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Gangster movies, even those that romanticize their ugly subjects, have traditionally kept viewers at arm’s length, creating a safety zone across which we’ve been allowed to observe the actions of murderous Godfathers and Scarfaces at no more personal cost than spectators at a football game.

With Gomorrah there’s no such comfort zone. In relating his seductively matter-of-fact portrait of organized crime in modern-day Naples, director Matteo Garrone makes you a fly on the wall in a corner of hell.

Based on a nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, the movie focuses on a handful of parallel stories revolving around a real-life criminal organization called the Camorra. As the various plotlines weave back and forth, we observe how the syndicate brutally controls virtually all aspects of life in their region, from gunrunning, numbers and other obvious criminal enterprises to supposedly legitimate businesses like waste disposal and the garment business.

There’s clearly money being made hand over fist here, but hardly anyone seems to enjoy it. Lives are blighted and more than a few are snuffed out, 2008_gomorrah_006not so much for profit but simply to maintain power. Acts of kindness that don’t benefit the Camorra must be carried out covertly, quiet little rebellions that could cost the benefactors dearly. Young people aspire to join the ranks because there’s nowhere else to go but a different circle of hell.

Much of the story revolves around a neighborhood that looks more like a crumbling bunker than a space designed for normal human habitation. Small wonder, in this suffocating environment, that a young boy eagerly opts to undergo a brutal initiation rite in order to become an errand boy for criminals; even the chance of rising through the ranks of amoral scum offers more hope than the bleak and aimless life that he’s been living.

Perhaps the most memorable plotline involves two aimless teenage boys (Ciro Petrone and Marco Macor) who pit themselves against the local bosses. Typically clueless and testosterone-driven young men, they’re obsessed with the image of Al Pacino’s Scarface and determined to become the new lords of the underworld.

There are two things they don’t know – 1) they are a pair of exceedingly dumb yahoos who can’t see that their survival to date has been a matter of luck and not skill; and 2) the real-life underworld is far more ruthless and deadly than anything Hollywood can cobble up as entertainment. Having made off with a gangster’s cache of automatic weapons, they celebrate by prancing along the beach in their underwear and shooting up the landscape indiscriminately. It’s an emblematic scene, arguably the film’s central moment, illustrating the pointlessness of life as lived under the Camorra’s domination. It’s also an ironic foreshadowing of the education they’ll ultimately receive when the real-life Scarfaces of Naples tire of their loose-cannon antics.

Though the film is punctuated by quick flashes of violence throughout, there’s no attempt to turn its determinedly realist approach into the stuff of a standard thriller. What makes Gomorrah stand out is its expertly-rendered picture of how dreary and sordid life can be when lived under the thumb of a remorseless criminal class – and our horrified fascination at the fact that all of these sad and ugly scenes are based on events taking place in the real world, even as we watch the film unspool.

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Rating: Unrated Running Time: 137 minutes

April 20, 2009 · Posted in DVD  
    

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The dvd release of The Spirit, Frank Miller’s 103-minute exercise in pissing on the memory of his betters, is now on sale.

But that doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

Bear in mind that in these uncertain economic times, there are ways in 51i9z5nmdsl_ss500_2which your entertainment buck might better be spent. There is, for instance, the option of pounding nails into your head with a hammer.

Consider: The Spirit has been advertised on Amazon in three different versions: the single disk edition for $20.99, the 2-disk special edition for $22.98 (and at $1.99, that extra disk must be very special indeed), and the Blu-Ray 2-disk edition for $26.99

On the other hand, Home Depot is offering a 250-count box of 10-penny 2ec8c137-d91c-4d0e-ac7f-4c200fe03d6e_300nails for $14.98

and a sturdy 16 oz. Claw hammer for only $5.98, a combined value of $20.96. c083e776-2c45-47e7-9312-28f38793d1b7_300

Yes, it’s about the same as the single-disk dvd, and yes, shipping will run you more on the hammer and nails – but, of course, the Home Depot items are far more substantial than The Spirit ever had a chance of being.

They also have the advantage of being reusable. Though the entertainment value of watching The Spirit and whacking sharpened lengths of metal into your skull are about equal, the generous quantity of nails makes it possible to repeat the process often…which is more than most people will want to do with Miller’s movie, even once.

Don’t thank me; in hard times like these we should all look out for each other.

April 18, 2009 · Posted in DVD  
    

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As if dealing with rustlers, ctrain robbers, and ubiquitous big-screen owlhoot Roy Barcroft weren’t bad enough, the B-movie cowboys of the early 1940s crawled out of their bedrolls one day to find sieg-heiling storm troopers and fifth columnists lurking behind every cactus. World War II had erupted all over the silver screen sagebrush, and while the conflict only occupied those six-gun heroes for a couple of years, during that brief time it was never quiet on the B Western front.

Unlike the drastic retooling that many industries underwent for the war effort, post-Pearl Harbor Hollywood was allowed to continue what it had always done on a largely unrestricted basis. During the early years, war-based entertainment was all over the place, particularly on the Saturday matinee screens … until the public’s need for more escapism made itself known at the box office, and the film capital increasingly turned away from global conflict and reverted to the sure-fire material of old.

But during that roughly two-year period, audiences had been treated to 51p7r8v3ydl_ss500_1such bizarre visions as the Three Stooges and Daffy Duck gouging Axis eyeballs, Sherlock Holmes matching wits with 20th century saboteurs, and Tarzan dealing justice to Herr Schicklegruber’s ruthless minions.

