From the Archive — Letters from Iwo Jima

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Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released. 

Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.

The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.

Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.

That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.

As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.

It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.

From the Archive — Flags of Our Fathers

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Clint Eastwood has a new film out. It is not being especially well-received. In general, I’ve long found the movie critic discourse around Eastwood’s directorial career to be a little perplexing. I’ve liked many of his films, including proud placement of a few on various lists of laudatory accomplishment. But to refer to Eastwood as one of the great filmmakers (I remember at least once critic, circa Mystic River, positing that Eastwood was the greatest American director then working) requires turning a blind eye to a lot of flawed material, even if one generously ignores the absolute worst efforts. I think many critics keep projecting layers of intriguing subtext that simply isn’t there. They believe Eastwood is making statements, though the man himself insists he just makes movies. Arguably, the strongest illustration of the gap between the myth of Eastwood’s artistry and the actual expression of it came in 2006, when in quick succession he delivered two different films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, each from an opposing perspective. One film worked, and one didn’t. This week and next, I’ll excavate my original reviews.

In adapting the the non-fiction bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood is arguably making the most conventional important and serious-minded film of his career. From Play Misty For Me on, Eastwood’s films as a director have always had a sort of pulpy feel. Even his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, are immersed in the sort of from-the-gut storytelling one associates with the old school rough and tumble publications that employed the likes of Raymond Chandler and Louis L’Amour, guys who pushed away from the typewriter after rapping out story with dirt under their fingernails. This isn’t to suggest that Eastwood is out of his depth with this World War II drama because his lacks the artistic maturity or nuance to handle the material. Instead where he gets lost is in the script’s disjointed construction. There’s essentially two different films here and Eastwood simply can’t bring them together. The other characteristic of those old pulp stories is that the were unrelentingly straightforward. That’s the kind of filmmaker Eastwood is, but that’s not the kind of film Flags of Our Fathers is.

The book was written by the son of one of the men in the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, one of the most iconic images in American history. His story kinda-sorta shows up in a framing sequence in the film. In the early portion of the film, Eastwood includes moments of him interviewing people about the image, the soldiers and the battle of Iwo Jima. Those brief exchanges are intercut with scenes set in the battle itself, the journey of the photograph through the American consciousness and the halls of government and the celebrations of the men captured on film. Throwing everything out there at the beginning and letting the rest of the film catch up to all the elements that have been introduced is not an especially rare technique, but it’s one that’s new to Eastwood filmmaking toolbox, and he has simply lacks the touch to pull it off. The film opens as a muddled mess, more baffling than compelling.

As noted before, it basically settles down into two different films: the Battle of Iwo Jima and the experiences of the three surviving soldiers from the photograph after they are pulled from their active duty to stump for war bonds because the funds to finish the war are not there. When Eastwood is training his camera on the bursting war itself, the film is surprisingly weak. It doesn’t help that the dusty, bleached cinematography inevitably recalls Steven Spielberg’s superior Saving Private Ryan, but even without the comparison, Eastwood rarely achieves any coherence with his storytelling in these moments. That clumsiness keeps the emotions of the battle itself at a distance. For the most part, if guns are cracking and explosions are bursting on the beach, Flags is floundering.

The film fares better when it turns it attention to men after they’ve returned home, perhaps because this is where Eastwood finally seems to be saying something fresh. As soon as the photo hit the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the military knew they had a public relations coup, the sort of simple patriotic image that would give them the needed boost of homefront morale to finish the job overseas. The soldiers were now enlisted in a different battle, moving between big city rallies and gala parties getting celebrated as heroes and raising desperately needed funds in the process. Just daring to note the last just war almost bankrupt the nation is a little bit of boldness from Eastwood, as is the depiction of the crass exploitation of the men, the way they were summarily discarded and forgotten once they’d served their purpose. Still, there’s generally a flatness to the characters themselves. Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley is a quiet cipher, the eyes of the audience, a reduced to bland passivity. Jesse Bradford is stuck with exactly one trait to play as proudly glad-handled Rene Gagnon. Only Adam Beach gets a full-fledged, juicy role to play with Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier whose emotions are desperately close to the surface. Beach responds with a fiercely dedicated performance.

