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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) August 27, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 5 comments

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards  Territory: Italy

Original title: C’era una volta il West 

Newlywed Jill (Cardinale) arrives in the town of Flagstone to find that her husband and his children from a previous marriage have been slain.  The executions were carried out by Frank (Fonda), who is working for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a rail baron crippled by a bone disease who is largely confined to his specially adapted train carriage.  Frank plants evidence to implicate the bandit Cheyenne (Robards) and his gang, but upon befriending him, Jill finds he is not the man responsible.  Cheyenne joins up with a harmonica-playing stranger (Bronson) to find out the truth.  Harmonica, though, has his own agenda.

'You brought two too many'

Upon watching this for the first time a few years ago, I was quite disappointed with certain aspects of this film.  In retrospect, much of my criticism was simply down to the fact that I had watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the previous week and I couldn’t help comparing the two films all the way down the line.  Now, I can judge the film on its own merits a lot more now, and Once Upon a Time in the West certainly does have a lot going for it.

It’s crystal clear right from the start that this is a big production. Paramount had given Leone a generous budget to work with and it shows (it has been stated that the Flagstone set alone cost more than A Fistful of Dollars).  The cast list is even more impressive than before (with Henry Fonda gleefully playing against type), and the production moved to the United States to shoot some genuine western scenery.  The direction from Leone is also excellent throughout, with more of his trademark wide shots mixed with extreme close-ups.  In fact, Once Upon a Time in the West is probably his best looking western, even without the standout crane shot introducing the town of Flagstone.

'Inside the dusters there were three men.  Inside the men there were three bullets.'

One of the few things that doesn’t work so well as far as I’m concerned is the decision to make one of the leading characters female.  Don’t get me wrong, Claudia Cardinale is very capable (and utterly, utterly beautiful) but I don’t think Leone really knew what to do with female characters; a little like Chang Cheh (I’ve got to make some kind of reference to the genre or seriously consider renaming this blog Heroes of the West!) in his films – who are usually either virtuous family members, untouchable goddesses or whores.  The character of Jill McBain is a bit of a mixture of those.  It seems to me an arbitrary decision to make a female lead, simply to do something different from the Dollars films.  The result is her character seems the least well drawn of them all, although being a non-combatant it is sometimes refreshing to see things from her perspective and not from a gun-toting cowboy for once.

'Your friends have a high mortality rate, Frank.' 

With the male leads we are on much more familiar ground.  “Harmonica” is cut from the same cloth as the Man with No Name (it is rumoured the part was originally offered to Eastwood, who refused in order to make his name in Hollywood), a mysterious, laconic stranger who plays a haunting dirge on his mouth organ whenever he appears.  His presence and purpose is unexplained throughout the film, but hinted at by his reference to men Frank has killed in the past.  Leone films tend to give rise to all kinds of theories, but the strangest one I’ve heard concerns Harmonica.  Some believe he was killed in the shootout that occurs at the start of the film, and spends the rest of the film as some kind of avenging spirit.  It’s a nice thought but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Leone was thinking and doesn’t seem wholly feasible; but judge for yourself.

Ironically, seeing as how he had such a tough time on a Leone film, it was Eli Wallach who persuaded Henry Fonda to appear in this film.  Leone had been trying for years to obtain him, but the quality of the scripts (or rather, the translations of the scripts) always put him off.  Fonda does indeed have some presence as the ruthless, self-centred Frank, and from testimony obviously enjoyed playing the bad guy for once!  His scene where Morton confronts him on the hillside, away from his specially adapted carriage, has particular bite when Fonda spits at him: “when you’re not on that train, you look like a turtle out of its shell”.

Robards rounds off the main cast with the mainly good-natured bandit Cheyenne, who has some nice chemistry with Bronson’s character.

Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack once again, but this time his contribution is more conventional.  All of the main characters have their own theme (one of which is actually a plot point in itself), and there’s also a surprisingly bouncy, melancholic tune that serves as the film’s main theme.  There seems to be different motifs or cinematic themes throughout the film (such as water), but one seems to be rhythm; from the persistence of the windmill at the start to the rhythmic click-clack of the railroad.  This is also captured in Morricone’s main theme.

