Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef chase a cache of gold in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I first saw Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it was broadcast by the ABC television network as a Sunday Night Movie feature back in the day when the home video revolution was still a decade away and the Big Three TV networks devoted some of their prime time schedule to air not-quite-new-but-not-quite-old theatrical movies.  

Because I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time and wasn’t educated about movies or the film industry, I was not aware that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the third chapter of Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (which also included A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) or that it was originally an Italian-made flick (shot on locations in Spain and southern Italy) titled Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (literally, “The good, the ugly, the bad"). 

Of course, because I was so young I didn’t quite understand all the nuances – visual and thematic – of Leone’s epic story about three anti-heroic characters (played by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef) who are searching for a hidden cache of Confederate gold in Civil War-torn Texas.  

Indeed, I was very confused by the fact that Eastwood’s mysterious gun-slinging Man with No Name, aka Blondie, didn’t fit into my preadolescent’s na├»ve belief that good guys in Westerns all had to fit into the John Wayne hero mold as per the conventions of pre-1960s films set in the (mythical) Old West.  After all, what with Clint’s character being labeled “the Good” one of the trio and the movie’s top-billed star, it was very strange seeing Blondie teaming up with the career criminal Tuco (Wallach) on a bounty hunting scam which netted both men thousands of dollars. 

For those readers who may not have seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie would “capture” Tuco and turn him in to authorities in the various Texas towns where was wanted for a serious crime. 

After collecting the reward, Blondie would leave and Tuco would be taken to the town gallows.  The hangman’s noose would be placed around Tuco’s neck, and when it looked as though the execution was going to be finalized, Blondie would free his partner-in-crime by breaking the rope with a shot from his rifle. 

Blondie: You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage - uh, cigar? - liable to interfere with my aim. 
Tuco: But if you miss you had better miss very well. Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing! 
[Chuckles, bites cigar] 

The screenplay by Sergio Leone, Furio Scarpelli, Agenore Incrocci and Luciano Vincenzoni (which was anglicized by Mickey Knox) is deceptively simple in outline.  Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, a steely-eyed and laconic assassin-for-hire, has been hired to find a man named Jackson– who now uses the alias Bill Carson - and find out the location of a stash of gold which belongs to the Confederate Army.  

Angel Eyes is a relentless pursuer who is willing to do anything – even shooting a man he is interrogating and his oldest son – to fulfill his contract.

He is also a man who does not hesitate to double-cross an employer if there’s money to be made from doing so. 

As Angel Eyes searches for the man who calls himself Bill Carson, Blondie and Tuco’s partnership dissolves over Tuco’s wish to get a larger percentage of the money the two men make from their bounty hunting scam.  Tired of hearing Tuco’s demands for more money, Blondie abandons him and leaves the vindictive, violent and totally amoral criminal to fend for himself without a weapon or any of the money they netted from their last escapade. 

Of course, the three men’s paths are destined to converge, especially after Tuco and Blondie each learn about Carson’s cache of stolen gold and decide that they want it. But if the two ex-partners want those $200,000, they must put aside their differences and team up again, Will they be able to do so, and will they help or hinder the relentless Angel Eyes? 

My Take:  It wasn’t until I purchased the 2006 MGM DVD version (which contains the “international edition” released in the U.S. and Great Britain) that I was able to really watch Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and appreciate it as the work of art that it truly is. 

It helps, of course, that the DVD, which is part of the Best of Eastwood collection, contains the complete English-language version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and not the bowdlerized 95-minute version which has been syndicated for the American TV market since 2006. 

While I am usually in agreement with the notion that most movies should be no longer than two hours, this is one of the few epic-length films that deserve to be seen without being edited for time constraints. 

There are many reasons why I think Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is one of the best anti-heroic films ever made, not the least of which is the film’s almost alien vistas and neo-mythical storyline. 

Quite simply, Leone had the cojones to break the mold of the typical Western and shoot the movie in Europe rather than bring his crew to the U.S. and film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the more familiar locations seen in American-made horse operas. 

Consider this.  Whereas a John Ford/John Wayne film along the lines of Fort Apache might tell a story which involves some jeopardy to its main characters, the familiar vistas of, say, Monument Valley are somehow comforting to us because we have seen them so often in other movies that they feel almost as though they were a back lot with no real dangers to anyone. 