Eastwood’s most effective tribute emerges during the closing credits. He gives us the photos of the real men, simple snapshots of proud, worried soldiers staring directly into the camera, or wounded men being helped across the battlefield. At the end, it cuts to a shot of the memorial that currently stands on the island of Iwo Jima where the flag once flew and the camera drifts off to view the black sand beach from a distance, the carnage long gone, the machinery of the war absent. In that quiet moment, that gentle gesture, Eastwood does more for those men and that place than the rest of his muddled film can muster.

Playing Catch-Up: Privilege, Sully, Indignation

Privilege

Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967). This is exactly what I want a movie with a 1967 copyright date to be. The sole credited screenplay of novelist Norman Bogner, Privilege follows the story of Steven Shorter (played by Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones), a rock singer who is coopted by British authorities so they can insidiously control the upstart youth culture. Set in a near future, the film is groovy satire, just prescient enough to avoid being little more than an artifact of distant days when the counterculture seeped into cinema with sporadic success. Jones is a middling actor, but he does absolutely nail one expression: a rictus of antsy anguish. Luckily, that’s the main mode of his character. Peter Watkins directs the film with a freewheeling verve marked by moments of smart cynicism that nicely sell the whole conceit.

 

sully

Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016). This dramatization of events surrounding “The Miracle on the Hudson” shows what happens when filmmakers have a compelling incident but no real story to tell. To instill some drawn-out drama, the film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the famed plane crash, with scoffing bureaucrats casting doubt on the heroism of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks). It plays phonier than the nightmare plane crashes that come to Sully in the night, seemingly for no other reason that for director Clint Eastwood to throw some CGI-painted destruction onscreen. You know, for the ticket-buying kids. Eastwood’s main problem, though, is a plodding indifference that gives the film the look and feel of a nineteen-eighties TV movie made with rushed near-competence to capitalize on recent news events.

 

indignation

Indignation (James Schamus, 2016). After years as the head of Focus Features and the chief creative partner of Ang Lee, James Schamus makes his directorial debut with the sort of project that has felled many a filmmaker: an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. In the early nineteen-fifties, a young man named Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) escapes his humble roots to attend the posh Winesburg College. He has his struggles, but he also falls under the spell of a classmate name Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who operates with a memorable sexual forthrightness and shares hints of a troubled past. Schamus is also responsible for the adapted screenplay, which is filled with strong scenes, including a daring centerpiece that confines the action to a tense meeting between the college’s dean (Tracy Letts) for several riveting minutes. But there’s also a staid quality that can make the film seem a little square. It needlessly undercuts the potency of the film’s ideas, including the notion that identity politic battles aren’t exactly a new addition to college campuses.

From the Archive: Top Ten Movies of 2006

Recent weeks have seen an online avalanche of top ten lists from movie critics of all stripes. I live in the frigid north, however, and it takes certain cinematic offerings a little longer to fight their way through the sleet and snow to our various multiplex screens. So, as usual, I need to wait a little bit on that particular exercise in backwards counting. As a bit of a stopgap, here’s my equivalent list from ten years ago, which just so happened to be a movie year I found to be particularly strong. Following my usual methodology, this writing was originally presented as ten entries scattered across a few weeks. I’ve compiled them here, so be prepared. It’s turned into something of a long read.

 

