Saturday, September 5, 2009

Return of the Seven

Day 248 - 9/5/09 - Movie #245

BEFORE: God bless Turner Classic Movies! Really, I mean it, and I don't even like to say "God bless you" when someone sneezes. May the Creator's countenance shine favorably on those who program TCM. The same week I planned to watch "The Magnificent Seven", TCM ran all three of its sequels, back-to-back. And each film is relatively short, so I can do two-a-days and catch up. Yul Brynner returns as Chris Adams, but Steve McQueen's Vin and Horst Buchholz's Chico were recast. Not to spoil the ending of the first film, but they have to recruit some more members...

THE PLOT: When a bandit leader wants to build a church in memory of his dead sons, he raids three Mexican villages and kidnaps all the men for labor. Chris recruits four others (a playboy, an avenger, a highwayman and an orphan) to reform the Seven, once again defending farmers from their oppressors.

AFTER: And thank God for the IMDB, too. It was driving me crazy trying to figure out where I'd seen Warren Oates, who played Colbee. I recognized the shape of his face, and was picturing him older, and wearing an army uniform. I was on the right track - 15 years later, he played Sgt. Hulka in "Stripes".

They were obviously trying to re-create the magic of the original, but they may have stuck too close to the original story - it's almost like a re-make rather than a sequel. Same village to rescue from Mexican bandits - how many times does this village need to be saved, and is it really worth it?

And there's not as much time spent on exposition, so no peek into the gunslinger mentality or lifestyle this could say that a better sequel (of sorts) to "The Magnificent Seven" would be "The Great Escape", which had the same director, John Sturges, and three of its stars - Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Winchester rifles

The Magnificent Seven

Day 248 - 9/5/09 - Movie #244

BEFORE: Another well-regarded iconic Western, with another famous theme song, starring Eli Wallach (back-to-back!), Steve McQueen (seen last in "Papillon") and Yul Brynner. I really only know Yul Brynner from "The King and I", so I'm looking forward to seeing him in something else. Wait, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Bronson, too? Damn, this movie is filled with extra testosterone! I picked this DVD up at the $5 DVD store a few weeks back...

THE PLOT: An oppressed Mexican peasant village assembles seven gunfighters to help defend their homes.

AFTER: The DVD liner notes called this the last great Western before Sergio Leone re-invented the genre. Yes, this is a manly movie, filled with manly man's men doing manly things - like defending a Mexican village from bandits, not because it's profitable, just because it's the right thing to do.

Actually, the seven men have different motivations, and that goes a long way toward making them distinct characters. Yul Brynner is Chris Adams, the ringleader, McQueen is Vin, the philosopher, Horst Buchholz is Chico, the eager youngster with little experience, and Robert Vaughn is Lee, who has the experience, but lacks the courage.

And how tough is Steve McQueen? Tough enough to play a cowboy wearing a pink shirt and bandanna, and still be a manly man. The villagers all wear white, which is very considerate of them, so we can distinguish them from the bandits during the big shootout. I also noticed that none of the Mexicans seem to have Mexican accents, except of course for Eli Wallach, who is not Mexican at all - the actor is Jewish and from New York...

Still, it's a classic. Based, of course, on the famous Kurosawa film "The Seven Samurai", which I've never seen. But I'm not putting that on my list, I have no interest in it. Kudos to whoever decided to draw the parallels between Samurai warriors and American cowboys. And this really gets into the methodology of gunslingers, by comparing them to the farmers of the village.

RATING: 7 out of 10 gunbelts

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Day 247 - 9/4/09 - Movie #243

BEFORE: Or to be precise, "Il buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo"... Aw, yeah, do Italians make the best cowboy movies or what? I suppose it's a little like saying that the Koreans make the best cars...

THE PLOT: A bounty hunting scam joins two men in an uneasy alliance against a third in a race to find a fortune in gold buried in a remote cemetery.

AFTER: I didn't realize the title would be so literal - the 3 concepts are personified by Eastwood (The Good), Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) and Eli Wallach, who must have showed up last for the cast reading and got last pick. Eastwood's character, called "Blondie" in this film, is running a con where he turns in the wanted Tuco (Wallach) for the bounty, then shoots the rope to rescue him from the noose - nice scam. Yet Blondie is still considered "good" - so I guess it's all relative.

