For a Few Dollars More…. we’ll kick in a free poncho

Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965, ***1/2) is, in theory, a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, which was itself a big hit for the man and the studio. The bad news is that it’s a sequel mostly in name, but the good (great) news is that it’s every bit as deliciously violent and captivating as its predecessor.

Clint Eastwood returns, although he’s no longer The Man with No Name; he’s Monco, a “bounty killer” – not a bounty hunter, because that might imply he intends to bring ’em back alive. Monco has his eyes on a desperado named Indio, played by Italian actor Gian Maria Volontè. Trouble is, another bounty killer, name of Colonel Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) also wants Indio. The fact that the man has a reward of $10,000 on his head probably figures into things a little. Add in the rest of the gang, and you’re looking at maybe $27,000. Which today I assume would be $75 million. I don’t know, you look it up.

Mortimer and Monco do decide to team up; after all, we can’t have too many bad guys. That doesn’t mean that they won’t try to double cross one another. The plan is for Monco to infiltrate Indio’s band and get him to move north, toward the town of El Paso, where they’ll attempt to rob the town’s Fort-Knox-like bank. Oh, Indio goes north all right, with Monco, and the bank is hit, but…well, let’s just say things don’t go as planned for anyone.

For a Few Dollars More is an epic, even though it’s “only” 132 minutes long. I mean it’s an epic in the same way that Lawrence of Arabia is an epic, with majestic, sweeping vistas followed by (in Leone’s case) extreme closeups of the three leads. There are duels in the streets, just as you’d expect a western to have. For all I know, this happened all the time, and in this movie it happens repeatedly. Still, it’s not as if every fight is carefully sanctioned, as there are plenty of ambushes to be found.

This was the middle film in the series that really put the then-somewhat-young Eastwood on the map. Van Cleef’s Mortimer calls him “kid,” and Eastwood’s calls Mortimer “old man”; in reality, the two were only five years apart in age. Eastwood, of course, is still kicking; he turned 86 a couple of months ago. Maybe his days as a taciturn gunslinger are long behind him, but he’s still a creative genius. And he learned a lot of the directorial tricks of the trade from Leone himself, a master of the western genre. This, along with its series counterparts, is definitely not to be missed.

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The Wages of Fear – tense, pointed thriller about the desperation of man

In The Wages of Fear (1953, ***1/2), four men in a remote South American town have the enviable task of transporting a metric buttload (technical term) of nitrogylcerine across mountainous roads in poor condition. It’s a taut, superbly suspenseful thriller, guided with a steady hand by director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to direct the classic Diabolique in 1955.

Yves Montand, in a rare dramatic role, plays Mario, the ostensible protagonist of our tale. He’s been stuck in this backwater for some time, but it costs a lot of money to get out – plane fares are through the roof, and there’s no train, and there’s no neighboring village. In short, you’re stuck there until you can buy a ticket – and pay for a passport, of course.

Mario spends his days looking for work, wooing tavern worker Linda, and despairing about the lack of work. There’s an American oil company in town, but they’re no longer hiring. His monotonous lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of fellow expat Jo (Charles Vanel), a tough-looking older man who quickly wins Mario’s favor at the expense of the rest of the men in town.

The oil company, in fact, has its own problem – one of their large derricks has exploded, causing a huge oil fire. Company man Bill O’Brien decides to send two trucks loaded with nitro from the town up the mountain to the derrick. (The eventual idea is to set off charges, which will somehow contain or extinguish the fire.) O’Brien has no trouble scaring up volunteers for the task, since the men of the town are largely unemployed. Four men will be selected to take the two trucks. Only one truck is needed; the second is truly just in case there’s an accident with the first one. The men will receive $2000 when the work is finished, more than enough to secure passage out of the backwater.

Mario and Jo are chosen, as are Mario’s roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) and German expat Bimba (Peter van Eyck). The two trucks depart early in the morning, full of gas and of nitro. Danger awaits.

Theirs is not an easy task. The road is full of ruts. In one place, the wooden deck that trucks use to make a sharp turn up the mountain has been damaged from disuse. It’s hot and muggy. And one has to be very, very careful, as even the smallest bump might set the whole shebang off. There’s also tension among the four drivers – Luigi is unhappy that Mario is spending more time with Jo than with him, Mario is unhappy with what he perceives as Jo’s cowardice. Bimba seems to get along with everyone, though.

The whole time I was watching this movie, I was certain not all four were going to make it. I will not spoil what is now a sixty-three-year-old movie, but I was still genuinely surprised by the ending. This ain’t no fairy tale or sitcom. This is a movie about desperation, redemption, sacrifice, and comeuppance. It’s not necessarily about justice.

The Wages of Fear is a singularly terrific movie from start to finish, exquisitely shot and expertly written. Its money maker is its tension, something present here in spades. The writing is impeccable; even personality changes make perfect sense within the film’s context. There are intricacies within a straightforward plot. This is a must see for lovers of thrillers.


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The Big Short: Modern Horror

The Big Short (***1/2, 2015) is about the great collapse of the American housing market (and subsequently the world economy), and as such doesn’t appear to fit the mold of a scary movie. But scary it is, particularly for those folks who lost their jobs, savings, and homes as a result. Odds are pretty good that you or someone you know was directly affected by this avoidable catastrophe.

The movie focuses on a few Wall Street guys who figured out years in advance that the housing bubble was going to burst. In the movie, their names are Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magaro), and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). The script, by director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, changes the names and some relatively minor details, but everything’s based on fact. And since we know how it all turned out (hint: there was a collapse), there isn’t much suspense left.