But the Texas depicted in Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is alien and inhospitable to us partly because of Leone’s mixture of extreme close-ups of the characters with extended panoramic shots of the hills, plains and mountains of Spain and Italy.   These are places that very few American eyes had seen in 1966 when the film was released, so it is this unfamiliarity, this threatening landscape of arid ground and sunlit skies which give the film its harsher, unnerving atmosphere. 

Another element that makes this movie work well is its dry, dark humor.  The final screenplay (by Luciano Vincenzoni and Leone) has straightforward dialogue, of course, that provides exposition and establishes the McGuffin, but it’s also full of dark, witty bon mots. 

[Tuco is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room] 
One Armed Man: I've been looking for you for 8 months. Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left. 
 [Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam] 
Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk. 
Blondie: [counting Angel Eyes' men] One, two, three, four, five, and six. Six, the perfect number. 
 Angel Eyes: I thought three was the perfect number. 
Blondie: I've got six more bullets in my gun. 
Of course, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is also remembered for its eerie yet rousing score by composer Ennio Morricone.  Its famous theme – which features the sounds of guns being fired, male vocalists yodeling and even the whistling of the melody by musician John O’Neill, who had already had a hit single with I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman but is best remembered for his performance here - is one of the most memorable pieces of film music ever composed. 

Although it takes huge liberties with history, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can also be considered to be a great Civil War movie.  Yes, it’s a spaghetti Western.  Yes, it’s a caper movie, too.  Nevertheless, the war is not just a distant backdrop; there is one hell of a surrealistic battle scene focusing on a bridge that Union and Confederates fight over with no end in sight, and there’s a realistic depiction of a POW camp of the era based on the real-life Andersonville prison in Georgia. 

Interestingly, although Clint Eastwood is the top-billed cast member, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is carried more by co-star Eli Wallach, who is given the lion’s share of the dialogue and screen time. 

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

DVD Review: The Pacific

In 2003, two years after the successful first run of HBO's Band of Brothers, a World War II-set miniseries based on the late Stephen E. Ambrose's non-fiction book about a company of paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division that saw action in Normandy, Holland, the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler's Eagle Nest in southern Germany, its executive producers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, began working on a similar project which focused on the "other war" America fought on the far side of the world against Japan.

Before his untimely death in 2002, Ambrose had begun to outline a book about the Navy sailors and Marines who had participated in every offensive action against the Japanese Empire, starting from the 1942 landings at Guadalcanal and ending in the bloody 1945 struggle for Okinawa, the gateway to the Japanese home islands.

However, Ambrose - weakened by his losing battle with cancer - found that the war in the Pacific was far more complex than the campaigns in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and stopped work on the project, even though he had often been approached by vets who had served in the Asia-Pacific Theater of Operations and asked "When are you going to tell stories about our part of World War II?"

Of course, Ambrose's creative partners Spielberg and Hanks were often asked the same question, so they contacted Hugh Ambrose (Stephen's son and a historian in his own right) and asked him to serve as historical consultant on the project which would eventually become The Pacific.

"Hell Was An Ocean Away....." 
Like its 2001 ETO counterpart Band of BrothersThe Pacific is divided into 10 parts and follows the various struggles of several American servicemen during several campaigns of World War II from 1942 to 1945. 

Both miniseries share certain elements, including stories about the personal experiences of the young men who fought in World War II, realistic depictions of combat and excellent special effects, scoring and production design.

However, The Pacific is very different from Band of Brothers, and not just because it follows Marines fighting against the Japanese or because the various islands it visits are nothing like Northwest Europe, but it has a totally different storytelling approach.

The Pacific is based on several memoirs, primarily Robert Leckie's A Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge'sWith the Old Breed.  These two accounts were blended with Sgt. John Basilone's story arc, which was adapted from Chuck Tatum's Red Blood, Black Sand.

The Pacific chronicles the experiences of PFC Robert "Lucky" Leckie (James Badge Dale), PFC Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda) and some of their comrades in the United States Marine Corps, including Sledge's childhood friend from Mobile, Alabama, Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), PFC "Snafu" Shelton (Rami Malek) and Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller (William Sadler) as they fight their way up the 'long ladder" from Guadalcanal to the doorstep of the Japanese homeland.

Unlike the paratroopers of Band of Brothers' Easy Company, the three main characters are not members of the same unit, although at times their paths do intersect.  Leckie, for instance, serves in the same company as Sledge's buddy Sid Phillips, and they are assigned to Guadalcanal at the same time as Basilone. 

