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Film Review: “Witching And Bitching”
















This fast paced, Spanish film is simultaneously a really disturbing horror tale, a meditation on the battle of the sexes, and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years. Things get off to a lightning start with a holdup of a gold buying emporium in downtown Madrid by criminals posing as living statues with a critical assist provided by a ten year old accomplice, one of the wildest film heist scenes I’ve ever seen and worth the price of admission alone. Seriously, you’ll never forget the sight of a gold painted Jesus sprinting for his life while toting a little kid who’s shooting back two handed at the police.

A beginning like that would be hard to surpass, but W&B continues to pile it on under Alex de la Iglesia’s masterful direction. Having commandeered a cab whose driver willingly agrees to assist them, the criminals try to flee north to France to escape the law and to fulfill the promise made by the leader, José (Hugo Silva), to take his son to Disneyworld in Paris, with the police and José’s divorced wife in hot pursuit. Already a tense situation for the hapless thieves, things take a decided turn for the weird and the worse when they reach the witch infested town of Zugarramurdi, in the heart of Basque country. Led by a three generation family (the oldest witch reminded me of Grandmama from the Addams Family), the witches capture the thieves with malign designs upon them, namely to use the men as sacrifices to restore an oppressive matriarchy.

The pace rarely lets up and the jokes fly fast and furious, interspersed with over the top, gross out scenes of gore. The men lament their inability to get along with women only to find themselves trapped in a decaying mansion (is there any other kind in a horror movie?) by a bunch of smiling, evil, literal witches who want to torture, kill, and eat them. They fight back as best they can, but their fates ultimately depend upon the attraction felt by the youngest witch in the family (well played by the stunningly beautiful Carolina Bang) for bumbling José.  The climactic scene of a Witches’ Sabbath simply has to be seen to be believed, but I won’t give away any spoilers.

About the only real criticism I have of this film is the English title, which I don’t think accurately conveys what the film’s about. The Spanish title, Las Brujas De Zugarramurdi, The Witches Of Zugarramurdi, was apparently a non-starter due to the long, difficult Basque place name. This minor cavil aside, this was a crackerjack movie, absolutely entertaining from start to finish.

I recommend this film to horror fans who don’t mind comedy mixed in with the scares (some horror fans are big purists that way) and anybody who likes a good laugh in general, although I will provide the trigger warning that this is not for anyone with a weak stomach.

The Sphinx Of Naxos


Book Review: “The King Of Warsaw”

WarsawSzczepan Twardoch, translated by Sean Gasper Bye, 379 pp., Amazon Crossing.

This is an excellent, hardboiled crime novel that also functions as a work of serious literature. An account of Jakub Szapiro, a notorious boxer/enforcer in late ’30’s Warsaw, as viewed by his protegé, Moyshe Bernsztajn, at least ostensibly at the beginning, King starts  tough with the murder of Bernsztajn’s father by Szapiro and his crew for failing to pay protection to their boss, the jovial, socialist thug Buddy Kaplica. Out of guilt or a stray charitable impulse, Szapiro takes Moyshe under his wing, teaching him to box and other aspects of the hood’s profession, including packing heat and hanging out in a brothel with the most unsavory criminal elements in Warsaw, even letting Moyshe live in his apartment with his wife and two small children.

As befits a mobster protagonist, Szapiro dominates the narrative, big, strong, handsome, and ruthless, attractive to Jewish and Polish women alike, a feared and hated figure throughout Warsaw.  King would have made an excellent film vehicle for someone like John Garfield to have played Szapiro back in noir‘s heyday. Twardoch depicts the internecine, highly politicized nature of organized crime in pre-WWII Warsaw as bands of hooligans set up along ideological lines battle in the streets with fists, blackjacks, and pistols, making contemporary American gangsters like Capone and Luciano resemble kids playing beanbag. Populated by a rogues’ gallery of grotesques, the ratlike Munja, the huge, horribly deformed goon Pantaleon, and Rifka, the tough Jewish brothel keeper with a soft spot for Szapiro who left her long ago, fictional characters mingle with actual figures from Polish history, many as awful in their own right as the criminals they lord it over.

Like the best historical novels, King invokes the period well, with exotic, prewar Warsaw shown as a city of Old World charm, deadly intrigue, and miserable oppression, especially for the  lumpenproletariat Jews who regard Szapiro as their champion, inside and out of the boxing ring. The air of menace grows steadily more overpowering as the shadows of what would become the Holocaust increasingly lengthen. Salvation for Szapiro and his young family presents itself in the form of his younger, idealistic brother Moryc with his plans to emigrate to then British Palestine to help build what would become Israel. Tension rises as the reader wonders whether Szapiro will take the opportunity or continue his criminal career.

