Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Movie Review: The Hindenburg (1975)


A disaster drama, The Hindenburg offers a few impressive visuals but is an otherwise a turgid exercise in waiting for the inevitable to happen.

It's May 1937, and Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) is recruited by German officials to be the head of security for the airship Hindenburg. One of the symbols of pride for the ruling Nazi party, the Hindenburg is about to embark on the travel season's first journey across the Atlantic from Germany to the United States. A woman from Milwaukee has written a letter predicting the destruction of the vessel, and Ritter, who is still recovering from the death of his son, is asked to keep an eye on the passengers and deal with any possible sabotage threats.

After rigorous security checks the journey proceeds with Captain Pruss (Charles Durning) in command. The passengers include Ritter's acquaintance The Countess Ursula (Anne Bancroft), whose property has been seized by the Nazis, as well as an assortment of businessmen, tourists, entertainers, charlatans, crewmembers, government types and possible spies. Ritter and Gestapo officer Vogel (Roy Thinnes) try to keep tabs on all possible suspects, and eventually Ritter determines that crew member Boerth (William Atherton) may be the saboteur.

With the tragic ending of the Hindenburg rendered as one of history's most well-known disasters by the presence of multiple television cameras, any and all cinematic drama would have to be generated by character-generated stories. Unfortunately director Robert Wise and a trio of writers adapting the 1972 Michael M. Mooney book fail miserably in creating anyone or anything to care about. Despite some beautiful scenic shots of the Hindenburg majestically floating across the sky, Wise's attempts to enliven the journey across the Atlantic fly into severe headwinds. One contrived mid-flight emergency repair job is far from enough to maintain interest, and the film is a listless affair, singularly lacking in personality, meaningful events or any compelling interpersonal drama.

The sabotage plot is one of the more far-fetched and unsubstantiated theories as to why the Hindenburg exploded during the docking process at New Jersey's Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Setting aside the fact or fiction debate, the movie manages to reduce the entire evil plot to one tiny bomb and one nondescript crew member, and adds layers of convoluted implausibility by meandering its way to portraying Ritter as the clumsiest of plot enablers.

George C. Scott affixes a single stern expression throughout the film, his Ritter caught between heroism and incompetence, while Anne Bancroft overacts her way through the role of the Countess. The rest of the cast members are a bland assortment of character actors (among them Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Richard Dysart, René Auberjonois and Peter Donat) playing distinctly forgettable and interchangeable travelers.

The Hindenburg starts with fake but effective black and white newsreel footage summarizing the history of hydrogen powered airships, and switches back to black and white for the dramatically calamitous climax, juxtaposing real and recreated footage of the crash. Regrettably, all the coloured bits in-between also represent their own special brand of disaster.






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Movie Review: The Medusa Touch (1978)


A supernatural psychological disaster horror film, The Medusa Touch delves into the human capacity to cause harm through the story of a brain refusing to die.

In London, author John Morlar (Richard Burton) is bludgeoned nearly to death in his apartment while watching live television coverage of a space mission to the moon going wrong. Confined to a hospital bed in a deep coma, his brain remarkably shows continued activity. With London recovering from the shock of a jumbo jet crashing into a highrise causing hundreds of casualties, French police detective Brunel (Lino Ventura), part of an exchange program, starts to investigate the assault and connects with psychologist Dr. Zonfeld (Lee Remick).

Zonfeld had been treating Morlar for years, as he believed himself responsible for multiple deaths through sheer willpower dating back to his childhood. Flashbacks reveal incidents involving his nurse, parents, and schoolmaster. As an adult Morlar practiced as a lawyer and was convinced his mental rage caused harm to a judge and a neighbour. With no shortage of potential suspects seeking revenge, Brunel realizes that as long as Morlar's brain is still active, worse is to come.

An interesting hybrid tapping into multiple 1970s film trends including The Omen-style horror and large scale disaster epics, The Medusa Touch does not quite fit into any one category but nevertheless carries its own impact. The John Briley script adapts the 1973 Peter Van Greenaway book with clarity, allowing director Jack Gold to elegantly balance events between Brunel's investigation and Morlar's troubled past, all set against the context of catastrophes still smoldering and about to occur.

Scenes of brooding, supernatural death build up to satisfying punctuation marks, and intermingle with light psychology, telekinesis and a theme of helplessness and self-doubt. And in the final act the film works its way to a larger scale altogether, the mayhem expanding from personal to brutal.

As a British / French co-production the main detective was rather clumsily changed to a Frenchman, but Lino Ventura takes the role and runs with it, bringing a welcome air of frumpled French pragmatism to the otherwise prim and proper English surroundings. Richard Burton sits in his gloomy comfort zone as John Morlar, Gold deploying plenty of extreme close-up shots of the actor's eyes but thankfully reining in his more bombastic tendencies. Lee Remick is adequate but cold, while the supporting cast includes Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson and Alan Badel.

The film features decent special effects as detective Brunel's dogged delving into the past reveals the carnage left behind by Morlar's brain willing bad things to happen. A runaway car hurtles down a hill all on its own, a fire burns through a large school, and later on, the death and destruction expand to a larger scale, some of it difficult to watch from the more modern perspective tainted by global terrorism.

Which only serves to highlight The Medusa Touch's main theme. Morlar's remarkable story is a metaphor for the capacity to imagine and then act upon the worst possible outcomes through the red mist of rage, a fatalistic stance on humanity's ability to ever evolve past solving conflicts by violent means. One man may die, but the deep-seated readiness to cause death and destruction lives on.






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Sunday, 15 September 2019

Movie Review: McQ (1974)


A crime action movie, McQ attempts to contribute to the genre's increasing grittiness but achieves only modest success.

In Seattle, two beat cops are shot dead by police detective Stan Boyle, who is then himself gunned down by a mysterious assailant. Stan's long term partner Detective Lon "McQ" McHugh (John Wayne) chases away a thief breaking into his green Pontiac Firebird, then returns fire and kills a hitman. McQ connects with Stan's wife Lois (Diana Muldaur) and starts to investigate the murders, convinced that local drug lord Santiago (Al Lettieri) must be behind the killings.

McQ resigns from the police force when he runs afoul of Captain Kosterman (Eddie Albert), although detective Toms (Clu Gulager) tries to mediate. McQ partners with private investigator "Pinky" Farrell (David Huddleston) and shakes down informants Rosey (Roger E. Mosley) and Myra (Colleen Dewhurst) for information. He learns Santiago has assembled a small army of henchmen to steal a shipment of seized drugs from under the noses of the police, but not everything is at it seems.

With Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both 1971) redefining what a star-driven police action film looks and sounds like, director John Sturges and John Wayne trade in horses for cars and attempt to join the fun. With a brass-heavy Elmer Bernstein music score, impressive weaponry, and no shortage of roaring American muscle cars chasing each other across Seattle, McQ is not a bad effort, but it lacks verve and originality.

After a solid opening featuring multiple murders and an intriguing set-up, the film settles down to long stretches of mundane, television-level tedium, the flabby script by Lawrence Roman lacking a cutting edge and is unable to capitalize on the early momentum. Sturges does not contribute any notable directorial touches, and at 67 years old Wayne is well past convincing as a police detective.

The title character is also too faithful to Wayne's stand-up persona to be effective in the new reality of cops pushing boundaries and encountering walls of conspiracy. Sure McQ throws a few illegal punches and slams his badge on the table in disgust, but there is never any question which side of the line he is on, where he stands in the conflict between good and bad, and therefore which side will prevail.

But not all is lost. The story of police corruption and double-cross is actually decent, and in the final third the film finally latches on to its purpose as the action kicks out of second gear towards an acceptable if ultimately safe climax. In sharper hands and with more of the plot holes filled, McQ could have been elevated beyond merely average.






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Movie Review: To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)


A police investigation action thriller, To Live And Die In L.A. takes a conventional story and twists it into a compelling dark journey into the soul's abyss.

