Thursday, June 22, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 16: X Y & Zee and A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die

When "season two" happens post-Fantasia, I'm going to make a much more earnest attempt to keep up with what the score is rather than just calculating it as I do the posts. Or maybe at least do the posts much more quickly, so that I know that we're getting to an exciting period:

Exciting enough that this round started just two days after the previous one, at least. Mookie rolls a six, landing on X Y & Zee, which got purchased as part of the Twilight Time going out of business sale, although IMDB seems to indicate that the original title is "Zee and Co." and shows a comma in the alternate title that isn't on the box. Both titles kind of feel like they're straining for hipness, to be honest.

Bruce gets a chance the next night, rolling an eleven and reaching A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die!, which is kind of close to what he had last round, in terms of audience.

I'd started to try and do This Week in Tickets again at this point, so I've got some rough draft material for these. Let's see how the boys did!

X Y & Zee (aka Zee and Co.)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

X Y & Zee is a feature-length soap opera, although I suppose you can dress it up a little by calling it "Sirkian melodrama" or the like - an invitation to gape at beautiful, privileged people, getting caught up in their scandalous lives while standing far enough removed to find them distasteful. In this case, Robert Blakeley (Michael Caine) and wife Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) have a marriage that seems advantageous but not particularly loving, with Robert openly scoping out young widow Stella (Susannah York) at a party. Perhaps sensing that this girl is more of a threat to her position than the ones before, Zee moves to sabotage it in every way that she can without appearing to be some square stick-in-the-mud, to the point of befriending and even flirting with her.

Watching X Y & Zee, two things struck me:

(1) Susanna York's Stella is just too good to have to put up with either of the other characters' nonsense, and not just because the character seems nice and isn't revealed to be scheming; for all that one does get lonely in her position, it's hard to see why she's so readily seduced, given that she's pretty and apparently bright enough to have other suitors. She can do so much better than Michael Caine's obvious cad!

(2) Speaking of Michael Caine being an obvious cad, what was the point, in the 50 years since this film came out, where he stopped taking roles where he was clearly a nasty piece of work from the start? These days, he'll occasionally play a guy who is revealed to be a villain, but even then he's still kind of avuncular and charming until the mask is pulled back, and even then, they tend to keep playing it as him being egocentric rather than revealing a classic Caine bastard. Maybe it's just how he aged, but there was something thrilling about how vitally hard-edged he could be.

Robert and Zee being different sorts of monsters - him an obviously nasty piece of work who can make that appear as confidence and genius, her a product of the right schools whose favor looks like generosity - is part of the nasty fun of it, though, even as we're meant to have a modicum of sympathy for Zee, who is aging out of being a guest who turns heads at parties and has neither the appeal to replace it nor another means of stability should Robert leave her. Writer Edna O'Brien and Brian G. Hutton don't seem particularly interested in teaching a lesson or having any of these three solve a problem; it is, for better or worse, mainly observation of how when this sort of marriage curdles, a man has more opportunity to move on to something more pleasant than a woman.

na ragione per vivere e una per morire (A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die!)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Speaking of enjoyably hard-edged leading men, James Coburn will always be one of my favorites; he always feels like he's enjoying himself in these spaghetti westerns in a way that the anti-heroes played by, say, Clint Eastwood don't. Maybe it's the luck of being less iconic - Eastwood became an avatar of the genre and played mysterious figures while Coburn was always a specific guy who could work in an ensemble if that was what was needed.

Here, his Pembroke has a very particular background that serves as the lynchpin to a story that exists in the overlap between the western and the wartime adventure: Disgraced by surrendering his command, Pembroke convinces his jailors to let him lead a team of deserters and criminals condemned to hang anyway, hoping to earn their loyalty by pitching it as a heist, with millions in gold hidden with the fort in a place only he knows. Not that his team outside one member (Bud Spencer) seems particularly concerned with whether he lives or dies even before then.

Director Tonino Valerii and his co-writers take their time getting Pembroke and his team to the fort, but don't string it out too much, because the group can't be too whittled down when they arrive. It's enough to keep the audience worried about Pembroke getting shot in the back while also establishing that he's a mean and cunning cuss, getting tension and cohesion just where they need to be before introducing José Suárez and Telly Savalas as the new leadership of the fort, suave and polished in the way Pembroke isn't but also not exactly scanning as Confederates, and thus almost more detestable as seeming mercenaries.

At this point it becomes a heist film, and one that is probably anachronistic for 1862, between the Gatling guns and security that has electric wires alerting them of attempts to break in. At this point, though, one may not particularly care; Valerii and company often seem to be taking all the best parts of a thousand years of heists and compressing it into one location - this place is built into the environment as is just and proper for a western, with that environment including what functions as a natural moat and drawbridge, with what feels like a twentieth-century security system to be defeated. It winds up mixing the western, war, and crime/caper genres deftly, with all the violence one might want from the genre and a chance for Coburn to peel back a layer of this character and make the whole thing messily emotional even as it's threatened to just be moving pieces around.

It's still kind of tight, but Bruce got the sort of movie I enjoy more, and extends his lead a bit:

Mookie: 58 ½ stars
Bruce: 60 stars

Apparently I forgot to take a picture, but that one with Bruce and Mookie just about in the same place says it all, right? Next up: An actual single-night double feature!

No comments: