Hidden Treasures – Week of June 29th

Now, the latest installment of Hidden Treasures. At the suggestion of some of the Row Three community (OK, it was Henrik), I’m toying with a new format. Please let me know what you think of it.

Django (1966)
Played by Franco Nero, the title character of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film, Django, is just about as textbook-perfect a spaghetti western gunslinger as you can get; a man as quick with a gun as he is short on conversation. In fact, the only thing that sets Django apart from other heroes of this genre is his traveling companion, which just happens to be a coffin. As the opening titles of Django play out, our hero is seen dragging this coffin behind him, through the mud and up a steep hill. As character introductions go, this one’s hard to top.

Within moments of his (and his coffin’s) arrival in a Mexican border town, Django finds himself in the middle of an ongoing feud between two murderous mobs. On one side are the local Mexican bandits, led by the ruthless General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo), and on the other a crew of American Confederate soldiers under the command of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). As is the case with most such feuds, gun battles often break out in the middle of town, where innocent civilians inadvertently serve as target practice. What neither side counted on, however, was Django, who’s blazing guns and badass attitude show no favorites when it comes to dishing out his own unique brand of justice.

As mentioned above, Django has all the makings of a great Spaghetti western hero, yet like all such films, his heroics wouldn’t amount to much if it weren’t for the lowlifes on the other side of his gun. In Django we’re given two strong adversaries, the first of which is Major Jackson, a bigoted Confederate Army officer with a hatred for all things Mexican. The second baddie, General Rodriguez, proves just as brutal as his American counterpart, and even cuts the ear off a man he accuses of spying for Jackson. At the outset, Django and Rodriguez appear to be friends, yet friendships like theirs aren’t destined to last very long.

Due to its excessive violence, Django was banned outright in many countries, with the MPAA refusing to issue it a rating upon its release in the United States. With one or two exceptions, the violence in Django is tame compared to what can be seen in movies today, yet what hasn’t dissipated with time is this film’s exhilarating style, heightened by a handful of incredible gunfights. With action and excitement aplenty, Django takes its rightful place as one of the best the Spaghetti Western genre has to offer…

…Coffin and all.

Owning Mahowney (2003)
Dan Mahowney (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works as an assistant manager for a large Toronto-based bank. With his low-key mannerisms, he is the consummate professional, a man who serves his customers while keeping a sharp eye on the bank’s bottom line. He is smart, well respected, and someone you can depend on to get the job done. Dan Mahowney is also a compulsive gambler, one who has embezzled over $10 million from his employers to feed a habit he can no longer control. Owning Mahowney, directed by Richard Kwietniowski, tells both sides of his story.

Based on an actual event that occurred in Toronto in the early 1980’s, Owning Mahowney is the detailed study of a man who lived two lives, that is until the day one of those lives finally took control of the other. At first, Mahowney successfully concealed his addictions from those closest to him, including his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver), who never once suspected that the man she loved flew to Atlantic City every weekend, dropped tens of thousands of dollars, then returned home to her. In fact, Mahowney became such a regular at one casino that its President, Victor Foss (John Hurt), took to treating Mahowney as if he were a member of the royal family. Yet as his notoriety as a gambler grew, so did the danger that his world would come crashing down around him.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a remarkably reserved performance as Mahowney, a man who had perfected his poker face to the point he wore it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He loved the thrill of the odds, and this love became so addicting that it extended beyond the personal to his professional life as well. He started by slyly withdraws millions against the loan account of the bank’s biggest customer. Then, to get his hands on even more money, Mahowney creates a fictitious loan account, gives it his personal approval, and begins withdrawing heavily from it as well. Having made a career as a shrewd, careful administrator, Mahowney was now taking staggering risks. Dan Mahowney the professional was slowly disappearing, and Dan Mahowney the gambler was moving in full-time.

The chances that the title character takes in Owning Mahowney, both at and away from the gambling table, will have you cringing. Yet while Dan Mahowney certainly lost control of his life, we come away believing that, in the end, it was a sacrifice he was more than willing to make. For Mahowney, gambling meant living, and every moment he spent away from his obsession was a moment wasted.

