Archive for Ennio Morricone

John Phillip Law West of the Pecos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2019 by dcairns

DEATH RIDES A HORSE. Also dismounts, walks about, drinks whisky-and-water, smokes a pipe. Death leads an active, outdoorsy kind of life.

This movie is Pure Cinema — pure cinema is a pretty violent place, it sometimes seems. The spaghetti western version amps everything up to eleven and reduces the script to something that could be scrawled in a matchbook. The plot is mythic, the characters iconic, which is another way of saying childish, maybe.

The movie begins with a gang of outlaws performing what Slim Pickens in BLAZING SADDLES calls a “number six” — killing the men and raping the women. Then, since it’s important that we realize these are the bad guys, they shoot some bottles, some jugs and some assorted carrots and parsnips.

No, not the vegetables!

One of the rapists is called Burt Kavanaugh which seems a bit on the nose.

So, a nasty beginning, though it manages to avoid fetishising the sexual assault, and is brief to the point of implausibility. Beginning with this violent primal scene — witnessed by the youngest child — the movie establishes an almost giallo-like tone, before turning into an episodic revenge narrative Cornell Woolrich might have approved of. Sort of The Dude Wore Black.

There’s a loophole in the “number six,” you see — a small boy, not covered in the articles of war. He survives, and through the miracle of editing grows up to be John Phillip Law, next seen shooting some objects of his own. But he does his target practice in the open air, like a civilised person.

Next, we meet Lee Van Cleef, being freed from a chain gang to the tune of one of Ennio Morricone’s finest western scores, a kind of shitkicker Carmina Burana with a male chorus that seems to have been recorded in a bathroom, in a cavern. Words cannot express.

The lyrics are pretty indecipherable but seem to include neat-o phrases like “Wiiiiild Women of Woo-gow!” though I may be mondegreening a little.

Screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni also worked on defensible films like THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (but Leone employed whole swing-gangs of writers on each film) but also on less dignified-sounding ones like MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY and MR. HERCULES AGAINST KARATE.

Some great fractured compositions in the obligatory musical duel, timed to three strikes of the piano keyboard. Director Giulio Petroni worked almost exclusively in this genre, and delivers striking set-pieces as well as possibly the best landscape stuff I’ve ever seen in an Italian western.

Van Cleef is his dependable bad-ass self. Law is pretty good — the character is meant to be more callow than Eastwood’s grizzled stranger, so his lack of authority isn’t a major problem. But if the film is slightly less than the sum of its excellent/ridiculous parts, it may be because the pretty and sunny young fellow at its centre does not compellingly suggest a vengeance-driven nemesis eaten up by Hate.

DEATH RIDES A HORSE stars Angel Eyes; Pygar; Father Pablo Ramirez: Dial M for Me; Capannelle: and Boogulroo.

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Mars Needs Work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2018 by dcairns

De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS is the nearest thing to a De Palma film De Palma doesn’t like in DE PALMA. De Palma De Palma De Palma. But it’s not clear that he doesn’t think it’s a masterpiece along with all his other films, he just didn’t enjoy making it. All those special effects, taking forever.

The stuff on Earth is very recognizably De Palmaesque, with long Steadicam shots and so on. The stuff in space is more anonymous, I suspect because effects weren’t quite at the stage where he could rove about as he liked. There’s one very good spacewalking suspense bit, subsequently borrowed and improved upon in GRAVITY, and there’s a weirdly counterproductive Morricone score, and too many scenes where actors slowly, casually do things they should be doing in a desperate hurry. I can’t quite account for that. De Palma does talk about how he likes slow set-pieces with few sound effects, to make room for the music, but this is the only film of his where whole scenes are dragged out that really NEED to be played fast.There’s a certain class of actor who play astronauts, isn’t there? THE RIGHT STUFF established Ed Wood Harris (WTF?) in particular as NASA’s representative on Earth, so he turns up in APOLLO 13 and as the voice of Ground Control in GRAVITY. APOLLO 13 then brought Gary Sinise into the fold, and here he is again. Matt Damon is a space guy in INTERSTELLAR and a different one in THE MARTIAN. If you’re making ALIEN or something you can cast anyone, but for realistic or near-future spacey shows there’s this limited pool.

Sinise is his old reliable self here, Connie Nielsen is lovely — you’d want somebody who smiles like that on a space mission — Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle add character, There’s this guy, Jerry O’Connell, who’s like the comedy relief astronaut — you expect him to whip out a harmonica. I didn’t enjoy him much but by the end I kind of dug him. There’s an unbelievable exchange where they’re looking down from space at the Martian base they’ve lost contact with, and he gets excited because there’s only three graves, so one guy must be alive, right? Then it’s pointed out that the guy probably couldn’t bury HIMSELF.But it’s quite diverting — of course the effects have dated curiously (I haven’t looked at TITANIC lately, but those seas NEVER looked real) but not offensively. And then it all goes to shit at the end when the CGI alien shows up. “We just ran out of money,” De Palma hints, though he doesn’t specifically list the ET as a casualty of this. It’s one cheap-ass-looking alien. The decision to do a bunch of things that could only be done with CGI — which seems to make sense, on the face of it — results in something that looks like nothing else but CGI. It should have been played by a human in prosthetics, maybe a tall African like in ALIEN, but I guess this was too soon for CGI enhancements to actors — they could just about erase Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP but Frank Langella’s subtractive scar in THE BOX was a ways away. Was a ways aways away.

There’s just not enough of De Palma’s bravura technique and obnoxious personality in this. BLACK DAHLIA looks kind of anonymous too — but I recently acquired REDACTED and PASSION so I’m curiously about those. Maybe it’s time for a De Palma Week, or would my skepticism get wearying?

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.