Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nitpickery -- For a Few Dollars More

Hey y'all.  So the next movie in the trilogy is For a Few Dollars More.  The strange thing about it is, many people apparently think this is better than the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  I don't.  Granted, it does a few things that make it a huge step up from A Few Dollars More, but in my opinion GBU eclipses it as it's more of a total package.  Few Dollars More has a division of both good and not so good.

So this is a movie about the Man with No Name -- named Manco -- who is going after a new bounty: El Indio, a murderous madman who's just escaped from jail.  The reward for El Indio is $10,000, and that's something Manco has to get on.  He finds out about a rival for his bounty, Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Mortimer suggests they team up to take out El Indio, and they do so, attempting to stop Indio from robbing a bank.

Eh, that's not the best summary I've ever done, but this is a fairly complex movie, and I can't explain it out without ruining at least some of its charm.  Or at least going on too long about details that are better seen than told about.

In any case, be ready for spoilers.

-----  Ten Things to Say about For A Few Dollars More -----

10.  This movie suuuuucks.

And this time I mean it.  Mostly.

Actually, I have to clarify.  See, there are two kinds of good when it comes to movies.  There's good production, such as clothing, directing, camerawork, and script.  And then there's good for the gut: a good message, uplifting storytelling, interesting themes, and fun.  Guess which one For a Few Dollars More gets wrong?

Well, technically both, but more the second one.  The productions here are way above the last film in the trilogy, and this is immediately obvious -- it's very much removed from TV style westerns.  The acting gets a huge boost from Lee Van Cleef, who actually plays good guy Douglas Mortimer.  He and Clint Eastwood work very well with one another, and the best scenes in this movie include them both.

But I still don't like this movie, and will probably never watch it again once I complete this review.  See, for me, movies with bad things in them are worse than boring movies.  You might disagree, but compared to this movie, Fistful of Dollars was family friendly.  Not only was there needless nudity, but the violence is grim and disheartening, without any positive outlook.  It's again death for death's sake.  There are many forms of violence in film, and each of them use a different emotion to produce in the audience.  Looking at this makes me wonder if Sergio Leone wanted the audience to feel depressed, or if he knew how to shape and influence audience emotion at all.  I'll explain this a bit more when I start talking about the end.

To point out what presentation problems it does have, there's the fact that the bank is using Confederate money, the out of place whistling sound Eastwood's hat makes when it falls in one scene (missiles whistle because they're designed to do so -- ordinary objects don't make the cliched bomb sound), and very kooky side characters that don't always add to the film.

As it is, there are several things I like about this movie.  Besides the already mentioned acting, there are actors who appeared in both the first and later film, the bizarre shootout that Mortimer and Manco have, Manco helping a guy get out of prison, Mortimer being hardcore to the guys at the bar, calling them "bounty killers" instead of bounty hunters, and all kinds of stuff.  But I'm still not going to watch this movie again.

So, while this movie has good production values and a more effective script, its disheartening message and visuals destroy any real enjoyment.  It doesn't have an outright hero like Fistful of Dollars (y'know, who actually saves people), and isn't a celebration of masculinity like Good, Bad, and the Ugly.  It's depression in western form.

9. The beginning scene is pure fantasy.

So the movie opens with Mortimer being too cool for school.  He stops a train at a Tucumcari, despite the fact the train isn't supposed to stop there.  When the conductor protests, Mortimer stares him down.  When someone with Lee Van Cleef's eyes stares you down, you stop complaining.  Mortimer then takes a wanted poster from the train station and heads for the bar.

In a scene that is so magnificently western, Mortimer gets the guy out of the bar, all with intimidating the barkeep and politely excusing himself to the naked chick in the tub.  But then it goes full out fantasy when Mortimer pulls the snaps on a roll his horse is carrying and suddenly there's a row of four guns all ready for use.  Not quite the same as using a car to take out a helicopter, but that's very mystical, very action movie. As is adding a stock to a pistol.  As is allowing an injured and probably not sober criminal shoot at Mortimer badly while Mortimer is setting up his overly complex gun.

This is entirely unrealistic.  No sensible bounty killer would let a guy shoot at him several times and just stand there calmly.  A man with one gun he can use well is better than a guy with four who has to choose.  And no guy, even someone with Lee Van Cleef's killer eyes, can get away more than once with stopping a train where it isn't intending to stop.  But that's the fun of a male-driven movie -- masculine fantasies abound, and this one is straight out of a fairy tale.  A fairy tale with guns.