I included this one just because I liked it.

While I still think Once Upon a Time in the West could have been paced a little better, I’m definitely coming to appreciate it a little more now.  In particular, I’m growing fond of the screenplay, which includes plenty of sharp and snappy dialogue.  It seems the film is a grower – it under performed at the box-office and but obtained its classic status in later years.  Which leaves me hopeful of enjoying this one even more in future.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) August 22, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, War, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 7 comments

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef  Territory: Italy

Original title: il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo

A drifter known only as Blondie (Eastwood) and a Mexican bandit Tuco (Wallach) have a nice scam going where the latter, wanted for heinous crimes, allows himself to get captured by the former, who collects the reward money and saves the bandit’s life at the last moment.  They then split the reward money and head on to the next town to repeat the process.  The partnership has many ups and downs (the couple distrust each other and try to kill each other with casual indifference) but the two are forced into working together again when they both come into separate pieces of information regarding the location of a cache of stolen Confederate gold worth $200,000.  Unfortunately, Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) also knows about the gold, and his ruthlessness and viciousness outweighs even that of Tuco’s and Blondie’s.  Paths cross and uneasy alliances are made and broken on the way to the gold, and all this occurring at a time when the country is being ripped apart by a bloody and horrific civil war.

The opening shot, which encapsulates Leone's style in just a few frames.

More than a western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is more like an epic adventure.  Finally, Leone had the budget to really go to town on this film, and the quantum leap between this and its predecessor is even more pronounced than between A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

The first line of dialogue is delivered more than ten minutes after the beginning of the film.  There are title cards for the three main characters that flash up on the screen upon conclusion of their introductory scene, and the last one appears when nearly a half hour has passed in film time.  With those kind of statistics, you could be forgiven for thinking The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would be a little slow.  Instead, it fits so many ideas into its running time that Leone could easily have made the film an hour longer and got away with it.

Tuco and Angel Eyes - How civilized!

This time, Clint Eastwood is not as prominent, and there is a good argument to be made that Eli Wallach is the real star of the film.  He certainly provides much of the humour and has more than his fair share of memorable scenes.  Van Cleef provides a worthy adversary as the thoroughly evil Angel Eyes.  His return is a thousand times removed from his role as the mostly benign Col Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More.

The simple story of three men in search of stolen gold is complicated only by the inconvenient interference of the war happening all around them.  Oddly, it is rarely, if ever, directly commented on by the central characters until Blondie, witnessing a particularly futile attack, comments:

Never seen so many men wasted so badly…

Which pretty much sums up the folly of war in just a few words.  Throughout the series, the Man with No Name has hit the nail on the head a few times, but never more so than here.

But that’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly all over.  Practically every scene is outstanding, and it is by turns comic, poignant, witty, exciting, brutally violent, melancholic and dramatic without any of the disparate elements working against each other.  The character of Tuco is especially entertaining, and rather than routing for Clint Eastwood all the time, the viewer can be strangely drawn to the rat-like bandit.  He’s not simply there for comic relief, though.  The scene where he confronts his brother, who has become a monk, is surprisingly weighty and well acted by Wallach.

'Every gun makes its own tune...'

Blondie, meanwhile, seems to have hardened somewhat from previous incarnations (if they are previous incarnations – see below) while paradoxically seemingly more compassionate and lyrical.  His introductory scene sees him leaving Tuco to die in the desert – hardly the actions of a man with a strong code of justice.  His sense of humour is wry and often dark to the point of absolute black (“sorry, Shorty”) and he dispenses put-downs and trades one-liners with Tuco to great effect.