As I said before, while King works as a thriller and crime novel, it has literary merit also with such postmodern features as an unreliable narrator and the deliberate fostering of uncertainty on the reader’s part as to what’s really happening. Over it all floats the monstrous sperm whale Litani, leaving a track of destruction and filth in its wake, a metaphor for the protagonist and the awful, imminent outbreak of genocide, waiting  all the while in the wings.

Sean Gaspar Bye has done a fine job of translation, no easy task with a language like Polish, so very dissimilar to English.

I recommend this book to crime fiction aficionados although those unfamiliar with Slavic languages may have a hard time wading through multiconsonantal surnames and Warsaw streets.

Recensione Cinematografica: “Toto E Cleopatra”

Italian circus queen and actress Moira Orfei (Miranda Orfei) in a scene from the film 'Toto and Cleopatra', 1963, directed by Fernando Cerchio, Italy.



















This is the first Toto movie I’ve seen. It’s a good way to get acquainted with this extremely droll buffoon, one of the most popular characters in Italian film. A parody of the contemporary Hollywood film Caesar And Cleopatra, the movie’s almost nonexistent plot revolves around the confusion between Marc Antony and his scamp, slave trader brother Totonno (both roles played by Toto), who masquerades as his more illustrious twin. A mix of low, knockabout comedy and clever repartee (much of it lost on this Americano), the film is basically a vehicle for Toto to make with the yucks, a small man with a beak nose, wit and humor flashing in his eyes and every gesture as he hams his way through this ninety minute romp. Able support is provided by Magali Noël as Cleopatra who shows up scantily clad in a phosphorescent clam shell. The radiant, gorgeous Moira Orfei (pictured above in all her ebullience) does a good comic turn as Ottavia, sister of Augustus. Carlo Delle Piane is also amusing as Cleopatra’s bratty, cowardly son, Cesarione.

Jokes fly fast and furious as Toto alternately woos and spurns Cleopatra depending upon which character she encounters, Antony or his posing brother, until the poor woman is driven to the brink of desperation. Toto And Cleopatra functions well as a parody of sword and sandal films in general with the same excellent sets and handsome costumes as in the genre, but played strictly for laughs all the way with not a real hero in the bunch. Italian cinema was a lot less averse to sexuality than American films of the time and many gags are openly suggestive, adding to the general zest and brio alla’Italiana. The film ends on a suitably ludicrous note with no one really hurt, unlike the actual miserable, historical truth.

I recommend this film to sword and sandal fans who can take a joke, admirers of Italian cinema in general, and anyone who wants to see a master comedian at work at the absolute top of his game.





Documentary Review: “Tread”

killdozer-og                                       Can you imagine having this beast bear down on you?

This is an interesting documentary about a truly bizarre incident that occurred in 2004 in a small town in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Marvin Heemayer, a middle aged businessman with a grudge against Granby and its principal citizens, went on a two hour rampage. Yet instead of going bughouse like most nuts in this country do nowadays with a high powered rifle alone, Heemayer, an admitted genius welder, took a heavy bulldozer, armored it with concrete reinforced steel plates, and then used the dozer to destroy businesses and the city hall. Although no life was lost other than Heemayer’s, he left a vast swathe of senseless destruction, permanently searing the memory of his basically pointless tantrum into Granby’s residents.

The doc’s first hour sets the stage for Heemayer’s onslaught, providing background as to why a highly skilled, relatively affluent man would do such a thing. A talented craftsman with a head for business, Heemayer made enough from his muffler shop in Granby to do as he liked: travel, hang out with his girlfriend, and most of all snowmobile, a winter past time he pursued with fanatical passion. Yet despite this apparently ideal, idyllic setup, resentment steadily built up as Heemayer became frustrated in his business dealings, increasingly more convinced the town’s good old boy network was in league against him. Most of this is conveyed by a voiceover of the long jeremiad Heemayer recorded just prior to going bananas with his homemade tank. Some might find this segment overlong and tedious, but it makes it plain the slights and wrongs Heemayer railed against largely existed in his mind alone. As one friend put it, “he spent too much time in the hot tub by himself.” The poor, deluded man basically hyped himself into believing God told him to do this terrible thing.