Secret Agents Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) foil a terrorist attack in Washington D.C. The duo are reassigned to Los Angeles where Hart is gunned down days away from retirement while investigating the elaborate money counterfeiting operation run by Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance tells his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) he will stop at nothing to bring down Masters.

Chance controls the life of parolee informer Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) with sex and money, and she leads him to crooked lawyer Max Waxman (Christopher Allport), a buyer of fake currency. His death yields a notebook with more details about the counterfeiting business. The agents arrest Masters' courier Carl Cody (John Turturro) and connect with his disillusioned lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell). When Chance and Vukovich impersonate potential clients but are stymied by a lack of money to catch Masters in the act, Chance turns to methods well outside the rule book to pursue the investigation.

Director William Friedkin chose the novel by former secret agent Gerald Petievich for his return to form. Working with a limited budget and with a cast of relative unknowns, he crafts a nihilistic police thriller intent on breaking conventions and subverting expectations. To Live And Die In L.A. amplifies The French Connection themes of rampant corruption and the lost battle against crime. But this time Secret Agent Chance is more honest about his willingness to operate all the way outside the lines, resulting in a brilliantly disconcerting narrative running on unstable energy fragments.

Chance is an unforgettable and unsettling character. A cocky risk-taking thrill seeker, he believes in his own indestructibility, his version of justice, and fierce loyalty to the memory of his murdered partner Hart. He callously takes advantage of informant Ruth, using her for sex and information while threatening her with a return to prison. And when it's time to close in on his prime target Masters, Chance circumvents the bureaucracy by launching a rogue mission to secure the funds he needs, placing in jeopardy everyone he should care about but providing him with the ultimate thrill ride.

And Friedkin translates Chance's thrill into a seminal car chase scene, at least equalling the heart-stopping action of The French Connection and here featuring a sojourn through the iconic LA river then an astounding and incredibly staged high speed crash-filled manic race traveling the wrong way against freeway traffic.

In addition to bursts of violence and some effective gore, Friedkin infuses the movie with an undercurrent of unconstrained sexuality, both the predator Chance and the prey Masters stripped bare in several scenes and coldly engaging in emotionless sex as confirmation of their mirrored explicit personalities and rotting cores.

Other highlights include an elaborate and seemingly authentic recreation of the counterfeiting process, a vivid visual style inspired by television's Miami Vice, and a singular music soundtrack featuring English new wave band Wang Chung.

Petersen was plucked from the Chicago theatre circuit and his obscurity works in his favour. With no screen persona to adhere to, Petersen has a blank canvass to create Chance upon, and he succeeds in combining edgy cool with barely concealed combustible emotional tension. In one of his earliest prominent roles Willem Dafoe provides an aura of violent arrogance as Masters.

A gripping disruption of the familiar, To Live And Die In L.A. creates its own exhilarating set of rules and consequences.






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Saturday, 14 September 2019

Movie Review: Push (2009)


A science fiction superhero thriller, Push crashes into an incomprehensible plot and burns on the fuel of witless character definition.

Various people who have enhanced psychic abilities are hunted down by an evil government group called The Division, made up of baddies who also have psychic powers. Nick (Chris Evans) a "Mover" who can manipulate objects with his thoughts, is hiding out in Hong Kong having been hunted all his life by Agent Carver (Djimon Hounsou). Now Nick is approached by young Cassie (Dakota Fanning), a "Watcher" who can see and draw snippets of the future.

Cassie needs Nick' help to locate Kira (Camilla Belle), a Pusher who escaped the Division after proving resilient to the strongest experimental injection. Kira and Nick have a history, but now she in possession of a case with mysterious contents that can bring down the Division and save Cassie's captive mother. In addition to Carver and his goons, a Chinese family featuring the intimidating Pop Girl (Xiao Lu Li) and men who can scream their enemies to death is also chasing the action.

Pushers, Watchers, Movers, Sniffers, Shifters, Wipers, Bleeders, Stitchers, Shadows...whatever. It takes no longer than 10 minutes for Push to collapse in a heap of nonsense overload, writer David Bourla and director Paul McGuigan clueless as to how to assemble a coherent story out of assorted hokum. Some of the visuals are impressive, but the film's style and good use of Hong Kong locations don't come close to saving the inept story.

