(On DVD, December 2017) The best thing about For a Few Dollars More in following up A Fistful of Dollars is adding Lee van Cleef as a foil to Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name. Eastwood is terrific, of course, but van Cleef is just as effective in his own way, adding tension and even more spectacular machismo to this sequel (the sequence in which they duel over a hat is quite good). The budget also seems more generous, allowing for a more fully realized version of a Western shot in Spain by an Italian crew. Sergio Leone’s direction remains just as effective, but seem more polished than in the previous film. It helps that the script is somewhat more complex than the previous film, allowing for more than a simple stranger-comes-to-town paradigm. The climax works well, and the watch motif adds another layer to the film. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s score and you’ve got a strong follow-up to the original western, and a stepping stone to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
(On DVD, December 2017) Iconism doesn’t get any starker than seeing Clint Eastwood anchor this Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man With No Name” walks into town to drive an archetypical plot, this is as stripped-down a western as you can find. There’s only the laconic hero, villains to be vanquished and innocents to be protected. A measly budget led to a laser-like focus on the film’s core strength, bolstered by Leone’s impeccably sense of style and Eastwood’s star-making performance. It certainly works as an exercise in machismo, explaining its enduring popularity even today. Numerous set-pieces help develop Eastwood’s legend as much as his character, including an improbable but strong climax featuring bulletproof armour. Leone’s sense of direction is distinctive even without much of a budget at his disposal, grand landscape shots eventually leading to expressive close-ups that have now passed into parody. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s now-familiar score (although without the “wah-wah-waaah” flourish, only present in the third film in the series) and you’ve got the making of a genre classic. It’s rough and crude, but focused and strong.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) As far as war thrillers go, there’s something almost awe-inspiring in seeing Where Eagles Dare take on so many familiar thriller tropes and dance with them. Considering that the screenwriter is none other than once-best-selling novelist Alistair MacLean, the strength of the script may not be a surprise. Still, there’s a pleasant mixture of familiar elements handled well as the characters punch Nazis, confront a hidden traitor, set out to expose a double agent (through a remarkably good scene), fight their way in and out of a mountain fortress … and so on. The production techniques are dated, but the film keeps a certain interest largely based on its straight-ahead plotting. Seeing Clint Eastwood in a solid role also helps, although Richard Burton does have an unusual screen presence here. Where Eagles Dare is big-budget blockbuster filmmaking from another era, and while it certainly has its problems now, it’s an avowed crowd pleaser, and as a straight-ahead adventure movie, a bit of a change from the kind of self-important WW2 drama that now seems the norm.
(On TV, May 2017) Good movies have a way of drawing their viewers in, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Escape from Alcatraz earn my attention despite what was initially an uninterested viewing. I was planning on doing other things while I watched the movie: I wasn’t expecting much from yet another prison film (haven’t we seen enough of them already?). But what happened is that only a few minutes in, I ended up glued to the screen until the end, even as the movie was going through the usual motions of prison movies. A couple of things can explain why: For one, Escape from Alcatraz rests on the shoulders of Clint Eastwood, here seen in his prime as an irresistibly charismatic lead—he can squint, grunt and we’re just willing to see where he’ll go. Then there’s the fact that the film is very, very good at being a prison escape procedural. It cleanly introduces its characters, sketches the social ecosystem of the prison, shows the protagonist figure out Alcatraz’s faults and how to exploit them, raises the stakes with an abusive warden … and constantly shows the danger of the protagonists being caught. Even when it goes through familiar motions, Escape from Alcatraz is well-executed enough to keep our attention. Finally, and this is more of a personal factor than anything in the film—I had forgotten my own preferences for well-executed prison procedurals. In-between The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape (alongside which Escape from Alcatraz easily finds its place), there’s a long tradition of prison break movies, and I suspect there’s a strongly gendered appeal for male viewers contemplating how to escape from the ultimate confinement. No matter why, Escape from Alcatrax remains a good, perhaps even great movie even today. It’s unexpectedly captivating, and it shows its age by having become a fine period piece rather than a dated movie.