Angel Eyes is, unsurprisingly, an altogether less sympathetic character.  He’s also the least well drawn of the characters, but this may have been intentional; our lack of any background on him only goes to make him more mysterious and deadly.  His introduction sets the tone when he refuses to renege on a job when offered more money to spare a man’s life and instead kill his employer: he takes the money and kills both parties, which has a kind of perverse sense of honour to it.  Where he goes, extreme brutality usually follows, and the scenes of torture and cold-blooded murder are still quite shocking in the 21st Century – I can only speculate how nasty they looked back in 1966.  He often disappears from the film for great lengths of time only to reappear out of nowhere and cause mayhem and destruction.

'I expect to hear good news...'

I’ve tried to avoid pointing out scenes in this review as I just got totally bogged down with “if I mention this, I have to mention that” and you realise the film is just so rich you’d spend all day saying stuff like “well, Tuco’s in the bath, and…” or “Tuco goes to a gun shop” or describing the bridge scene in great detail or any number of other occurrences.

There are a lot of clues that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a prequel to the other “Dollar” films.  Blondie starts the film in an entirely different outfit from the other films and acquires his hat and sheepskin jacket from Angel Eyes at the Betterville prison camp, while he takes his trademark poncho from a dead soldier.  This backs up other “evidence” from A Fistful of Dollars, where a grave is seen to carry the year 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War.  Or it could all be accidental!

The score is once again provided by Ennio Morricone and it’s a great testament to him that there are probably only a handful of films in existence in the entire world that have a more instantly recognisable theme.  But it doesn’t stop there – his ideas permeate the film and add to the atmosphere throughout.  Of particular note is the “Ecstasy of Gold” score, which excellently compliments the stunning visuals.

By the end of the trilogy, Leone was using more and more extras in full costume and authentic hardware, as can be seen in this massive, sweeping shot.

It’s a shame that relationships began to be strained between Eastwood (and others) and Leone and they never worked together again.  I’ve yet to see Once Upon a Time in America,  but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly seems pretty unbeatable as Leone’s greatest work – certainly Once Upon a Time in the West didn’t feel as well-paced and accessible as this. 

The version on review here is the somewhat controversial MGM Special Edition, with the addition of around 18 minutes’ worth of rare footage that was never dubbed into English before.  One of the problems is that Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood both came in to do their lines more than thirty years after the film was shot, while Van Cleef, having died in 1989, is voiced by a professional voice actor.  The somewhat predictable result is a jarring transition at times between the old and restored footage, particularly where the now very elderly Wallach is concerned.  Eastwood commented that dubbing his old self was like “looping my son”, while you can hardly tell the difference in Van Cleef’s dialogue.  It’s one of those impossible situations where people would have screamed blue murder if Wallach and Eastwood hadn’t come back to do their lines and professional “impersonators” had done the job for them.  The restored footage does help resolve a few continuity problems that occur in the regular release, and we get another good bit of Blondie and Tuco banter in the desert, so I say it was worth it.  Maybe I’m biased, though, as it’s the only version I’ve seen!  A lot of people were annoyed, though, that the audio was overhauled completely, which I understand resulted in the replacement of all of the original gunshot sounds with new ones amongst other changes.

I usually shy away from mentioning much about the DVD releases of films and concentrate on the actual film when I’m writing this stuff, but a special mention has to be made to the extras on this 2-Disc set.  There are masses of good mini documentaries in here, and Wallach and Eastwood are both present.  Wallach, particularly, is insightful into the making of the film, and recounts the few times he was nearly killed on set with good-humour.  He also recounts that he didn’t think the “shoot, don’t talk” line was supposed to be funny and played it straight – which probably adds to the effectiveness of the gag.  The somewhat relaxed attitude to safety in Italian film is mentioned throughout, with Eastwood telling a nice anecdote about where he intended to be when the bridge blew, having worked on Leone pictures before!  There are also featurettes on the real General Sibley, Leone, Ennio Morricone, plus a couple of “lost” and reconstructed scenes, a featurette about the restoration of the film and a few easter eggs.  All in all, a grand package for a film that immediately entered my Top Ten films when I first saw it and promises to be a firm favourite for many years to come.