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#1–Children of Men

It’s the extraordinary confidence of director Alfonso Cuarón that I think of first; confidence not only in his capabilities to pull off bravura feats of staging, but also a surprisingly assured belief that the audience will comprehend all the complexities of the story without overt exposition and explanation. Set some twenty years in the future, after two decades of global human infertility have reshaped the very nature of how societies operate, Cuarón’s film is bursting with important, telling details, many of them revealed in the bustling backgrounds or through the passing references in shared reminiscences. The film is focused on lives as they are lived, and it moves with unobtrusive observation, letting the truths of the world emerge naturally. That approach is especially brave as the film has so much to say. Like the best of true science fiction, it offer pointed commentary on the travails and triumphs of modern life by providing a glimpse of the future we are potentially building. Cuarón’s commentary is not offered up through boilerplate political speeches or leaden allegories to current issues, but through simple revelations of troubled places and events that are utterly recognizable, maybe not as directly connected to where we sit today, but certainly just a few poorly chosen steps away. The England depicted here, with it’s ever-present propaganda and dehumanizing cages for captured illegal immigrants, is a harrowing vision, but also one that could be right in front of us after glancing away from the forces of control and hatred that currently fill op-ed pages and throttle discourse. In loosely adapting a novella by P.D. James, Cuarón works the central concept of this dystopian future unleavened by the rejuvenating promise of new generations with astonishing depth. He shows us all the futility, fear, struggle, and pained hope that can be imagined, and does so with startling technical accomplishments that manage to place us as literally in the midst of this world as any film could. The riskiest moments play out as extended single-takes with no apparent edits and none of the safe trickery of filmmakers remodeling time. We are there, trailing Clive Owen as he rushes through a city street war zone or in the claustrophobic confines of a cramped vehicle as horrors are spilling across the windshield. Cuarón takes the recent technical advances in filmmaking and thinks beyond what is cool to determineswhat can be done to truly enrich his work. His success in this is thrilling, enrapturing, even moving. More so than other film of 2006, or of recent years for that matter, Children of Men shimmers and shines with the gratifying intellectual friction of a movie that attains the status of great art.

 

#2–The Departed

I don’t know if I can come up with another film as vividly alive as this one. There’s already been too much cineaste chatter about The Departed as a “return to form” for director Martin Scorsese, mostly from film writers eager to congratulate themselves for not being duped by the high aspirations (or blatant Oscar-grabbing as far as they’re concerned) of Gangs of New York and The Aviator. As far as I’m concerned, those are exceptional films as well, and certainly nothing Scorsese needs to retreat from. The Departed isn’t about giving up on high art to get back to the mean streets where he belongs. What really marks it as a fresh accomplishment is Scorsese’s urgency to fill the screen with as many ideas as he possibly can. There’s a breakneck pace to the film, especially in the earlier sequences, as Scorsese expertly figures out how to convey all the necessary information, motivation and emotional pretzels in the clearest, quickest way possible. He’s always created dense films, but this may be the first time that he’s made a movie that’s seemingly in a race with itself. It’s a measure of his astounding craftsmanship, and that of his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, that it never turns into a blurred rush. It is a quickened pulse project on screen, and it feels for all the world like the way movies should always be. The complicated dance of a story examines the photo negative worlds of cops and robbers and what it’s like to exist in the murky gray in between. As you might expect, that’s fertile ground for the cast which is populated by performers reaching new personal heights. Of special note is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a steel coil held tight but always threatening to burst open. It is a performance of glowers and undercurrents with feverish intensity that mirrors the film and, in the end, helps ground its blistering screenplay, hurtling spirits and achievements in technique in the anxious fumblings of haunting misjudgments human tragedy. So, while it’s wrong to call The Departed a comeback for Scorsese, I will concede that for the first time in years he has made a film that can leave you blissfully exhausted from explaining everything that’s great about it. That’s not a standard any filmmaker should have to live up to, but today what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a film as great as this one, what does it matter?

 