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) It may be just another biopic, but Sully does a few things to take it beyond being a simple biopic barely seven years after the events it’s portraying. The first is probably the cinematic nature of the events it re-creates: The dramatic “Miracle on the Hudson” in which an entire flight was saved by the decision to land on the Hudson River … in January. This aspect of the story is portrayed clearly, with alternate scenarios in which other decisions are shown as ending up with a fiery crash in Manhattan. The structure of the film is also notable, as it begins with a fake-out, work its way forward through the investigation of the events and then only portrays the event in detail. Tom Hanks is his usual self as the protagonist—looking different from other roles, but acting with the same core of honour and sympathetic humility that has ensured his success as an actor. Director Clint Eastwood turns in another dependable film, with a higher-than-usual number of special effects but the same kind of middle-America appeal. There’s some bit of repetition in the way Sully digs deeper and deeper into its central events, but the recreation of the disaster is evocative and the whole thing is cleanly presented. The conclusion does appear too pat—from the moment “machines” and “simulations” are mentioned, it’s obvious that the film will fall back on fuzzy notions of humanity … but knowing how the computers will be blamed for everything is another way of ensuring that Sully is comforting to everyone. It amounts to a solid, if only occasionally spectacular film. Come for the true story of flight 1549—stay for the ghoulishly striking sequences of plane crashes in the city.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) I am apparently not a very good audience for westerns because I spent most of The Outlaw Josey Wales bored out of my mind, waiting for the next thing to happen. Granted, this is the kind of film where this reaction is understandable: structured in episodes, the film follows our eponymous hero (played by Clint Eastwood) as he seeks revenge for the murder of his family. Stuff happens, then stuff happens and then more stuff happens in episodes that feel almost disconnected until the third act finally brings them together. It’s a familiar story, told adequately. The ending does make the overall film better, but it feels interminable until then. This being said, this is one of those movies worth looking up on Wikipedia, because the behind-the-scenes drama involves Clint Eastwood taking over directing from Philip Kaufman (leading to the DGA’s “Eastwood Rule” forbidding actors from firing directors) intertwined with a burgeoning relationships between Eastwood and co-star Sondra Locke that would span the decades and create a number of scandals along the way. The point being: The Outlaw Josey Wales is a key movie in Eastwood’s life and filmography, and it’s practically impossible to discuss him without taking a look at his personal life during the shooting of the movie. While the film itself may not be all that compelling today, it’s the price of admission to learn far more than we’d like about Eastwood’s private failings.
(On DVD, March 2017) You would think that after twenty-five years, so-called “revisionism” would be absorbed, normalized, taken as granted and disappear into the background of a changed genre. But as Unforgiven continues to prove even today, revisionism can be an evergreen state of mind. Even now, the film’s treatment of violence in its western setting still rings as faintly blasphemous. As hurt women put a bounty on the head of an aggressor, as greedy killers converge on a town where the sheriff won’t tolerate guns carried by strangers, as a stained hero picks up his weapons in order to keep the family farm afloat, Unforgiven still has something special to offer. It plays with the codes of heroism (few characters are either all-good or all-bad), undermines who should be sympathetic and seems almost aghast when excessive violence does resolve problems. What makes it even more interesting is seeing Clint Eastwood take on the project both as a director and as a star—there’s a finality to his performance that stands as his closing statement on the genre. (This being said, this wouldn’t be the last time Eastwood would puncture his own myth—Grand Torino also has a few things to say about the toxicity of violence as he himself portrayed in a string of earlier movies.) Eastwood is terrific as a retired gunman reluctantly picking up his guns (and being thrown off his horse a few times for his troubles), while Morgan Freeman shows up in a rougher role than usual. Gene Hackman makes for a credible antagonist, unlikable although not purely evil in his goals of pacifying the Wild West by all means necessary. The result is absorbing even for viewers without natural or national affinities for the Western as a genre—Unforgiven manages to escape the western to become a great film of its own.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Clint Eastwood hasn’t done many comedies in his career, and Every Which Way But Loose may help explain why. While an undeniable popular (if not critical) success at the time, it’s a film that now feels almost humorless despite clear attempts at being funny. Eastwood himself barely cracks a smile, a joke or anything looking like self-deprecation in a movie where he’s asked to plays a brawler tracking down an unwilling love interest from Los Angeles to Denver. (A premise that has its own set of problems…) Among the film’s many distinctions is how it takes place in blue-collar settings halfway between cowboys and truckers, refuses to give its hero what he wants, and remains almost laugh-free even as it plays with big comic targets: yes, this is the film where Eastwood pals around with an orangutan and punches neo-Nazis in the face. The episodic structure does the film no favours, and the seriousness through which the comedy is approached doesn’t lead to extra laughs either. As an anthropological look in the working-class seventies, Every Which Way But Loose is mildly interesting … but as a look at one of the top-grossing films of the time, it’s more mystifying than anything else. Apparently there’s a sequel that closes the loop on some of the film’s most distinctive aspects…
