin Tarantino and experienced film critics and historians in the vain of Donald Richie and Tony Rayns expounding on the virtues of the film and Suzuki’s long-neglected career. Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) called it: “Probably the strangest and most perverse ‘hitman’ story in cinema.” Smitten with the flick, he paid direct homage to it in his own hitman effort, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) dispatches a mafia member by shooting up from the basement through a sink drain, just as Goro saw fit to do himself in a memorable scene 42 years prior.

-David

Advertisements

Batman & Robin (1997)

The moment has finally arrived. This weekend saw the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final installment to his epic, game-changing Batman franchise and with it a chaotic few days of good news and bad. The good news is that (in this viewer’s eyes) the final film fully delivers and more on what has become one of the greatest film trilogies in cinematic history. The film debuted with 249 million dollars worldwide and counting, making it the 3rd highest debut for an opening weekend and the highest for a non-3D movie (suck it post-converted Avengers!).

The weekend unfortunately has also brought with it tragedy in the form of a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The act is equally unspeakable and devastating. The theater to many is like a temple, a place for people to come together and share in amusement. The fact that someone would destroy the sanctity of that amusement with such a heinous display of selfishness, immorality and pure unjustifiable evil is unbearable.

I was hoping to have finished off the Batman posts last week as a lead in to the opening day’s premiere. However between a much needed beach vacation, the post-vacation scramble to catch up, and the business of working at a theater for a movie like The Dark Knight Rises time is not something I’ve had in bucket fulls. Throughout the week I’ll be posting the last of the Batman run including a full (and very spoiler-filled I’m sure) review on The Dark Knight Rises and featuring a new Batman header by our own Adam Baldwin.

When we last left the franchise Batman had defeated the likes of The Joker and Catwoman but couldn’t defeat his greatest nemesis yet: Joel Schumacher. The studio had scrapped Tim Burton’s Gothic, Frank Miller-esque version for a more family friendly, “campy” model. As I stated in the Forever post the film has a lot of opportunities for a more serious tone and disappointingly chooses to neglect them. The 1997 follow-up on the other hand is a total disaster: both production wise and box office wise. It can also be an extremely guilty pleasure.

Immediately following Batman Forever‘s heavy box-office debut in 1995, Warner Bros quickly commissioned a sequel with director Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman. Val Kilmer was ditched for rising ER star George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell reprises his role as Robin. The rest of the casting went bigger. The top billed Arnold Schwarzenegger sinks his teeth and proceeds to chew (or perhaps mangle) the scenery as Mr. Freeze, Pulp Fiction‘s Mia Wallace herself, Uma Thurman, hams it up as the venomous vixen Poison Ivy and Clueless superstar Alicia Silverstone squeezes into the suit of Batgirl.

The entire production was a tangled mess. O’Donnell claims to have never met Schwarzenegger until the opening night premiere of the film. Despite having numerous scenes together all of Schwarzenegger’s dialogue and action was shot separately from the other actors and Clooney and O’Donnell actually spend the majority of their time chasing the stunt double for Mr. Freeze. The script essentially became a 2 hour toy commercial. One evening Schumacher was presented with a series of new toy designs for snowbound Bat-vehicles known as the Bat Blade and the Bat Sled. Schumacher said “These vehicles aren’t in this movie” to which the merchandisers replied “They are now”.

The set was a total free-for-all. Clooney and O’Donnell compared it to being in a circus. Supposedly every actor and actress in Hollywood was bringing their young kids to the set to watch the filming and therefore the sets and locations were constantly overloaded with people. Could you imagine attempting to pull off the cheesiest of one-liners in a unbearably hot and suffocating costume all the while seeing Tom Hanks and his kids standing by and taking pictures? John Glover, who plays a diabolical scientist responsible for Poison Ivy’s transition, said Schumacher would scream before each take “Remember people, this is a cartoon”. This pretty much gives you an idea of what direction this film was consciously heading.

