Archive for January, 2013

Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg – 2007

Posted in 00's with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2013 by bookofdread

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Cronenberg is one of my top, top most favorite guys working, and Eastern Promises ranks very high on a list masterful pictures. Naomi Watts is a maternity nurse who is working when a fourteen-year-old Russian girl is brought in hemorrhaging horribly. The girl dies in childbirth but her daughter survives. Watts, in hopes of finding the name of a relative or a form of contact, takes a diary from the dead girl. She hopes to have her Russian uncle translate the text. Inside that diary is hell.

He tells her to forget such things, that the diary is dangerous. This is the same guy who earlier told her, her baby died insider her because her lover was black. He’s old school and a bid gnarly. So Nursey goes to a club she finds a card from in the diary. There she meets the creepiest most soft-spoken gangster ever, Semyon, portrayed with masterful restraint by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Semyon exudes implied threat with his every word, his every stance. When he asks Watts if she always works at the hospital, it gives me chills every time.

Soon we meet Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai, a driver and bodyguard for “prince” Kirill, Semyon’s drunk and possibly homosexual son. Kirill has had a Vor killed for spreading rumors of his queerness and Nikolai helps him cover up the crime. The dynamic of these two characters is complex. On one hand Kirill actually feels a genuine love for Nikolai while simultaneously resenting the way his father responds to him. On the other hand, Nikolai is never playing anyone straight. Even at the picture’s end it is hard to decipher his motives.

Tatiana’s diary reveals the dark secrets of Semyon’s world, and Cronenberg gives us through this tale an eye-opening look at the world of human trafficking. It’s done behind closed doors, and often with the initial participation of the girls. The diary says, “My friend tells me of a club in London where girls can go to sing. They can make more in a night than here in a week.” These clubs are forced prostitution rings. Once the girls are in town they are no longer human beings. They are a good to be sold or used by the king.

What’s brilliant is the way that Cronenberg uses these details as background instead of as the main focus of the plot. Essentially, after ingratiating himself to Semyon, Semyon has Nikolai made, just so he can serve him up to the Chechens who want his son dead.

But oh no! Nikolai is a bad-ass deep-cover agent working with Scotland Yard. He survives a brutal attack in a bath house and tells his contact that he is going to replace Semyon.

I remember seeing this film opening night in a theater full of fancy folks, (older ladies really), who had heard about the nude Viggo Mortensen scene and come for that. What they got was a brainfull of subversive ideas about class and Eastern and Western culture. So different, yet so gangster.

The film is full of characters meeting an extreme to fulfill their convictions. Kirill killed a man for calling him queer because he was afraid that the idea, true or not, might diminish him in the eyes of his father. Anna enters a dangerous world in hopes to secure a future for child with no prospect. She may represent the naivety of western hope. Semyon is the Eastern Promise, a powerful king who will help you once you arrive in his kingdom. But his palace is built of lies. He is not only is guilty of proliferating prostitution, he’s a pederast and a rapist. But he would risk fraud in front of his gangster peers to keep his son out of harms way.  Finally, there is Nikolai, in deep-cover , building a lie he created so he could dismantle the evil from within.

Even though the baby is saved at the end of the film, and Semyon jailed, the film feels overtly movie like in these final moments, calling attention to itself with a visual cliché, such as Anna tending to the baby. You know this is a movie. You know this is a happy ending. But you know for the real Tatiana’s and Christine’s out there, there is no happy ending. “Slaves are born to slaves.”, Nikolai tells Anna. There’s the root of it. These people are slaves. Intimidation, money and power can enslave. But that’s not necessary. All you need is one good promise.

 

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Scorpio – Michael Winner – 1972

Posted in 70's with tags , , , , , , , on January 23, 2013 by bookofdread

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Spy movies are basically the most elaborate and tricky films to master, because you have to keep audiences guessing about the allegiances of characters from start to finish, and in the world of espionage morality is about as murky as in any genre of storytelling. Michael Winner’s Scorpio begins in Paris, following Burt Lancaster’s Cross, who is setting up an assassination using French gun for hire, Scorpio. Alain Delon is the handsomest man that ever lived and also great in this movie.