#3–The Queen

Helen Mirren is indeed as wonderful in The Queen as the uniformly bestowed honors this Oscar season would have you believe. Her performance is not some flat duplication of newsroom footage, but a fully realized exploration of a person. In a way, the fact that she is playing the current sitting Queen of England is almost incidental. She has thought about the ways in which generational distance can insulate someone from changing times, the confused pain of having a private matter a great preoccupation of an international public stage and the struggle of someone whose very sense of purpose is slipping through her delicate gloved hands. These are the elements she channels into her portrayal; these shape the portrait more assuredly than any title does. Except, of course, that the fact that this is the current sitting Queen of England is anything but incidental. Director Stephen Frears could have proved himself a master movie tactician simply by training his camera on Mirren’s expressive face (which he does in fact do, to his great benefit) but he also digs into the complexities of Peter Morgan’s deeply intelligent screenplay. He finds the ways in which this story with the public and personal twisted together in its DNA takes the events in the week after Princess Diana’s untimely death — the warm empathy of Tony Blair’s outreach to the British people, the stubborn silence from the royals — and illuminates a whole collection of modern truths about the dusty crumbling of monarchy, the elevation of likability over experience in our leaders, and the increasing fascinated aggrandizement of public figures. With a veteran filmmaker’s clarity, Frears brings out the best in every element, every performer. Every moment that could ring false — from a symbolic stag to a gesture of caring from a small girl — instead locks in as perfectly right. One more plaudit: as wonderful as Mirren is, she is matched by Michael Sheen as freshly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. He goes through the most pronounced change in the film, beginning as a skeptical soul convinced that the royal family is a blundering relic of the past and finishing as a believer in their strength, sense of duty, and distant dedication to their subjects. The transformation occurs over the course of a rocky week, and Sheen somehow manages to make the journey not only believable, but admirable.

 

#4–Pan’s Labyrinth

It is one thing to imagine magnificent wonders, it is quite another to make them come alive in a convincing, eloquent way on-screen. The great achievement of Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the dark splendor of his imaginings, but his deft directorial touch to best showcase these inspirations. He build shadows around his creations that accentuate their deep, strange beauties. Those shadows seep into the storytelling, too. Franco’s Spain provides the setting, but in many ways it is just a big, grim metaphor for the general muted pains of childhood. That is dramatized more directly in the challenges faced by twelve-year-old Ofelia as she endures her new stepfather, a harsh captain in the new militaristic regime. Played with luminous simplicity by Ivana Baquero, the character escapes the dread of her new daily life by retreating into fantasy, and this is where del Toro’s wild things come out to play. Despite the temptation to see her escape as something truly magical, del Toro never seems completely willing to grant the audience that courtesy. The fantastic elements are surprisingly limited, not because of a lack of interest on the part of del Toro, but because to overstate the levels of retreat available to our heroine is to present a story that is tragically untrue. The pain of loss and the cut of a blade have a jarring way of taking precedence. The safety of wishes for something beyond the injurious hardships of the worst of existence is fleeting, not lasting. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is for the splendid, lovely lie of a picture of paradise that washes over bleak reality at precisely the right moment. In the sadly beautiful ending del Toro constructs, he reaches out with that tattered gift.

 

#5–Brick

If the hard-boiled rat-a-tat-tat of classic film noir dialogue is the way we wished we could talk, then there are moments in Brick that are so jubilantly potent that they could very well represent the verbal aspirations of classic film noir characters. The script by Rian Johnson is absolutely enraptured by language, layering in cinder block poetry and other spoken pyrotechnics with unabashed glee. Johnson takes full advantage of his conceit — a murder mystery with a high school backdrop — finding sly humor in the contrasts of tough-guy banter including references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences, and even justifying the dense conversations as the enduring influence of a “tough but fair” teacher of “Accelerated English.” His directing matches the script, stylish and dense with rewarding details. The whole endeavor has the same devilish intelligence as early Coen brothers, and I have few greater compliments at my disposal. A film like this is aiding immensely by strong acting. While players up and down the cast list come through, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role who has the greatest challenge and emerges with the most impressive accomplishment. His shoulders hunched against the world, his bruised face a road map of wrong turns and untimely bravado, Gordon-Levitt brings a probing intelligence to his scenes and offers just a hint of caution behind the pained heroism. He gets the stoic veneer just right and brings equal conviction to the underlying raw nerve emotions that come from betrayal. The performance is as sharp as the words he’s given to shape it, and in the case of Brick that’s really saying something.

