Category: Film

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1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Continue reading “1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50”

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Halloween IV: Watering Down the Franchise (H20 and Resurrection under the knife)

Halloween H2O Michael Myers

Halloween H2O Michael Myers

He always comes back. One year on from Jokerside’s retrospective of the first six instalments of the Halloween franchise, we turn to the short-lived 20th anniversary revival. Very short-lived, although the start wasn’t as wet as it sounds…

H20 WAS RELEASED A MERE TWO YEARS AFTER THE SIXTH INSTALMENT, THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS. BUT IT PROVED THAT IT WASN’T SO MUCH THE TIME AS THE OCCASION THAT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE TO A SUCCESSFUL HALLOWEEN FRANCHISE. AND IT TOOK THE RETURN OF LAURIE STRODE, NOW A HEADMISTRESS, TO SPELL THAT OUT.

Or more specifically Jamie Lee Curtis. In the wake of arguably her greatest box-office triumph True Lies (1994), the actress’ thoughts had returned to her big movie break. And in the event, she even brought her mother along for the ride. Janet Leigh’s sneaky cameo as Norma, put the influence of Psycho front and centre once again in a film that succeeds in capturing the roots of the franchise while taking on the changing face of the slasher pic over the past 20 years, picking up the 1960s influences just as the 1978 original had nodded to the gothic horror it had been sent to stake.

Janet Leigh’s Norma can’t be missed as she walks back to 1957 Ford Fairlane 500, the same model her character Marion had in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic. And the score serves up a musical refrain to that film, as she wishes Laurie Strode a happy Halloween. When Laurie first bumps into her it’s perhaps the film’s most effective jump.

However, this mild-reboot, that wiped out three sequels and made an excellent stab at regaining some of its purity as a result, was short-lived. A delayed sequel not only failed to live up to the previous film’s promise, but fell straight back into the trap of prolonged sequels and a severe case of postmodernism, that other horror franchises were languishing in. It’s as though the savage cull of H20, itself a deliberate response to post-modern slashers, had never happened.

How does it go? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Halloween H20: 20 Year’s later

The anniversary feature was shot in a 2.35:1 ratio just like the original, and that wasn’t the only attempt to recapture the masked magic of 1978. Curtis had wanted to reunite as much of the first film’s crew as possible for the 20th anniversary. An intention that almost brought John Carpenter back to the director’s chair, supposedly only falling through due to the financial disputes with the series regular producers that had rolled on since the original. Instead, the directing job fell to Steve Miner, drafted across from helming the second and third parts of the Friday the 13th franchise.

Twenty years on from the definitive Halloween, the slasher horror genre had come on streets and bounds, but by far the greater influence came from something far more recent than the stomping grounds of Norman Bates or Jason Vorhees. Continue reading “Halloween IV: Watering Down the Franchise (H20 and Resurrection under the knife)”

FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?

Fictionside 003 Shared Universes

Fictionside 003 Shared Universes

 

To mark Jokerside’s fourth birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the one thing that everybody in Hollywood wants: A shared universe.

Framed in 10 questions…

 

SOME THINGS START WITH SUPERMAN AND END WITH SUPERMAN. AND THAT’S HOW THIS ANNIVERSARY POST WILL PAN OUT. That legend of the alien child, dispatched to Earth as the last son of his dying planet is one of the great pop culture stories of the 20th century. While Big Blue’s character took shape over a number of years, gaining powers of flight and heat vision until he became the cultural pinnacle of those abilities, it took a mere two for him to bump into a fellow comic character. That would be young pretender, by one year, Batman. The two first stood next to each other on the cover of 1940 New York World’s Fair comic book with only a Robin in-between.

That was the first time any two comic characters had appeared together, and of course it was the light and dark, then in happier guises and brighter colours. Although they’d fail to interact inside, it set a precedent for the extended Super-Family and the growing Bat-family join other parts of the burgeoning and acquiring publishing universe that would become known as DC.

The Teen Titans, the Suicide Squad, the Justice League. The latter would later inspire the envious eyes a stone throw’s away in Midtown Manhattan. As just one of the highlights of his extraordinary mid-1960s productivity, Stan Lee assembled his own super team from fresh and veteran characters in the marvel fold because DC had done the same. So why not him? And 50 years on, it’s those assembled Avengers who lead the charge in a different media.

Where did it start?

On paper – straight from the pen

Many universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands… And that’s the point

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesOf course, shared universes didn’t start with comics, that’s just a nice four-colour example. Expanded universes are so innate to the prose world that their late appropriation by new-fangled art-forms of the 19th and 20th centuries could be page-curlingly embarrassing. And that’s within genre and without. Expanded universes stretch as far as the might of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantastic and rip-roaring adventures… Many of these universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands eager to explore the potential, often posthumously. And that’s the point.

What’s a shared universe?

Choose your collaboration carefully

This is shared, not expanded or expanding…

An overarching work where more than one creator independently contributes segments that stands alone while complying with the joint development of a greater storyline or world. That’s the definition of a shared universe. Distinct from a collaboration, a cross-over or string of sequels, spin-offs or the interlinking work of one auteur: it’s a definition ready-made for the ambitions of Hollywood’s studio model.

