The Positive, the Negative, and the Questionable Attribute

Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci  and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?

Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it.  Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.


Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.


Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.

Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.

The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.


We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.


There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.


There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.


Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.

 

So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.

Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:

1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.

2. Stuff blows up in it.

3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.

4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.

5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.

6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.

7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.

8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.

9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.

10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.

Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.

It’s Not Easy Being Grinch

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is a time for family, food, fellowship, and film! Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Die Hard (1988) and so on have all become holiday staples and there are so many more. I really wanted to write a review on a holiday movie but I was super torn as to which one to pick as so many have a very special place in my heart. It was ultimately down to a coin-flip between Trading Places (1983) and Scrooge (1951) and the winner was (quite surprisingly) Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). I know, right.

Not the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey one.

This extremely memorable TV holiday special is not a classic by mere happenstance. American word master and gibberish-inventor (if it only but served the meter and rhyme), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), published this cherished rhyming fable in 1957. It has since been welcomed into countless homes, and for good reason. The wonderful words–both real and fictitious—and the amusing and creative rhymes, the stylized and whimsical artwork, and the simple yet timeless message that Christmas doesn’t come from the store, all work together in a very special way. It’s hard not to love the book, but who could have the cinematic fortitude to transform this classic yarn into moving pictures? How about Looney Tunes animator and director, Chuck Jones?

Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones was a perfect choice to bring to life Dr. Seuss’s tale of the nasty old Grinch who hates Christmas and has nothing but disdain for the Whos down in Whoville. After making so many beloved classic animated shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner, etc., and proving he indeed had the knack for comic fable with such shorts as One Froggy Evening (1955) and The Dot and the Line (1965), Jones’ style and sensibility fit Dr. Seuss’s world of cautionary mayhem very well. (I do still wonder what the film might have been like had Bob Clampbett animated it though). Jones even found room to add some of his own touches to the story. The look is Jones’s take on the look of Seuss which, in itself, is fairly fascinating, but Jones also had fun with other elements. The part of the Grinch’s tacit dog sidekick, Max, was expanded so that there was always at least one other Jonesesque joke going on amidst the silly Seussiness.

So the amazing story with its wonderfully whimsical way with words was set and the animated artwork and anarchic comic timing were ready to fire away, but there was still one important piece missing. Who could possibly effectively tell the story of the Grinch, giving both Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones room to play while making it all their own? How about British actor and horror film icon, Boris Karloff (best known for his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein, 1931). Boris Karloff was both narrator and the voice of the Grinch himself. With immaculate diction and fantastic timber, the 79 year-old horror legend, festooned the film with his own very welcome presence. His reading of the piece is still really quite impressive.

For good measure, one more element was tossed into the mix: the killer song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” The song is great and it’s made even better by the deep, rich vocalist who sang it (who was uncredited!). That singer was Thurl Ravenscroft who is best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger (he was also the Vacuum Cleaner from The Brave Little Toaster, 1987). Now Chuck Jones was directing a Christmas poem written by Dr. Seuss that was being read by Boris Karloff while Thurl Ravenscroft would sing bass behind it all. Everything was now in place and everyone was in tip top form for this modest television production that would become a holiday favorite to be celebrated for years to come.

The story was simple. An ornery, old, green creature, the Grinch, would watch the Who-folk celebrate Christmas every year and every year he would glare down from his cave in the mountain above Whoville and let his hatred fester until one year he decides to do something about it. The Grinch does not understand Christmas, but he knows he cannot let the wretched spectacle continue so he plans to steal Christmas from the Whos so they can see how foolish they are. The Whos, however, do not need the presents that the Grinch steals because Christmas is bigger than commercialization: it’s alive in our hearts. The Whos don’t even seem to notice that all of their holiday decorations and presents are missing as they link arms and sing. The Grinch then repents of his wicked ways and seeks to redeem himself and return the gifts and he is formally welcomed into the Who community and they all celebrate together.

So blow your flu-flubers and bang your tar-tinkers this holiday season with a small film you all love and remember. Make Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a part of your Christmas. Make it a double feature alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)! Tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season to all. “Welcome, Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

picture sources:

misfittoys.net

ouuc.org

cartoongallery.com

balboamovies.com

cbsnews.com

chud.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 22, 2009.