 

#6–Letters from Iwo Jima

The conventional wisdom says that Clint Eastwood’s late career directorial reemergence is enriched by a anti-violence sentiment that serves as a sort of corrective to the stardom he achieved in no small part by asking helpless punks to wager on whether or not there were any bullets in his gun while he pulled the trigger. I’m not sure I buy that, and I doubt that Eastwood buys it either. Maybe instead he’s just finally reached the point where he can make whatever films he wants without having to come up with some sort of giveback to the studio –h e can make White Hunter, Black Heart without making The Rookie, he can deliver Bird without having to agree to stroll through another Dirty Harry picture — and that freedom emboldens him in his choices. Or maybe he’s just following his own personal curiosity a little further than he did previously. That’s what led him here after all; preparing for the Iwo Jima battle sequences in Flags of Our Fathers he thought about the Japanese adversaries as frightened, noble men instead of faceless, nameless enemies and wondered what it would be like to tell their story. The result is a potent, moving film that bravely immerses itself in the culture of the Japanese soldiers burrowed into tunnels on the island. As opposed to many Hollywood films, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to give us a white man as entryway into this time and place, nor does he bury the film in bookish exposition to explain the unique particulars of their views. He simply shows us the men who prefer suicide to the indignity of defeat on the battlefield, and the imposed norm of proudly charging into an battle that cannot be won because you are doing it for the greater glory of Japan. But Eastwood also takes great care to show the conflicting views, the growing notion of the nobility, even tactical wisdom of self-preservation. Things are simply not clear-cut, because, after all, it wasn’t a nation defending that island, it was men. With great care and respect, Eastwood’s film brings us closer to those men and everything they lost.

 

#7–United 93

With the careful calm of a detached sociologist, writer-director Paul Greengrass grapples with the most charged day in recent American history. His entryway to September 11th is the one airliner weapon that didn’t strike its target, seemingly due to the intervention of the hijacked passengers. Without diminishing the bravery of this response one iota, the film’s reasoned portrayal shows that fighting back against the terrorists was less an act of thunderous heroism than the instinctual reaction to being backed into a terrible corner. This isn’t to say that these people onscreen act with fevered desperation. Instead, it is the nonplussed self-assurance of people who have been reduced to a single viable option. There is tension and there is worry, but the predominant sensation is that of inevitability. That coheres nicely with world outside the fuselage as Greengrass portrays it. By dramatizing the reactions in various air traffic control centers and in the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, Greengrass depicts that Tuesday transforming from just-another-day to something far more troubling. Greengrass takes care to show that it didn’t occur in some cataclysmic way when the first tower was hit, but through the dawning realization that a vast scheme was unfolding in a sky absolutely filled with planes. There’s not much characterization to the people in the film, which only serves to heighten the impact. Without trumped up screenplay quirks and other sorts of Hollywood color and backstory, everyone seems all the more vivid, just people going about their lives until history took them into its unrelenting jaws. It is by saying less about them and portraying their individual pieces of September 11th with a verisimilitude that even most documentaries don’t achieve that Greengrass pays them the ultimate tribute. They are not fictionalized, they are real. And they are unforgettable.

 

#8–L’Enfant

A young man whose livelihood is completely dependent on petty crimes raises a small sum of money by selling his newborn son. The one sentence plot description is bleak and devastating, a thumbnail sketch of the rottenness of humanity. And yet, while that description is entirely accurate, it’s also misleading. There’s no denying that the choice of the central character is horrid, but the stunning trick Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film pulls off is making the viewer understand why he does it. You don’t sympathize with him or feel he deserves some sort of second chance. As he rushes around his destitute Belgian city trying to reclaim the child with the juvenile impatience of someone who’s more concerned with getting out of trouble than the wellbeing of his offspring, you in fact can find more and more reason to dislike him. The film makes you understand by developing the character so well that his impetuous nature, simplified world-view and underdeveloped emotional maturity is laid bare. You can despise the action he takes and yet recognize how, to him, it was perfectly reasonable, as plain and uncomplicated of a dilemma as which jacket to put on when a chill hits the air. The Dardennes aren’t interested in some sort of expose or trumped up examination of the terrible misfortunes that plague the world. They simply tell a sad, quietly powerful story with great acumen, conveying with equal precision the instant joys of a playful wrestling match with a lover and the smothering panic of a remote, unprotected interaction with criminals unburdened by mercy. The Dardennes are equally merciless, but they’re also free of judgment. In the end, that evenness is what gives this film of small, wounded lives its lingering power.