Blondie wants to dissolve the partnership, Tuco (apparently the world's first Jewish Mexican) wants revenge, and things spiral out of control from there. What follows is not so much of an epic narrative, but more like a series of linked vignettes, like a Western "Pulp Fiction".

Van Cleef plays a Union commander named Sentenza, so I don't think he's the same character that Van Cleef played in the previous film - there are no direct references to prior events, so it's hard to be sure...

And all three are after this stash of Civil War gold, so there's a lot of uneasy alliances made (and un-made) as they travel across the land to the location, where each may or may not have a piece of the puzzle. Each time there's a change in someone's fortune, or someone gets the upper hand on someone else, we hear that very famous recurring musical theme - even if you've never seen the film, I'm sure you know it...the combination of whistling and muted trumpet...

"Woo WOO-ey woo woo.... Waah WAAH Waah..."

Which I now regard as the musical equivalent of "Neener, neener, neener!" or perhaps the "Sad Trombone" music made famous on game shows...

It's a Western film, a war film, a quest film, and a heist/scam film, all rolled into one. And at the end, there's the ultimate technical expression of a "Mexican Standoff" - which IMDB compared to "Reservoir Dogs", so I think I'm spot-on with the Tarantino comparison...

That's it for my Eastwood chain - but obviously I'm on a Western theme now. I've got about a week's worth of Westerns coming up - I'd like to hit them all so I don't have to circle back this way again...TCM has been very helpful by running "Shane" last week, plus I picked up "The Wild Bunch" (director's cut) at the $5 DVD store. Fortunately it's a holiday weekend coming up, so maybe I can watch two a day and catch up a little.

RATING: 7 out of 10 wooden crosses

Thursday, September 3, 2009

For a Few Dollars More

Day 246 - 9/3/09 - Movie #242

BEFORE: Technically, it's "Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu" - in the original Italian, of course.

My pet peeve this week is with cable channels that, for whatever reason, do NOT run sequels back-to-back, which in my mind should be a no-brainer. Why wouldn't you want to lock in a viewer for 4 hours instead of 2? If you've got the rights to "Terminator", for example, spend a few more bucks and lock down the rights to "Terminator 2", for chrissakes. But too often, the rights to a franchise are split among several different channels, creating a scattershot approach to entertaining America. Case in point - the Encore Westerns channel ran "A Fistful of Dollars" a few months ago, but this sequel ran on AMC, a channel I had vowed not to watch, due to the ads and the oversensitive editing. Still, I figured I should grab it and complete the set, who knows when some other channel would run it commercial-free? AMC, why can't you be like other channels and run movies without interruptions, the way nature intended?

THE PLOT: Two bounty hunters with completely different intentions team up to track down a Western outlaw.

AFTER: Eastwood's Drifter With No Name has drifted from San Miguel, Mexico, to El Paso, TX - and is now a bounty hunter. But he's not the only one, and Lee Van Cleef's Col. Douglas Mortimer is his competition in tracking down "El Indio". The villain looked very familiar, and yes, IMDB confirmed that he also played Ramon Rojo in "Fistful of Dollars"...

The production values on this film are much higher, and there's more of a coherent story - I had no trouble staying awake through this one. I liked the structure, with the two bounty hunters teaming up - one working inside the gang and one working outside. Some things are still the same - Drifter can still take out 4 guys by firing his pistol rapidly, before any of his opponents can get off one shot...but Mortimer appears to be the more accurate gunman - shooting the Drifter's hat up in the air, and keeping it aloft with 5 successive shots.

The music's a little better too - we're still one movie away from the most famous Ennio Morricone theme song - but you can sort of get a hint of it here. I would love to see the drifter ride into town and wonder "Where's that whistling coming from?"

RATING: 6 out of 10 stubby cigars

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

Day 245 - 9/2/09 - Movie #241

BEFORE: I'll finish Clint Eastwood Week (and kick-off Westerns Week #2) with the trilogy of "Spaghetti Westerns" that made him famous - in which he plays the "Man With No Name". Sure, I could have watched "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" months ago, but I waited - since watching all 3 films in the proper order should be more satisfying.

THE PLOT: A wandering gunfighter plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride, and revenge.