Among the barely explained core elements are the reasons behind the prolonged war between two groups of psychics, the types of experiments being conducted by the Division, and why anyone is supposed to care. If weaponization is the objective, the current abilities on display by all sides, including stopping a hail of bullets with bare hands, influencing enemies to kill each other in a blink of an eye and predicting enemy movements, appear quite effective already.

Meanwhile, the film is riddled with internal inconsistencies related to how and when the psychic superpowers can be deployed. The case everyone is chasing takes pride of place as a most boring MacGuffin, and the bewildering revelation that it contains a serum already developed by the Division adds to the confusion. How or why a single syringe of a drug already in use will change the world order is a mystery abandoned for another day.

Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning are defeated by the material, while the other cast members don't even try and surrender quickly to superficial overacting. All the characters are dropped into the action with barely any background or context, with the notable exception of Cassie's mother, who is evidently central to the plot but never makes an appearance. She was doubtless being saved for the sequel, which was mercifully never pushed out.






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Movie Review: 17 Again (2009)


A body transformation high school comedy, 17 Again is a surprisingly breezy exploration of second chances and rediscovering priorities.

In 1989, 17 year old star high school basketball player Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efron) abandons the game of his life to be with his girlfriend Scarlet after she surprises him with news that she's pregnant. Twenty years later, Mike (Matthew Perry) is a jaded and depressed salesman, emotionally ignoring Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and their two teenagers Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight). After they separate and Scarlet initiates divorce proceedings, Mike encounters a mysterious spirit guide and finds himself back in his 17 year old body.

Mike re-enrolls in high school with his nerdy and wealthy best friend Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon) helping out by pretending to be his dad. Now in his kids' environment, Mike learns Maggie is being pressured into having sex by school bully Stan (Hunter Parrish), while Alex is the victim of bullying and hesitant to express his basketball skills. Meanwhile Ned sets his eyes on wooing Principal Jane Masterson (Melora Hardin), who has a policy against dating parents. Mike has to try to be a father and reclaim Scarlet's love, all while navigating the hazards of high school.

Perfectly paced at 105 minutes and riding on the energy of a willing cast, 17 Again deftly combines a middle age crisis with a wacky second shot at rebooting a stalled life in an often edgy package. The film is as restless as a high school cafeteria at lunch hour, bustling with multiple intersecting stories of parents, offspring, schoolmates and one dorky but unimaginably rich and randy friend.

The film wisely does not dwell on Mike's shock at finding himself in a teenaged body, and avoids the tired body fluid jokes. Instead writer Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers find good laughs in high-risk areas, where a dad now has to witness at close quarters the burgeoning sexuality of his daughter while fending off the aggressive advances of her classmates, and a middle-aged husband who looks like a 17 year old has to romance his skeptical wife.

17 Again refreshingly does not immediately telegraph where it wants to go, and Mike is left without instructions on how to reassemble his life. His high school redux could be about seizing the opportunity to become a basketball star, understanding the pressures faced by his kids, learning what it means to be a parent, or making amends to his wife, but succeeding at anything will not be easy with the mind of a jaded adult and the body of a hunky teen.

The film rides on Zac Efron's shoulders and he delivers a winning performance, channeling with some devious cunning the spirit of a frustrated middle aged man solving his destiny puzzle. Efron handles a couple of soapbox scenes with aplomb. Leslie Mann brings her brand of laidback sarcasm to the role of Scarlet, first quite tired of her husband's defeatism them mystified by the attractive young man hovering around her.

17 Again is teen-oriented humour that refreshingly also works for adults. The body may be jumbled, but the entertainment is smooth.






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Thursday, 12 September 2019

Movie Review: Sunshine Cleaning (2008)


A quirky dramedy, Sunshine Cleaning delves into the lives of working class America through the story of two sisters struggling to get by, and finds good intentions mixing with bad decisions.