Cross works for the CIA and needs a man to pop an Arab getting off a plane. As Cross enters Delon’s Parisian flat, the dialogue begins. “Why don’t you let these cats out sometime?”

Delon replies: “They couldn’t survive outside. They’re bred for degeneracy.”

This is the entire theme of the film stated up front. A spy cannot survive outside of the war. His nature is degenerative and leaves only emptiness and death in his wake.

Winner cross cuts between a black and white TV dramatization of the assassination of an Arab emissary on airport tarmac and a color image of Delon shooting the man. In the next scene our two spies are on a plane together. From the audio of the TV broadcast, we know that a leftist Arab man has been blamed for the murder. Cross tells Jean, “It’s who appeared to have killed him that counts.”

The entire film is draped in this kind of black cynicism. The notion of secrecy and counter-programming the public knowledge of events propels the CIA characterization in the film. No one is to be trusted.

Before long we see Burt Lancaster and his wife under surveillance in their home in DC. He assembles a gun at breakfast and the visual counter-point of a suburban breakfast and a disassembled firearm is both bleak and effective. At home you are disarmed, with your pants down as it were.

Cross is right, the agency wants him and he runs. Meanwhile Scorpio is making time with his sister’s roommate a beautiful brunette.

Delon plays Jean as both cold and calculating at times and as warm and principled at others. Spy’s can’t show too much emotion, so it makes for great viewing to see a performance that lets us in at times in this type of film. He’s so warm and loveable that his lady is just about to give him some much-deserved nookie, when the agency busts in the room with some blue shirts and arrest him for what may or may not be his heroin. After a pistol-whip and brief detention, McCloud the department head offers Scorpio Cross’s job if he can bring the man in. After brief negotiation, Scorpio accepts.

Cut to Vienna. Jean still isn’t sure Cross is a face but he’s a pro and is on assignment. At one point he lets Cross live because he isn’t sure of his allegiance. Meanwhile, Cross is hiding out in a flat owned by a known member of the opposition. He also receives help from a Jewish cellist who receives and sends packages for him. Cross rescued this man from a prison camp in WWII long ago. This is the first of 2 large empathy builders placed for Cross. All this grey area is so much fun and the true job of constructing a classic spy thriller. No matter where the characters go, we are always guessing the true ideology of the individuals.

In Cross’ unmarked flat he and his communist counterpart reminisce over drinks. “We are being replaced with young men with bright stupid faces. They care for nothing but efficiency. No difference in the American model and the Soviet model.” Life is nothing but numbers to future generations say the storytellers. There is no place for right and wrong with these bright stupid faces, only obedience and better numbers every time.

The film has several such philosophical asides, and they are a bit provocative and a bit tedious, but the location action scenes more than make up for the time killing ruminations. The score bye Jerry Fielding is at its best during a daring foot chase through Vienna, that ends with an astonishing scaffold collapse and explosion.

Delon is typically cool in the film and delivers lines like, “I’m the dybbuk of Cross’s labyrinth mind. I live inside him. He’ll move.”, with icy precision and condescension. The fact is, he’s a free agent operating for the CIA and the film frequently uses his expertise as a means to make the US operatives look like jokers by comparison. Hey, when you are banking on Delon being in your film, I guess you can kind of give US audiences the bird. Delon guaranteed the film would be a hit in Europe so it completely plays that way.

The second act ends with Cross’s wife needlessly killed in her own home, the 2nd of the empathy builders I discussed earlier. At this point Cross comes across as truly put upon, making it doubly shocking when he is revealed to be another turncoat capitalist, selling information and saving money all over the world.

The final details of this revelation are a little bit soap opera and eye rolling, but the final confrontation is a silver knife in the night. A quiet slice that cuts deep and true. As the final credits roll on this dark little tragedy, one doesn’t feel safe at all.