The plot is pretty much non existent. Mr. Freeze wants to cover everything in ice, Poison Ivy wants to cover everything in plants and somehow they feel their plan will work even better when merged together. Ivy has a brute of a sidekick, Bane, who tromps around like a brain-dead gorilla. Quite a step down from the near genius, South American mercenary we’ve come to know from the comics and Nolan would deliver in Rises. Ivy also has a love potion #9 that sends Batman and Robin head over heels for her and constantly at each other’s throats. And Wayne Manor’s resident butler Alfred Pennyworth (the late, great Michael Gough) is dying of a disease known as McGregor syndrome just as his long lost niece Barbara arrives. In no time at all Barbara discovers the Batcave and is clad in her own voluptuous Batsuit.

As notorious as this movie is for temporarily killing the Batman franchise and sitting in the middle of Jingle All The Way and End of Days as that triple threat that killed Schwarzenegger’s career, I actually find this movie much easier on the eyes than Forever. It is by no means “good” but it borders on “so bad that its good”. The abundance of ice and cold related references “Your not sending me to da coola” “Freeze in hell, Batman!” “The Iceman Cometh” are the best fodder for a drinking game. You would be hammered within 30 minutes. Uma Thurman is incredibly hot in her Poison Ivy gear and reason enough for anyone to watch it once. Clooney, god love him, makes the best out of catastrophe. His delivery of lines like “She’s trying to kill you…Dick!” is so tongue-in-cheek that you know deep inside he’s laughing along with you. And a small handful of action scenes actually sort of hold up, in particular the opening sequence in which Batman and Robin “air surf” away from an exploding rocket ship.

The film failed critically and in a summer full of blockbusters was overshadowed by the success of movies like The Lost World, Men in Black and Face/Off. We were thankfully spared the third follow-up Batman Triumphant which would have had Clooney or Kurt Russell as Batman, O’Donnell and Silverstone again as Robin and Batgirl, and the trio would have taken on The Scarecrow (John Travolta, Kevin Spacey, Viggo Mortensen, Nicolas Cage and Marilyn Manson were all in contention) and Harley Quinn (Madonna, Sandra Bullock and Selma Blair were considered). It would be 8 years before the Caped Crusader would soar again.

-John

Alien (1979)

Ah yes, the “favorite” film. A hallowed position in any film buff’s mind, defining one’s favorite film is difficult, and somewhat impossible. No film is perfect, it’s a simple fact. But when one rates a film on any sort of scale, we have to forgive certain flaws and take the movie as a whole into consideration, and when choosing a favorite, it becomes more complicated than that. For many, their favorite movie is one that affected them and how they view films on a deeper-than-surface level, oftentimes a film seen when you were younger and just beginning to explore film in general is when we stumble across one that really hits all the right notes for us. Though many films are among my favorites, and picking one to raise above the rest is nigh-impossible, I’ve always held Ridley Scott’s Alien in the highest regard as a film that really pushed some boundaries for me personally. I came really close to picking Ghostbusters (1984) or Nausicaä (1984), and truth be told I could probably easily jump ship to either one of those films as the favorite of favorites, but I feel that Alien speaks slightly stronger and more subtly than the other two. A hard call, to be sure, but there it is.

When I was younger, Kenner came out with a line of Aliens (1986) action figures, namely marines and various made-up xenomorphs (that’s the name of the titular alien species in the movies, for those who may not be familiar) that never existed in any of the films, but made neat action figures. Naturally, I didn’t much care for the marines, who were there in my opinion only to be devoured by aliens, who were far cooler. Having never seen any of the films at this point, I decided that I wanted to see where these awesome things came from, and watched the original Alien on VHS. Now, I was young enough to still be playing with action figures (playing, mind you, I still collect the damn things), but I suppose my parents figured I was old enough to handle Alien in all its R-rated glory.

Even though Alien is a fairly slow movie (especially the first third or so of the movie), having grown up on Star Wars (1977) I was all about spaceships and mysterious planets. The opening, with its crawling introduction of the title put off some friends of mine when I tried to show it to them several years later, but the long, exploratory shots of empty space, the exterior and interior of the ship, and the almost silent awakening of the crew from their hibernation are all an amazing way to build a quiet, calm atmosphere that is shattered later. The crew itself is fairly likeable group of people just trying to get by, and, upon waking to discover that their ship has gone on a lengthy detour to investigate a signal from a strange planet, they grudgingly follow procedure and check it out; after all, they need their paycheck. It’s worth noting that at this point in the film, I (and others, I’m sure) simply assume that the protagonist is likely the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), but as it turns out the film shifts focus to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), namely because the xenomorph has a nasty habit of doing horrible things to its victims and then making them disappear, but I’ll get to that later.

