(On TV, September 2018) There’s nothing particularly fancy in Two Mules for Sister Sara than a by-the-numbers Western adventure featuring Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Mexican rebels and French antagonists. But the details are what matters, and especially the interplay between two actors in fine form. Peak-era Clint Eastwood more or less reprises his man-with-no-name role as a capable loner who comes across a woman being assaulted by bandits. Compelled to help her by her nun’s habit, they then both go on various adventures that end with the defeat of the invading French forces. I’m not a big fan of MacLaine, but she’s pugnacious and likable here as a two-fisted nun. The film does a nice job at pacing its adventures, and features one spectacular train derailment to keep things interesting. Most of Two Mules for Sister Sara has been seen elsewhere, but it’s executed so well that it feels fresh again.
(In French, On TV, June 2018) Craig Thomas’s late-seventies novel Firefox has a special place in techno-thriller history as one of the progenitors of the subgenre, paving the way for Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) and codifying many of the field’s quirks. The novel is stuffy, written in an overwrought style (especially compared to its imitators) and not as entertaining as one would suppose. The movie adaptation has more or less the same issues—while you’d expect a Clint Eastwood movie about an American caper to steal a Russian super-plane prototype to lead to white-knuckled excitement, the result is more perfunctory than thrilling. Eastwood gives an adequate performance, but the script multiplies tangents and less interesting moments. It takes a long time for the protagonist to step in the plane, and things don’t really improve afterwards given the repetitive nature of the ensuing chase and the now-primitive special effects that remind us about the film’s early-eighties pedigree. It’s really not fair to harp on the special effects given that they were innovative at the time and they still get the point across today. On the other hand, they do take viewers out of the film at a moment when they should be absorbed by the cat-and-mouse chase between two high-tech fighter planes. Still, even taking this away, the fact remains that Firefox is dour and dull, which are not attributes that should be present in a thriller. I’m glad I’ve finally seen the entire movie even decades after reading the book and Eastwood is always interesting no matter the circumstances, but it’s not essential viewing for most audiences.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) In-between MASH, Kelly’s Heroes and Catch-22, 1970 was a banner year for using other conflicts to talk about the Vietnam War. MASH transposed late-sixties war cynicism on the Korean front, while Catch-22 talked disaffection among WW2 bomber crews and Kelly’s Heroes has greedy American infantry soldiers teaming up with a hippie-led crew of tankers to go steal a few million dollars’ worth of Nazi gold. This certainly isn’t your fifties war movie—in between the self-interested soldiers, corrupt officers, friendly fire incidents and a long-haired tank leader memorably played by Donald Sutherland (who was also in MASH), it’s obvious that Kelly’s Heroes had far more on its mind than just a WW2 adventure. It’s clunky (legend has it that the filmmakers didn’t quite get what they were going for, largely because of studio interference) but it still works on a pure entertainment level largely because of the terrific cast. Sutherland aside, there’s Clint Eastwood in the heroic role, supported by Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Harry Dean Stanton in a small role. The adventure gets going quickly and gets weirder and wilder the deeper in enemy territory it goes. The final resolution has the so-called good guys bribing Nazis to get what they want (with cues echoing Sergio Leone), which is interesting on its own. Kelly’s Heroes is more palatable now that it must have been at the time—we’ve grown used to anti-heroic portrayals of the military, and Vietnam-era attitudes toward war and war movies are now far more familiar. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and while many prefer more straight-ahead drama along the line of Where Eagles Dare, there’s no dismissing that Kelly’s Heroes can still be watched eagerly today.