 

RIP Michael Winner

Eyes Of Laura Mars – Irvin Kershner – 1978

Posted in 70's with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2013 by bookofdread

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One of my two favorite types of stories are stories about the effect of art on its’ audience. It is an incredibly delicate tale to spin but there are some great little gems out there if you know where to look. Take for example Irving Kershner’s Eyes Of Laura Mars. Stemming from a superb John Carpenter script, the film is expertly molded by Kershner into a thrilling mystery that is enriched with multiple viewings.

Faye Dunaway stars as Laura Mars, a famous photographer who takes her inspiration from visions of graphic violence she experiences. Laura sees through the eyes of the killers. She then re-creates these things in photographs. So far this reads as the artist, (Carpenter, Kershner), examining the reason guys like them put these violent images in films. We see violence in the world and we reflect it in our art. Simple enough.

Faye is very good as a troubled artist, who is possessed to create the images in her mind. She delicately treads between unnerved and displaced. It’s hard to call her a strong female protagonist, as she is in intense terror for much of the film. Her character is basically the artist under attack.

So then the story goes that someone begins to kill those around Laura in her circle, terrorizing her world. Tommy Lee Jones plays the policeman who decides (?) to protect her?

Jones has the crazy haircut sported by Javier Bardem in No Country but plays a down the line New York cop. He’s as compelling as he always is but plays as subtle a truth as I have ever seen without ever betraying his character.  As you watch the film over and over his character never lies, yet never spoils the truth.

I have to spoil the film to really talk about it so go watch the film and then come back.

 

 

Awesome right? Tommy Lee Jones is the killer. So when you watch this film a second time, his every line re-enforces this truth. When Laura asks him who would want to kill her, he replies someone who thinks what she does is sick and puts sickness into the world.

So then, the story goes that the two of these characters fall in love! This seems improbable, but, hey, Tommy Lee Jones is charming.

The art of Laura Mars drives Tommy Lee Jones to murder people. But after he gets to know her he re-evaluates his position on her art. While being a compelling narrative this thread clearly posits that maybe large portions of the public misinterpret many artistic endeavors. By making the killer a cop the writers are suggesting that authority figures are first and foremost those who misunderstand these violent and sordid stories.

So the film is a comment on the inability to see more clearly the inspirations and reflections present in tales of carnage. Furthermore, Laura takes her inspiration, and even draws her occupation from a type of voyeuristic vision. Like the audience watching the film, Laura’s eyes take in and re-process the visual information present in these scenes of death. Just as Tommy Lee Jones character re-evaluates Laura’s motives, the audience should also re-evaluate their view of the motives of horror filmmakers.

It is rare that a horror film makes the case for the existence of horror films in the world, but few do it so gracefully and with such entertaining punch. The pace of the film is hot, moving quickly from twisted set-up to gruesome payoff, while constantly raising the stakes, always making it seem like Laura could be the next victim. And since the audience sees through Laura’s eyes, they are Laura. If she feels the threat, so too should they.

In the end, authority and the artist end up in bed together and where the lust for one another begins, integrity as an artist or serial killer goes out the window. Does she thwart his plan, or is it only by virtue of his getting to know and falling in love with the artist that Tommy Lee Jones is changed?

Clearly nutbags are going to be crazy no matter what types of films they see, but films such as a Clockwork Orange and Videodrome, remind us of the incredible power the visual medium has over our brain. Eyes Of Laura Mars is the brave horror film that risks negating its purpose in an exploration of its own morality to astonishing effect. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Peter Jackson – 2012

Posted in 2010's with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by bookofdread

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I’ve seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey twice now, once in 3D and once in 48 fps 3D.

About 48. It’s amazing, and clear, but midrange shots of actors moving appear jumpy and sped up. It’s just freaky. But the wide shots, which there are a great many of, are some of the coolest images you’ll ever see in a theater.