 

#9–Volver

When it comes to the storytelling, Talk to Her was more bold and unique, and Bad Education was more richly complex, like a tight, satisfying novel. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver can feel like a softer cousin to those films, not to mention the bustling fresh establishment of a unique cinematic voice that is All About My Mother. Yet Volver lingers in its own way for its own reasons. Almodóvar’s audaciousness is restrained and his insights more refined. There are none of those Almodóvarian moments seemingly designed for little more than eliciting gasps. Instead there is a discipline to the proceedings, a focus that helps the whole film cohere thematically. Almodovar has long been renowned for his affectionately constructed female characters, and that comes through with grand clarity here, as the film repeatedly allows its women some level of tender liberation from men who have caused them harm. One could argue that even extends to the reclamation of his former collaborator Penélope Cruz from the Hollywood star machine that has stranded her in a series of English-language performances that have been strained at best, but more often downright embarrassing. She seems to have a decent enough command of the language, but no capability to work with it in believable rhythms. Working in her native language untwists her tongue. The words pour out of her rapidly, forcefully, passionately. She builds the character out of pain and heartache, and finally a little hope. And it is the strength of Almodovar’s filmmaking and the potency of his empathy for the characters that makes that hope feel well deserved and decisively earned.

 

#10–A Prairie Home Companion

I’ll concede right up front that this selection is as much a tribute to a storied career as a celebration of this particular film. Of course, it’s not like I’m making room for Prêt-à-Porter or something, trying to pretend a disastrous movie is wonderful just to get in one more testimonial to the grandmaster skills of director Robert Altman. A Prairie Home Companion is a little wonder in its own right: rambunctiously funny, disarmingly thoughtful, and, in the end, a grand appreciation of the happy messiness of creation. In using his longtime radio program as a launching point for a screenplay, Garrison Keillor brings us a production filled with his trademark mix of nostalgic music and homespun humor and also takes us backstage to the tumult, roving distractions, and barbed dressing room conversations. All this serves to enrich the showmanship on stage and the songs being belted into the shining, silver microphones. It’s one thing to hear and see Keillor effortlessly rattle off a long monologue extolling the virtues of some sponsor. It’s quite another when he’s doing so with consummate unflappability as a stage manager struggles with a towering stack of papers, trying to find the one sheet that he requires to usher the show to the next segment. As the film world mourned the death of Robert Altman, the considerations of mortality in this film became prime fodder for discussions. The prevailing sentiment presented here is that you meet the end not with heavy speeches or maudlin proclamations, but with the same simple, dignified dedication that was brought to every day, every show, and, one can extrapolate, every film. Indeed, and bravo.

From the Archive: Changeling

When I started reviewing films on the radio, in 1990, Clint Eastwood was still larger considered a movie star who occasionally directing movies, almost as a hobby. That consensus view was understandable, but also needlessly dismissive. Within the first few months of our radio show, Eastwood released his fourteenth and fifteen features as a director, one terrific and one atrocious. Now eighty-six years old, Eastwood has acted only twice in the past ten years. Including 2006, he’s directed ten films, and in three of those years he’s had two separate offerings released as the same calendar hangs on the wall. 

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Clint Eastwood is a director who resolutely, rigidly adheres to the material he’s chosen. He has a fine visual sense, to be sure, and is an effective storyteller, but he’s not going to pull a film together by bringing his passions, sensibilities and personal inspiration to bear on the project. He’s a seasoned factory worker doing his part to get the car built. In the end, it may be a sturdy piece of craftsmanship, but it’s easier to see it as admirable construct that a piece of vivid art. That’s one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Haggis has been a well-suited collaborator on recent films. Haggis leans on cliches, finding small ways to tweak expectations in the process. It’s given Eastwood familiar narrative angles that play to his strengths and allowed just enough freshness in the fringes to compel some amount of forgiveness for the pieces that stand out as worn-out movie moments. Million Dollar Baby may be manipulative melodrama, but it’s gripping manipulative melodrama.