(On DVD, April 2018) Every entry in the Dirty Harry series has been a small but perceptible notch below the previous one, and Sudden Impact is no exception. By this time, the series has devolved in a near-parody of the character, as Callahan goes around shooting criminals and causing heart attacks with the film chugging along approvingly. It’s an excuse for Harry to get out of town, though and before long he’s out of the familiar San Francisco frame and stuck in a small seaside town where there’s a serious serial killing spree going on. Which brings us to the real story of the film, about a sexual assault victim taking revenge upon her aggressors, and Harry being dropped in the middle of that plot. In some ways, Sudden Impact is what happens when a serious (serious isn’t incompatible with exploitative) crime drama gets taken over by a franchise character tourist. Suddenly, Harry and his dog are in the middle of a story that could very well have been told without them. The clash is rather interesting to watch—at times, far more than taking Harry at face value as he gets a bigger gun, one less partner and even fewer enemies at the end of the film than at the beginning. Clint Eastwood is imperturbable as Harry Callahan—he also directs in a matter-of-fact fashion, and gives the lead female role to his then-long-time partner Sondra Locke, who’s actually quite intriguing in an unconventional way here. The result is misshapen, often ugly, not quite respectable and definitely another step down in the series, but those watching the Dirty Harry series box set will feel as if they got their money’s worth out of Sudden Impact.
(On DVD, April 2018) Third entry in the Dirty Harry series, The Enforcer is clearly running on autopilot, much of the film being a copy of previous material bordering on self-caricature. Callahan himself is introduced in gosh-wow fashion, first ending a liquor store robbery through excessive property damage, and then having a few regressive choice words about affirmative action once he’s asked to participate in a board to hire female police officers. (One of them is assigned as his partner. You can imagine the rest.) Once reassured that we’re dealing with the stock image of Harry Callahan, the film then goes through the motions of a stock plot involving domestic terrorists and half-heartedly ties it to a criminal project. There’s a detour through black militantism that feels just this ride of outright racism, although it’s often hard to distinguish between the series’ reactionary bend and the overall attitude of the time. The result, though, remains a half-hearted success at best—while the atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is interesting, the film itself is by-the-numbers and leans too heavily on violence and dispensing of its most interesting character as a motivation for Callahan. Every film in the Dirty Harry series is a bit worse than its predecessor, and The Enforcer starts straddling the line between acceptable and forgettable.
(On DVD, April 2018) Considering how the first Dirty Harry movie made nearly everyone uncomfortable with how it glorified the vigilantism of its protagonist, there is something almost hilarious to see sequel Magnum Force try to distance itself from this position by pitting Harry Callahan against even worse rotten cops. From the first few moments of the film, with a credit sequence lovingly focus on the titular gun, it’s clear that this sequel regrets nothing and doubles-down on its assets. (Unsurprisingly, it was written by noted gun aficionado John Milius.) Here an entire group of killer cops is uncovered and while Callahan does get a few choice words about their methods, the film wants you to know and understand and appreciate that he’s nothing like those killer cops because reasons, that’s why. Or rather Callahan will gun down those that he determines to be bad rather than being told by some other guy. Or something. Perhaps it’s better to pretend that Callahan is the good guy and appreciate what he does in order to catch the designated bad guys. To be fair, Magnum Force does have its moments. The film isn’t as polished as the mean thrills of the original, but it does have Clint Eastwood (always an asset), Hal Holbrook as a no-fun superior antagonist, a detecting sequence that sees Callahan in a shooting contest with his enemies, and an interesting motorcycle chase climaxing on an aircraft carrier. The atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is always worth a look even though the film itself is hum-drum. Magnum Force does build upon the first movie, though, so you might as well keep going through this one if ever you have the choice.
(On DVD, January 2018) The culmination of the Man-with-no-name trilogy is spectacular, grandiose and … a bit too much. While the original film clocked in at 90 minutes, The Good the Bad and the Ugly takes thirty minutes before even introducing its three main characters. Painting with a far more ambitious brush, this instalment tackles war drama and a much grander scale, but somewhat confusingly goes back in time for a prequel. But who cares when Clint Eastwood is still iconic as the nameless “Good” protagonist, while Lee van Cleef still steals the show as the outright “Bad” protagonist, with Eli Wallach’s “Ugly” wildcard bouncing between the two. It’s the apotheosis of the Spaghetti Western genre, especially when Errico Morrcone’s iconic wah-wah-waaa theme kicks in. At the same time, it does feel like a lot. It’s fun to watch, but a certain ennui sets in when it becomes obvious that the film will not hurry from one set piece to another. Writer/director Sergio Leone’s style is a Leone-ish as it gets here, with careful editing and close-ups doing much of the work in creating suspense. An expansive cap to a remarkable trilogy, The Good the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t leave viewers hungering for more.
(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…