A rather difficult landing places them on the planet designated “LV-426,” and after finding a bizarre ship and crawling around inside it, happen upon a large batch of eggs. At this point, Kane (John Hurt) decides to examine one of them, and summarily ends up with a spider-like facehugger attached to him. The build-up to this point is fantastic, as this slow exploration suddenly ends in a violent outburst. Despite Ripley’s protests, Kane is brought onto the ship and into the medical bay, where all attempts to remove the facehugger end in failure due to it’s acidic blood that threatens to eat through the hull of the ship. After a few hours, Kane wakes up and everyone assumes he’s fine, and they all sit down to a nice post-planetary-exploration dinner. The following scene happens.

Though I knew of facehuggers and chestbusters (their names are rather self-explanatory), I had yet to see a realistic depiction of the proceedings. Watching John Hurt writhe about as his ribs crack and a blood-splattered alien fetus works its way out is a bit removed from plastic toys (Incidentally, the actors didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in that scene, so when Veronica Cartwright freaks out, she’s really freaking out. This is also the scene that, during screenings, people were physically ill and some left the auditorium they were so shaken. That, my friends, is a horror movie.) The remaining crew set out to find the missing creature, armed with what they think is an appropriate arsenal for a creature roughly the size of a cat. They are proven terribly wrong when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), while looking for the ship’s cat Jones, finds said creature, and can only stare in shock as it does what it was made to do.

With the threat of the ship’s eighth passenger fully realized, Dallas sets out with flamethrower in hand to try and finally put an end to the xenomorph. As he crawls through the ship’s ducts, in almost complete darkness, the crew attempts to relay it’s location to him over his headset, in what is still my favorite scene in the movie, because it scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it. I want it to scare the crap out of you, too, so here it is.

This is what makes this film so effective at its scares, is the tension prior to a sudden action. The terror of the crew is the terror of the unknown, they have no idea what they’re facing, and as H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” From this point on, the film kicks into a sort of fearful escape mode, and I’m going to avoid running you through the last chunk of the film or so and just say that this is where it picks up and doesn’t really slow down again until the last scene of the film, where it returns once more to a slow boil. Even in scenes that don’t necessarily involve the typical tropes of panicked people running for their lives, Ridley Scott manages to keep the pressure going through some creative plot devices that help the film keep its teeth through to the end.

Alien is, despite its science fiction setting, a horror movie through and through. In addition to the obvious surface horror of having a monstrous being chasing you through a ship’s corridors, it’s also hard to ignore the presence of what is often called “body horror,” that is, horror that involves something foreign taking over and somehow violating or destroying the body. David Cronenberg is especially know for this with films like The Fly (1986) and Videodrome (1983) being prime examples, and plenty of newer films by other directors use this to great effect such as Cabin Fever (2002) and Slither (2006). The idea that something is inside you that is malevolent appeals to a sort of primal fear. There are also, of course, obvious parallels to pregnancy in the violent birth of the chestburster, and there are plenty of sexual references in the design of the Alien creatures as well, which makes them all the more disturbing.

This is not surprising given the designs are from the infamous artist H.R. Giger, and if you’ve ever looked through the man’s work, it’s chock full of imagery that is sexual in nature but at the same time horrific in its unnaturalness. I would be inclined to say that a great deal of the effectiveness of the Alien franchise in general owes itself to the designs of Giger, if only because his work gave the film the “otherworldliness” that makes it work so well.

More than anything, Alien a masterful display of tension and pacing, so much so that certain scenes that revealed much about the xenomorph life-cycle were chopped for pacing, a decision that more or less works out in the series favor as they wouldn’t have meshed with James Cameron’s later, more action-oriented sequel Aliens (1986). Rather than simply leaving the film to what could be a cheesy “monster movie”, Ridley Scott pushes it above that with a carefully crafted cadence that is supported by some excellent performances from the cast, especially Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver. If you haven’t seen it already, then you should post-haste, and if you haven’t, I recommend an always-warranted re-watch, especially if you can get your hands on the amazing Blu-Ray HD transfer, which really makes the film look better than it ever has.