Rush Hour 3 (2007) August 18, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Brett Ratner  Cast: Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Noémie Lenoir, Max von Sydow  Territory: USA  Production Company: New Line Cinema

I had a choice of film at the cinema today: Rush Hour 3 or The Simpsons Movie.  I was pretty much sure I’d hate the former, and pretty sure I’d like the latter.  So the yellow family won.  It’s strange, then, that the words that left my lips at the box office were: “Rush Hour 3, please”.


Anyway, I figure I’m going to have to see this film at some point so I might as well get it over with.  So is it as bad as everyone makes out?

Well, probably not.  But that’s not to say it’s a good film, because it’s not that either.  For a start, it’s easily the most predictable film I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know whether this was a deliberate ploy by Ratner to engender a feeling of cosy familiarity, but probably not.  The plot involves the shooting of the Chinese Ambassador by a group of Triads based in France, or something.  There’s certainly some excuse for the two to go to Paris and I’m pretty sure that was it.  It makes sense: the first Rush Hour was a fish-out-of-water film about a Chinese cop in the US, the second was a fish-out-of-water film about a US cop in Hong Kong, so in this one they’re both fishes-out-of-water.  My bet is Rush Hour 4 will take place on Mars.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits with the odd action scene thrown in, and more often than not, the comedy falls completely flat.  For example, there’s a scene where a captured henchman who only speaks French is questioned by Tucker and Chan, using a nun as an interpreter.  They trade insults via the nun without using language that might offend her.  Sounds like a recipe for hilarity, doesn’t it?  You can see the comic potential in such a situation but for some reason it never even raised a smile.  Similarly, when Tucker runs into a couple of guys called “Yu” and “Mi”…well you can guess what happens.  It’s pretty much the same joke that Mike Myers used in one of his Austin Powers movies with the Japanese girls Fook Yu and Fook Mi.  And then you’ve got the pacifistic French taxi driver with fierce anti-American views.  His diatribe seems so odd and out of place that you twig it almost immediately: he’s eventually going to turn into a gun-toting, gung-ho badass just like Carter, isn’t he?

The action is pretty much what you’d expect: almost non-existent from Chan, who, unless I’m mistaken, is doubled throughout the film.  It says something about the state of the series when you realise that Tucker (who has put on a few pounds since the last picture) pulls a few impressive moves.  The Parisian locations look pretty good, though, and there’s the occasional bit of sexiness from Lenoir as the damsel-in-distress/bad girl with a secret.  But eventually you’ll be looking at your watch wondering just when the bad guy will be revealed (sadly, there are no prizes for guessing who it is) so that you can watch the outtakes go home.

There are a couple of laughs in here, but they’re few and far between.  The outtakes are the best part of the whole film, and when Jackie bursts through a doorway, gun raised, yelling “cheese!” instead of “freeze!”, it provided the biggest laugh of them all.  It then descends into a “let’s make the foreigner say naughty things” type of thing, with Chan being given various lines in reference to getting a “dirty movie” – a line that a lot of his hardcore fans will hate, incidentally.  He spouts things like “I like hairy women”, “I’m into feet” and finally, “I like hoses”, before tuning off-screen to ask, “what does this mean?”  Sad, really.  And there’s the customary Tucker out-takes where he’s on a plane and can’t get his words out.  He does manage to order the gefilte fish, though.

This film won’t be shown in China.  Whether it’s because of some negative racial stereotyping, the inclusion of Roman Polanski in a cameo role, that line about Chan wanting to watch a dirty movie, or just because the film isn’t really very good is the subject of some debate.  You can’t help but feel that they’re not going to miss out on an awful lot.

For a Few Dollars More (1965) August 15, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 2 comments

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volantè  Territory: Italy

The success of A Fistful of Dollars is stamped all over this sequel.  Instead of the whole film taking place in one small location, we get several (apparently, one of the town sets built for the film still stands to this day!).  There are more extras, there’s more colour to the script, and most tellingly of all, Leone was now able to hire two American actors.