8.  Overt sexual stuff doesn't make a movie better.  Especially rape.

It's true.  Studies have shown over time that family movies and movies rated with lower questionable content make more money, with the only exception being Passion of the Christ.  Most people who go to movies want a good time.  They don't want heavy handed messages, violence for violence's sake, or attacks on women.

Two scenes which made it especially hard for me to enjoy this film were the deaths of a man's wife and one year old (thankfully off screen), and a flashback (shown twice, the first time just in part), where Indio approaches a married couple, kills the husband, and rapes the wife.  Watching this is really painful, and most people that see this are repulsed.  The people that do enjoy watching it are perverts, and should not be encouraged in their demented fantasies by seeing it on screen.  Yeah sure, sometimes people like disgusting things without acting on them, but that's not the sort of thing that needs to be shared on a public medium.

Besides that, it's all about manipulating the audience's feelings when telling a story.  You want them to be excited enough to listen, but not to be so hurt that they don't want to hear anymore.  Or to be so hurt that there's nothing a movie maker can do to salve it.  I dunno, maybe if Indio had suffered more at the end of the movie, it would be better.  He only ends up shot, which is exactly the same punishment as any of his men get. It doesn't feel fair.

7.  At least the title makes sense.

One of the problems with A Fistful of Dollars is that the title seems like some label slapped on because it sounds cool.  In that movie, Clint Eastwood went out of his way to help people, and when he did actually get a fistful of dollars, he gave it away to a troubled couple.  Simply put, money was no focus. It was just a distraction or a subplot, almost.

This time, what with discussion of dividing reward money and counting what's been earned at the end, money does seem to be more of a focus.  Well, that is until Mortimer gives up his share of the earnings at the end because he was only after revenge for the death of his sister.  Actually, there's a nice bit at the beginning where both protagonists are looking at the poster of El Indio.  Manco looks directly at the $10,000 reward, while Mortimer stares at the "dead or alive" part.  Very telling, but still distracts from the whole money thing.

Huh, now that I think about it, the only film in the trilogy that really is focused on money above all else is the only one without "dollars" in the title.

6. Are they trying to make a rapist/child murderer sympathetic or what?

Most of the scenes that fail revolve around Indio in one way or another.  You know the bad guys you love to hate?  He's not one of them because you just hate the guy.  He walks around in a stupor, almost, captivated by his own flashbacks and fantasies.  In fact, when they show the flashbacks of him remembering what he did to Mortimer's sister, he almost seems regretful.  Or he's at least scarred by the memories of how his attack made the woman kill herself.

Thing is, most of the times films don't go into a baddie's backstory unless they want us to sympathize with him or they want to redeem the character.  Well, Indio isn't redeemable and I can't imagine they'd actually want people to like the character.  What are they trying to say about him when he dwells on these flashbacks and stares at a watch like a creeper?

See, in writing, a hero is only as good as the villain.  And by "good" I mean tough, intelligent, strong, or in any way interesting.  By making Indio a more pathetic, mentally deranged, possibly regretful guy, they weaken Van Cleef's victory over him.  Instead of Indio being a vicious man who is worthy of death, he ends up being a worthless maniac coming to his inevitable ruin.  And I do mean inevitable -- he betrays his own men near the end, and had the one guy that realized it shot Indio first, it would have been no more or less deserving than his end at Mortimer's hand.

Overall, he's really why this movie fails for me.  I love the Van Cleef scenes, I love the Eastwood scenes, but every time El Indio is on screen, all the charm of the movie fades.  He's a disgusting louse, and almost nothing he does is interesting.  The slow pace of Leone works well for the heroes, but for the villain it just makes the movie drag.  After all, slow pace is best for interesting characters with depth.  Indio, as a man driven insane by his own amorality and taste for the macabre, has no depth.  To see him is to understand him.  Or to at least understand enough.

At the very least, having him partially smash a beetle and then watch it struggle was a very brilliant piece of characterization.

5. I thought this was supposed to be Clint Eastwood's movie.

Not that I mind too much, as Lee Van Cleef is really good, but what isn't this supposed to be Clint Eastwood's trilogy?  Here Clint plays second fiddle.  His character has no personal investment in stopping Indio -- he's only after money.  There's also no subplot of an issue of his going on in the background either, or even a reason for his obsession with cash.  Van Cleef's Mortimer, on the other hand, has personal motivation to go after Indio. He's doing things here for a reason and has a personal struggle.

