Friday, February 23, 2018

MY BEST REVIEWED FILMS: 2017




5.  Barefoot Gen  (1983)  -  I had put off watching this movie because of the subject matter – Hiroshima.  It is the tale of a Japanese family who were tragically impacted by the explosion.  It is a roller coaster ride that has gut punches and tender moments.  Gen is a great character.  The animation is grand.  It is not a kids’ movie, but it is a must-see to understand what happened to the people of Hiroshima.

4.  Their Finest  (2016)  -  This movie is a real treat.  It is a romantic comedy set in wartime Britain.  A young woman gets a job writing female dialogue for propaganda films.  She gets involved in making a film about rescuing soldiers from Dunkirk.  It’s a behind the scenes look at low budget movie making with indelible characters.  The main character is a feminist before her time.  This is definitely a date movie, but don’t hold that against it.

3.  Lincoln  (2012)    While more of a biopic than a warpic, Lincoln is grand entertainment.  The acting is fantastic.  Daniel Day-Lewis got well-deserved accolades, but the rest of the cast is amazing.  The movie covers an overlooked event in American History – the passage of the 13th Amendment.  The political wheeling and dealing is fascinating and we get a look at backstairs at the White House.  This movie is superior to the fine “Darkest Hour”.

2.  13 Assassins  (2010)  -  This is a modern samurai film.  It updates the “Seven Samurai” template.  At the risk of being branded a heretic, it is a better film.  The thirteen mercenaries are hired to assassinate a loathsome warlord.  They set up an ambush in a village that results in a very long kick-ass melee.  The movie delves deep into Japan’s feudal heritage.
 
1.  Duck, You Sucker! (1971)  -  In 1968, Sergio Leone made “Once Upon a Time in the West” and in 1984, he made “Once Upon a Time in America”.  Both movies are very well known.  But most people do not know that they are part of a trilogy.  In 1971, Leone directed the second in the trilogy – “Duck, You Sucker!”.  For some reason, the film is largely forgotten in the Leone canon.  It is not even available through Netflix.  Leone was inspired to do a film deromanticizing revolutions after riots broke out in Paris.  He decided to set the movie in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.  He leads off the movie with a quote from Mao Zedong.  “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with… elegance and courtesy.  The revolution is an act of violence.”  And who knew cinematic violence better than Leone?  Surprisingly, Leone did not want to direct the film which he had co-written.  However, both Rod Steiger and James Coburn insisted.  Leone envisioned the movie as a spiritual successor to “Once Upon a Time in the West” and wanted Eli Wallach to reprise his Tuco character as Juan.  When Wallach was unavailable because of a prior commitment, Leone begged him to back out on it, which he did.  Unfortunately, the studio demanded Steiger because he owed them a film.  Wallach sued.  Things were tense on the set as Steiger played Juan as a more serious character than Leone wanted.  Steiger won and both agreed after the filming that the collaboration had been successful.  Coburn got the role of Sean after Jason Robards (for whom the role was written) was nixed by the studio as not being a big enough name.  Clint Eastwood turned down the role because he was done with spaghetti westerns.
 
                The movie is set in 1913 Mexico.  Juan Miranda (Steiger) is the head of a gang of peasant thieves that consisted mainly of his family.  Although there is a revolution going on and it is something of a class struggle, Juan is no revolutionary.  He is only interested in the class struggle with respect to the fact that the rich have the money and he wants it.  The opening scene has him robbing an extended stage coach transporting a group of the bourgeoisie.  They consider peasants like Juan to be brutes and animals, but they soon learn that Juan is no typical peasant.  Soon after, in one of the grandest entrances in cinematic history, Juan encounters an ex-Irish rebel named Sean (Coburn).  Sean is an explosives expert.  Juan envisions a partnership that will allow him to rob a bank.  Sean has more revolutionary ideas in mind.  Can an Irish revolutionary be friends with a Mexican bandit?  Could an American mercenary become friends with a Mexican bandit?  (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” reference)  The answer to both questions would be “yes” – in a movie.  Juan and Sean go through a lot together, once they establish that they need each other and they are an even match in shenanigans.  In the process, Juan learns that there are certain things worth fighting a revolution for and Sean learns that even a good revolution has a dark side.  A lot of people will have to die and a lot of things get blown up before each man reaches his epiphany.