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Clint Eastwood isn’t a director associated with the supernatural, but with Hereafter he takes on a multi-strand story about communicating with the dead. Featuring an ensemble cast, this is a movie that goes around the world, asking questions and them wrapping up abruptly. There are quite a few things to like about it—the performances from actors such as Matt Damon as a blue-collar worker with an unwanted gift; Cecile de France as a woman whose life changes after a near-death experience; and the McLaren brothers as kids surviving a terrible childhood. Bryce Dallas Howard also shows up in a short but striking role. The way those stories, in four different countries, come to climax is satisfying, but the small-scale ending of the film is almost surprising, leaving plenty of questions unanswered. The opening sequence, depicting a tsunami in graphic detail, is unusually far more intense than the ending. It’s intriguing, satisfying in small moments, but not exceptionally fulfilling in total. The sum of the good moments doesn’t quite add up to a grand film and the result feels curiously muted. Too bad; at least it delivers small doses of interest.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) In many mays, American Sniper was a genuine phenomenon in contemporary American cinema. It’s one of the very, very few purely-realistic film to have been a box-office hit, without being a sequel or part of a franchise or incorporating speculative elements. It’s also, even more remarkably, a box-office hit that made most of its money in the United States, reversing the usual domestic/foreign box-office ratio for blockbusters. The reasons for both of those oddities quickly becomes obvious when watching the film, which is a conflicted paean to a fallen warrior. An exchange about sheep, wolves and sheepdogs early on clearly establishes that this is a film aimed at the sheepdogs (or, more cynically, at the sheep thinking they’re sheepdogs), and as such does seem to align with typically conservative values in the culture war that currently dominates American discourse. American Sniper, directed by old-school legend Clint Eastwood, was one of the few mainstream films to comfort conservatives in their values without necessarily annoying liberals who could appreciate the film’s portrayal of a veteran having trouble coping with the aftermath of his tours. That the film is reasonably good helps in ensuring its success. There are certainly plenty of issues with the result, though: Eastwood directs action sequences competently but not exceptionally; protagonist Chris Kyle is portrayed without many of the less-pleasant rough spots that more independent profiles of the man have outlined; the film seems to shy away from the last moments (and drama) of Kyle’s life. But American Sniper worst reasonably well, provides Bradley Cooper with a terrific role, brings together a lot of issues that have preoccupied Americans for the past decade, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the self-righteous militaristic streak of American culture. Any irresistible intention to argue about the film’s merit are part of its added appeal.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Sometimes, you have to let go of narrative and embrace the atmosphere. Despite it being a murder/courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is best appreciated as an atmospheric look at a southern-US Savannah and its unusual characters. It’s digressive, tangential, occasionally supernatural, almost uninterested in its own plot. It lives when it allows its characters to do their own thing, and grows weaker when it gets down to the business of narrative closure. This is a kind of film made for a particular kind of audience (director Clint Eastwood is often best at ease while idling), but even narrative-driven moviegoers may appreciate the unhurried pace at which it unfolds, almost as if it was an invitation to spend some leisurely time visiting Savannah. It also helps feature capable actors: Kevin Spacey is essential as a local mogul accused of murder and whose defence essentially rests on being a community pillar. John Cusack is fine but unchallenging as the audience’s stand-in to the local madness, but The Lady Chabis turns in a great performance by playing herself. If I had more time, I’d check out the book to confirm that this atmosphere is developed even more fully on the page – and I’d re-watch the film in English to get the fullest Southern-accent experience.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I really should like Changeling. It is, after all, an unusually fact-based film about historical Los Angeles, social injustice and sordid crime. It’s written by J. Michael Straczynski (who has earned a permanent residency in my brain after writing most of Babylon-5), directed by Clint Eastwood and features both Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich in pivotal roles. It starts slowly as a single-mother dramatic mystery, then gradually gets bigger and bigger until it sweeps the entire California judicial system. The historical re-creation of 1930(ish) Los Angeles is fascinating, and even the small details of the film are worth a few wonders. Alas, it feels interminable, and it tackles a subject, child endangerment, that I find unbearable these days. Sticking close to the historical facts, Changeling is also forbidden from a conventionally satisfying conclusion: at best, it finds hope in a delusion and stops before the inevitable darkness comes back. At times, watching the film felt like a singularly dull self-imposed ordeal, especially once it makes its way past the two-hour duration. I’m certainly not saying that the film is bad –I am saying, however, that Changeling feels heavy and fit for a particular kind of viewer in a particular kind of mood.
