Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

Preview to the Academy Awards. Best Films of 2016

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

In anticipation to the 89th Academy Awards, I have decided, unlike years prior, to post a list of my favorite films released in 2016. As it were, this is an ever-changing list which will shift and evolve as years pass, as both my tastes and my impressions on filmmaking continue to change. This is also, I presume, an incomplete list missing some highly praised bits of cinema like: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Toni Erdmann, The Salesman, 20th Century Women, Paterson, Elle, Fences, Lion, and some others. With that in mind, I’m satisfied with the collection of more than 60 films I did manage to watch that were released in the US in 2016. The list of “favorites” adds up to 15 films, which represents the amount of movies that I gave at least a 4 out of 5 rating. 
At the end of the post I will also offer some thoughts on the top categories for the Oscars, regarding who should win and who will likely be taking an statuette back home.

Continue reading Preview to the Academy Awards. Best Films of 2016

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Months in Review: December & January (2016)

Revenant

How quickly do months fly by when you are busy. It seems like only a week ago I posted my last review. As quickly as my newfound motivation to blog a bit more came to me on January 1st, as quickly it evaporated not from a lack of desire, but from a lack of energy.

With a bit of a delay, I share with you my brief thoughts on the films I had the chance to watch in the last month of 2015 and the first of 2016. A total of 21 films were watched, 12 in December and 9 in January. The average rating was a very good 3.35 out of 5. The following are ordered in the way they were seen:

Continue reading Months in Review: December & January (2016)

IMDB Top 250: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

My IMDB top 250 film challenge continues. Today I reach my 11th review with the end of my Clint Eastwood cycle. In this post I will analyze one of the most critically acclaimed pieces in the history of film: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone and released in 1966. At IMDB, the film never leaves the top 5 and it was, until recently, one of those widely known classics I had never seen. So, this week I can finally say I have cleansed my cinematic soul and proudly declare I have seen the famous Western.

As it happened with Unforgiven a few weeks ago, I came into this film with a lot of hesitation. I really did not think it would deliver despite the great ratings it has received since it was first released. You see, I had always come to think of the Spaghetti Western as the genre of cinema where all cliches come to find a home. The image of John Wayne taking down cowboys and stereotypical Indians still burns my retina and clouds my view. To my delight, both Unforgiven and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (which I will abbreviate from now on with the letters GBU) delivered in style. While Unforgiven was the masterful stroke of Eastwood as a director and a storyteller, GBU was a fun trip from beginning to end.

It became apparent to me, from early on, that one of GBU greatest assets is how it meanders through every cliche in the book and makes it work by not taking itself seriously and playing with the audience’s expectations to create one incredibly entertaining story. GBU plays like an epic novel where every character seems to be taken straight from a comic book. There is a caricature of the heartless pay-as-you-go assassin (The Bad), the dirty and poor bandit that is always looking for the next big hit (The Ugly) and the mysterious yet incredibly cocky cowboy that roams the land in search for gold and adventure (The Good).

Of all of the three main characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was Tuco, the bandit, played by the eternal Eli Wallach, and not Blondie, the cowboy, played by Eastwood, to be the most interesting and entertaining character. Tuco is, in many ways, the heart of the film, balancing with humor and silliness the cockiness and grace of both Blondie and Angel Eyes, the assassin, wonderfully played by Lee Van Cleef. Tuco is a whole lot of fun because his character seems to remain above all stereotypes. The only thing that is certain about him is that he dreams of riches. There would be no one, not even a brother he still holds dear to his heart, or Blondie, who he grows fond of, that would be able to stop him in his quest for the treasure that a dying man spoke to him about.

Angel Eyes, out of the three, is the easiest to define. He is a brutal killer whose only rule is to see a job through to the end, no matter how difficult or how tempting it may be to desist. The film clearly depicts him as the guy the audience should root against as he has no comedic or gentler side to him. For Angel Eyes the goal is only money and that is never in doubt. While Tuco is comedic and even adorable in his messiness and mannerism, Angel Eyes is always business and nothing else.

Blondie is a bit of a mystery as the film leaves open the question of whether we should root for him in this adventure. Despite being branded as “The Good” at the end of the movie, Blondie is not altogether decent. His desire is also to be rich but, unlike the other two, he will not go out of his way to cause harm. In fact, Blondie only kills in the movie as a defense mechanism, to protect his life from the common threats of the Wild West.