And even though Sledge joined the Marines a year after Phillips, the two childhood friends would reunite briefly when Eugene finally gets his first assignment in the Pacific.

The miniseries also gives the viewer a chance to catch a glimpse of life in the Home Front when Sgt. John Basilone, winner of the Medal of Honor for his actions at Guadalcanal, is rotated back to the States and assigned by the Marine Corps and the Treasury Department to go on a nationwide War Bonds tour. 

In these brief "back-in-America" interludes, we see Basilone as he first enjoys the perks of being a "celebrity Marine" - nice hotel suites, attractive Hollywood starlets and cheering crowds - then gets restless and longs to be reassigned to a combat unit.

These scenes (as well as others set in Australia and New Zealand) give the viewer a break from the carnage of the island hopping campaigns that take the Marines from the Solomon Islands to New Britain to Peleliu (a battle to which the series devotes three episodes) all the way to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and, eventually, home.

However, The Pacific sends its three main characters on a long odyssey full of peril and misery.  Here, the Marines are not in the more familiar landscapes of Western Europe  facing an enemy with roughly similar cultural and social outlooks, but in a region of the world where the environment is just as hostile - and deadly- as the Japanese.

And because the war in the Pacific was fought by two nations with vastly different world-views and tinged with undercurrents of racism, hatred and a total misunderstanding of each other's cultures, the battles the viewer witnesses while watching this miniseries are far more savage and unpredictable than those in Band of Brothers.

Indeed, in many ways, the fanaticism of the Japanese and their seeming indifference to death is as confusing and maddening to the Americans of the 1940s as is Al Qaeda's brand of religious extremism and terrorism to us now in the 21st Century.  Just as many people now ask how Islamic jihadists can pick a fight with the world's sole superpower and not blink in the face of its high-tech weapons and professional personnel, the Marines of The Pacific are in turn puzzled and enraged by an enemy who will not surrender under most circumstances. 

The DVD Set:  Because I don't subscribe to HBO, I did not get to watch The Pacific until HBO Home Entertainment released the miniseries in a six-disc box set on DVD and Blu-ray in November 2010.

I had, of course, read Hugh Ambrose's official tie-in book earlier this year and pre-ordered the box set, which luckily for consumers is not as expensive as the first sets of Band of Brothers were nearly 10 years ago.

The first five discs, of course, contain the miniseries' 10 parts, with two episodes per disc.  You can watch episodes one at a time, or if you wish, you can select Play All and watch both parts in one sitting.

Another nice feature included in the DVDs (and I assume the Blu-ray discs as well) is that viewers can choose to watch each part with or without a separate Historical Background introduction.  

These intros feature actual 1940s-era documentary footage and a contemporary comment from one or more of the men being portrayed in the miniseries, and help place The Pacific into historical context.

The sixth disc contains all the expected extras which come in box sets of this type, including short biographies of the real Marines portrayed in the miniseries, a documentary about the nature of the Pacific War and a making-of featurette.

Special Features (from the packaging blurb) 

Profiles of The Pacific: Delve into the lives of the real Marines featured in The Pacific.  Get a personal perspective on their families, their war experiences, and their lives after the war in these intimate portraits.    

Making The PacificGo behind the scenes and take an inside look at the making of this epic, 10-part miniseries.

Anatomy of the Pacific War: Explore the historical influences and cultural perceptions that led to the merciless brutality in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Reflections on The Pacific:  Being a huge fan of both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' previous collaborations - especially Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers - I knew (before I even watched a single episode) that The Pacific was going to be an excellent bookend to their European-set tales of World War II, even if it was going to be somewhat different in style and in levels of intensity.

The casting choices, of course, are part of the reason as to why The Pacific works so well.  New Jersey-born Jon Seda does a fine job as Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, an average Italian-American boy from Raritan who finds his niche in the military and finds himself having to choose between an easy life in the States as a national hero and doing what he does best - fight as a Marine.

Also impressive is James Badge Dale (Robert Leckie).  Dale has one of the most challenging story arcs in The Pacific as he undergoes the transition from young journalist to Marine, witnesses combat on various islands, falls in love with (and loses) a young Australian woman he meets on a Melbourne tram, then is sent to a Navy mental health ward before being sent out to combat again.

The biggest surprise is Joe Mazzello (Eugene Sledge), a former child actor whose best-known previous role was that of  nine-year-old Tim, the grandson of the dino-breeding billionaire John Hammond in Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.