So how is the film? It’s more of a ride I would say than a story, and in that manner it works pretty well as an entertainment.  The prologues go on and on. First is the story of Thror and the dwarves under the mountain, good stuff. Then old Bilbo and Elijah Wood share some pointless connective tissue with the other Lord Of The Rings films, then we finally start the story. Not really, first we have a much too long scene of dwarves and eating Bilbo’s food. Finally we get out the door and go, and we have a sweet flashback about a pale orc. Then a dumb scene with the trolls keeps the goofy stuff coming. Gandalf saves our team time and time again. Even though there are fourteen of them all are safe at all times. Somehow.

My biggest complaint is the stretching of the material, which I knew would be a pain. It takes forever to get out the damn door, and by that time I’m getting tired of these shenanigans. The characters, save Gandalf, aren’t cool, and I don’t really care. I mean, I know these characters from the book, but as rendered here, no thanks.

The Hobbit is such a muscular little book, so full of page turning adventure that that film, even if three hours long, would have been one of the coolest most adventure films ever made. Instead, we get an overstuffed under-baked experiment in 3D, which works, mostly, as a commercial for 48 fps. The actors are game, but given so little to do.

Recently the Academy nominated this film for Art Direction, but I feel it’s really more of the same from The Lord Of The Rings. Not a bad thing, but not covering any new ground.

The score is a highlight for me. I didn’t really like the Mountain Song from the trailers, but as Shore incorporates the theme into the score I began to love it. The score actually does a lot of the heavy lifting in this film, but oh well, another great Howard Shore score!

The Stone Giants are the coolest thing in the movie. It looks like mountains fighting one another. The eagles are another highlight. Some people have a problem with the way the Pale Orc is cooked into the story, but he was another of the best things in the film.

Peter Jackson didn’t really make a bad film with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it’s not really what it could have been. I feel almost certain that Guillermo Del Toro left under pressure to make the film three films, and he did not want to commit a decade of his life to three overstuffed films.

I’ll be there with bells on to see The Desolation Of Smaug next December.

My Most Anticipated Films of 2013

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 7, 2013 by bookofdread

 

Here’s a list of my most anticipated films of 2013. I was going to rank them but found that impossible, so here they are in alphabetical order. I included an image where possible!

 

All Cheerleaders Die – Lucky McKee

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Lucky is the best US horror filmmaker so I’m excited to see this high-school horror show.

 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – Adam McKay

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The most beautiful rainbow. Do me on it!

 

Anomalisa

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Charlie Kaufman’s screen nightmares must be seen to be believed.

 

The Conjuring   – James Wan

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Haunted farmhouse, whatever, I like James Wan.

 

Das Missen Masaker – Michael Steiner

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A Swiss Beauty pageant slasher from the director of Sennentuntschi – Curse of the Alps.

 

Djinn – Tobe Hooper

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Uncle Tobe makes an Arabian horror film.

 

Elysium – Neil Bloamkamp

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District 9 is 9 kinds of brilliant, so I’m sure this will be too.

 

Evil Dead – Fede Alvarez

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The trailer is the best trailer ever.

 

Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron

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George Clooney in space, this time with Alfonso Cuaron!

 

Hatchet III – BJ McDonnell

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Will they ever catch that pesky Victor Crowley?

 

Her – Spike Jonze

Falling in love with your operating system can be bittersweet.

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Peter Jackson

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I liked the new one.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – Joel and Ethan Coen

Coen Bros don’t make bad films.

 

Insidious 2 – James Wan

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I liked the first one.

 

Iron Man 3 – Shane Black

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Iron Man Unchained.

 

Kick Ass 2 – Jeff Wadlow

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I liked the first one.

 

Kon-Tiki – Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

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This is going to be like Life Of Pi, but made by Vikings.

 

Machete Kills – Robert Rodriguez

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I’m actually super stoked about this. I waited forever to see the first one and loved it.