Manco, on the other hand, is much more the typical 50s TV western hero.  He comes in, saves the day, and disappears.  That's his schtick.  The trouble is, this isn't a television show, so the only history we have with Manco is Fistful of Dollars, where he isn't given any backstory either.  Granted, there's no reason to ruin a mysterious character, but there's better ways to do it.  It's probably not a good idea to compare this too much to GBU, but in the later movie Eastwood's character has the perfect amount of "backstory" -- we see his opinion on things like war, and we see his gruff mercy.

Basically, what we need to see is characterization.  We need just a taste of something to have an understanding of who Eastwood's character is.  He works better in GBU because we can see a tiny bit of his mind and make guesses on the rest.  Making the audience guess is the entire purpose of the mysterious character.

As for this movie, perhaps it should have opened with Manco doing something, rather than Mortimer.  Or if they wanted to show Indio first, just introduce Manco before Mortimer and make it clear that this is Eastwood's trilogy.

4.  Brother Ramirez, why do you have a gun?

Luigi Pistilli, the guy who plays Tuco's brother in Good, Bad, Ugly, is a gang member in this one.  And his name is Groggy.  Aw.  Actor Mario Brega, who plays another of Indio's thugs, was also a thug in the previous film, and Angel Eye's co-conspirator in the Yankee camps in GBU.  Then you've got the undertaker from Fistful of Dollars showing up again in a much better role as a cranky man complaining about trains.  I think I even saw the hotel owner from the first film near the beginning.

That's one of the things I like about the Dollars trilogy.  So many actors are reused for different roles that it feels almost like a collection of friends putting on their own theater productions.  Everyone but Eastwood switches roles so that the Man with No Name can have another story.  That's really clever, and the labor of love involved probably is the reason why these movies improved as they went on.

3. Sergio Leone's strengths -- and his weaknesses -- are all in little moments.

One thing Leone is specially talented at is the making of a small moment or scene that tells the audience exactly who a character is, or showcases a bit of humor or masculine fairy tale.  The only moment like this in the previous movie is the "my mule" monologue, and Leone has apparently gone out of his way to put very distinguishing moments in this film.  Unfortunately since he appears to be learning he's good at it while making this series, it doesn't always work out.

A really great scene is where Manco speaks to a cranky old codger complaining about trains.  This is a fun scene with a really great character actor, and works to put some humor into a very dark film.  Then there's the extraordinary moment where Mortimer dares light a match on the back of one of Indio's men, the hunchback.  Then where Manco defeats a bounty in cards.  Each of these moments and more add something to the movie and make it distinct from all others.

Unfortunately, not all of these tidbits work.  There's a scene where Manco is getting a hotel room, and he steals the room he wants from a guy previously occupying it.  The man appears very afraid of him.  Thing is, Eastwood's acting doesn't inspire outright fear, and so that feels wonky.  Also, it's very out of place for the character to just force a guy to leave his room.  Too immoral for him, especially since he's not the criminal he is in GBU.

This is compounded by two more characters that just don't work.  While the old man complaining about trains was hilarious, the dwarf man with his slutty wife isn't charming or plot necessary.  There's literally nothing about them that adds to the movie.  The slutty wife, charmed with Manco, doesn't trouble him or given him any vital information later.  She's just there for one bit to annoy the audience, and then disappears. While certainly her dwarf, pathetic husband wasn't meant to be insulting to the genetically short, it's kind of offensive and likewise unnecessary.  It's not even funny.  A short guy isn't funny just because he's short, and watching his wife dominate him is painful.

Another bit that doesn't work is where an Asian man at the other hotel in town packs up Mortimer's things for him, and the two leave.  Where are they going?  We have no idea.  Manco interrupts this with a very masculine, dangerous game of shooting off the other guy's hat and seeing if he gets mad.  Sure, the hat duel is funny, but it's preceded by a strange scene where Manco is telling the Asian guy to bring the bag to the station, and Mortimer telling him to bring it back in the hotel.  The confused Asian just throws it in the street and gets out of there.

For one thing, the Asian guy has a really bad haircut, and seems pretty dorky.  Again, I don't think Leone's intentionally trying to be offensive, but an awkward guy isn't funny just because he's awkward.  It's cringe inducing and out of place to see that bit.  The guy belongs more in a slapstick comedy than a serious film.