Mazzello does an excellent job of portraying the quiet and intelligent doctor's son from Mobile as he, too, undergoes the transition from a boy eager to follow his best friend into the Marines into a combat veteran whose war experiences change his outlook on life and will haunt his postwar life for decades to come.

Because the production team has worked on several previous HBO miniseries, everything, from the special effects to the score composed by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli and Blake Neely, is top-notch.  The sets (most of them in Australia) vividly recreate the various locations (whether they are enemy-held islands or Allied cities in the home front) in which the Marines lived, loved, laughed and fought for their very existence.

The Pacific: Episode List

Part One: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Two:  Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by David Nutter

Part Three: Written by George Pelecanos and Michelle Ashford, directed by Jeremy Podeswa

Part Four: Written by Robert Schenkman and Graham Yost, directed by Graham Yost

Part Five: Written by Laurence Andries and Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Carl Franklin

Part Six: Written by Bruce C. McKenna and Laurence Andries and Robert Schenkman, directed by Tony To

Part Seven: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Eight: Written by Robert Schenkman and Michelle Ashford, directed by David Nutter/Jeremy Podeswa

Part Nine: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Ten: Written by Bruce C. McKenna and Robert Schenkman, 
directed by Jeremy Podeswa

Trivia: Viewers who watched Ken Burns' 2007 PBS series The War will probably be familiar with the story of Eugene Sledge and Sid Phillips, especially since the late Mr. Phillips, a respected retired doctor in Mobile, Alabama, was one of the veterans who was prominently featured in interviews.

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dispatches From Spain: Going Home and Reflections on Seville

When I was a 25-year-old college sophomore and majoring in Journalism/Mass Communications, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in an overseas-study program co-sponsored by Miami-Dade Community College’s Foreign Language Department and the College Consortium for International Studies.

At the time, I had just about taken most of the required courses for my Associate in Arts degree except math (my bete noir) and three credits’ worth of the foreign language pre-requisite. I had also, or so I thought, done everything I had set out to do as a reporter/editor at the campus student newspaper, so I was feeling a bit unmoored and restless without a plan for what I figured would be my final year on the staff.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure what, exactly, prompted me to sign up for the Semester in Spain program. Part of it, I’m sure, was a sense that this would be my best chance to go to Europe for a significant amount of time. Maybe it was my journalist’s instinctive search for a good story. Or maybe it was youthful curiosity and thirst for adventure.

Well, whatever my reasons at the time were, I consulted with my mom whether or not I could afford it; with tuition, books, air fare, room and board plus extraneous expenses, the total cost would be $5,000.00, give or take a few hundred dollars. Fortunately, I had most of the money in my savings account, so Mom gave me her blessing (and some of the funding) and, in July of 1988, I applied – and was accepted – for a spot in the Semester in Spain program for the Fall Term.

Because I was majoring in Journalism/Mass Communications at the time, it occurred to me that it would be a swell idea to become, in essence, the student newspaper’s first foreign correspondent. After all, I had over two years of experience as a college journalist and knew, more or less, how to find stories on my own without an editor having to give me specific assignments. So, with the cocky confidence of a seasoned reporter, I asked my advisor and the editor of Catalyst if they’d sign off on my voluntary assignment in Seville. They did so, even going as far as lending me the newspaper’s backup Canon Sure Shot camera so I could shoot some photographs.

I arrived in Seville on September 21, 1988 and left on December 18, 1988. I took five courses – History of Spain, Spanish Government, and three advanced level Spanish language classes – totaling 15 credit hours. In addition, I went on all the day trips the program offered, as well as a longer overnight trip to the city of Granada.

While I had a great deal of fun as a participant in the Miami-Dade Community College/CCIS program and still believe that it was the best experience I had while I was in college, I have to admit that it was also a challenging experience. Not only was I on my own far away from home for the first time in my life, but I had to resist the temptation of turning a “study-abroad experience into a mere tourist excursion” and manage my time and money wisely.

Going Home

We're not quite ready to go home yet

Written in December 1988, published March 2, 1989)

Alex Diaz-Granados

SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)
The winter holiday season has arrived and here in Seville the 42 students participating in the CCIS Semester in Spain program are looking beyond the upcoming final exams and planning their return home or further European travel.

Already, they have celebrated Thanksgiving, traditionally a very homey holiday, truly away from home as they are 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the group celebrated a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by Italian chefs at the three-star restaurant Carlino. The meal, judging by the students' comments, was psychologically, if not gastronomically, successful.