What makes GBU great is not the story though. For Leone, film was very much an instrument to exploit his creativity as an artist and composer. As with previous endeavors, GBU is an opportunity for Leone to explore a great variety of shots, often switching from panoramic to close-ups, using the arid and vast terrain to his advantage to create wonderful compositions. While there are certain elements of GBU’s central story that are sketchy, Leone’s stylistic display of talent is, without question, the film’s strongest aspect. No better example than the masterful scene at the cemetery where Tuco frantically searches the circular grave site as the camera follows him and accelerates until everything in the background becomes a blur of graves passing through. Once the three main characters meet upon finding the treasure we are placed as the spectators to one of the most inventive and fitting endings in the history of cinema, one that is not only clever, but impressively shot by Leone, who grasped the moment with a fine use of creative composition and music.

The Grand Finale

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (masterpiece)

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

I continue my IMDB challenge with another Clint Eastwood film, the third I review after Unforgiven and Gran Torino. Having already watched other masterworks like Mystic River (4 out of 5) and Million Dollar Baby (4 out of 5) before I started the challenge, I will close my analysis of the great Clint with what is the highest-rated of all his films: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in an upcoming post. Today though, it is time for his underrated Letters from Iwo Jima.

There are two sides to every story. For Clint Eastwood “Iwo Jima” was a chance to tell the Japanese story during WWII. The film was to stand in direct contrast to his other motion-picture release in 2006: “Flag of Our Fathers” which elegantly portrayed the American side of the conflict.

A great deal of credit should go to Mr. Eastwood for crafting a movie that delicately meanders through sensitive material that attempts to show us that war is as equally tragic and raw for both sides of a conflict. It is a testament to Eastwood’s sensibility that such a movie got the go-ahead from a Hollywood establishment that knew, as do we, that if a movie that is sensitive to the Japanese during the war was ever to be made, there could have hardly found anyone better that the detailed-oriented and mild-mannered Clint Eastwood to direct it.

Having said that, no one could expect “Letters from Iwo Jima” to be a factual representation of the events that transpired on the island. In fact, most of the artistic licenses taken probably made the film more effective as it help show that it was not a movie about the specifics of the war, but about the tragic human conflict that transpired on the ground. Once again, Eastwood makes a film that is elegantly embedded with layers of meaning that try to tackle the complexities of the human spirit in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Eastwood does not take sides. His statement is to simply show that war is a calamity no matter what side you are on and that most of the soldiers are simply victims of higher powers.

There are aspects within “Iwo Jima” that are rather commonplace in a film touching upon WWII. There are the cowards, the fanatics of war, the patriots, the courageous leaders of men and, of course, the followers. In fact, the film suffers a bit when it relies on these typologies a bit too much. However, Iwo Jima has a dramatic power that comes from its realist feel of the struggle. Some of the merit for the effectiveness of this film should go to the casting director who assembled a very talented group of Japanese actors led by Ken Watanabe as General Kuribayashi.

The manner of the direction immerses us as one of the soldiers. The proximity to the men in the caves and their struggle to survive speaks about a film that is more interested in exploring the battered spirit of the Japanese soldiers, many of whom knew they had come to the island to die, leaving their families and lives behind, away from the mainland. In this context, the harshness and austere quality of the terrain where the movie was shot helps to bring out the sense of solitude and helplessness that the Japanese soldier must have felt while patiently waiting inside make-shift caves, as the grand fleet of American forces was deployed on the shores.

Overall, Iwo Jima deserves some praise, but when compared to other war-time films like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler List, Iwo Jima appears to be a bit too modest and a bit too careful to equal some of the modern masterpieces that tried to capture the tragedy of WWII.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Gran Torino (2008)

And so my IMDB challenge and Clint-Eastwood cycle continue. Today I will touch upon a film I watched over a month ago that I never got to review until now.

While some details might disappear in time, what remains important and true about a movie that I saw more than a month ago is still fresh in my mind. In a way, it sometimes proves more useful to let a film seep in and settle until I am prepared to emit a judgement that is not limited or determined by my initial impression, which can be severely flawed.

Having said that, Gran Torino, directed and starred by Clint Eastwood, has lost some of its initial appeal and I have come to view the film as one that is strong and solid as its core but a bit weak as a whole.

In a gist, Gran Torino is a story about self-discovery and personal growth. Of course, the film touches upon other subjects such as racism, intolerance, urban decay, violence, cultural division and family relationships. However, in the course of almost two months since I had the chance to watch it, Gran Torino stuck in my mind as a piece of work that tries to explore the idea that race, gender and racial lines can be overcome and that, as a result, we can learn more about ourselves and the world.

This is the journey of Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino.