 

Man Of Steel – Zack Snyder

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Let’s see if they don’t fuck this up.

 

Maps To The Stars – David Cronenberg

Cronenberg.

 

Nymphomaniac – Lars Von Trier

No simulated sex.

 

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai – Ching-Po Wong

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From the director of Revenge: A Love Story.

 

Only God Forgives – Nicholas Winding Refn

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I want to see Gosling’s pretty face all fucked up.

 

Open Windows – Nacho Vigalando

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Sure to be mind blowing, that’s what Nacho does.

 

Oz: The Great And Powerful – Sam Raimi

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I like all of Sam’s movies, this should be no different.

 

Pain and Gain – Michael Bay

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Don’t make fun of me, it looks funny.

 

Pacific Rim – Guillermo Del Toro

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#1 most badass thing I can’t wait to see.

 

Riddick – David Twohy

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I like the first two.

 

The Sacrament – Ti West

Ti West rocks my world. Bring it Ti.

 

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For – Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

I like the first one.

 

Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-Ho

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From the director of the Host.

 

Star Trek Into Darkness – JJ Abrams

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Ooooooooh, spoooooky.

 

Thor: The Dark World – Alan Taylor

Thor is cool.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese

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Finally, the real gangsters get their day in a Scorsese film. Give ‘em what for Marty!

 

The Wolverine – James Mangold

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C’mon, It’s going to be good.

 

The World’s End – Edgar Wright

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Edgar m’n f’n Wright.

 

The Zero Theorem – Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam plus Christoph Waltz.

 

Cool Stuff!

 

The Ward – John Carpenter – 2010

Posted in 2010's with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2013 by bookofdread

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It’s not my purpose to come on here and talk trash about John Carpenter’s The Ward. I’m going to say many nice things about it, before I get to A. Why it doesn’t work, and B. What really are the disappointments associated with it. I as you may know from this page, I’m a raging, rabid fan of John Carpenter, and I believe he has had one of the most singular and fearless voices in all of cinema. Beyond that, he is one of the masters of the medium who elevated the horror genre to what it is today, with several of his films yet to be surpassed in what it is that they achieve.

And what is that exactly? What makes John Carpenter such a genius? It is namely, his predilection to portray authority, (Policemen, The Church, The Government), as ineffectual, duplicitous and malicious. Normally these types of reflections are frowned upon by Hollywood, and in his ballsiest pictures, (They Live, Prince Of Darkness), he made it without their help. However, films such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escapes From NY and LA and his masterpiece, The Thing, are all carefully plotted subversions packing dense social commentary into exciting genre fare.

Then there is The Ward.

Gone are the aesthetic tropes one has come to expect from Carpenter. Abandoning his classic 2.35:1 aspect ratio and losing his trademark self-composed score, it’s as if Carpenter is shedding his skin. He’s almost apologizing for the work with these moves as if to say, yeah, well, it’s not one of the REAL John Carpenter films.

That stuff said, the film is handsomely photographed and the score by Mark Kilian is effective and atmospheric.

So, where does the film go wrong? Is it the acting? Nope, Amber Heard is absolutely the right choice for this role. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time, which is a tough combination. She also exudes both intelligence and ignorance throughout the picture that is also a good trick. The supporting cast is good, but no one really calls attention to himself or herself. That could be a function of the general conceit of the film.

All of the characters are the aspects of the protagonist, but inside her mind. Aside from the doctor and nurse all of the girls in the ward are schizophrenic projections inside Amber Heard’s brain. This is saved as reveal for the end, and it comes off super weak. It completely takes the piss and stakes out of all the atmosphere and carnage that precedes it.

Similar, endings are found in the Italian zombie snoozer, Nightmare City, and the lackluster Identity directed by the quite competent James Mangold. These types of reveals at the end of stories undermine the investment the audience has made in the story and suck all the scrutiny away. The audience no longer cares what happens, when all they have been told is a kind of lie.