However, none of those attempts at retooling was as odd as Hollywood’s game of cowboys and Nazis. Riding out under gloriously loopy titles like Cowboy Commandos and Texas to Bataan, many of the Poverty Row Western heroes took on the Axis at one time or another – but nobody played that game as well as the flag-wavingest studio of them all, Republic Pictures. And of all Republic’s popular cowpokes, the Three Mesquiteers were the absolute best at stomping the Hun with a high-heeled boot.

The Mesquiteers were the heroes of a long-running series of films that saw a dozen different actors assuming the three leading roles as the years went by. With storylines that ranged from the 1880s to modern times (a financially convenient “modern West” in which covered wagons and gun-toting cowpokes co-existed with airplanes and jukeboxes), the Mesquiteers were quintessential utility heroes, and had often taken on social problems as timely as the morning newspaper. So when the threat of war in Europe began to rear its head in the late 1930s, they were natural candidates for a dustup with the world’s newest villains.

180px-palsofsaddleposterTheir first brush with the enemy actually came before the U.S. entered the fray, in 1938’s Pals of the Saddle, a typical Rover Boys-style romp that saw them thrust into the middle of a plot involving spies for a foreign power (unnamed in the custom of most pre-war films, but obviously Germany) which was bent on smuggling a poison gas ingredient called “monium” out of the country.

A youthful John Wayne made his first appearance as lead Mesquiteer Stony Brooke with this entry, and immediately found himself up to his big white Stetson in a preposterous adventure that saw him fleeing a trumped-up homicide charge and faking his own death in order to go undercover with the spy ring as a stand-in for a lovely Secret Service agent’s murdered partner.

(Got that?)

Of course, the plan goes awry in the best pulp tradition, and compadres Lullaby (Max Terhune) and Tucson (Crash Corrigan) have to ride to Stony’s rescue before Mesquiteer grit and the U.S. Cavalry save the world from germ warfare, bringing the villains’ monium-laden Conestogas to a slam-bang halt just this side of the Mexican border.

The boys’ next brush with the Axis came in 1942, and by that time the producers had stopped playing coy about who the bad guys were. Set in the waning days of American neutrality, The Phantom Plainsmen revolved around Nazi agent Hartwig’s attempt to force a lovable old rancher into selling his prize horses to the Third Reich for military purposes. However, Cap Marvin is such a pacifist that he won’t even sell stock to his own government’s armed forces, so Hartwig resorts to blackmail by having the rancher’s son Tad (played by young Richard Crane) dragged from his European studies and detained by the Gestapo.

The Mesquiteers pitch in to help, only to get tossed into the calaboose for steeletheir trouble. Luckily, their jailer is a singularly inept public servant (played by comic actor Vince Barnett), and after a whimsical jailbreak, our heroes bring Hartwig and his gang to justice by way of Fist City. It turns out that Tad has already been released from custody – a fact which Hartwig had kept to himself, the lying fascist – so Cap is now ready to commit his resources to winning the war that lies ahead.

Written for an audience of children and supposedly undemanding rural ticket buyers, the story relies on a wildly exaggerated opinion of the value of horseflesh in fighting a modern war. Even so, The Phantom Plainsmen is a first-class example of how easily the B Westerns could be adapted to wartime themes. Spy chiefs, often operating out of jalapeno-challenged New York City, were seamlessly substituted for the usual evil Easterners who made life so miserable for those good-hearted folks out West; and as there seemed to be no end to the number of hard-riding owlhoots who’d sell out their country for a handful of Deutschemarks, the game of white hats vs. black hats could continue unabated.

By this time, Wayne had left the series to give the Seabees and the Flying Tigers a hand, and Corrigan and Terhune had started the Range Busters franchise at Monogram (where they, too, would battle the Axis, though with a smaller war chest). Western legends Tom Tyler and Bob Steele became the new wartime Mesquiteers, joined at first by Rufe Davis and later Jimmy Dodd as Lullaby. (That’s the same Jimmy Dodd who would later become host of The Mickey Mouse Club, making a transition from movie Mesquiteer to TV Mousketeer.)
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With his no-nonsense demeanor and propensity for furniture-shattering fistfights, the diminutive Steele was a terrific addition as Tucson Smith. The towering Tyler, enjoying his last hurrah at cowboy stardom, brought a larger-than-life quality to the role of Stony that would stand him well in the group’s next showdown with the Third Reich.

Valley of Hunted Men, also released in 1942, was the last and wildest of the Mesquiteers’ World War II adventures. The story begins with the escape of three vicious Nazis from a Canadian POW camp. As they make their bloody tomtyler1way into the States, they’re gradually whittled down to a single murderous goose-stepper, who passes himself off as the nephew of a kindly old inventor who’s working to help the Allies win the war.

Of course, it isn’t long before the prairie is swarming with spies and turncoats, and the Mesquiteers have their hands full trying to sort the mess out. In one of the movie’s high points, Tyler brings down an enemy airplane with a rifle bullet; and the climax offers the bizarre spectacle of Tyler and Steele charging the Nazis hell-for-leather through a stand of trees amid flashing hooves and blazing six-guns – a moment so wonderfully goofy and unabashedly heroic that one can’t help regretting that Republic didn’t sign the Mesquiteers up for the duration.

April 4, 2009 · Posted in Western