Alien was one of the few films that first scared me, and really gave me a taste for horror that I still enjoy today. Though now horror films rarely give me a fright anymore, probably because I’m older and jaded now, and Alien doesn’t make me frightened of a darkened hallway like it did when I first saw it as a child, it still retains a formidable presence in my mind, and set a bar for what a horror movie could be, and what film should aspire to be; that is to say, unforgettable.

-Adam

Profiles in Badassery #3: Champion (2005)

“Movies don’t want tough guys; they want guys who can act tough.”

–Eddie Bunker

Sadly, with each passing year, this quote continues to gain relevance. Once upon a time, the film industry was filled with real-life badasses, larger than life personalities with no problem convincing the movie-going crowd that they were capable of shooting the bad guys (and sometimes the good) without a care in the world. They could run ’shine in a souped-up 1950s Ford with the cops in hot pursuit, all the while remaining so unflappably cool when taking corners on unpaved-mountain roads at 60 miles an hour, smoking and laughing to themselves about how stupid those coppers are for even trying to keep up. This all but extinct breed of male could walk into a scene causing every viewer’ eyes in the darkened movie house to fixate upon them immediately. Sometimes accompanied by an audible gasp. Sometimes with a cheer.

Those days, dear movie fans, are gone, lost to a bygone era, a time when men were allowed to be men, in movies and in life. The days of Mitchum, McQueen, Marvin, and Belmondo are squarely in the rearview, replaced with “action stars” and male leads of today that leave this film fanatic scratching his head as to how a studio could expect anyone outside of the tween set to accept these actors in their given roles. Taylor Lautner in Abduction anyone? No? How about Orlando Bloom in anything ever? These guys aren’t fit to carry Richard Widmark’s Lucky Strikes let alone shoot guns or weld swords in a convincing manner. There is no denying we have fallen on hard times, but in this era of manscaping and metrosexuality we have a beacon of light, possibly the biggest badass to ever grace the silver screen in its long, illustrious history; the one actor that acts as a cure-all antidote to our current predicament, one Danny Trejo.

Like most, I’m sure, I first remember seeing Danny Trejo in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado playing Navajas, a hitman whose chosen method of assassination is the throwing knives he has strapped to his torso. Trejo’s Navajas has only one scene to speak of, but he pops up in the background of the film at random intervals, each time causing the viewer to ask aloud, “Who IS that?” His slicked back, jet-black hair, epic horseshoe mustache, and muscular body which supports more tattoos than the entire carny population of the North Carolina State Fair all but guarantee that reaction. Then, of course, there is the small matter of his face. If there ever was a visage made for a Sergio Leone close-up, it’s Danny Trejo’s. With numerous pot-marks and acne scars working in concert with the large, ever deepening bags under his eyes, the roadmap of his hard-living life is right there before us, and when you combine his outward appearance with his bone-chilling scowl and 1,000-yard stare, well, I would be willing to bet that on more than one occasion an actor he is working with onset has actually thought Trejo himself WAS going to kill him, not just the character he was being paid to play. He has a presence that any actor would die for; when he’s onscreen, that’s all you want to or can look at, and in Desperado he does it all without uttering a word. I didn’t know who he was when I walked in the theater that day, but he damn well made sure that I did before exiting, managing to create a life-long fan out of me with around 3 minutes of screen time. Don’t believe me? If you haven’t seen the film for some ungodly reason, check out the knife scene embedded below for yourself. Heck, even if you’re like me and have seen the movie dozens of times, check it out again anyway, you know you want to.

Sometime around 2005, I heard that a documentary focusing on the life of Danny Trejo was coming out. It had been making the rounds on the festival circuit to rave reviews; apparently Trejo had given them full access and didn’t pull any punches when it came to relating his life story to the film crew. After reading early reviews, I tried to track down a release date but had no luck, so I had to wait for Netflix to get a copy of the film. To this day, this is the only place I know of to rent a copy of this wonderful documentary; it is on Amazon for the low, low price of $14.99 however, a steal for any fan of the actor, believe me. Champion serves as an oral history of the actor’s life, with interviews of friends, family members, and fellow actors relating their own personal stories and impressions of Trejo as an actor, drug counselor, criminal, and family man. A bulk of interviews used in the film are conducted with Trejo himself, allowing an inordinate amount of access to his life, even taking the film crew into the prison that served as his home for so long. The result is a profile of a man that has seen and experienced all that life has to offer, from its highest peaks to the lowest valleys, he has survived anything and everything that could possibly be thrown at a human and come out the other end with a desire to help and educate others in an effort to prevent them from walking the same path in life he chose at such an early age.

