Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Nitpickery -- A Fistful of Dollars

Hey y'all.  So the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (that I shall continually refer to as GBU) is on Netflix, and I've been watching it like you wouldn't believe.  Very obsessed, much.  So why shouldn't I do a review of this trilogy?  After all, if I love GBU so much, then shouldn't I know the full story of Clint Eastwood's character, as told by director Sergio Leone?

Of course, A Fistful of Dollars is first.  It's the story of the Man with No Name -- referred to as Joe -- who enters a town full of thugs and murderers.  Two crime families, the Rojos and the Bakers, have a deadly rivalry going on, and they can't stop antagonizing one another.  In comes Joe, who, through clever thinking and good shooting, sets the two families against one another so that they can destroy themselves and spare the innocent populace.

That's what I gather, anyway.

---- Top Ten Things to Say about A Fistful of Dollars. ---

10.  This movie suuuuucks.

Yeah, it's pretty boring.  Sure, it's nowhere near the worst thing I've ever seen, but it has several problems: the characters are unrelatable, the plot has too many conveniences, and there are times when we have no clue what Joe is trying to do.  Heck, the whole middle conflict is just so utterly unrealistic that it throws me out of the whole movie.

But the worst part of this is that it's just boring.  None of the characters are special, the dialogue is generic, and no action of the movie rises above generic Western black and white low budget shows of the 1940s.  Basically put, anyone could do a movie of this quality.  Me, you, random kids with cameras, the key to a costume warehouse, and a basic knowledge of how westerns work.

Apparently, however, this is supposed to be based on Yojimbo, a Japanese film about a drifter likewise turning two crime families against one another.  According to the lawsuit, Fistful copied it "shot for shot" -- which honestly makes me wonder how good Yojimbo is.

That's not to say that this movie has no good points.  To be fair, it's a cute little shoot-em-up, and if you happen to like old, cheap westerns, then this is for you.  It's not offensive, and this film has a certain masculine appeal that while I don't share, I do acknowledge.  And watching this film again wouldn't irk me too bad.  Sure, I might need something to doodle on during the boring parts, or maybe have some guys there to joke around and comment on it.

Huh, I wonder if there's a Rifftrax for this movie.

9. No, it doesn't show Leone's potential as a director.

Someone made the comment that this movie shows his true directing talent, but I disagree.  This seems like someone who really likes Sergio Leone's later work is just trying to say that Leone was always the greatest "arteest" in the realm of directing.  Not true.  Quite frankly, if this film weren't by someone famous, no one would remember it.

Sure, there's nothing very wrong with the direction, but at this point it's not all that great either. Granted, it can be hard to tell how well a director does, but given that this feels like a made-for-TV movie, we can't call it astounding.

One notable error is that many times it feels like the Rojos should have seen Joe sneaking around. There's one point where Eastwood rescues a kidnapped wife, and gets away on his horse while the Rojos blame the Baxters.  Seriously, the Rojos would be able to hear him get away.  Also, at another point, when they're killing the Baxters, Joe is watching everything while hiding in a coffin in a wagon nearby.  The wagon, however, doesn't leave until the Baxters are dead, meaning that the Rojos, no longer distracted, would definitely notice.

If it were a small problem, it would be ignorable.  As is, it's really obvious.  Clearly that's a director's issue.  All the same, the direction isn't the worst ever.  It's a cheesy-fun film, if you're into cheese.

8. "My mule...." was a great monologue.

And speaking of fun, this was the best scene in the whole movie.  What happens is, Joe is riding into town on his mule.  Four of the Baxters shoot at the mule's feet and scare it off.  After doing a bit of investigation, Joe explains that they hurt his mule's feelings.  I'm not going to write out the whole thing, because you should watch the movie even for just this scene.  It's really great.

It's the one scene that is really special and distinct in this movie, and can only have appeared here rather than any other movie.  This, to me, is the real sign of Leone's potential -- taking a moment and making it special and unique, pulling in the viewer to where he must know what happens next.

7. The plot is not clear.

There's this one part where Joe tricks the Rojos, and the plot just goes scrambled.  Okay, so Joe witnesses the Rojos killing men from the Mexican army, and gets the implication that they've already killed American soldiers.  So Joe has to think up a way to stop the Rojos from doing anything even more crazy, right?

What does he do?  Joe tricks them by leaving the bodies of two of the dead beside a grave, and then telling each side....something.  Leone cuts out most of the conversation between Joe and the crime families. The implication is that the two dead guys are really informants, and they have to be stopped (Rojos) or saved and brought to authorites (Baxters), so that they can tell the Mexican government who killed their soldiers.