2.  The ending of this movie is a combination of very good and very bad.  Just like the whole movie.

The very ending of this movie begins strangely.  Groggy, one of Indio's associates, asks him why his watch is so important.  The movie transitions into the full flashback (part of it was seen earlier) where Indio murdered Mortimer's brother in law, then raped his sister.  She uses a gun to kill herself while this is going on.

And that's the first problem with the ending.  Not only did it take this long for us to find out clearly Mortimer's motivations (and we have to wait even longer for him to say it's his sister), but we are forced to watch a graphic scene where the poor girl dies horribly.  And since the audience sees this right near the end, they expect a nice, good revenge to make sure Indio suffers just as badly.

But he doesn't.  He just gets shot.  He doesn't even lay in agony for several minutes in the desert heat. There's nothing ironic or clever about his death.  We're left with this pained, sad feeling, knowing that Mortimer's sister died in the worst way.  Even though Indio is dead and her death is avenged, she'll never come back.

To be fair, there is a bit of cleverness to the way the last shootout goes.  Indio is obsessed with a watch that the sister's husband gave to her, and he lets the chimes in it play to the end before he kills someone.  After managing to find Mortimer without a weapon, he plays the watch so he can see Mortimer realize he's going to die.  Manco, however, has a matching watch, the partner to the other that Mortimer kept over the years. Manco plays this watch, giving his gun to Mortimer and making the fight a fair one.  This is interesting, but since it's never been established that Manco is a super-shooter, the audience doesn't fear that Mortimer will die.  That in and of itself isn't a huge problem, as the shootout is more about the emotion of it all rather than a challenge.

Thing is, Indio doesn't deserve a shoot-out.  Shoot-outs should be for clever enemies who are intelligent and possess abillities that earn them fear.  Indio, however, is a mentally deranged slug who will kill and let die anyone he finds inconvenient.  He deserves to die by his own men, or by being abandoned in the desert, or by tripping over a loose plank and falling face first into a nail.  Something stupid like that.  Simply put, he's not worthy enough to be a rival for Mortimer, and thus his death is not satisfying.

So the movie ends with a very unsatisfying bad guy death, and the audience, because we found out so late, are still mourning for Mortimer's sister.  Then we're treated to a view of all the bodies of the men they killed as Manco shoves them onto the back of a wagon.  Yeeck.  There's a humorless joke where Manco counts up his bounty and kills one more baddie, but given the melancholy of what just happened, it's very difficult to go back into TV western mode where each episode ends on a joke.

Also, I find it odd that Mortimer calls Manco a boy, and the latter refers to the first as "old man".  The two don't look that different in age, and Clint Eastwood probably hasn't looked like a boy since he was 16.  Just doesn't work.

1.  My feelings for this movie are complicated.

Yeah, that's the way to put it.  There's a lot in this movie that's a gem, but there's also a good deal that's wonky, awkward, and just plain wrong.  Sure, there's more good than bad, but the bad stuff is very heavy and distracting.  The first time I watched this I got really melancholic, and it made me feel sick.  It wasn't so bad the second time around (because you have to watch something more than once for a proper review), because I knew what was coming.  Still, the last "joke" of the film isn't funny, and I can't help but feel blurgh on the inside when I hear the chimes of the watch.

Still, I'm really sensitive to some things, and it's difficult for me to get over bad visuals.  Not everyone is that sensitive.  Certainly there are good things about this film that other people enjoy.  However, is it better than Good, Bad, and the Ugly?  No.  There are glaring flaws and not quite there cinematography bring it down a bit.

That, and GBU is much more fun.  I question the necessity of really depressing movies.  Not only are they unhealthy for the emotionally broken, but they don't seem to have any point.  Sure, if it's a North Korean documentary, we have to see this to understand the truth.  But if it's a fiction story, what do we gain from being horribly depressed?

Best actor:  That's hard to say, as few characters drop the ball in the acting department.  Lee Van Cleef gets the prize, though, because he achieves great subtlety with his expressions.  He even takes on an entirely different look than he did when playing a bad guy.  This is very impressive to achieve, especially considering that Van Cleef is wearing the exact same hat in both this and GBU.

This movie is for:
- Actions buffs
- Dark humorists
- Western fans

This movie is not for:
- Feminists
- Sensitive people
- Those suffering from depression.

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