Born in 1944 in Los Angeles, Trejo’s life is best described as turbulent from the jump. His parents were of the working class; his father a hard man that was more likely to choke his son in a fit of rage than to tell him he loved him. He went to live with his grandmother at an early age, a poor woman who allowed her grandson to play outside in her “front dirt.” For several years, this created a unique schism in the boy, one that Trejo himself refers to as “the war of Shirley Temple and John Wayne” and, unfortunately for him, the actor relates with a laugh, Wayne won. Without a solid male figure in his life, Trejo turned to his father’s brother as a role model, Uncle Gilbert. Sadly, he wouldn’t be a beacon of light in the young boy’s life, setting him on the straight and narrow. Instead, Uncle Gilbert was responsible for getting him into the drug culture at an early age, introducing him to marijuana when he was 8 with his first taste of alcohol soon thereafter. Following in his Uncle Gibert’s footsteps, the young boy became a daily user, but soon drink and smoke wasn’t enough, and at age 12, he began to use heroin, overdosing the first time the needle broke his skin. By age 13, he started to rob supermarkets and convenience stores with his uncle and his thug friends; his chosen method had him employing the use of grenades. By this time, Trejo had become so violent that his uncle’s gang wanted nothing to do with him, so he joined another posse comprised of members considered too violent for most, becoming the first syndicate in Los Angeles to pack heat on a regular basis. So lost was Trejo that he had been arrested 20 times as a juvenile, spending a bulk of his time in numerous juvenile detention camps in the surrounding area. With his family and authority figures giving up on him, prison was the only likely place for him to end up, and in 1960 he entered a maximum security prison for the first time.

From San Quentin to Soledad, Trejo took up residence in every notorious penitentiary California had to offer. While in the slammer, he became the lightweight and welterweight boxing champion of the California State Prison System, virtually guaranteeing the fact that other, hardened, violent criminals would give him a wide birth. His actions during a prison riot on Cinqo De Mayo in 1968 helped to further cement his status with inmates when he allegedly hit a guard in the head with a concrete block, an offense that was punishable by death. Instead, he would find himself in solitary confinement from the fifth of May until August 23 of that same year. In order to stay sane, he would act out his mom’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, line for line, over and over again. Before being released from the hole, Trejo prayed for guidance, the ability to kick drugs and alcohol, and found his way back to God. Roughly a year later, August 22, 1969, he was released from prison and went straight to an AA meeting, never looking back. He was 25 years old.

“Every good thing that has happened to me in life is a direct result of me helping someone else.”

–Danny Trejo

Later on in life, Trejo’s work as an alcohol and narcotics anonymous sponsor led him into film. A young man he sponsored in the mid 80s was working on the set of Runaway Train—a movie starring Eric Roberts and Jon Voight—which revolves around escaped convicts and requires Roberts to box in one scene. When Trejo received a call from him one night, he met him on the set to provide support and, due to his unique appearance, he found himself cast as an extra. Later on in the same set visit, when he ran into Eddie Bunker (screenwriter extraordinaire and sometime actor in films like Reservoir Dogs), he was given a job as Eric Robert’s boxing trainer. Bunker knew he was the real deal, he had done time with Trejo and had seen him box in the prison system on a semi-regular basis. From that point on, he was an actor, spending most of his time plying his trade in menacing heavy roles, oftentimes billed as Thug #2 or Criminal #1. Before too long, casting agents and directors took notice of his presence, and supporting roles came rolling in. Now, Trejo has become a leading man in films like Machete, although most of his starring efforts are of the DTV variety, but even in those his character and charisma shine through the shoddy scripts and amateur direction. In Sherrybaby, Trejo’s private and public lives intersected, as he gave his best and most heartfelt performance as Sherry’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) friend and fellow AA member, Dean Walker.