Hannibal meets Penny DreadfulOn the big screen Quentin Tarantino has built a loose connectivity between his films, through throwaway references and characters, as has Kevin Smith. Bryan Fuller has had great success doing the same thing on the small screen, through often cruelly curtailed series. The same is true of Joss Whedon. But the Whedonverse, Fullerverse and Tarantinoverse don’t count, no matter the involvement of other creators, as theirs are slotting into a singular vision. The involvement of separate properties and distinct creative forces is crucial. This is shared, not expanded or expanding.

It’s no new idea, but while the first major developments came on the page, it wasn’t from the great weight of published genre that shared universes became a public commodity. Hollywood didn’t shirk on seizing the potential.

What’s the Monster in the Room?

The days of Universal Studios

The ensemble that kick-started Hollywood’s original gigantic shared universe

In September 1923, 93 years ago, Universal Studios produced an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a lavish film that became their highest grossing silent movie. Continue reading “FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?”

Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future

Highlander at 30

Highlander at 30

There can be… Many futures…

The original Highlander film has reached its 30 year milestone on the road to immortality!

Despite its obsession with The Rules, it’s been three decades of contradictory, legacy-obsessed complication. To celebrate the anniversary, Jokerside looks at the lesser seen and most fascinating part of the franchise’s convoluted saga. Not the past Highlands of Scotland, or the presents New York of The Gathering, but the unmistakably dark future awaiting humanity no matter who wins The Prize

IF THERE’S ONE THING ABOUT BEING IMMORTAL, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A LOT OF THE FUTURE. JUST AS LONG AS YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD. But if there’s another thing, it’s that the complicated franchise that sprung from 1986’s Highlander is all about avoiding that future. On one hand, each Immortal is trapped in The Game, the ultimate Darwinian whittling process that reduces their number in one-one-one sword combat according to The Rules. Down until the last Immortal standing, the One has blocked every other immortal from seeing that future by default. And their reward is The Prize.

But for a franchise every bit about time as very old men (usually) decapitating each other, it’s the future that casts the most ominous shadow. Yes, even compared to the desperate times of the past, present and Kurgan. As it’s all about time, it’s hardly a surprise that Highlander has struggled with internal consistency from its beginning.

Crucial to the mix is that past of course. Everything’s built on it, and that’s especially pulled out in the rolling soap of the 1990s series that followed that other younger MacLeod, Duncan. Letting grudges and loss scar every immortal, with a wry poetic justice ready to play out in the present, that’s crucial ingredient. That contemporary time has moved since the 1986 of the original film. Onto the presumed 1994 of the third film or the rolling final decade of the 20th century during the television series and first spin-off film. But it remains a small window considering the incidents that built to it. The present is the audience’s window into a hidden world of course. It amounts to fascinating scraps that for all their faux complexity never rise above the simple concept of an archaic fight to the death unravelling in the shadows. It’s the interactions with mortals and skewered police procedurals that make for the intrigue around it. Mortals remain crucial to the plot, but seldom seem affected by the outcome…

Because then there’s the future.

A little bit of asking around the fans, slightly familiar and couldn’t care less of Highlander doesn’t feedback ‘The future’ as a big patch in Highlander’s broad tartan. But for Jokerside that’s the most fascinating part. And typically, there’s more than one aspect of it in the saga’s different continuities. There’s a future post-Immortals where the final player has claimed The Prize, but also alternate futures where immortals are still awaiting The Gathering.

What’s intriguing is that either way, it never pans out too well.  For any of us.

The Threat of the Future

Of course, while Immortals may have long lives of various lengths, packed with memories and presumably great brain power to store it, but most Immortal existences are focussed on surviving to the future. An interesting side effect of knowing far more about the past than any mortal.

Highlander (1986)

Madison Square Garden, 1986. The posturing, melodrama and frankly confounding rules of a wrestling bout in the great arena is just a cover. In the car park below a shout of “MacLeod” pulls us into The Game. The challenger soon dispatched, and with that kill we’re at a step closer to the end of The Gathering.

In 1986’s Highlander Connor MacLeod has been lodged in New York for a considerable time, the pre-destined place of The Gathering. Later in the film MacLeod’s mentor Ramirez eloquently describes it as “An irresistible pull towards a far away land. To fight for The Prize.”

In that first film the last handful of Immortals have assembled for a finite Gathering, despite some ambiguity in what the friendly Kastagir says to MacLeod halfway through. Those Immortals have been whittled down to a handful come the start of the film after centuries of undercover warfare. MacLeod’s opening kill is a scrappy affair which the Highlander finishes with a decapitating strike so strong he embeds his sword in a concrete pillar. When he does he doesn’t utter a word. The first utterance of that famous line falls to his nemesis, The Kurgan.

 “There can be only one”

Of course, that first film makes a classic franchise mistake. Not only does it start in the very final days of The Game, even worse it links the hero’s victory right back to his origin. It’s the same mistake bigger and better received films have made. 1989’s Batman is a prime example. There, slotting the Joker back into the Batman’s creation just as the Dark Knight later aids the Joker’s emergence may look great on paper, but villain takes the twisted superhero’s motivation with him at the end. That was something the DC franchise struggled to move on from… Highlander gave up pretty much instantly. Continue reading “Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future”

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