(On TV, December 2014) The advantage of being director/actor Clint Eastwood is being famous enough to indulge into a bit of self-deconstruction with wider archetypical implications. At least that’s the message I’m getting from Gran Torino, which seems delighted to mess around with ideas of masculinity as often set in stone by Eastwood. The dramatic possibilities are obvious once the basic premise is established: an isolated widower, displeased at the immigrant family moving next door, forced to coach an aimless teenager about the finer points of what it means to be a man. Squinting, grunting and cursing like a self-parody of himself, Eastwood eventually punches through his caricature to reveal a different kind of steely resolve, one that shows self-sacrifice as being the ultimate expression of service. As with most of Eastwood’s films, Gran Torino doesn’t play well with details: The actors (all chosen from within a select ethnic group, causing controversies best described on Wikipedia) aren’t all fine thespians, and Gran Torino plays better as a story than a piece of cinematographic art. Still, it flows nicely, deals with social issues of clashing ethnicity and justice and does offer a bit of an unconventional take on the big dramatic finale. Irreverent, surprisingly sentimental in a very “crying manly tears” fashion, Gran Torino does stand not only as an interesting film in its own right, but kind of a last-days answer to many films in Eastwood’s filmography.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s little doubt that a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover is a good idea. Hoover was, after all, a dominant figure in twentieth-century America: The man who defined the FBI and led it for nearly 50 years, accumulating damaging dossiers on powerful people along the way. Then there’s the man himself, filled with contradictions and character quirks; stutterer, driven, wed to the idea of law and order, devoted to his mother, not strictly heterosexual… It’s almost a wonder a big-budgeted romanced biography had to wait until 2011 to be released. Still, source material and execution aren’t the same thing, and the big question at the end of J. Edgar is whether this is the best possible film one could have made about Hoover. The script itself dares to question the usual biopic template by indulging in a lot of back-and-forth between Hoover’s early years and the end of his life: At any moment, the film is liable to switch between then and further-then, leaving a chaotic chronology. (That Hoover lies to himself and others makes for a cute third-act plot point, but it also makes chunks of the film less than relevant.) Director Clint Eastwood made the choice to film the film in desaturated colors and dark lighting, creating claustrophobia at nearly every shot. There’s also a bit of intentional blurring between Hoover’s life and the FBI’s early years, which is in-keeping with the character, but also suggests that a better film could have focused on either. Not that the film is a complete miss: Leonardo DiCaprio is quite good as Hoover, playing a character over nearly fifty years and nearly disappearing in it. In the end, J. Edgar is interesting to watch and revealing about its subject, but it’s not particularly involving or gripping. Overlong at two hours and twenty minutes, J. Edgar is a flawed take on a flawed historical figure: Worth a look, but not a film that will remain in mind for long.
(In theaters, December 2009) Perhaps the boldest chance taken with this film is the concept of slowly transforming a political thriller into a sports film. Picking up moments after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as the first post-Apartheid South African president, Invictus goes from nation-building drama to underdog sport film in steady increments, placing more and more weight on sports until political issues becomes subordinate to the results of a rugby tournament. Fortunately, the film is made by skilled technicians: security issues are used as a way to peek into racial reunification, the legend of Nelson Mandela gets a polish, and we’re shown a nation uniting behind a national sports team. It’s all curiously enjoyable: The South-African setting and accents are different enough to keep us interested (although I couldn’t help wishing for a big spaceship to appear over Johannesburg), there are plenty of misleading thriller cues (one of them leading up to a thrilling CGI flyby), Morgan Freeman is mesmerizing as Mandela (think “role of a career”), Matt Damon is unexpectedly convincing as a rugby player and Clint Eastwood’s direction is as coolly efficient as always. Even the clichés (such as more and more slow-motion segments as the game gets closer to completion) and the unequal pacing don’t look as bad when dealt by such experienced hands. For all of its calculated humanity, Invictus does get viewers to feel better about sports, films and mankind in general, which has its own attraction especially in the usual field of Oscar-baiting films.