To this day, Trejo still works as a counselor within the AA program and will often tour the worst schools in an area, giving speeches and providing one-on-one help to anyone he meets who needs it. He works with inmates in the California prison system, helping to keep them on the straight and narrow while working toward parole dates. These scenes in the movie, along with Trejo visiting his old prison cell and relating stories of his wayward youth, provide the movie with its heart. In telling the story of his life, he leaves no stone unturned, and the emotion of his journey and how he has touched the lives of others through his wisdom, experience, and spirit is more uplifting than any cheesy “inspirational” sports movie that the Hollywood machine can churn out. The documentary also serves as an engrossing examination of the duality of human nature; in certain scenes, the laidback Trejo of today is fully present, only to have a comment or question from the filmmakers or a memory from his past life come roaring back, and the viewer sees a sudden change in the actor. His eyes go dark and a look crosses his face that would make the toughest of characters’ hearts skip a beat, their blood running cold the instant they make eye contact with him. Then, just as quickly as it came across his scraggly face, its gone again, replaced with a smile and raspy laugh that could fill any room, no matter its size. I can think of no better way for someone to remind others not to screw with them. Ever.

While Trejo’s legacy will certainly go down as one of cinema’s authentic tough guys, his actual story is 100% crazier than anything a screenwriter can make up. The fact that he was able to turn his situation around at a time when most would have given up the ghost and then go even further and dedicate his life to helping others do the same only serves to make him even more legendary. Despite his colorful past, it seems that the world would be better off with more Danny Trejos and fewer Robert Pattinsons. One thing is for sure, our cinematic universe would be a lot more entertaining and authentic. Who knows, if the actor were used in more mainstream flicks, maybe the popularity of tattoos that take up one’s entire chest would spike in popularity. Maybe the government would take notice of his efforts, instituting a new national holiday named after him, with citizens of every race and creed slicking back their hair and donning felt mustaches. I don’t know; I’m just spit-balling here. Anyway, here’s to hoping that we continue to get more films featuring (and starring) Danny Trejo, a true Mexican American badass.

-David

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)

After a couple of weeks of packing up all our stuff, my girlfriend and I finally moved into our new place this past weekend. Satan was kind enough to help us out with weather on loan from Hell as temps here in Charlotte topped out at 105 degrees both days we were moving the bulk of our furniture. So after all that and a long week at work driving, I was really ready to relax and enjoy my favorite film, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. I am a huge fan of the western genre. This film, along with its star, is a huge reason why.

The first westerns I can ever remember seeing were the Young Guns movies, but the one that made the biggest impact was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I was only 12 when it came out and it was rated R, but my dad still took my brother Jordan and I to see it in theaters. Dad did this quite a bit back then, later with my brother John and sister Brigitte he was a lot more strict with the exposure to violence, sex and the like. In Unforgiven, I saw Clint Eastwood for the first time. The man just seemed to embody tough and his gravelly voice (which reached Batman level later in his career in Gran Torino) perfectly matched the coarseness of the frontier landscape his character inhabited. He just looked like a tough old son of a bitch that you didn’t want to fuck with, even though he was in his 60s. When the end credits rolled on Unforgiven I was glued to my seat, as was my brother and father. It’s the first time I can remember sitting through the end credits, which is usually torture for a child. One of the last things to roll up the screen was “Dedicated to Sergio”. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Sergio Leone’s films. This was thanks in large part to re-watching the Back To The Future movies, which reference Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy heavily. The final part of this trilogy is The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The previous two films being Fistful Of Dollars & For A Few Dollars More.

The Good. The Man With No Name. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Clint Eastwood’s character is referred to as Blondie in this film. This is only a reference to his hair color. No character in the film knows his true name, nor do we the audience. Blondie is a sharp shooting gunslinger with a cool head and pinpoint accuracy. In the beginning of the film he has a lucrative scam going with a thieving murderer named Tuco.

The Ugly. Tuco. Arguably this guy is the star of the film. Eli Wallach is perfect as the conniving, double-crossing bandit. He has a certain odd charm and appeal, but at the same time manages to be a repulsive, vindictive human being. Blondie and Tuco run a scam where Blondie “captures” Tuco, collects the hefty reward for capturing such a infamous murderer, then proceeds to save him from the gallows only to do it all over again in another town. When Blondie crosses Tuco, the two end up crossing 100 miles of desert only to have a chance run in with a Confederate Regiment coach. The dying men inside speak of a cash box hidden with over $200,000 in gold. The two pose as the dead confederate soldiers. Little do they know that someone is already on the trail of the cash box and its secret location.

