Thursday, January 13, 2005

"Got a Light, Friend?"
Garko...without all the plot holes...

(This review was started some time ago...I'm just getting the chance to finish it up....Sorry bout that. I think this'll ultimately be a short one. Read on, there's another one beneath this one.)

So after night before last's "huh?" experience with Blood at Sundown (see yesterday's post), I decided it was time to finally watch the Spaghetti that's been sitting on my shelf for the past three months now. So with the next few minutes, let's discuss the Spaghetti Western known as:

Have a Good Funeral, Amigos!...Sartana is Paying (1970, d. Giuliano Carnimeo)

The Story: Sartana comes between a crooked banker, a Chinese gambler, and the niece of a dead man to settle accounts on a piece of land that might contain vast underground riches or merely sand.

The Review: Well, this one had a whole lot headscratching than yesterday's movie.

This is the third Sartana movie I've seen, this one being the fourth of five. The other two were the final film, Light the Fuse, Sartana is Coming! (1971) and the terrible mid-season replacement George Hilton as Sartana vehicle, It's Sartana! Sell Your Pistols and Buy Your Coffins (1970). For those of you keeping count: I still have to see the original If You Encounter Sartana, Pray for Your Death (1968, d. Gianfranco Parolini) and I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969, d. G. Carnimeo).

Now how about them Sartana titles. And yes, I am wathching them sort of bass ackwards...but nothing has led me to believe that was a mistake of any sort.

Essentially, Gianni Garko just radiates cool in a good way as Sartana just like George Hilton exudes smiley-ness in a bad way as....well, in anything essentially. (Maybe I should change this whole thing into a stop George Hilton campaign...but seeing as how these movies are all 30-40 years old, it seems a touch tardy.) Impressively, the Chinese casino owner, Lee Tse Tung, was a whole lot less offensive than I was expecting. That's not to say his character wasn't stereotypically offensive, just not as bad as it could have been. He did after all dish up all kinds of "Confucius say..." type hocky. M ost of the rest of the cast was pretty stock spaghetti (ie. the crooked banker, the crooked sheriff, etc.). But that's not all together bad.

Sartana is essentially the Spaghetti fan's Columbo...only with that archetypal avenging angel thing working for him. He always shows up in the right place at the wrong time for the bad guys. He can always sense a trap. He plays everyone against everyone else. And he's always asking those pesky questions that inevitably start getting people killed left and right.

The mystery in this one wasn't quite as strong as Light the Fuse... You can pretty well figure out who orchestrated the crime occuring here right from the get-go. I won't try to ascribe a Hitchcock-like way of showing you the villain to heighten the suspense theory simply because...well, it isn't there. Still, the fun in the story is mostly generated by watching how it all falls out, and trying to figure out when and how Sartana will solve it all (although he has that Columbo-like quality of already seeming to know everything all the time.)

The action is crisp and fun. There's some decent slight of hand in some of the gun fights. The movie maintains a fun sense of humor that borders on nodding and winking, but never goes full blown. The pace moves at a fairly brisk clip with only a few slower moments.

Overall, I'd have to say that while this isn't my favorite spaghetti, it is, nonetheless, a solid and well made example of the genre. If anything, it should be appreciated for the sense of fun and adventure that it maintains, a facet so obviously missing from so much cinema today. Finally, it provided further encouragement to track down and take a gander at the other two Sartana films.

Garko is beyond a reasonable doubt The Man.

New Movie, Old School Style
Cut 'em up, Chop 'em up, Wwaaayyy Up!

You know, you don't get a nickname like "The Human Butcher," for being a fun loving and easy going guy.

Think about it.

Genghis Khan was nicknamed by some of the peoples of the Middle East "The Scourge of God." Khan's atrocities won him this cool handle because many of those folks believed that he wasn't so much a man as a punishment sent down to "cleanse" their evil ways. You know, like the fire and brimstone type Old Testament Hand of God sort of thing. The point being you don't get that kind of reputation and title without having something to back it up.

Not only that, but I'm sure there was some heavy repenting going on around them parts at that time. Of course in this day and age of anti-bacterial everything and safety first, there are no physical retributions for misconduct. I mean, sure people still do stupid things....and get killed for it sometimes...but they're usually stupid people. I think at some point though, if you knew that acting a damn fool in public might result in having to cross swords with someone out in the street, well you might think twice before you acted a damn fool.

As for the rest, well, I got a couple of spankings when I was kid. Two things happened: 1) I learned my less and 2) I didn't end up all warped and crazy because of it.

Anyhow, "The Human Butcher." Great handle if you can get it, though I think generally you got a better chance of being called "Junior," "Sparky" or "Sissy" before you'll score that one. Good luck though.