                It had been a long time since I saw “Duck, You Sucker!” in a movie theater.  It did not enter my radar screen until recently when it noticed it on some lists of war movies.  I had fond memories of it since I am also a big fan of Westerns, but did not think of it as a war movie.  For purposes of this review, we’ll consider it to be one since it is set in a revolution.  If it is a war movie, it is a very good one.  Well, if you are a guy, anyway.  It is a classic buddy film.  It has no romance.  There are no significant female characters.  This is definitely not a date movie.  But as a guy movie.  Wow.

                “Duck, You Sucker!” is an underrated movie.  Leone wanted to make an epic and he succeeded.  The backdrop of the Revolution allows for some huge set pieces like Sean and Juan’s defense of a bridge with explosives and machine guns.  One of the villains is a fascist archetype driving a tank.  Hardly subtle on the part of the Italian dictator, but effective.  The movie concludes with a grand assault on a troop train.  It reminds of the scene from “Lawrence of Arabia”, but in the Leone style of violence.  The movie is quite violent and the bloodshed is graphic, especially for the early 70s.  And, of course, there are the explosions.  It was brilliant to have a main character as a Fenian bomb maker.  I counted twenty explosions in the movie.  This is another reason why it is hard to understand why the movie did not find an audience in America.  I blame this mainly on poor marketing.  Leave it to Leone to use explosions for some of the humor in the movie.  And the movie has humor throughout.  Mainly through the Juan character.  In this way, it is similar to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.

                The movie is not just mindless violence.  Leone develops his themes adeptly.  His main theme is that revolutions corrupt everything they touch.   When Juan becomes a “grand hero of the revolution”, Sean is cynically proud, but the supposedly ignorant peasant sets him straight by ranting about how the people who read the books get the people who carry the books to fight to change things and nothing changes, but the poor are dead.  “And what happens afterwards is that same fucking thing starts all over again!”  He causes Sean to throw away the copy of Bakunin’s The Patriotism that he has been reading.  Hence, the second theme – each man changes the other.  Sean learns to care about humanity again and Juan learns to support a greater cause.

                Guiseppe Ruzzolini does a great job with the cinematography.  Conforming to the epic nature of the film, he blends long takes, close-ups, slo-mo, and other tricks of the trade.  This is matched by the peerless work of long-time Leone composer Ennio Morricone.  He uses motifs for Juan, Sean, and even the bank.  The score is famous and may be the best in any Leone movie.  With all that said, the movie is most memorable for the acting of Steiger and Coburn.  They are perfect.  The chemistry is outstanding.  Steiger does a great Wallach imitation, but he surely does not come off as the second-best choice.  Juan is such a rich character.

                “Duck, You Sucker!” is a great guy movie.  It has everything – action, adventure, comedy, male bonding, explosions.  It is a must-see for all Baby Boomer men.

GRADE  =  A

4 comments:

  1. I agree with your review. But, I think the title hurt the movie more than anything. "Duck, you sucker!" sounds like a black exploitation movie, not a western. I honestly didn't watch it for a long time because of the title. When I finally did I was very surprised about how good it was. (They used to play this movie frequently on The Western Movie Channel that I got on Dish.)

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    1. I prefer "Fistful of Dynamite". Didn't they want to attract spaghetti western fans? Who was in charge of marketing?

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  2. IIUC, it was re-released as "A Fistful of Dynamite" after its run under the original title was a box office disappointment. I *think* it may have also been shown somewhere as "The Mercenary." Or maybe that was the working title before it was completed.

    From the trailers at the time, I knew it was a spaghetti western, but I expected it to be totally an action movie with slapstick comedy. The ads did not hint at any serious subtext.

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