The Bad. Angel Eyes. Lee Van Cleef is THE ultimate western villain. He’s a gun for hire, and a good one too. He is cold, calculating, and logical but with a skewed moral compass. Angel Eyes comes across Blondie and Tuco in a POW camp, completely intent on beating the secret of the hidden gold out of them, or at least making a deal to get a piece of the prize.

The truth of the matter is that even though these characters are introduced to us with these titles, The Good (Blondie), The Bad (Angel Eyes) & The Ugly (Tuco), they should not be stuck in these descriptions in your mind as you watch this. Tuco is a filthy murderous bastard, but even after holding up a gun store he still has enough compassion to leave the poor shop keep his bottle of whiskey. Blondie seems the one of the three most on the straight and narrow, yet he still schemes, double-crosses and is usually ending up on the wrong side of the law. Angel Eyes is a cold-blooded killer who will mow down an entire family if it suits his needs, yet he is a respected Union soldier. All three have both admirable and detestable traits.

In my humble opinion, the final 20 minutes of this film are cinematic perfection. Direction, acting, editing, music, cinematography, location and set. The perfect blend of image, sound and emotion. The final sequence set to Ennio Morricone’s iconic score is my favorite of all time. The final standoff filled with epic wide shots and extreme closeups is mimicked and copied to no end. Morricone’s score is so ingrained in world culture that people who have never even seen this film know it. It is the sound of a western film in everyone’s mind. Coincidentally, the day I sat down to write this, the tune was being hummed by 4 different people where I work. It’s catchy, memorable and infectious. I’m hard pressed to think of another film score that has transcended the source material to this extreme (Jaws, maybe?).

Even though the inspiration for Eastwood’s character comes from Yojimbo, as David pointed out in his earlier post in Profiles In Badassery, the western setting helps make it fresh and Eastwood makes this drifting warrior character his own. Both of these films have inspired thousands of filmmakers, none more notable than Quentin Tarantino who drew inspiration from both films and their directors by blending samurai and spaghetti western themes masterfully in his best film, Kill Bill.

Every time I see The Good, The Bad & The Ugly on TV, I end up glued to my seat. Just like when I was 12 years old in a theater with my family seeing Eastwood’s final western performance. This film is a treasure for the world to discover.

-Wes

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

So Moonrise Kingdom finally decided to show up in Raleigh this weekend past. After a decade spent living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve become used to platform releases over the years; after all, a majority of the films that interest me are rolled out this way to build up word of mouth and generate buzz for awards season. But this wait was ridiculous! Do you hear me American Empirical Pictures?! RIDICULOUS! Wes Anderson’s latest opened up on May 27 on 4 screens, which is not an unusual way of handling things—those bastards in New York and Los Angeles always get first crack at films like this. The weeks preceding its initial release is where it got stupid, going from 4 screens to 16, to 96, to 178, and finally, to 395 screens this weekend when it showed up in most major markets in North Cackalack, and most important, Ruff’ Raleigh, home of Petey Pablo. What kind of world do we live in where a major music star like Petey is denied the right to view the latest effort from one of the strongest and fiercely individualistic auteurs working in the business today? For shame, Scott Rudin Productions. For shame *shakes head*. I had hoped to have this review up closer to the Wes Anderson week we had to celebrate Moonrise Kingdom’s release, but sometimes we don’t get what we want—much like the Christmas when I asked for Tommy Lasorda Baseball for the Sega Genesis but got Hardball instead.

