May 19, 2009

Targets (1968) @ Cult Reviews!

This month I contributed another review to that cool website that allows me to write from time to time: Cult Reviews. This time I wrote about "Targets" (1968), one of my favourite films from the 60s. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, "Targets" was his debut as a filmmaker, under the wing of legendary producer Roger Corman and with the one and only Boris Karloff in the lead role. Of course, nothing came up easily, and to get that deal, Bogdanovich had to give some use to footage from Corman's "The Terror" (1963); nevertheless, Bogdanovich had a brilliant idea to use the footage: set the movie on a drive-in theatre. Powerful, crude and haunting, "Targets" was a kind of a statement, as it appeared on the final years of a decade of changes. Naturally, everything will be in greater detail at Cult Reviews.

Besides my lousy writintgs, this month Cult Reviews features a review of one of the films with the weirdest concepts for a horror movie: "One Eyed Monster" (2008), where said monster is nothing else than Ron Jeremy's detached penis. Mr. Vomitron took the job of reviewing such an interesting film and came up with a fine piece about the movie. Besides "One Eyed Monster", Vomitron tackles 2000's Swedish horror film "Det Okända" ("The Unknown"). Reviewer Coventry watched "8th Wonderland", and has many interesting conclusions about it, as it's perhaps one of the fresher films of 2008. Good ol' Perfesser Deviant writes about Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come", and if you wonder why such film appears on Cult Reviews, you have to check out what the Perfesser has to say about it. Finally, the Full-Length Movie of the Week is George A. Romero's legendary classic, "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), so by some reason beyond human understanding you have not seen such beauty, you can watch it here.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


May 11, 2009

800 Balas (2002)

The province of Almería in Spain, became widely famous among film producers in the 60s and 70s, as it had the perfect natural settings for making movies. A couple of big epic productions like "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Cleopatra" (1963) were the first to take advantage of it, but it would be the Italian filmmakers of the late 60s whom would really exploit the vast potential of Almería as a location, making it the scenery for their low budget Westerns. The deserted landscape of Almería became an integral part of the Italian way of making Westerns, and to many of its inhabitants, it meant their entrance to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. "800 Balas" ("800 Bullets"), is director Alex De la Iglesia's homage to Almería, and the legendary Spaghetti Westerns that were produced there, as well as the many people who found job in those classic movies. With his now trademark black humor to its fullest, De la Iglesia does for Westerns what he did for the Horror genre in "El Dia De la Bestia", and delivers another jewel in this the sixth film in his interesting filmography.

Carlos (Luis Castro) is a youngster to whom growing up without a father figure has turned him into a spoiled troublemaker. One day Carlos discovers a photograph of her deceased father dressed as a cowboy, and soon he finds out that his father worked as a stuntman in the desert of Almería along with his grandfather, but neither his mother Laura (Carmen Maura), nor his grandmother (Terele Pávez) are willing to speak more about that. So, fooling his mother, Carlos visits Almería, and discovers that his grandfather Julián (Sancho Gracia) is still alive and keeps working making stunt shows with a group of former stuntman in a decaying set built for those old Spaghetti Westerns. Already angry with Julián about what happened to her late husband, Laura becomes even angrier when she finds out that her son is living with him. So in order to finish Julián once and for all, she decides to use her business to ruin Julian's old western stunt show; but neither the former cowboy nor his gang are willing to let that happen. An all they have to defend themselves are 800 bullets.

Written by De la Iglesia's frequent collaborator, writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría, and director Álex De la Iglesia himself, "800 Balas" is a story that uses that simple and typical premise about a boy discovering his deceased father's past to create a multi-layered story about honor, loyalty, and specially, about the fine line between reality and fiction; in a weird homage to the Spaghetti Westerns, all spiced up by countless references to the genre and a huge dose of the writer's trademark black humor. While not exactly a Western, De la Iglesia and Guerricaechevarría play with the genre's conventions, using it to represent the passion and magic of cinema by focusing on those who add realism to the stunts. With cinema as the perfect factory of dreams, De la Iglesia makes Julián and his gang of outsiders a group of people who never accepted that the dream they helped to create was over, and on the contrary, still feel the essence of Spaghetti Westerns in the wind of Almería. "800 Balas" is first and foremost, a loving tribute to Almería, its people, and its Westerns.