The screenwriter of Eastwood’s latest film, the wrenching drama Changeling, is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski’s most notable prior work has been highly episodic in nature. Those writing habits manifest in the script as it builds to multiple climaxes instead of rolling out a single cohesive story. Eastwood, ever dutiful to his script, doesn’t smooth that out, giving the film a bumpy feel.

That unyielding solidity of Eastwood’s approach–an old school stodginess almost–is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Based on a true story, the film centers on the anguish of Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in the late 1920’s. After several months, the Los Angeles Police Department reported they’d found him, but Christine insisted the boy they presented to her was not her offspring. Her efforts to convince the authorities of their mistake and to force them to continue in the hunt for her son were met with outright hostility and even persecution. Eastwood has a sure hand in depicting this. The lives of Christine and her son are laid out with unfussy care and the escalation of her woe is palpable. The thematic points about the casual sexism of the era and the ways in which fear of negative public perception drove the decision-making of the authorities is embedded rather than overt.

It helps immeasurably that Eastwood has Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie is inescapably a star, but, placed in the right film, she is a shrewd, graceful actor of the highest capability. She makes a choice that seems especially honest given the cultural time and the circumstances of the film: She plays Christine with a greatly tentative nature. Even as she’s pushing against the system, she’s quick to acquiesce to the powers that impatiently knock her back down. Jolie’s star power largely emanates from a fiery personal authority and sexually-charged fearlessness. When she coasts on that, it can be pretty boring (admittedly, I can also be a pure sucker for it). When she channels it into a more tightly focused performance that draws on different shadings of personality, as she did with last year’s A Mighty Heart and as she does here, it’s immensely rewarding to watch.

In fact, Jolie’s richly realized performance gives the film a cohesion that would otherwise be absent. The script brings in several different elements–there are many stories connected to Christine’s–to a point where it occasionally threatens to become unwieldy. She develops her character–her personal growth, her tenacity, her intellectual fortitude–with an thoroughness that the scattershot narrative story structure can sometimes undercut. But even when the film drifts away from Christine for too long, Jolie’s performance looms as a promise. It heightens what works in the film and obscures what doesn’t. It’s just the kind of performance that Eastwood needs, and he deserves credit for his collaborative work with Jolie to get it to the screen. The old hand may not be infallible. It may seem more like work than art, but you can still look at it and see his influence, the unmistakable marks of fine craftsmanship.

From the Archive: Unforgiven

best 1992

As we continue to trek through the favored films I wrote about for the special year-end edition of The Reel Thing, I will now note that we also carved out a few minutes in the episode to discuss the worst films of 1992. Currently blessed with the selectivity of a part-time film critic, I’m decidedly ill-equipped to come up with such a list, but we had no shortage of contenders back then, especially with small-town screens serving as our main source of cinema. So, straight from the script, here’s my list of the worst films of 1992:

worst1992

Look, there’s a Ridley Scott, sharing the top of the bottoms list with the other terrible Christopher Columbus of that year. (The Chris Columbus movie from that year ain’t so hot, either.) Do also note that Sylvester Stallone, weeks away from perhaps winning an acting Oscar (a reasonable choice in this instance, I’ll admit), is also represented. That’s enough of that. As we say in the radio biz, and now on with the countdown…