Screw it. I'm moving on to the movie review. My concentration, which I would need to achieve any kind of depth, is worn thin at best. So let's move on to:

The Sword in the Moon (2003, d. Ui-Seok Kim)

The Story: A few months after a bloody revolution, an assassin is murdering various ranking officials, but the general assigned to stop the killing finds he has painful link to the killer.

The Review: For a guy anyhow, any movie that opens with a whoop @$$ round of slow motion sword slaughter promises to be a good time. Now the problem, in many cases, is that most fellas prefer that the @$$ whooping just go on and on for the next hour and a half. God forbid you should ever try to insert too much story in the way of the whooping of many @$$es. Well, the movie did a pretty good job of having enough of either one with neither getting in the way of the other.

That's tough to do.

In the other reviews I had seen of this movie before picking it up, a lot of people compared it to old school martial arts flicks. While I can't dispute something that's so obvious about the movie, I should say that this movie had to me more than just that going on it. One of the other commonly mentioned complaints is that you can't see the action (usually they say it's too dark or too blurred). Thing is, I don't think that the action was the point, which brings me to a question:

"Why the hell does everyone expect some super slick hyper-stylized entirely too drawn out round of fisticuffs?"

If the movie was called "Moon of the Sword Master," then yes, I would expect nothing but a string of incredibly slick and elaborately choreographed sword fights. This movie on the other hand was about a variety of other (though common) martial arts storylines: honor, loyalty to state vs. loyalty to friends, etc. In that respect, it was somewhat by the numbers, but it still went somewhere else.

Though the murder-mystery aspect of the movie was left aside after the first third of the movie, it served as a good grabber. Furthermore, it set up the first move in a series of good character transitions. At first, Yun (aka. The Human Butcher, see I had a point for bringing that up) appears to be our hero. In doesn't take long after he's assigned to protect the remaining officials, when he lets known his "let them die" attitude. Not terribly heroic. In fact, he seems to become a harder and harder man to like in some respects.

As the story goes on, and more of the past is revealed it appears that the assassin, Choi, could be our hero after the officials aren't exactly portrayed as the most likeable folks either. Then again, we're never quite given enough screen time with Choi for his character to overshadow Yun. That's important, but we'll get back to that.

Like many martial arts flicks of the past, in fact most 60's/70's genre flicks (ie. Spaghetti's), we're slowly given the story of the past until that final moment where we see the great transition that brought these characters to where they are now. Ok, nothing new there, but handled in the right way, it's still anything but stale. What sold me on this was again the character study. When the moment comes when that aforemention past transition comes, you suddenly understand Yun. Again, and I don't wanna give you all the details, it wasn't the newest plot point in the world...but it dragged me in. I've just rarely seen a character set up so intensely.

For instance, a similar thing is at work in Once Upon a Time in the West with Charles Bronson. Bronson, at first, doesn't act all that heroic, and he's often given ominous overtones (for that matter so is Robard's character, Cheyenne). Nonetheless, unlike Yun, Bronson is never as completely unlikeable. You can't quite figure him out, but he's never portrayed as a straight up @$$hole. This movie does set up it's main character in exactly that way, only to show you what made him the monster he became.

If anything was throwaway in the movie, it was the requisite love interest. It's a fast and cheap way to give some characters a little more dimensionality. Sword in the Moon tries to integrate the relationship into the plot, but you could still have the basic movie without it. At the very least, it doesn't drag on and on for no apparent reason (as compared to the middle third of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where I couldn't have cared less about our two young lovers).

My only other complaint has to do with the sort of Butch Cassidy nature of the ending. Granted I'm sort of giving something away by even saying that, but I think you'd still have to see it to know how it would get to that point. In any event, it's more a problem with pacing the ending so that there was a little more of a climax before it went out that way.

In the end, a lot of previous review gave the movie a mediocre to bum rap which I didn't think it deserved. It was similar to the reception of Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time (ie. a lot of the same complaints, particularly about the fight scenes), where again, I thought "But you're missing the point if that's what you thought it was about." Now if it's all because you were mislead by marketing or advertising, then I understand the problem (and I say "Damn them, for fooling you"). However, you can't go into any Asian flick without expecting a little melodrams, and with the Koreans, I will guarantee it. Even the comedies, half the time, someone dies. A pretty good rule of thumg to remember is: Samurai movies - sometimes movies filled with guys with swords had nothing to do with bad @$$ action scenes.

In the end, Sword in the Moon was a fine film. Not the next classic martial arts movie, but definitely one of the better if only because it went for character development in what is often and overworked and underdeveloped genre.

Human Butcher. How about that.

I realize that one day, I need to talk about comics again. I will. Promise.