In Albuquerque, single mom Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) works hard as a maid while raising her eight year old son Oskar, and carries on an affair with police detective Mac (Steve Zahn). In high school she was the cheerleading team captain and he was the star quarterback, but Mac chose to marry someone else and Rose's life never recovered. Meanwhile, her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) cannot hold a job, and has not yet processed the sudden death of Rose and Norah's mother. Their father Joe (Alan Arkin) is kindly but always in pursuit of the next misguided business venture.

When Rose has to raise money to place Oskar in private school, Mac suggests she gets into the lucrative biohazard cleaning business, mopping up body fluids at scenes of accidents, crimes and suicides. Rose drags Norah into the business she calls Sunshine Cleaning. Gradually they learn the proper procedures with help from supply store owner Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.). Meanwhile Norah finds artefacts left behind by a suicide victim, and goes looking for the woman's daughter Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a blood bank technician.

Striking the perfect chord between poignant and peculiar, Sunshine Cleaning is a non-judgmental view of lives sidelined on the difficult side of the tracks. Elegantly written by Megan Holley and directed with understated charm by Christine Jeffs, the film avoids emotional high and lows, instead achieving a steady and internally consistent ascent towards messy personal growth.

Holley starts from a place of deep loss for all her characters: Rose lost her high school sweetheart to another woman, Norah never got past the childhood trauma of losing her mother, and Joe lost his wife a long time ago. Winston has lost an arm in suitably unexplained circumstances, and Lynn lost her mother but, as far as Norah can tell, may not even know it.

For Rose, Norah and Joe the losses create internal barriers and promote self-defeating actions such as Rose's affair, Norah's could-care-less attitude, and Joe's pursuit of futile middleman deals. The film then charts an enjoyable, unlikely and bumpy path towards self-betterment built on the icky premise of cleaning up splattered blood and dead body fluids. Rarely has a film about mopping up the messes of the past found such an apt metaphor.

The sisters' journey towards confronting their internal demons and emotionally relocating to a better place is far from smooth sailing. Rose has to juggle her burgeoning new business with confronting her continued dependency on Mac caring for an out-of-school Oskar. Without quite knowing why, Norah pursues Lynn in a quest that softly veers into unexpected territory. And while Joe does his best to support his daughters, his wacky business ventures and propensity for overpromising and under-delivering cause mounting frustration.

Sunshine Cleaning enjoys sparkling performances from two of the finest actresses of their generation. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt humanize Rose and Norah and stay true to their flawed origins, grounding the film in the rough and tumble world of every two forward steps being met with at least one misstep. With the right tools every stain can be cleaned or disposed of, but sometimes the mess can be inadvertently made bigger before the cleanup begins.






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Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Movie Review: The Tamarind Seed (1974)


An international espionage romance, The Tamarind Seed attempts to create a personal human drama within the Cold War context but suffers from excessively lackadaisical pacing.

British Home Office assistant Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) is vacationing in Barbados to recover from a botched love affair with a married Paris-based diplomat, which followed the death of her husband. Soviet military attaché Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif) is vacationing in the adjacent bungalow. Honest about being married, he initiates a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Judith insists they do not sleep together. They return to Europe, Sverdlov promising to reconnect.

In London, British intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) and his assistant MacLeod (Bryan Marshall) take a keen interest in the burgeoning relationship between Judith and Sverdlov, sure that the suave Russian is attempting to recruit the naive assistant. Also worried is British minister Fergus Stephenson (Dan O'Herlihy) and his wife Margaret (Sylvia Syms), who hold secrets that may be revealed with any Russian defection. Judith and Sverdlov pursue a romance while both the British and Russian governments are deeply suspicious that something more nefarious is afoot.

A laudable attempt to create a more cerebral and character-centred story about the human cost of the Cold War, The Tamarind Seed falls into the cracks between too much plot and not enough momentum. Director Blake Edwards (Andrews' husband) adapted the Evelyn Anthony book and should have streamlined the narrative and jettisoned more of the clutter. The central romance is often suspended in time and space as marginal characters and events swirl around the lovers, too many conniving agents, officials, diplomats, wives, girlfriends, ex-lovers and henchmen getting in the way.