For a Few Dollars More tells the story of two bounty hunters (Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) who travel the country blagging criminals.  When a jailbreak frees a particularly dangerous criminal, El Indio (Volantè), the two team up to take him and his gang down.  El Indio wastes no time upon his early release and immediately plans a daring bank raid, with the two bounty hunters in tow.

The extended scope of this sequel really does help the film, and the tale of bank raids, jailbreaks and bounty hunters is pretty compelling, especially when tempered with the same wry humour from the original.  Some of the cast from A Fistful of Dollars return but in different roles, which can be a little confusing.  Heading the cast of baddies is again Gian Maria Volantè as El Indio – a man apparently suffering from a severe dependence on marijuana, but who is a deadly shot and a crazed loon thanks to a painful past.  His particular fetish is to challenge unfortunate souls to a duel using the last chime of his pocket-watch as a signal to begin. 

El Indio in a thoughtful mood between murders.

The Man With No Name (although some call him “Monco”) has developed a little from A Fistful of Dollars and is now a slightly more moral character, in that he has a more pronounced sense of justice.  He’s also less laconic and more prone to deliver the odd wisecrack. 

Lee Van Cleef’s addition to the cast as the chilled, pipe-smoking veteran Col Mortimer gives Eastwood someone to play off, and the pair trade one-liners effectively.  He’s given some nice scenes by himself; most notably his introduction right at the start of the film involving his train making an impromptu stop.  Also, there’s an early appearance by a twitchy Klaus Kinski as one of Indio’s gang.

'Mine's bigger!'

Again, the direction and cinematography is strong.  One standout scene takes place at night and involves a battle of wills and a game of one-upmanship between Van Cleef and Eastwood, involving the shooting of a stationery hat across a dirt floor.  The way the hat always lands in thin bands of light cast by neighbouring buildings is quite inventive and stylish. 

As in the previous film, Morricone provides the score.  While not as memorable as the previous instalment (and certainly nowhere near as identifiable as the next instalment) it serves the piece well.

Overall, definitely a worthy sequel, but one that seems overshadowed by both the originality of A Fistful of Dollars and the epic adventure of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) August 10, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 4 comments

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volantè, Wolfgang Lukschy, Marianne Koch  Territory: Italy  Production Company: Constantin Film Produktion

I used to be badgered by people who knew I was into Hong Kong movies that I would “love” Spaghetti Westerns.  I didn’t see what the attraction would be as I had never been into westerns, even as a kid.  But on seeing Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy a few years ago, I’ll admit I know where they were coming from, and have become quite fond of the sub-genre.

This is a tale of a drifter (Clint Eastwood) strolling into town and playing one group of criminals against another for his own monetary gain.  The story itself isn’t original – Kurosawa successfully sued for similarities to his film Yojimbo, despite the latter film itself bearing more than a passing resemblance to an 18th century stage play.  What made it original was the dark, oppressive tone of the film (which became a staple of the genre and was occasionally taken to ridiculous extremes), the introduction of a laconic yet charismatic anti-hero and some dramatic and stylish directing.  Not to mention the addition of one of the finest film score composers who ever lived.

The first five minutes sets the tone pretty well – this film, and all the characters in it, seem to have a morbid fascination with death.  We even start with a hanging, and the only happy man in town is the local undertaker.  However, the plot of the Baxters (bad) against the Rojos (very bad) is not overly compelling, and the story loses momentum during the latter’s burning of the former’s mansion.  In a parallel to the Bruce Lee films, the screen seems to go dead when Eastwood isn’t on screen – although it’s more evident here than on subsequent films.  Thankfully, the tempo does pick up again for the inevitable climactic showdown, though.

There's gonna be a whuppin'!

Although Leone insisted that the three films were unrelated, it seems pretty likely that the infamous Man With No Name is the same character in all three films.  Furthermore, I’ve just realised (and a quick scan on the internet seems to confirm, or at least validate the theory) that A Fistful of Dollars is set after The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and that Leone’s 1966 masterpiece is a prequel to this film.  Whether the Man With No Name had a name or not is still a matter of debate.  The tag seems to have been an invention of US distributors, but interestingly, although referred to by other characters under a variety of names from film to film, he never actually refers to himself under any of them.  For example, in this one, he’s called Joe, but only by the elderly undertaker.