In the end, he wasn’t wasting any time at all.

Northfork (2003)
Written and directed by brothers Mark and Michael Polish, Northfork is the kind of movie I adore, a film brave enough to introduce fantasy into a realistic setting as it simultaneously balances elements of both comedy and drama. Whether you want to laugh, cry, or simply be amazed, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Northfork.

It’s 1955, and the good citizens of the town of Northfork have been asked to abandon their homes to make way for a new hydroelectric dam, which will flood the town once it becomes fully operational. Yet despite repeated warnings, not everyone has left Northfork, and it falls to a small group of men in black suits to make sure those who remain leave before it’s too late. Among these men is Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and his son, Willis (Mark Polish), who, along with the others, are promised tracts of land in a brand new community as a reward for performing this most difficult of tasks. As they’re quick to learn, however, many who remain in Northfork are determined to stay at all costs. Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) is one such person, who’s remained in Northfork mostly because he’s too busy caring for a dying young boy named Irwin (Duel Farnes) to even think of moving. As father Harlan has come to realize, Irwin is a very special child. While lapsing in and out of consciousness, Irwin experiences visions that have him convinced he’s the long-lost Angel of Northfork. In fact, a small band of actual angels have themselves just arrived in Northfork, looking to investigate Irwin’s ‘divine’ claim.

Elements of several genres show their face throughout Northfork. First off, there’s the dramatic, on both a grand scale (the loss of the town) and a more personal one (the illness of young Irwin). In fact, the film’s dramatic moments, which I found to be so very powerful, are themselves enough to transform Northfork into an unforgettable cinematic experience. But then there’s comedy as well, perpetrated mostly by the men in black suits during their various run-ins with Northfork’s most stubborn citizens. One such resident, Mr. Stalling (Marshall Bell), isn’t leaving because he believes he’s properly prepared for the coming floodwaters; he’s transformed his house into an Ark. While Mr. Stalling didn’t have enough time to gather 2 giraffes, 2 tigers or even 2 chickens, he was at least able to rustle himself up two wives. Finally, and perhaps most impressive, is Northfork’s sense of fantasy, presented within the story of Irwin and his four angel friends. One of these four, an angel named Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), believes Irwin is, indeed, the lost angel of Northfork, while her accomplices, such as Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) and Happy (Anthony Edwards), have their doubts (the fourth angel, Cod, played by Ben Foster, may or may not agree; we never know for sure because he never speaks). The imagery surrounding these angelic characters is inspiring, and the various scenes they appear in challenge us time and again to accept the incredible, even when presented within the context of this story’s reality.

With Northfork, the Polish brothers have successfully combined fantastical whimsy with the everyday humdrum, at times leaving us to wonder where the whimsy begins and the humdrum ends. Films like Northfork carry with them the promise of marvelous possibilities lurking around every corner, and I, for one, loved this particular journey to uncover them.

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Kurt
Guest

Excellent edition, as usual Dave. I'm a huge fan of Owning Mahoney and especially of the dreamy cynicism of North Fork. Django is sitting on my table beckoning to be put in the drive.

Marina Antunes
Admin

Yeah, great call on "Owning Mahowney". Not a glossy production but well worth it for Hoffman's great performance.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

Big props go out to John Hurt for his slithery casino owner in Owning Mahoney. Damn fine performance which makes his recent Indiana Jones perf even more laughable…

stump
Guest

Django is a lot of fun. It's old-fashioned sixties violence but it's still pretty brutal. You forgot to mention the influence on Tarantino with the ear scene.

Dave
Guest

Django is a lot of fun. It’s old-fashioned sixties violence but it’s still pretty brutal. You forgot to mention the influence on Tarantino with the ear scene.

You're right! I remember smiling about that Tarantino connection while watching Django. Good call.

Jonathan
Admin

Django was definitely an influence on Tarantino (which is why he was cast a small part in Takashi Miike's remake). Django is great fun, but still doesn't hold a candle to Corbucci's masterwork The Great Silence (have you seen this yet, Kurt, you slacker?).

Owning Mahoney is a lot of fun too.

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