The Cold War's disruptive impact on the most basic of human pleasures is an intended theme, but the love affair proceeds at a glacial pace and along a ponderous and repetitive path. Both Andrews and Sharif are game for their roles and advance a welcome photogenic maturity into the discourse, but their conversations too often spin in the same cycle of Sverdlov seeking to advance to the lovemaking stage and Judith resisting.

On the margins they veer into unconvincing and muddled compare-and-contrast debates about capitalism versus communism, Sverdlov often tediously pontificating about the essence of the Russian character. The legend of a condemned Barbados slave and the shape of the Tamarind tree seed take on profound symbolism of the eye-rolling variety.

When the discourse evolves to the possibility of an actual defection, the multiple layers of lying and deception render all commitments suspect, undermining any investment in the characters' real motivations. By the time some action sparks to life late in the third act, intelligence officer Loder essentially becomes the most influential character with Judith and Sverdlov reduced to pawns in their own game.

Bond series veterans Maurice Binder and John Barry contribute the classy title sequence design and evocative music score. Both promise more than the film can deliver, as this Russian spy is licenced to merely talk, love, and philosophize.






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Saturday, 7 September 2019

Movie Review: The Shallows (2016)


A survival horror film, The Shallows pits one brave woman against one angry shark in a tense battle of endurance.

Still grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) vacations in Mexico on her own and considers quitting medical school. She heads out to surf at an isolated beach that used to be her mother's favourite. Towards the end of the day Nancy is attacked by a huge great white shark when she inadvertently gets between the predator and its dinner in the form of a whale carcass.

The attack destroys her surfboard and causes a deep gash in her thigh. Nancy takes refuge on a small rock outcrop a few hundred metres from shore, and does all she can to stem the bleeding. The shark never stops circling, and as Nancy's calls for help go unheeded her situation grows ever more desperate.

Following in the footsteps of recent one-person survival dramas like Buried and 127 Hours (both from 2010), The Shallows preys on the fearsome reputation of sharks as ruthless killing machines. But here at least director Jaume Collet-Serra and writer Anthony Jaswinski attempt to provide some justification for fish aggression by having Nancy interfere with dinner plans, and also revealing that the shark is carrying a wound, and was therefore maybe attacked first by another human.

Regardless of the motive, this shark is a relentless hunter, willing to outwait Nancy and unleashing a variety of attacks to try and knock her into the water. Nancy finds herself stranded on a tiny rock island that only gets smaller during high tide, tantalizingly close to the shore but far enough to make any attempt to outswim the shark impossible.

With only a perky but injured seagull as a companion, Nancy has few resources at her disposal, and has to improvise using her jewelry and surf top to stabilize her wounds in a couple of gory and pain-filled scenes. Otherwise the film settles down in its second half to a fairly routine survival conundrum, Nancy gradually coming to the realization she will not be rescued and will need to conjure up her own escape plan. In the meantime, relatively undefined tertiary characters fall victim to the shark to keep the tension and horror elements on high.

A backstory helps, as the opening scenes sketch in Nancy's gloomy emotional state. She is questioning the wisdom of pursuing a career in medicine after the difficult death of her mother, a tragedy that has also cast a pall on her relationship with her father. Whether or not to fight ferociously for life like her mom did in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds becomes a useful if somewhat obvious hook for the film's climax.

In a physically demanding performance Blake Lively throws herself into the role and capably carries the drama on her shoulders. Collet-Serra deploys a combination of location and water tank shots plus decent CGI (the shark is entirely digital) and some gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Flavio Labiano to create a wet prison around her. The water may be shallow, but for this stranded woman the murderous rage of one rogue shark runs deep.






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Thursday, 29 August 2019

Movie Review: Duck, You Sucker! (1971)


A sprawling spaghetti (or more specifically, Zapata) western about reluctant revolutionaries, Duck, You Sucker! is Sergio Leone's most complex commentary on the futility of chasing a cause.