Having lost his wife, Walt is presented to us as a grumpy old fellow that is as stubborn and stuck in his ways as they come. Walt has a very specific image of people in his head, often letting his first impressions dominate his behavior towards others. He is disappointed and bitter about the passing of the only woman that he tolerated and that tolerated him in return. He is also frustrated at his surroundings. Walt has a family that seems to have fallen for every stereotype of the contemporary suburban household. He is also in the middle of a neighborhood in Detroit that has progressively deteriorated. What used to be a blue-collar prosperous community, now has turned into a culturally diverse community of immigrants (some illegal I presume) of limited means and very different values to what he is used to.

Walt does not want to leave his house or his belongings. He had picked the land decades ago and he would stick by it to his death, or until it miraculously begins to turn around. Why should he leave? he thinks.  He feels he is more worthy of the land than any of his new neighbors, having worked for decades to own what he owns, saving a good part of his income to build his favorite toy: a 1972 Gran Torino.

When his most-prized possession is threatened, all of the frustrations and misconceptions of Walt come to the surface. Slowly but surely, Walt is forced, by an unlikely series of events, to get closer to the same next-door neighbors  he has grown to despise for quite a long time. These include a couple of Korean teens that after having been in the wrong, show him that they are good at heart, forcing Walt to reconsider and ultimately embrace them as a kind of protector to the many outside threats present in modern-day Detroit.

As he grows closer to his new friends, Walt becomes more involved with their isues and especially with their problematic connections to gangs that rule the community. Eventually, Walt realizes that life has given him a new purpose and, with that, new responsibilities. In his new role as patriarch of the community, he is willing to go far and beyond what everyone expects in order to give his friends a better future, ridding them forever of the threat of the gangs that seem determined to ruin their lives.

As it is common in Eastwood’s body of work, the film works itself out to have a meaningful message submerged in between the lines of the script. He builds his movies to what usually seems to be an unavoidable end that we try to avoid as an audience, but that ultimately comes to its tragic, yet uplifting conclusion. Usually, the climax of Eastwood’s films comes in the form of violence which represents a perfect vehicle for his underlying messages about humanity to come across with a splash.

Gran Torino is, in this sense, yet another careful study about humanity and, more specifically, about our ability to sacrifice for others while getting rid of our misconceptions about cultures and styles of life that are foreign to us. As accomplished as the story is, Eastwood’s Gran Torino fails to reach great heights because of the unpolished quality of the film. The casting is good, but not great, and Thao, played by Bee Vang, seems like a specially odd choice.

Sometimes there are movies that benefit from having an unpolished quality, which can enhance the realistic sense of a film. However, Gran Torino feels unpolished in a way that is often apparent and awkward, getting in the way of our experience as an audience. There are scenes that seem to have been rushed, perhaps falling victim to the low-budget and to the directorial style of Eastwood, who usually encourages very few takes and little rehearsal. Such a way of filming can accomplish great results with a talented and experienced cast, but not as much when the actors lack the expertise and/or the talent to make it work on the big screen.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Unforgiven (1992)

I have found great pleasure in my IMDB challenge, but none greater than the movie I am about to review: Unforgiven. This film will mark a fitting beginning to what I call my Clint Eastwood cycle, which would concentrate in all of the movies that he has been a part of that are also in the TOP 250 films at IMDB.

I have already watched “Gran Torino” more than a month ago and I have struggled to find the right ideas to talk about the film, but given the fact that I will be concentrating on Eastwood in the next few weeks, it is definitely time to also give a review of that film in an upcoming post I am already preparing.

Now back to Unforgiven….

I very much doubt Eastwood will ever do a better film and in the coming lines I will try to explain why.

Unforgiven feels like a great Rock n’ Roll song. For most of its running time, it remains an object of mystery, muted in its reach at first, gaining power and punch as it slowly unravels in order to finally open itself to the audience in a crescendo of violence that seemed both unreachable at first but always unavoidable.

Clint Eastwood is not only the director of this exquisite film, but he also stars as the movie’s central and most interesting character. He plays William Munny, a retired assassin of the Old West who, after having married, tried and succeeded for some time to change his ways and raise two children with very modest means. The film opens with a simple shot that pays homage to a time before ours (and to previous Westerns) where a man, probably Eastwood, stands next to a beautiful tree digging the final resting place of his young wife who had, as the film explains in two simple paragraphs, just perished due to small pox.