Certainly, "800 Balas" is more a character study (action-packed, but still a character study) than a straightforward Western, but De la Iglesia showcases a deep knowledge of the Spaghetti Westerns that fans of the genre will find rewarding, as the film is filled with countless references to the genre. With a stunning photography (by regular collaborator Flavio Martínez Labiano) that mimics the one of Leone's classics, and a score (by Roque Baños) that gives more than one nod to Morricone's music; De la Iglesia captures the essence of the Westerns shot in Almería, imbuing it in his tale of renegade cowboys making their final ride. As written above, "800 Balas" may not be a Western, but it feels like one, as the line between film and reality is one of the film's central themes. The originality and freshness of De la Iglesia's early years still can be seen in the way the camera flows across the scenes with a smooth pace, as well as in the humorous, irreverent tone the film has. De la Iglesia's conception of the action scenes in "800 Balas" is one of the film's greatest assets.

While everyone involved really did a great job in this film, the movie literally belongs to Sancho Gracia, as his outstanding performance as Julián Torralba is truly the film's heart. A former Spaghetti Western actor himself, Sancho Gracia adds a lot of realism and dignity to the role, making his character a complex figure that transcends a role that easily could had been nothing more than a funny caricature. With great presence and charm, Gracia becomes the former stuntman in a believable and natural way. In the role that serves as catalyst for the film's events, Luis Castro serves as an excellent counterpart to Sancho Gracia. As the problem child who grows up and matures as he discovers the identity of his father, Castro shows a great amount of talent for his age. Once again Carmen Maura delivers an effective performance as the film's antagonist, even though her role is a tad underwritten. Playing Julián's eternal rival, Ángel de Andrés López really steals the show handling perfectly the mix of comedy and drama that's prevalent in "800 Balas".

The rest of the cast are for the most part OK, making effective performances in their roles. However, I must say that at times the characters tend to become exactly what they should not be: walking stereotypes. Still, this is more a flaw in the otherwise very good script than any of the actor's fault, as unlike the main characters, the supporting ones lack the development given to Julian and his grandson. This is one of the two main problems "800 Balas" faces, with the second major problem being the fact that the movie is simply a bit overlong; because even when the film keeps a nice good pace for the most part, by the middle the film really begins to drag a bit. Scenes that are too long or even uneccessary (in the sense that, while fun, add little to the plot) break the fluid pace of the film, bringing down the rythmn and making the film to feel tedious at times. Nevertheless, despite those flaws, "800 Balas" is still one of Alex De la Iglesia's funniest films, and a very recommended watch for every fan of the Spaghetti Western films of the 60s and 70s.

Like the cowboys he often played on screen, the old stuntman Julián Torralba decides to fight until the end against modernity, playing the only he role he knows to play. With his story, bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy, "800 Balas" pays tribute to those who lost their lifestyle when Almería was abandoned by the movie industry. Despite it's obvious flaws, "800 Balas" is a remarkable homage to a long lost era, and another amazing work by one of Spain's most original filmmakers. This love letter to cinema (and to those behind every production) is a must-see for Western fans, specially those who enjoyed watching Clint Eastwood walking through Almería, as the spirit of those legendary films seems to revive in this movie for a last ride through the Spanish desert.


May 04, 2009

El Tunco Maclovio (1970)

In the late 60s, a new generation of Italian filmmakers took the most American of the film genres, the Western, and gave it a new life on a time when it was getting stale. With low budgets and lots of imagination, directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci traveled to Spain and revolutionized the genre, creating a stylish, fresh view on the Western and its elements. With its striking visual look, raw violence and its taste for antiheroes as protagonists; the so-called "Spaghetti Western" won adepts worldwide despite the initial negative reaction of many film critics across the globe. The influence of the Italian way of making Westerns began to be felt and by the 70s, Westerns of the same kind were being done in several countries, specially in Spain. In Mexico, director Alberto Mariscal was deeply influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, and in 1969 directed "Todo Por Nada", classic of the genre that kick-started the careers of Mexican icons Fernando and Mario Almada. His follow up was "El Tunco Maclovio", the tragic story of a mythical gunfighter.

Maclovio Castro (Julio Alemán) is a famous gunfighter nicknamed "El Tunco" because of the loss of his left hand, which he cut himself due to a traumatic event in his past. The mysterious Mrs. Montaño, a rich and powerful woman whom is rarely seen, hires Tunco in order to kill Julián (Juan Miranda), a young and stubborn cowboy who is in love with Mrs. Montaño's daughter, Sara (Barbara Angely). Tunco, whom until that moment has been living in solitude in the desert, takes the job and begins the journey to Montaño's town, unaware that he is being hunted by a mysterious man named Juan Mariscal (Mário Almada), whom is linked to Tunco's tragic past. Almost by accident, Tunco finds Julián on the nearby mountains, resulting in Julián's death. Ignoring the identity of the man he just killed, the somber Tunco continues his way and meets Sara, falling in love with her and finding a renewed desire for living. However, things won't be easy for Tunco Maclovio, as he is the murderer of the man Sara loved, and Juan Mariscal is always behind his steps.