In Mexico circa 1913, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a peasant bandit leading a gang made up of his family members in robbing and raping society's elite. Juan meets John (Seán) Mallory (James Coburn), an ex-Irish revolutionary wanted for murder back in England. John is an explosives expert, a skillset that appeals to Juan, who dreams of robbing the Mesa Verde bank. The two men initially clash, Juan driven by personal greed and John haunted by memories of his failed exploits in Ireland.

Although neither man is interested in the rumbling Mexican revolution, they team up with Pancho Villa supporters led by Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli). John cajoles Juan into freeing a large number of political prisoners, and Juan becomes a hero of the revolution. With their friendship growing, the two men ambush a convoy of government troops commanded by the stone-faced Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John). Retribution is swift and Juan pays a high price as the countryside is soaked in the blood of massacres and reprisals, which only leads to more violence.

An awe-inspiring yet flawed and sometimes awkward 157 minutes about friendship, regret, cynicism, and small personal agendas caught up in bigger events, Duck, You Sucker! (also known as A Fistful Of Dynamite and Once Upon A Time...The Revolution) marks Leone's first departure from the warmth of western mythology. This time war is a useless and bloody hell, and no individuals can escape the horror. A friendship can be forged under fire, but ultimately countless poor people will be slaughtered, and not much will change.

After having directed four films in the five years between 1964 and 1968, Leone took three years off and returned with a new and ambitious agenda to juxtapose the ideological winds of change sweeping through the streets of 1960s Europe with the brutalist Fascist imagery of the 1930s through the story of a simple friendship. Choosing a more modern western setting of early 20th century Mexico also brought Duck, You Sucker! closer to modern themes of struggle against corrupt regimes, and Leone set out to de-romanticize the concept of revolution.

Opening with a quote from Mao Tse-tung through to an impassioned speech by Juan asserting that the poor die and nothing really changes in revolutionary upheaval, Duck, You Sucker! is a jaundiced view of political change. The enemies of Juan and John in the form of Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John) and Governor Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi ) are poorly drawn and barely defined, either as a narrative weakness or intentionally because the real enemy is the resilient system of corruption where the faces and names at the top can be replaced but the suffering of the masses continues.

Again either as harsh cinematic shorthand or as an intentional intellectual challenge, Leone counteracts the film's length with several jarring scene transitions, jumping from the epic bridge ambush to the aftermath of a devastating cave massacre and then an act of gross betrayal overworking a firing squad under the rain. Each one of the three scenes is a tense emotional steamroller delivered with lyrical barbarism, and they mercilessly follow each other, demanding that viewers actively and quickly fill the gaps between the euphoria of victory and ravages of reprisals.

And just when it seems there is no more emotional toxicity to unleash, Leone conjures up a scene straight out of Fascist hell. Impossibly fluid overhead camera work witnesses soldiers slaughtering hundreds of peasants in a series of parallel concrete death channels. By all means have your revolution, but please witness the large scale butchery unleashed against the innocent.

But at its heart Duck, You Sucker! is also a story about an unlikely friendship between two men brought to life by fine if chequered performances. One or both of the two lead actors are in every scene, and they create two enduring characters. Rod Steiger channels his inner Tuco and over emotes his way through the film as the talkative and frequently sputtering Juan, struggling as much against excessive sweat as he does against poverty. James Coburn provides balance with a laid back performance as John, but both men struggle with inconsistent accent application.

The turmoil of Duck, You Sucker! is set to one of Ennio Morricone's most innovative music scores, the main "Sean, Sean, Sean" (John's Irish name) theme melding into a soulful and regretful melody carrying the echo of lost idealism. Throughout his Mexico adventure John has soft-focus flashbacks to his time in Ireland, where a convoluted romance and friendship turned sour, with outcomes that forever changed his attitudes about honour and sacrifice.

Fed up with the high personal cost of chasing causes, now he just wants to simplify his life's work to blowing up whatever obstacles come in his way. As John is inexorably drawn into his next revolution, this time he is under no illusions. He will dispassionately help others make progress towards upheaval and agony using the biggest explosions he can wire up, his soul already blissfully exhausted.






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