And yet the movie succeeds. The casting is great, for one thing – check out Carell as a broker with a strong moral center and some serious anger-management issues. His is a role ripe for overacting, but Carell never goes overboard, doing a perfect slow, slow, slow burn as he grills various money managers about their methods, which aren’t pretty.

There’s also humor, a flavor that’s desperately needed when dealing with a real-life tale of misery, don’t you think? Injecting a little humor into the situation makes the characters look, well, more like human beings than fine-suited Wall Street fellas. That’s not to say that there are no poignant moments: one scene in particular involves Carell’s Mark Baum and his wife, played by the always-terrific Marisa Tomei. Finally, several of the characters break the proverbial fourth wall, addressing the audience with asides – some of which involve disclaimers about what exactly in the present scene is 100% true and what’s been tweaked a little bit. Believe me, it works.

And if that weren’t enough to keep the movie wildly entertaining, the script takes time to explain certain relevant financial terms to its audience without being boring or dreary. Terms like CDO, explained by master chef Anthony Bourdain (comparing a CDO to fish that remained unsold at his restaurant at the end of the day), or derivatives, explained by pop star Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler. It felt weird understand what they were talking about.

But here’s the scariest part of it all. The viewer spends a couple of hours following this sordid tale. We see the bad guys, we see the good guys, and we know that if this were fiction, the bad guys would probably get theirs in the end. But it’s not, and we know they don’t. We know that despite the canary-in-the-mine behavior of these guys, millions of people lost their jobs. And really, none of them were the movers and shakers on Wall Street. That’s because when the big banks had bad mortgages that were in danger of defaulting, they packaged them up and sold them to someone else, who did the same thing to someone else, all the way down the line. The poor sap left holding the bag when the bubble burst lost it all, and those who instigated it lost zilch. That’s the terrifying part. All of this in concert between Wall Street, its private-sector overseers, the government, and Big Business. They raked in the dough by breaking the law and, even when caught, suffered few consequences themselves. Which makes The Big Short ten times more horrifying than any gorefest movie I’ve seen.

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Finally, #4000! And it’s Shakespeare!

A little more than halfway through Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, our anti-heroine Beatrice and our anti-hero Benedick profess their love for each other. It’s a tender, affecting moment that neatly offsets the humor of the rest of the film. It’s such a beautiful scene, in fact, that I grew misty eyed and euphoric, and that’s how Shakespeare movies and plays are supposed to make you feel.

Elegant without being condescending, Whedon’s modern-day take on the classic comedy of errors is a masterpiece. In short, Don Pedro, his right-hand man Claudio, and his brother Don John visit a noble named Leonato. Leonato has a daughter named Hero, with whom Claudio quickly becomes infatuated. Don Pedro offers to woo Hero at the evening’s costume party, whereupon he will “give” the young lady (with papa’s permission) to Claudio. Simple subterfuge, but all is revealed to Hero, and all is well. Until the villainous Don John gets involved, that is, and a major misunderstanding tears the couple apart.

While all of this is going on, Claudio’s best pal Benedick – an avowed bachelor who scorns marriage – spars verbally with Hero’s cousin Beatrice, who is equally adamant on the topic of marriage. This being Shakespeare, I think we have a good idea where these two are headed. Oh, and along for the more-obvious comic relief (as opposed to the more cultured banter between Beatrice and Benedick) is the local night watchmen, overseen by Dogberry, a man who would have trouble detecting his own behind with both hands. I’m digressing, but you get the idea.

I won’t go too much deeper into the plot, because most viewers probably had to read the play in high school or college. Since it’s a comedy, suffice to say that all’s well that ends well. But the performances! Many of the players had worked with Whedon on earlier projects such as Angel, Buffy, Castle, Firefly, and The Avengers and may be familiar by look if not by name. Nathan Fillion, the able captain of the good ship Firefly, is well cast as the clueless Dogberry (in one memorable ad-libbed scene, Dogberry and his assistant realize they’ve locked their keys in their car and frantically search their pockets). Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson to you, plays Leonato. But the entire cast stands out. This is a real triumph of talent, expertly shot (at Whedon’s own house) and acted with such audacity and tenaciousness.

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Road to #4000: City of God

City of God (2002, ***1/2) is a brutal look at the drug wars fought in Rio de Janeiro’s slums over a period of several decades. It’s not always an easy film to watch, but it’s utterly gripping and (improbably) humorous at turns.

The movie centers on a boy/young man named Rocket (Buscapé in Portuguese, the spoken language in this movie) in the titular slum, the wrong side of the tracks in Rio. Rocket’s older brother is in a gang called the Tender Three; this trio commits armed robbery but gives at least some of the proceeds to their impoverished brothers and sisters. The gang’s not for long in this story, as one of their sidekick Little Rascals, Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) has higher aspirations; soon he – under a new moniker, Li’l Ze’ – is the top kingpin in the City of God. Ze’s chief rival, as time goes by, is a ginger-top named Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). As Carrot and Ze’ fight each other for control of, well, everything, Rocket tries hard to stay above and out of the fray. He’s not entirely successful.

The movie is quickly paced. If you don’t pay attention you may lose track of who’s who, if only because there are plenty of supporting characters. Alice Braga, niece to one Sonia Braga, plays a one-time love interest for Rocket. Hers was the only familiar face for me, but many of the fine young actors (or nonactors, as the case may be) offered compelling standout performances.

And this was all based on a true story, as they say. During the closing credits news footage, including interviews with gang members, is shown. The real Rocket appears, as well. Most striking? Might be the group of little kids known as the Runts; this cohort robs, maims, and kills everyone they can – ostensibly under the control of Carrot, but truthfully subservient to none. Close your eyes and imagine a five-year-old kid shooting someone in cold blood. That was this slum in this time period.

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