The music is provided by Ennio Morricone, and his style is evident even this early in his career with his haunting score of grunts, whistles along with more traditional musical instruments.  Clint provides his own voice for the English language version, and he obviously took a great deal of care in the looping process to lip-synch the audio.  I’m glad I ‘discovered’ these films in the DVD age, as I’m positive that all of Leone’s films would have looked utterly rubbish in a fullscreen format.  You would just miss far too much detail on a pan-and-scan edition that it just wouldn’t be worth it as Leone seemed to work entirely in extreme close-ups and dramatic panoramic shots.

For anyone who still hasn’t discovered the Leone/Eastwood films, this is the obvious place to start, and A Fistful of Dollars still makes for entertaining viewing today.  But be advised that there was better to come.

Chan to direct Armour of God 3? August 5, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Articles , 7 comments

I read two interesting articles this week about Jackie Chan, and I can’t help thinking that maybe the two separate stories are related somehow.

The first, brought to my attention by dleedlee at the Hong Kong Movie Database, concerns Jackie’s relationship with the Rush Hour movies.  Apparently, he’s not a fan, and his comments could not really come at a worse time as Rush Hour 3 is about to speed its way to our screens anytime now.

As well as venting his frustration at not having free reign with the action scenes, he also bypasses any kind of semblance of tact and slates the crowd-pleasing “War” singalong from the first instalment, saying: “I hate that, the whole thing, I hate it, even the [head bobbing] movement”, although it appears he’s chalking all that down to cultural differences as he wasn’t familiar with the song.  He also publicly says he “hates” the American system and states point blank of the original Rush Hour: “I hate the movie”.

'Say it again, you all!' - the male bonding moment in Rush Hour. 

So why did he come back for a third instalment?  “My manager begged me to do it”, Chan says, which is just the kind of quote you want on a movie poster outside theatres showing the new movie. 

Don’t hold your breath for Rush Hour 4, then.  

Hot on the heels of this revelation comes the staggering news that Chan is planning to return to directing and scriptwriting for a second sequel to one of his most successful films ever, Armour of God. 

If this comes to pass, it’s exciting news indeed.  The last whole film directed by Jackie was 1991’s Operation Condor, which was the first sequel to Armour of God (although in the States, they switched the films around so that in their universe Armour of God is a sequel to Operation Condor).  Operation Condor was so expensive and took so long to complete that Golden Harvest “requested” that he used other directors in future, and the work suffered.  It needs to be remembered that just prior to Operation Condor, Jackie had handed in his magnum opus Mr Canton and Lady Rose, which turned out to be an expensive and time consuming flop.  The best scenes Chan did in the 90’s were when he directed himself like in the good ol’ days of the 80’s, including the now-infamous finalé of Drunken Master II

Time travelling Jackie stars in 1986's sequel to 1991's Operation Condor.  Or something. 

Now he’s free of Golden Harvest I suppose he can do what he likes, and the decision to resurrect Armour of God kind of makes sense.  The name of his most popular series, Police Story, became sullied with the lamentable First Strike, and New Police Story moved the series in a direction few fans wanted to go.  A new Project A movie would proabably not be considered simply because it would raise the Hung/Yuen question again, although if the new Armour of God movie is a hit, who knows what will happen?  There are certainly still plenty of fans foaming at the mouth for a reunion. 

Sadly, we’re going to have to wait a while to see if he’s still got his directorial chops.  Armour of God 3: Chinese Zodiac doesn’t begin shooting until April 1st (I hope this is not some kind of wildly elaborate April Fool’s joke!) and we all know Jackie’s plans can change like the weather.  In the meantime, he’s working on a kind of remake of Journey to the West with Jet Li, and it doesn’t look anything to write home about. 

But at least we’ve now got something to look forward to. You can read the articles here and here.

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