The way around this is simple; you don’t even really have to change the plot. Instead of making the climactic moment the reveal of the character’s neurosis, instead, cut back to the cause of said neurosis, as in Shutter Island. Sure, we see fragments of Alice’s tormentor, but a scene of her attack and her escape would have been a stellar ending to the film. The plot doesn’t change a bit, but we find a big set piece to end on rather than the delivering of some information and Amber Heard falling out of a window.

Furthermore, we could have portrayed Alice’s assailant as, well anything. I was going to say an authority figure, in order to put it in line with Carpenters work. Maybe say, a cop, a senator, or a priest. But instead we get nothing, not even a face. There are only a few cuts of some dude undoing his pants. Your story is only as strong as your villain and if you are going to tell me at the end of your tale this guy made Alice’s mind fragment into multiple voices, the least you could do is fully create a characterization for the menace.

I’m not sure if Carpenter will ever come back to us. He admits that he spends more time now playing video games than watching films, and that saddens me. I wish he were still the rabid film fan from his youth, blending Howard Hawkes and Lucio Fulci together while mooning the establishment. He was a fucking rock-star. It would be my absolute dream to give Carpenter a script that would get his middle fingers back in the air. Let me know John, all I want is to see you teeth out and biting.

It also would have helped if Kurt Russell had played the psychiatrist.

A Bullet For Sandoval – Julio Buchs – 1969

Posted in 60's with tags , , , , , , on January 5, 2013 by bookofdread

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Julio Buchs’ Los Desperados, (later re-titled A Bullet For Sandoval), is a weird fish. It starts with an incredible atmospheric scene at night of a man robbing the corpses of civil war fallen. The music and photography are tight and exciting. But as soon as the acting starts it drops into cornball mode and never lets me get into George Hilton’s character. The entire film suffers from this kind of schizophrenic duality between a gritty mood and tone versus a hokey funny one.

George Hilton plays Warner, a deserter who leaves his company to try and get to his wife before she has his child. After a daring escape Warner reaches his father-in-law’s estate only to find his wife dead. Ernest Borgnine, a pretty forgettable villain gives Warner his infant child and tells him to leave.

No one will help Warner and his child, because they have come from a village where cholera has taken hold, and everyone fears the sickness. The story is very cruel and pushes our man down a hole of devastation and loss from the very opening. It is interesting to see the villagers equate the presence of the war with the presence of the sickness, blaming the quantity of corpses for the pestilence.

As his personal tragedies mount, Warner is met by a series of misfits who team up with him and find his cause a sympathetic one. These characters are all fairly generic and half the time the scenes where these men are supposed to relate to each other it seems goofy and pulls me out of the movie a bit. Perhaps it is intentional relief due to the tragic nature of the story, or perhaps the actors doing the English dub for some of the performances simply couldn’t nail the nuance of the language and humor. Either way, it’s almost always a jarring tonal shift that keeps the film from being actually great.

The film ends in an interesting infiltration of Sandoval’s ranch home, which is somehow adjacent to a bullfighting arena! There is a pretty great knife fight between George Hilton and Ernest Borgnine, but the real cherry on top is the scene with the bull! The end of the picture is pretty hopeless but about 50% of the film is goofy anyway so it’s really hard to feel the tragedy of the situation.

The cinematography by Francisco Sempere is sometimes chilling and awesome, particularly the night scenes, but often in the daytime the film looses its magic and looks pretty plain. It’s the surreal colored lighting of the night photography that helps the picture find what is its coolest tone.

The score by Gianni Ferrio is actually quite excellent and probably saves the film from being a bit more generic. Quentin Tarantino used Ferrio’s One Silver Dollar, (UN Dolaro Bucato), in Inglorious Basterds. The music in A Bullet For Sandoval is both tragic and exciting and the themes get stuck in your head.

Overall, the film was good, not great. I would recommend this film only to lovers of the Spaghetti Western genre, lovers of cholera, and US Civil War Enthusiasts.

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