Even those who find the prologue overlong will still be amazed and appalled by the doc’s climactic footage. Resembling one of the crude behemoths that crashed through no man’s land in WWI, Heemayer’s bulldozer was basically unstoppable with small arms fire no more effective against it than BBs. He used the dozer blade to devastating effect, first destroying a concrete batch plant next to his own business, then City Hall, and finally a hardware store. It was an absolute wonder no one else was hurt, especially since the library was located in City Hall. Heemayer was incredibly ingenious, not only armoring the bulldozer, but installing loopholes to fire high powered, .50 caliber rifles, video cameras to assist him in steering, and a ventilation system to keep the viewing ports clear. What a shame all this cleverness was devoted to destruction. The frenzy only stopped when the bulldozer got stuck and ended as these things so often do with Heemayer killing himself.

I recommend this film to people with a clinical interest in human dysfunction and also (no shame) to guys like myself who are fascinated by armored vehicles and the damage they can do.

Film Review: “Capone”

CaponeI don’t see the point of this film other than as a cautionary tale on the miseries of syphilis, a message put across more effectively by those public safety shorts  made back in the 30’s and into the 60’s.

A reflection on the last year of America’s most notorious hoodlum, this film generated zero dramatic tension for me. Capone is shown at his Florida mansion as he becomes increasingly more deranged and dysfunctional as the spirochetes eat away his mind while friends and family watch on in helpless despair.

The film made considerable efforts to develop an effective mise-en-scene with  antique cars, authentic  costumes (men in period suits, women in print dresses), and Florida location shots. The effect was somewhat spoiled though by two glaring anachronisms, which probably won’t bother anyone else at all: 1. Nessun Dorma plays regularly in the background, only sung by Pavarotti who at the time the film was set was still in knee pants; and 2. Capone hallucinates back to a party in his honor at the roaring ’20’s height, only racially integrated with black and Asian guests, something that just didn’t happen in that highly prejudiced era, especially among lowlife gangsters.

Throughout the film, Capone battles various enemies, real and imagined. Under constant government surveillance, figures from Capone’s past emerge as well, with much interplay between what’s supposed to be actually happening and the ghosts in Capone’s mind. What passes for a plot turns on the $10 million Capone may have stashed somewhere. Even this McGuffin didn’t stir any interest as far as I was concerned. Although a film about a gangster, Capone largely lacks the elements of a crime film that fans of the genre enjoy. Since it’s a film solely about a man’s degenerative end, no stakes seem to be involved; there’s no real story arc about the rise and fall of a vicious gangster as in Scarface (both the original and the Pacino remake). We’re just asked instead to contemplate the pitiful, sordid physical and mental decay of a truly rotten human being.

This is despite a strong cast of talented actors (e.g., Matt Dillon, Kyle McLachlan) with an over the top performance by the lead. Tom Hardy proves once again he will literally do anything the role requires. Face covered in putty to depict deep scars and syphilitic sores, he staggers around the house and grounds growling in a deep baritone, throwing fits, fouling the bed while asleep with his wife, and ultimately reduced to wearing adult diapers with carrots substituted for the cigars Capone chain smoked.

The problem is that, despite the makeup and method acting, Hardy really doesn’t resemble Capone who had a very round, moon face. This has happened before. One particularly egregious example was casting the very Irish looking Jason Robards as Capone in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone left me with such a bad taste I immediately watched Al Capone afterward, the well done, realistic ’59 flick in which Rod Steiger (who facially did resemble Capone) masterfully portrayed the criminal in all his boorish flamboyance.

I recommend this film to no one.

Film Review: “The Homesman”

homesmanAlthough a beautiful, finely made film, this is also the saddest Western I’ve ever seen, tragic to the point of heartbreak. This makes sense since it takes an unflinching look at the real frontier experience and is definitely not some Hollywood fantasy. Three women in mid-19th Century Nebraska go mad from the strain of living on the raw, empty prairie. Unable to care for them, local folk decide to send them back East, a migration in reverse.

Hilary Swank gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, the finest, truest example of a brave, good frontier woman in film I’ve ever seen, better even than Jean Arthur in Shane. I deeply admired her character as the movie went on and empathized with her struggles and disappointments, many at the hands of thoughtless, callous men. Her tragic, unexpected end simply made me want to weep.

On the other hand, George Briggs, the protagonist played by Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed), is the sorriest excuse for a Western hero who ever forked a horse. A larcenous, lying, shiftless drifter who thinks exclusively of himself, rescued from hanging by Cuddy’s unexpected arrival, Briggs’s sluggish development of the rudiments of a conscience as he travels with Cuddy and the madwomen back to Iowa constitutes the story’s moral arc. Despite occasional kindness and displays of frontier savvy and toughness, Briggs is never fully sympathetic, with instances throughout the film of his general bad character and others’ contempt and disregard for him. Jones gives his usual professional performance, completely committed to the role, unpleasant as it is.