"El Tunco Maclovio" (literally, "The One-Handed Maclovio") was the creation of José Delfos, scriptwriter who during the late sixties and early seventies had a brief career writing Westerns, specially about lonely gunfighters such as Tunco. More a character study than a tale of action, "El Tunco Maclovio" follows Tunco on his journey, as he meets people who will help him change his somber view on life. Of great interest are the relationships he has with the rest of the characters, specially the bond he forms with an orphan kid named Marcelo (played by Julián Bravo), his love for Sara Montaño, and the complicated connection he has with Juan Mariscal. Nevertheless, while the story is a lot about Tunco mumbling his reflections during his trip, it doesn't lack action, as the screenplay has a good share of thrilling suspense and gunfighting action. Thanks to its interesting and well developed characters, "El Tunco Maclovio" more or less succeeds in finding the equilibrium between the action and the deeper meditations.

Showcasing the great influence that Spaghetti Westerns had in him, director Alberto Mariscal brings Delfos' story to life with a style akin to the one of Italian filmmakers. Cinematographer Rosalío Solano gives the film a raw and gritty look that enhance the arid climate that dominates the film, as even when Tunco leaves the desert, Solano's work keeps the desert's atmosphere of suffocating heat, that gives the story a continuous sense of impending doom, very appropriate for Tunco's tragic life. Keeping the focus on Tunco through his journey, Mariscal makes "El Tunco Maclovio" to be more personal than epic so, the pace of the film is slower, meditative and even a bit melancholic. Nevertheless, it also owns a certain amount of violence that, while not exactly graphic, it's appropriately enhanced by the gritty look of Solano's cinematography. Ernesto Cortázar's music, also very influenced by the one of Spaghetti Westerns, gives the final touch to the iconography of Alberto Mariscal's own legendary gunfighter.

The performances of the cast vary of quality, but fortunately, those in the key roles are for the most part effective in their work. As Tunco Maclovio, Julio Alemán is very good, trusting more in his presence to bring to life the menace of the feared gunfighter. Tunco is a complex character, as not only is a ruthless killer, but also one with a heavy load over his shoulders, and Alemán manages to be believable as both. However, it is Mário Almada whom steals the show as the mysterious stranger Juan Mariscal. While nowadays he is seen as the icon of Mexican cheap action films, watching him in "El Tunco Maclovio" shows how really talented this man is, and how unfortunate it has been that Almada rarely had the chance to play roles like this one. Julián Bravo, child star of the sixties, attempts the jump to maturity by playing Marcelo Pavón, the orphan teen that Tunco befriends. Bravo is surprisingly good, although his star faded soon after this movie. The rest of the cast ranges from average to bad, with Barbara Angely being probably the main offender.

Like Mariscal's previous "Todo por Nada", "El Tunco Maclovio" is perhaps one of the best examples of the Italian-influenced Westerns done in Mexico, mixing the mythical imagery of Spaghetti Westerns with the exotic (and overtly erotic) Mexican flavor of pulp fiction. Violent, raw and dirty, "El Tunco Maclovio" manages to keep the interest despite having a screenplay that tends to get tedious and monotonous at times. The problem is that, when the movie focuses on Tunco's philosophical musings about life and death, the film becomes a tad too slow for its own good, to the point of getting a bit tiresome. Delfos and Mariscal's effort in having Tunco as a somber, nihilist philosopher is commendable, and to an extent successful, and it really does add more layers to the character; nevertheless, the execution was tacky and several times break the good pace the film has. But still, despite all its troubles, "El Tunco Maclovio" is a very engaging film, filled with unforgettable characters and an atmosphere of legend that are hard to resist.

Like Leone's Blondie or Corbucci's Django, Mariscal's Tunco Maclovio Castro can join the pantheon of legendary gunfighters of the Spaghetti Western style of film-making. A consummated fan of the genre, Alberto Mariscal would continue making the so-called "Chili Westerns" for the following decade, and while none of his movies were as famous as "Todo Por Nada" and "El Tunco Maclovio", his work was certainly of interest as it explored the genre with, if not originality, at least great imagination. "El Tunco Maclovio" may not be the best Mexican Western ("Los Hermanos del Hierro" or even Mariscal's own "Todo Por Nada" may claim that title), but it's certainly one of the most attractive of all. Real proof that Westerns also taste good with chili.

Poster image courtesy of Santo Street