Along with his story, the film presents us with the town of Big Whiskey, an outpost that is typical of the Wild West. The whorehouse has been visited by two foreign cowboys, one of which, in a fit of rage, has cut up the beautiful face of one of the “whores”. He is stopped only by the feel of a gun next to his temple carried by the owner of the establishment who ties them up and waits for the town’s sheriff to impart some justice. It is at this moment that we meet “Little Bill”, masterfully played by Gene Hackman. He quickly appears to be a figure that demands respect. Bill stands with confidence, knowing exactly what he will do even before he takes a good look at the two men. He deals a magnanimous hand, setting the criminals free once they commit to compensate the owner with a few horses.The only voice that rises and protests to the glaring injustice is “Strawberry Alice”, the “matriarch whore”, fearlessly played by Frances Fisher. Her protests are dismissed by men but not quenched, as we soon learn her women have impressively gathered a thousand dollars to reward anyone who avenges them and kills the two cowboys.

Eastwood’s Old Wild West in Unforgiven is different in that it presents us with characters that have lived and gotten used to the terrible cruelty of the West, who now face extinction as a more lawful and organized modernity seems to creep around them without notice. Gene Hackman is the man that brings order with an iron fist, but also with a certain degree of equanimity gained by his many years of experience and his calm yet fearsome demeanor. When he learns the whores have posted a reward asking for the killing of two cowboys, he quickly focuses on keeping Big Whiskey free of assasins who would surely come to collect the bounty. No longer this is the Old West of duels and self-imposed justice. This has become the West of the sheriff and the American government that is clearly represented by the flags hanging on both sides of the County Office.

In this context, Eastwood meets a young cowboy self-nicknamed “The Schofield Kid”, played by a debutant Jaimz Woolvett. Here is a new breed of cowboy, eager to claim a bounty not fully knowing the risks that are involved with a killing. He comes to Munny to propose him half of the bounty if he joins him in this quest, having discovered that the old man who can’t even manage to organize a herd of hogs was once a feared gunslinger. Munny has seemingly lost his strength and poise, and with marriage, he also seems to have lost his desire for “meanness” and “wickedness”. First he dismisses the bashful Kid, but later comes to his senses and decides to join him not before enlisting his old partner, played by the everlasting Morgan Freeman.

There is obviously a need for money as poverty has taken over and defined Munny’s life for the last few years. He constantly repeats he has long since retired from his old habits, quitting Whiskey and staying away from his gunslinger past as long as money allowed him to. He repeats he is now “a changed man” over the course of the movie, almost as if he needs to remind himself that he no longer has it in him to kill for money.We start suspecting though (with some skepticism) that Munny does have it in him still and that, beyond the bounty, he secretly desires to prove himself, even when all we see is a shadow of his former glory, aged by the harshness of the Old West.

With Unforgiven, Eastwood seems to have become a part of the scenery. He seems to fit in the desert. Munny feeds from the scenery as if he were a true part of it. It is a quality that Eastwood has gained, as an actor, not only with his age, but with the experience given by the many Western classics he was a part of. With Unforgiven he has clearly decided to close a chapter in his career, presenting us with an Old Wild West that is changing its ways, with seemingly washed-up old timers that are no longer good for a fight.

Munny seems to drag the group’s feet, but in his silence and contemplation, there seems to be a dark man capable of anything, just waiting to come out. Eatwood suffers during the trip and almost meets his death because of a great beating he suffered at the mercy of Little Bill. He takes every punch and kick like he deserves it, as if he wants to die. He crawls away from the whorehouse in pain, but also with the persistence and psychotic resolution of a predestined assassin of the West. Once he gets back up and meets the victimized whore outside a barn, he starts gaining his confidence back and, with that, some of his old vicious self. The old assassin is slowly revealed and with that, Eastwood’s commanding presence on the screen grows larger.

What ensues in the last few scenes, as Munny’s wickedness and thirst for revenge in the form of violence fully awakens, is one of the most electrifying action sequences ever put in film. It lacks the glamor and the perfectly tuned craft of today’s action movies, but it plays effectively as the awkwardness and imperfection gives it a sense of realism that would otherwise lack.

Eastwood directs Unforgiven with patience, in a manner that recalls the work of the previous masters of the best American Westerns, while defining a fitting end for an era of movie-making that saw Clint Eastwood rise as one of its most prominent stars. Unforgiven also reminds me of another masterpiece, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which a delusional and psychotic cab driver is treated as a hero, after he explodes in an act of violence that had seemed at odds with his personality for much of the film.

For its beautiful scenery, the rawness of his camerawork, the perfect casting, his patient yet electrifying storyline, and for his indelible presence in the movie, Eastwood managed to produce a work that is flawless in its genre, and that is superior in its detail and intricacies to anything he has ever been a part of before or after.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (flawless)