Jones also did an outstanding job directing. Long shots of the bare, unforgiving Nebraskan plains with miserable sod huts cut into low hills to escape the punishing wind, effective backstories showing how each poor, suffering woman went mad, accurate mise-en-scene with authentic period detail throughout, and strong performances all around by well cast actors. Three particular standouts are John Lithgow as a good hearted, frontier minister; Tim Blake Nelson in a brief, but effective turn in one of his signature rustic roles, and Meryl Streep as the minister’s wife who takes the madwomen into her home in Iowa.

The film’s last scene is especially effective: the incorrigible reprobate Briggs dances and sings aboard a ferry headed back West, accompanied by a banjo and bones, with strong intimations of his own imminent death. Jones shows grace and style in this scene and I’m certain he meant to evoke the famous 19th Century painting of a young man dancing aboard a flatboat. Yet rather than evoke images of hope, progress, and growth, the conclusion only hints at more miserable violence.

This is a good Western, but not for folks who prefer stuff like Gene Autry or John Wayne flicks.

Film Review: “The Keeping Room”

keepingThis film basically takes the incident from Gone With The Wind where Scarlett shoots a Union soldier and Melly helps her hide the body and fleshes it out into a full length film described as a revisionist Western, but it strikes me as more accurately characterized as a horror movie with a naturalistic, Civil War setting.

Two sisters, Augusta and Louise, and a female slave, Mad, struggle to survive at subsistence level on their Georgia farm during the menfolk’s absence, any forest game long ago hunted out, living off potato and carrot stew.

A full plate of misery turns into a veritable brimming cornucopia of woe and pain in the form of two bummers from Sherman’s army, sent ahead to reconnoiter supplies for advancing Union columns, but instead using the opportunity to engage in plunder, arson, and murder. The film’s opening scene introducing them is a tightly constructed, Grand Guignol pageant of horrid savagery that effectively frames both characters and the arc their nihilistic souls will follow. A sight of the attractive Augusta at a local tavern, on a desperate quest to find medicine for her raccoon bit sister, is enough to set the bummers after her. They arrive at night and a frantic siege of the farmhouse ensues, marked by rapidly escalating tension, violence, and rape. This part of the film reminded me of Straw Dogs where Dustin Hoffman fought off intruders, also while  besieged in a remote farmhouse.

Strong performances are given by everyone in the film, but particular credit goes to Brit Marling as Augusta, Sam Worthington as the head thug Moses, and especially Muna Otaru as Mad the family slave. Marling is convincing as an innately strong, beautiful young Southern woman, determined to preserve herself and her own no matter what, a true, brave lady as shown by her constant, selfless devotion and physical courage. Worthington is an interesting study of a villainous monster with sympathetic human flashes, confessing at one point he doesn’t know how to stop what he’s doing. The acting palm definitely goes to Otaru though with her portrayal of a young woman who’s experienced the absolute worst slavery has to offer, but still remains indomitable, dead game, ready to fight to the bitter end.

Although not didactic, this film faces some hard truths about American history, how the Civil War in general and Sherman’s March in particular were perfect settings for men to indulge in the very worst of human nature, becoming outright murderous psychopaths, the pure, steadily gnawing terror of women alone and near defenseless on an isolated farmstead, and the sheer, disgusting misery of slavery.  Yet even with all that heavy import, it’s still one hell of a horror movie with fast pacing, grotesque, disturbing imagery, and gritty, realistic violence.

This film isn’t for the squeamish. It also doesn’t seem to fit the Western genre. I recommend it to horror fans and Civil War buffs.

Film Review: “The Tracker”

TrackerThis is a hardboiled, downright brutal at times, Australian “Western” along the lines of The Proposition, but with a more stripped down plot and a deeper focus on the nation-continent’s racism, specifically white persecution of aboriginals.

Set in 1922, the film puts you in the middle of things from the start: three white policeman in the bush, sent to catch a fugitive aboriginal accused of murdering a white woman, led by an aboriginal tracker. Rather than names, the  mythical aspect is stressed through calling the characters by terms that describe their personalities, the Fanatic, the senior policeman, the Follower, a raw, new recruit, and the Veteran, a saddened, weary, older man.