#3 — UNFORGIVEN

For years now, Clint Eastwood has been balancing his career with commercial crowd pleasers and deeply artistic work. Before releasing his 1988 Charlie Parker biography, BIRD, Eastwood cranked out another Dirty Harry movie. His truly terrific 1990 meditation of a misguided moviemaker, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, was quickly followed by the truly awful buddy-cop movie THE ROOKIE. But in 1992, Eastwood found a way to combine these two disparate brands of filmmaking. He returned to his familiar place in the genre of westerns, only to craft a film that represents his finest work yet and deconstructs the myth that he’s spending his entire career developing. Dusting off an old, stunning script by David Webb Peoples, Eastwood directs and stars in the film UNFORGIVEN, a deep examination of the effects of violence that leaves all preconceptions about Eastwood in dust. He plays a pig farmer who has a past as a fierce killer and is drawn back into gunfighting to collect a bounty on a man who cut up the face of a prostitute. Eastwood gives a terrific performance as a man haunted by the memory of  every person he killed. The supporting cast is equally good, with Morgan Freeman as a companion of Eastwood’s and Richard Harris as an Englishman who shows up to try to collect the bounty, only to have a nasty run-in with the town’s sheriff. And it is the man filling that role who gives the film’s most memorable performance. Gene Hackman gives yet another flawless performance as the nasty lawman who has his own devastating sense of justice. Though the character is essentially a villain, Hackman plays it cool, never lapsing into hysterics or overwrought raving. It is a masterful performance of restrained cruelty. UNFORGIVEN is the film that demonstrates that Clint Eastwood is more than an old action hero. It is nothing short of definitive proof that he is one of Hollywood’s most skilled filmmakers. It is also probably a film that will stand as an enduring classic.

From the Archive: The Rookie

rookie

When we were doing the radio program The Reel Thing, we got press kits from a few studios and promotion house, but much of the time we had few supplemental resources (of course, there was also no internet to spill every piece of data we might need). So I distinctly remember sitting through the credits for The Rookie with an intense focus, trying to make certain I had Pepe Serna’s name correct for the review. I knew I’d made the right choice in singling the actor out when me colleague on the other side of the broadcast board laughed and nodded when I read that line. White Hunter, Black Heart was on my top ten list for 1990. The Rookie was my choice for worst film on the year. Like the cardboard badge above? It can be yours for twelve dollars!

Earlier this year, Clint Eastwood delivered one of his best films and one of his bravest performances with WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART. Perhaps then it is strangely fitting that this year he also deliver one of his worst performances in one of his worst films. That film is the brand new holiday season release THE ROOKIE.

THE ROOKIE pairs Eastwood with Charlie Sheen. Sheen plays a young police office with only two years on the force who gets Eastwood as a partner so that Eastwood can teach him the gritty ropes of working in the Auto Theft Division of the Los Angeles police force. Eastwood is a tough guy to the core, smoking cigars, and swearing up a storm. Sheen is a straight-laced, neat dressing, rule-following rookie, clean and nice and pure of heart. Of course they don’t like each other at first. Of course they grow to like each other.

The villain here is played by Raúl Juliá, an actor who has been growing more interesting and compelling with every performance, until now that is. Onscreen here, he’s bland and stiff. In fact, THE ROOKIE strives to take a talented cast and make them all look like fools. Lara Flynn Boyle of TV’s TWIN PEAKS shows up as Sheen’s girlfriend who’s worried about his welfare and also serves the purpose of being in danger when Sheen needs a major movie hero moment. Sônia Braga also makes the mistake of signing on to this picture, playing Raúl Juliá’s girlfriend who’s either being stupidly seductive or firing a machine gun while unleashing a banshee scream. In a film full of misguided and simply bad performances, one must naturally stick out as being exceptionally awful, and that dubious honor goes to Pepe Serna as the loudmouthed, simple-minded police lieutenant in charge of Eastwood and Sheen’s department.

This film asks us to be proud of Sheen because he’s grown tough enough to burn down a bar filled with people and ride a motorcycle without his helmet. It also asks us to believe that Sonia Braga would be very turned on because Eastwood spits water in her face. The blame for all the wasted celluloid should probably fall on the shoulders of Clint Eastwood. Not only does he take the starring role, he also sat in the director’s chair. It’s extremely hard to guess why a man whose instincts had previously led him to such quality cop pictures as TIGHTROPE, COOGAN’S BLUFF, and DIRTY HARRY series would sign on for THE ROOKIE, among the most vapid of the continuing flow of buddy-cop movies that Hollywood will apparently never tire of cranking out. To say that THE ROOKIE is bad is an insult to bad films. It’s reprehensible.

0 stars, out of 4.