"The group really came together," said Sandra Langlois, a freshman from Miami-Dade's South Campus. "It was really special for me because I am French, and it was my first American Thanksgiving. I really got the true feeling of the tradition of the holiday -- togetherness."

Now, a few weeks later, students' thoughts are geared to either further travel throughout the holiday or their homecoming.

Melissa Miller, a senior from Lake Forest College in Chicago, said, "I'll be spending the holidays in Vienna, Austria, so I'll be sure to have a white Christmas, and I won't be alone because I'm traveling with a bunch of friends."

However, the majority of the participants in the program are ready to go home -- some more than others.

"I'm ready to go home," said Bob Holzweiss, a junior from St. Bonaventure College in New York State. "I've been here 12 weeks, and that's enough."

"I miss the luxuries of home -- convenience stores and fast food joints -- and also my car, my family and friends," said Ingrid Gottlieb, a student from Broward Community College. "And I miss my boyfriend."

Others, such as Wendy Page, a sophomore from South Campus, decided to stay for the Spring Term.

"Three months is just not enough time for me to get a full taste of the culture and lifestyle that Seville has to offer," she said.

And although he's leaving at the end of the semester, Fairfield University's Mike Boucher agreed.

"A lot of good things have happened here in terms of self-discovery, friendship, independence, and sense of perspective, and I don't think I'm ready to go home."

Also contributing to this column is Michelle Kirby, foreign correspondent for Beacon, North Adams State College, Mass. and Mainsheet, Cape Cod CC's student newspaper.

Reflections on the Seville Experience

Spain was worth the expense and heartache it brought
(Catalyst, Opinions, March 16, 1989)

A few months ago and 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, I was sitting on a bench in Seville’s Cristina Park, thinking, as I often did, about things back home.

More specifically, I was thinking about my colleagues in the Catalyst staff and what was going on in the office while I was away.

I had been in Spain for three weeks, and although I had sent in some “copy” for them to edit (and hopefully publish), I hadn’t heard from anyone yet.

“Great,” I grumbled to myself as I sat on the park bench on that mid-October afternoon. “Here I am, 3,000 miles from home, feeling very depressed and I haven’t heard from the office yet.”

I had finally discovered that as much as I liked being a foreign correspondent, it was not (at least not at that particular moment) a very enviable position to hold in a college newspaper staff.

For starters, I had none of the usual facilities available to a professional reporter, i.e. telecommunications, underwater telegraph cables or even a computer.

My resources were just a bit more modest. To provide the 5,000-plus readers of this newspaper accurate accounts of 42 American students in Spain, I had a portable typewriter, a camera and a pad of air mail paper. Period.

Even so, this should have been sufficient for the task at hand, had I not had other things to do, such as attending classes and going on out-of-town trips.(You do study in a “study-abroad” program, you know.)

And, of course, there was the Spanish postal service to contend with.

Although 95 percent of the time most mail took a week to go from Spain to the United States, the remaining five percent of the time it involved my important mail to be affected by the “You Want It When?” corollary to Murphy’s Law.

To wit: a column I wrote in October (and sent, supposedly, via Special Delivery) did not arrive in three days as the Spanish postal worker who sold me the 200 pesetas’ worth of stamps assured me it would.

Actually, that column took two weeks to reach my colleagues here, just in time for the Dec. 1, 1988 issue.

Add to that “writer’s block,” jet lag, constant interruptions from annoying roommates and low morale, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what we collegiate foreign correspondents had to put up with.

My friend Michelle Kirby, who is a staff writer for Beacon, the North Adams State (Mass.) newspaper, had a bit more success at on-the-spot reporting than I, but fared no better at getting feedback from the home office.

“Look,” she said one day as we were working on a column, “I don’t mind doing this for the paper. It’s something different from what I do in North Adams, but I wish they’d tell me if my copy is getting there.”

“Yeah, but the folks back in the States have a lot on their minds and can’t spare the time to tell us anything,” I said.

“I know,” Michelle said, “but I still think it would be nice to hear from anyone at the office.”

“It sure would,” I said. “But it’s a moot point. We’re going to be home in a few weeks and we’ll see for ourselves what happened to our copy.”

As it turned out, things went well in the long run, even though at the time it didn’t look that way.

And when I’m asked whether or not it was all worth the expense, heartache and time involved, my reply is always the same.

It certainly was.

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.