Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

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Elements Of The Screen: Yakkity-Yak, Don’t Talk Back (Dialog And Assumptions Thereof)

Hey, there’s a new ‘Elements’ article up!  Sweet!  Go check it out.

Inglourious Basterds

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Audacious, shocking, funny, brilliant, and challenging storytelling.  More than entertainment, Tarantino uses the guise of a war movie to shoot holes in our conceptions of onscreen violence.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Review:  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur if there ever was one.  His striking, consistent, and audacious style is unmistakable and unmatched.  His films are often condemned by the morally conscientious for being violent and sexually explicit, a charge I have issues with, but will not answer in this review.  His cinematic reputation is marked by blood, swearing, and crime.  One would think, from a popular conception, that his films are concerned with reveling in the dark side of life.  I would contest this openly.  And ‘Inglourious Basterds’ provides an excellent reason why.

The story is dark, to be sure.  “Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France”, after all, is the story’s setting.  Blood is bound to be spilled.  The film opens with a truly chilling conversation between a Nazi villain known as Colonel Hans Landa — who I would call one of the greatest screen villains of all time — and a French farmer.  Hans Landa, as an aside, is played by Christoph Waltz, an unbelievably good actor, but not well known in the states.  Hopefully this movie will change that.  Anyway, the farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his house, and Landa knows it.  Tarantino has always been noted for the strength of his characters and the writing in general, and this film is certainly no exception.  The tension builds and builds throughout the scene, a solid ten minutes of rising horror.  Only one Jewish girl escapes the ordeal alive, spared for the hell of it by Landa as she runs away from a sudden machine gun massacre.

This girl grows up to become a cinema owner, through a series of events that the theatergoer is not privy to.  I had the privilege of reading the original screenplay Tarantino typed out, and there is a solid hour of events missing from the final cut, scenes I believe were filmed and should end up on the DVD/Bluray with any luck.

Meanwhile, the Americans have organized an elite fighting team of Jewish soldiers, dubbed the ‘Basterds’ by the Germans.  They are literally terrorists, waging guerrilla warfare behind, around, and between enemy lines, killing Nazis without mercy.

Eventually, both stories converge at the cinema, and let’s just say it becomes hell on Earth as history is dismissed in a brilliant checkmate by Tarantino.  Seriously.

This is not a simple revenge fantasy, however.  Killing Nazis may be the Basterd’s goal, but in the end, if the audience is really paying attention, they may have second thoughts about such simple moral terms.  In the end, there is no “them”, no heartless enemy we can kill without blinking.  They are real human beings, and we are just as evil as they are.  Just about everybody in the story has the chance to be a, well, bastard, and to be a good guy — or at least a decent individual.  Tarantino brilliantly exposes the truth that war, and any violence for that matter, is hell for everybody involved.  The violence, though brief, is utterly devastating and quite realistic.  There are not really any improbable escapes or awesome firefights.  There is a Mexican Standoff where everybody involved, and even some that weren’t, is killed, except for one person.  The violence is played at real time, without any of the slow-motion, Matrix-inspired action gimmicks.  There aren’t any moments where we are called on to enjoy the violence, just to watch and to experience the emotional and sociological implications of seeing those sorts of things happening.  It’s both awful and necessary to the story Quentin’s telling.

The cinematography, unlike all the Michael Bay, rapid-fire bullshit that’s so popular these days, is nearly perfect.  Forget 3-D, this is immersion in the scene.  During the Mexican Standoff, we are placed at the table, and forced to watch the characters interact organically, patiently, as they — and thus, we — try to figure out how to get out of the situation.  The tension is palpable because we are really invested.  Going hand-in-hand with the sheer patience of the cinematography is the way the characters are fleshed out.  Tarantino has claimed more than once that he allows his characters to literally drive the story, rather than following the common practice of moving your principal players around like sprites in a video game world, and it’s extremely well evident.  These are people.  Thank God, then, that the violence is so sparse, or else we’d feel like the characters were being disrespected.  Instead, they react to violence like any real person would, and we find ourselves caught up in sympathy.

Part of the complete package of humanity, of course, is humor.  Tarantino breaks with convention and even laces the humor directly into his filmmaking style, with wacky captions and musical stingers.  It’s a style that must be seen to be believed, and it’s hysterical.  Even the villains get to be the comics.

After all was said and done, history had been changed, and the credits rolled in typical Tarantino fashion, I walked out the theater reminded why I fell in love with Tarantino’s work.  Not only is this one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies Tarantino has made, right behind the cult classic ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In the words of Quentin Tarantino through the character Lt. Aldo Raine, “You know, that right there just might be my masterpiece…”

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.

The International

Stars:  **1/2 out of Four

Summary:  Decent plot, great acting, and striking visuals make for a good R-rated thriller.

A good poster, from the most shocking scene of the movie.  But Naomi Watts character was not present in the actual scene.

A good poster, from the most shocking scene of the movie. But Naomi Watts' character was not present in the actual scene.

Review:  I went to the movies this Friday the 13th, of the month of February, to see my second R-rated feature in theaters.  It wasn’t ‘Friday the 13th’.  It was ‘The International’, a surprising, globe-trotting crime thriller with a single action set piece.  That’s right, just one; don’t believe what the trailers have told you, this is not an action movie.  The slow pace may put off the people who are looking for an adrenaline buzz.  That’s not to say that the single action scene we are shown is not impressive; it is remarkably well executed, grounded, and intense.  Everybody involved gets hurt.  Boy, do they hurt.  It’s very shocking and bloody, especially for such an exhaustively realistic picture.  You feel somewhat guilty for enjoying it, actually.

Enough about that.  I did say that the film is “exhaustively realistic”, and that may be an exaggeration, but it somehow works.  I really believed in the characters.  The writing was somewhat thin, or blunt, at times, but the actors really managed to carry it to unprecedented heights.  Clive Owen is especially good.  He portrays an INTERPOL agent who teeters on the very edge of becoming corrupted by his fight against the titular bank, and I sometimes questioned how far he would go.  Yet he remains noble, and a very human hero, much more so than most recent protagonists in action films.  Alongside him is Naomi Watts as his (not romantic) partner, who provides his conscience and just plain good sense at times.  Not that he lacks those things; she just gives them a public voice.

Opposite Owen and Watts are several very good actors playing the heads of various arms manufacturers and, of course, the bank.  There is some very good interplay between Owen’s character and a former Communist, now a top player in the bank, which gives us insight into how both men see the world. How they interact is the best part of this movie, hands down.

I won’t bore you with details of the plot.  I thought it was good entertainment, if dark and shockingly violent at times.  As Ebert would say, two thumbs up.

NOTE:  The Stars rating has been lowered from *** to **1/2, not because I think less of the film, but because I realize I may have overrated it.