AFTER: I liked the story structure, with Eastwood's drifter bouncing between the two rival gangs, earning money from both to take out the other - I've never seen that idea before. But there were too many characters for me to keep track of. Ramon, Esteban, Chico - I couldn't keep track of all the gang members without a scorecard. Same with the women - Marisol and Consuela looked too similar for me to follow along.

I did doze off three times while trying to finish this - despite the help of Mountain Dew AND chocolate-covered espresso beans. Whether that reflects more on the movie or my poorly planned nocturnal viewing, I'm not sure. But it doesn't bode well for the next 2 movies.

However, Eastwood really rocks that poncho, and at least now I get the references in "Back to the Future III". But do I believe that a gunslinger can fire enough shots to take out 4 opponents before any of them can fire at him? Not really...

RATING: 4 out of 10 coffins

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blood Work

Day 244 - 9/1/09 - Movie #240

BEFORE: Eastwood Week continues with another film about matching wits with a killer -

THE PLOT: Still recovering from a heart transplant, a retired FBI profiler returns to service when his own blood analysis offers clues to the identity of a serial killer.

AFTER: It's an intriguing idea - a retired agent trying to track down the killer of the woman he got his donor heart from. Technically an organ recipient is not supposed to know the identity of the donor, but Eastwood's (Terry McCaleb's) blood type is extremely rare - plus without that information, there wouldn't be such a personal connection to the case.

It's actually not a bad "whodunit" - you can use it to test your own observation/detective skills. Can you figure out the identity of the killer before the movie reveals it?

Supporting work by Anjelica Huston, Paul Rodriguez, Jeff Daniels and Dylan Walsh.

RATING: 6 out of 10 pill bottles

Monday, August 31, 2009

In the Line of Fire

Day 243 - 8/31/09 - Movie #239

BEFORE: Yesterday he was being hunted by the Secret Service, this time Clint plays a Secret Service agent - so the tables are turned. I suppose I could start a whole chain of political films from my list, like "Primary Colors" and "The American President", but I really want to get to those "Man With No Name" Westerns later on this week...

THE PLOT: Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan couldn't save Kennedy, but he's determined not to let a clever assassin take out this president.

AFTER: If you're looking for someone to play a criminal genius who's out to assassinate the President, your first (and last) call should be to John Malkovich's agent. Supporting work here by Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott and Gary Cole as other Secret Service agents, and John Mahoney and Fred Dalton Thompson as government officials.

Eastwood's Agent Horrigan has his work cut out for him, tracking down Malkovich's Mike Leary, who's a master of disguise, weaponry and has a grudge against the government. Horrigan also has to deal with his own physical and mental limitations - his age and the fact that he's still haunted by his failure to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

I found this pretty believable (much more than yesterday's flick) since Malkovich brings the crazy so good. And Eastwood's not playing a Superman, showing that he's "too old for this" also helps.

RATING: 7 out of 10 metal detectors

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Absolute Power

Day 242 - 8/30/09 - Movie #238

BEFORE: Don't know much about this film - just that it stars Clint Eastwood and no monkeys -

THE PLOT: A career thief witnesses a horrific crime involving the U.S. President.

AFTER: I dunno - I found this a little far-fetched...I mean, I can buy Gene Hackman as the U.S. President, and thanks to Slick Willie Clinton I can believe that the U.S. President likes to get it on with women other than the First Lady (come on, isn't that one of the reasons for trying to become President?) - but seeing Gene Hackman as the President engaging in rough extramarital sex? We're into official TMI territory here.

And the whole thing takes place while Clint Eastwood's character, Luther Whitney, is burglarizing the woman's home, and he just happens to duck into her vault of valuables, which has a convenient two-way mirror, so he can watch? And then the Secret Service happens to miss a key piece of evidence while cleaning up the ensuing crime scene, which he just happens to find? I'm having trouble calculating the overwhelming odds against all of these little things adding up to one unlikely movie plot.

I can buy Ed Harris as a Washington D.C. cop, who contacts Whitney (since he's on a short list of people who could have committed the burglary), and Eastwood manages to charm him, throw him off the trail, and pretend to help him solve the crime (another series of unlikely events) while buying the time he needs to clear his name.

So, instead of fleeing the country, a common thief decides to go up against one of the most powerful men in the world, who has the resources of the Secret Service, CIA and FBI at his disposal. Right...

RATING: 5 out of 10 fake passports