Who in the world would be fooled by that?  Why would two informants hang out in a graveyard, sitting by a grave?  In any case, Joe uses the dumbest plan ever to assure that both sides will attack each other, which is in fact what they do.  What makes it worse is that nobody ever finds out they were tricked.  One of the Rojos shoots the bodies, thus ensuring that they are "dead."  Nothing more happens besides them taking a Baxter hostage.

And while all this is going on, Joe is searching through the Rojo's storehouse for....something.  We never find out.  Sure, at one point he finds a barrel full of small bags of money, but we have no idea if that's what he was after or if it was just a coincidence.  Instead, he gets caught by Marisol, and he gets the idea of using her for a prisoner exchange.  So we never find out later what his original intent was.

6. Why are there only four non-villains in the entire town?

For some reason, the town appears to be populated only by both gangs and four regular people (five if you count the hideously dubbed kid): The undertaker, the hotel owner, Marisol the kidnapped woman, and her husband.  This is pretty strange, as you'd think that there'd be higher stakes for Joe.  Or have they scared everyone out of town?  If the Mexican army thinks that the town is safe enough to pass through, surely it doesn't have some sort of reputation to outsiders.

You'd think Marisol's husband would have been killed or sent away when the Rojos took his wife away.  Instead he just hangs about, trying to keep his son from wandering over to her.  Sheesh.  That guy should be a man and get his wife back.  Maybe find some compatriots and promise them the Rojo's money if they kill them all.  Or heck, why doesn't he go to the Baxters for help?  Surely they wouldn't mind helping somebody out if it involved killing their enemies.

But anyway, the movie ends with all the Baxters and the Rojos dead.  Since Marisol and her family ran off, that leaves the entire town to the crazy undertaker and a hotel boss.  And no one else, that we know of.  No random extras hide in spare windows, or watch the prisoner exchange, or get in any way victimized by someone in the crime families.

Couldn't they have dressed up some of the Mexican army extras to be random civilians?

5. The action in this movie is meh.

It really was.  I'm not really an action person, and if a good plot is going on, I'll ignore boring action. This action, however, was not boring.  It was pretty bad, and interesting in the way it was bad. Comical, almost.

So the Rojos have disguised themselves as American soldiers, and they trick the Mexican army into paying them gold for guns.  And then they kill them all with a gatling gun.  Literally.  One gatling gun.  The trouble with this is that there are several Mexican soldiers, and you can't kill them all with one gun, gatling or not.  Some of them are going to hide behind a wagon, or get to the ground in time, or get away.  A gun can only aim in one place at once.

It would be so easy to fix this.  All you'd have to do is get the other Rojos to spread out and shoot their rifles.  Then the scene becomes plausible.  Instead, Fistful of Dollars reaches almost Commando levels of cheeseball by having one dude blow a bunch of other people away while the rest of the Rojos stare like dopes.  It doesn't help that they're doing the PC "shooting guys but no blood" sort of thing.  Seriously, that action scene is pretty looney tunes.

Sometimes the action is good.  For example, the scene where everyone is beating up on Joe looks very real and painful.  And then they follow that up with Joe rolling a huge wine barrel down at a baddie -- there's a shot of the baddie going "AAAAH!" instead of getting out of the way of an easily dodgeable obstacle.  The fight at the graveyard isn't so bad, except for the whole idea that they're fighting for a couple of very obvious corpses.

4. The Baxters need to do evil things.

One major trouble of this film is that it feels very one sided.  The Rojos are mass murderers, but what do the Baxters do?  They take care of a hostage, go to a truce meeting with the Rojos, and organize a prisoner exchange.  The worst thing they do is shoot at Joe's mule.  Sure, there's the shootout at the graveyard, but since they're fighting very bad guys, that doesn't really count.  That, and I'm pretty sure they don't actually hit anyone.

So what's the deal with the Baxters?  Aren't they supposed to be a crime family?  If not, then Joe sure is a jerk for inciting the Rojos to kill them all.  That's right.  Near the end, the Rojos set the Baxters' house on fire, shooting anyone who comes out.  It feels very cruel, given that the Baxters haven't done anything deserving of such a horrendous death.  It's also extremely weird that the Baxters don't come out guns blazing.  You'd think the third or fourth guy would realize that surrendering isn't going to save their lives.

In other words, do something evil!  Give the audience a legitimate reason for wanting them to die.  Or at least make it so they're actually halfway effective against the Rojos.  Seriously, it's a wonder the Rojos didn't kill them all sooner, if the Baxters are so ineffective at fighting back.