But now the wait is over and I’m pleased to report that it was well worth the time I spent shaking my fists at the sky, cursing my current geographical location. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson once again creates a world that is unmistakably his, a film that any cineaste could identify as his by merely viewing one scene, in or out of context with the rest of the picture. This, of course, could be a good thing or make you not want to waste your time at all, depending on where your opinions on the director fall. If you find his output to be too precious or calculated, a hypercontrolled, diorama-like universe that is constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of ideals and aesthetics that have come to define him, you will hate this picture. If you love his elegant tracking shots, intricate production design, symmetrical compositions, and the way his films labor in his own, extremely personal space, you could have a new favorite film from the auteur, as Moonrise Kingdom not only embraces all of these characteristics but also ratchets them up to a level that blows past his prior, most meticulous creations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Anderson’s latest is also his first period piece, even though his prior efforts have always carried with them an obsession with the sounds and look of decades past. The setting is the land of New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England in the year of 1965. Through the use of a narrator (Bob Balaban) the audience is given a tour of this imaginary location, finding out that in 3 days’ time a rather large storm will pass, wrecking the coast and, in general, causing a mess of epic proportions. It is during this time that Sam (Jared Gilman), a disliked Khaki Scout spending his summer at Camp Ivanhoe, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a young girl who is depressed and isolated from her schoolmates and family, run away together, using provisions and knowledge that Sam has appropriated from his troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, in a most earnest, hilarious performance). The young lovers met at a church pageant a year prior, Sam dressed to the nines in his scout uniform, Suzy costumed as a raven, locking eyes in the girl’s dressing room, their souls managing to make a deep connection before Sam is forced out, it being improper of him to hang out in the girl’s changing room. The two become pen-pals, overcoming the long distance between the two while Sam is back in his foster home before returning to camp the following summer. It is during this time they decide to run off together, causing panic in the adults charged with their safety. Suzy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), both lawyers by trade and long fallen out of love with one another, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a cop who is dedicated to his profession but in over his head nonetheless, possibly due to the fact that his affair with Suzy’s mom has entered its autumn stage, and the aforementioned Scout Master Ward lead the charge, but none are truly up to the task. With the storm fast approaching, this unusual quartet must find a way to locate the missing duo before the island battens its hatches in preparation for inclement weather of epic proportions.

The two young leads tear into their debut roles, both giving performances that are wonderfully gratifying in a noncloying fashion that typically dogs performances of this nature. As I was sitting in the darkened movie theater, it became impossible to not see Suzy and Sam as younger versions of Margo Tenenbaum and Max Fisher. He the overachieving outcast, at least when it comes to extracurricular activities that scouting provides him; she well set in her melancholy ways, even seen as an outcast from her own family (spurned on by the theft of his record player, her younger brother points out that she is a traitor to her family).  In my favorite segment of the film, the duo share secrets, frolic and dance in the sand, and share their first kiss, bringing to the screen one of the more honest portraits of summertime romance and first loves in recent memory all the while sporting a grace that is typically reserved for the understated classics of European cinema. The big name actors melt into their roles, each of which seems perfectly tailored to not only play to their strengths but to play off their previous roles and, by extension, their personas as well. Willis and Norton haven’t been this good in years, and in particular, it’s good to see Willis burrow into a role that brings out the best in him as it seems easy for an audience to forget how great he can be when given the chance to shine. At first glance, Murray seems to only be playing a variation of the depressed midlifer roles that have become a specialty of his—at least when paired with Anderson-penned characters—but, in his performance here, I believe he pushes the boundaries of those prior roles, enthusiastically mining a darker, more desperate mental space that fundamentally acts as a summation of his best roles in this particular period of the actor’s career.

Technically speaking, every set-up in Moonrise Kingdom is brilliant. Robert D. Yeoman’s camerawork is elegant and graceful, with his equipment placed just so in every scene, the actors positioned in front of it in an exact way, maximizing impact of every frame and the well-timed sight gags that pepper the film’s runtime. Props and sets are meticulously designed to fit seamlessly into Anderson’s storybook world, operating with a logic and reality bent to conform to his endlessly brilliant imagination. The covers and titles of the children’s books that Suzy holds so dear serve as standouts, recalling the artwork of the Newberry Award winners of my youth. The lessons and techniques the director absorbed during the time he time he spent in the universe of stop animation shines through in his follow-up effort, so much so that several scenes feel like they could have been cut from the runtime of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, making this fan hope that the director will revisit that medium of expression sooner rather than later.

All of these qualities help to make Moonrise Kingdom an unforgettable experience, a film that captures—with a stunning accuracy that few films prior have been able to deliver—that thrilling flush of a first love (or crush if you’re a cynic) while still remembering the agony that accompanied pre-teen solitude. The feeling that you have no place in the world to call your own, and that no one—even (or especially) your family—will ever understand you. And then for some out there in the world, the film is astute enough to note, this is a feeling that will never go away.

-David