As you can probably guess from his name, the Fanatic is just that, a miserable, sadistic racist who delights in the abuse and murder of aboriginals. Despite continual setbacks, largely his own fault, he drives the search party on to catch their quarry, always demanding absolute obedience and control. Most of his abuse is reserved for the Tracker, the smiling, deferential aboriginal guide who patiently plods ahead on  foot while the whites ride on horseback, as his keen, bush savvy eyes unerringly pick out the escaping Fugitive’s path.

Despite his complete underdog status, regarded as less than human by the whites, especially the vicious Fanatic, the Tracker quickly proves to have carefully hidden reserves of cunning, resourcefulness, and knowledge the whites consider him simply incapable of possessing. He’s brilliantly underplayed by the aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who was also in The Proposition. One way or another, he continually gets the better of the Fanatic as he leads the whites further into the bush. Gary Sweet also gives a good performance as the Fanatic, practically foaming at the mouth in his murderous frenzy to abuse aboriginals, men, women, and children alike, made all the more terrifying by his staring, intense, pale blue eyes.

There are frequent scenes of brutality against aboriginals with the worst depicted through shots of Mother Hubbard style primitive paintings. It’s still tough to watch and made even more horrible by knowing such behavior was not only condoned, but frequently honored. The Follower, played by Damon Gameau, has an interesting story arc as he steadily grows more repulsed by the Fanatic’s indiscriminate slaughter. Like any good Western, landscape is one of the most important characters.  The Tracker is deeply satisfying from that aspect as well with frequent, long, lyrical tracking shots of Australia’s bush, from rocky, lifeless plains to endless, rugged mountain vistas covered with scrub, as awe inspiring in its worn, weathered way as the American West. Most interesting of all are the aboriginal characters, especially those at the end who remain true to the ancient traditions, ominously rattling long spears at a white intruder.

I recommend this film to anyone who likes a good Western or those interested in Australian history, warts and all. Viewer be warned, however. Like The Proposition, you’ll need a pretty strong stomach to watch this one.

Film Review: “Django, Kill… If You Live, Shoot!”



































The late, great George “Gabby” Hayes, King of the Old Hollywood western sidekicks, once gave his opinion of the genre.   “I hate ’em,” Hayes honestly answered. “Really can’t stand ’em. They always are the same. You have so few plots.”

Hayes obviously never saw Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!, a bizarre blend of spaghetti western with grotesquerie from a giallo horror film. Thomas Milian, a Cuban-American actor who did OK in Italy playing psycho gunslingers, is the Stranger, half Mexican, half American, gunned down with the other Mexicans in a gang by their treacherous American compadres after a gold theft. Buried alive, Milian crawls out from a mass grave and is found by two Native American scavengers who don’t resemble actual Native Americans at all. After they revive Milian and fit him out with some golden bullets for his gun (“more deadly than lead”), he pursues his betrayers and comes to a town called The Unhappy Place. And here’s where it got really weird.

The Stranger learns the gang members were murdered before he arrived. This is one of the first very nasty scenes  where the gang is cruelly hunted down by a much bigger mob and either shot or hung with their bodies left hanging as a warning.  The rest of the film turns on various characters’ search for the stolen gold, the real villain of the film. The saloon keeper plots and fights with the general store owner while both men fear Sorrow, the openly gay, flamboyant big rancher with a pistolero army clad in black shirts with fancy white embroidery (too butch). Through it all the Stranger drifts, in the town, but not of it, a serene, Christ like figure except for his habit of pumping people full of golden bullets. The identification with Jesus gets literal when Sorrow’s bully boys kidnap the Stranger, strip him to a loincloth, and chain him to a cross.

Django has the standard spaghetti Western trimmings, guys who obviously aren’t American wearing cowboy hats with ridiculously dinky brims; location shots in Spain that don’t resemble the American Southwest at all; absurdly grandiose, highfalutin dialogue; not much in the way of continuity, only adding to the confusion; and most importantly, much time spent with characters engaged in long, silent portentous stares at one another. Add to that a steady stream of downright bizarre imagery and events, a small, prone child being ground down by a man in a chair; a madwoman trapped in a second floor room who cryptically signals from the window; a defiled cemetery with the crosses flung down and the graves dug open, all to find the gold, and it adds up to a trip, albeit an unpleasant one. The penultimate scene where a character’s greed ends in a literal shower of molten gold simply must be seen to be believed.

I recommend this film to fans of spaghetti Westerns, giallo horror movies, and anybody with a strong stomach who digs a crazy flick. If you’re not overly concerned about petty stuff like good taste and a plausible plot, you’re in for one wild, weird ride.