3. How come money has nothing to do with anything?

Don't get me wrong.  A Fistful of Dollars is a great title.  It just has nothing to do with this plot.  Sure, the Rojos want money, but that's a peripheral motivation.  The primary conflict is two-sided.  One side is the Rojos wanting to cover up their crime of killing the Mexicans and Americans involved in the gun sale.  The other is Joe wanting to get rid of the Rojos and Baxters because they're so cruel.  Sure, Joe gets paid money, but without the slightest reluctance he gives his fistful of dollars to Marisol and her husband.  Clearly money isn't his motivating factor.  And what about the Baxters?  All they seem to want is to make sure the Rojos get caught and locked away.

Y'know, if the script had had something to do with money, maybe they wouldn't have had to rip off Yojimbo.

2. Things must happen for a reason -- message, humor, tone, characterization.

During my first viewing of this film, I was filled with a sense of pointlessness.  A Fistful of Dollars felt like just one thing happening after another thing, each in succession but none with any meaning.  Think about it.  What are the themes of this film?  The only one I can think of is "don't be a bad guy". There's no message, and no consideration of tone -- how a given moment is supposed to make an audience feel.  It's just one thing after another, with no real rhyme or reason besides, "that's what's supposed to happen in a western".

The major contributing factor to this is lack of character development.  Clint Eastwood's character has no background, so we don't understand why he's doing anything.  That they could maybe get away with, especially since that's Clint's gimmick.  However, nobody else has any clear backgrounds or reason to identify with them either.  There are few innocent people in town, and most of them don't make any sense.  We have no clue why Marisol's husband doesn't either try to save her or get out of town -- it's pretty awkward to live one alley away from the people that have kidnapped one's wife.

The shop owner, who has helped Joe from the beginning, is always complaining that he doesn't want to die.  And then he goes along with every dangerous thing Joe wants to do.  The undertaker is just nuts.  Most of the Baxter and Rojo minions are interchangeable, with no way of identifying them or keeping up with them.  Mr. Baxter is barely on screen, and comes across as kind of a wuss.

The only people who have even the slightest characterization are Esteban Rojo (the leader), Marisol, Ramon, and...I don't know, the mule.   Oh yes, and Mrs. Baxter.  She's actually pretty amazing.  I love her stern, controlling demeanor.  That just makes it all the more sad that she barely does anything, and is horribly killed.  It would have been amazing to see her in action as the leader of a crime ring.  As it is, she doesn't get the chance to do anything.

In the end, it feels like just about nothing is happening here.  Oh sure, the good guys win in the end, but that's only because it's expected.  Joe helps people because it's what he's supposed to do.  The Rojos are bad because that's what they're supposed to do.  Each person does their part to create a generic western, contributing to a colossal effort that feels like much ado about nothing.

1. Y'know, Eastwood isn't the most human of actors.

I'll grant him that he did a great job later on in Gran Torino, but in most of what I've seen him in, Clint Eastwood is sort of a....well, not a cliche, but an archetype.  John Wayne once called his movies "revisionist", and while I can see why he says that (I don't think Eastwood was ever all that concerned with historical accuracy), Eastwood embodies the other side of Americanism than that of John Wayne. Wayne is optimistic, fun, and determined.  Eastwood is grim, eager for justice, and determined.  Like Wayne, Eastwood is more or less the same thing in every movie.  He's a grim, principled loner, who gets his own justice despite weak authorities and nasty bad guys.

I say all that to say that Eastwood's not deep in much of his movies.  You understand him either by understanding Americans, or by understanding the west.  That's because most of his characters are never really given the chance to show who they are, and the audience is left guessing.  The reason why this doesn't work for this movie is that you can't give the audience too much to guess about.  We don't really know anything about the Rojo v. Baker conflict, and the motivations of the other characters are confusing.  Heck, we don't even know what town the film is set in.  We can only assume it's somewhere in Mexico, and even then that might be wrong.

Basically, Eastwood's characterization is very dependent on the world created around him.  And when the world created around him is weak, it can be hard to keep up.

Alright, so let's finish up the details.

Best Actor: Margarita Lozano as Consuelo Baxter.  She didn't get nearly as much screen time as she deserved, but she made an impression as the female leader of a crime ring that was strong but not a boring feminist trope.  Old movies are great for that.  Oh, and I'll go ahead and say that Eastwood was great too.  Say what you will about this movie, but its faults have nothing to do with Eastwood's acting.

This movie is for:
- Western buffs
- Leone buffs
- Eastwood buffs
- Old TV fans
- Guys who like action

This movie is not for:
- Women
- Modern movie enthusiasts
- Pretentious mofos

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