Monday, 6 May 2013

Unforgiven, Kathleen Turner and men shouting: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" - Reviews #157

Welcome! Eight reviews for your delectation/disgust, including three from ClintFest '13, one of Dustin Hoffman's best, one of Coppola's worst, and the definitive Michelle Yeoh movie.

ClintFest '13:

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

"Well, I guess they had it comin'."
"We all have it comin'."

Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood's masterpiece: a towering dismantling of Western mythos, extraordinary in every way. It's the best and most important oater since John Ford's supposed "last word" on the genre - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - and arguably the most morally and thematically interesting since The Searchers, the Ford film that cast John Wayne as a violent racist hell-bent on revenge, and for once held him to account. It's a film so complex, in fact, that I still don't know how to read its ending, pitched somewhere between Dirty Harry and Gran Torino, with that lingering shot of a cut-up face expressing... what? Gratitude? Longing? Disillusionment?

Eastwood is cast as Will Munny, a merciless killer turned stumbling pig farmer who gets in the saddle once more when a bounty is placed on the heads of two cowboys who beat up a prostitute. The film begins as a fascinating ensemble piece - dealing with Morgan Freeman's past-it partner, a young gun full of bravado, Richard Harris's extravagant liar, English Bob, and the sadistic sheriff who sets in motion this chilling chain of events (Gene Hackman) - before zoning in, tighter and tighter, on its unforgettable anti-hero.

Superbly scripted by David Webb Peoples, who also wrote Blade Runner and Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, it's a film that subverts just about every stereotype in Western history. This isn't contrariness for its own sake, but a clear and singular vision of the re-writing of reality. There's that old Western town - built in that New Hollywood way, rather than the synthetic efforts of the '40s - the departing stagecoach and the central saloon, but the people who populate this familiar world are like nothing that the movies have ever seen before. Eastwood can barely get on his horse and can't shoot for shit, while the bloodthirsty young gunhand is a short-sighted blowhard who's never pulled the trigger, these characteristics coming to a head after they gun down an unarmed man who's on the toilet, before a haphazard escape that has more to do with Munny's fabled good fortune than any traditional Western virtues. Also key to the narrative is Hackman's brilliant speech about the irrelevancy of being quick on the draw, a point expertly made by the closing set-piece. Meanwhile, in a sublime development, Harris is accompanied by a hagiographer who writes historical novels based on the patriotic old soak's accounts of his exploits. Magnificently, the journo seems to tire of "printing the legend" after he hears the truth from Hackman, but ultimately plans to turn the ugly events of the final reel into a lyrical new book, with Munny the star.

It's a movie that's endlessly preoccupied with death, as evidenced by those remarkable visions that accompany Eastwood's fever, all the more striking for arriving only through dialogue: the ghost of a blameless victim with his head blown off, an Angel of Death coming for Munny, and his wife's corpse crawling with worms. In those passages, Eastwood achieves a level of performance unlike anything he's ever approached, in its authority, sincerity and emotional resonance. Of course Clint's no killer in real life, but you do sense in these later films that he is atoning for the bloodlust of his early vehicles, with their reductionist view of human nature and plethora of unsavoury character traits. This, he's saying, is the cost of killing: the damage that it does to a man's soul.

As a director, too, he's operating in a heightened mode. I love High Plains Drifter (aside from its dodgy sexual politics) and I like Pale Rider, but Unforgiven knocks them both into a ten-gallon hat. Right from the opening scene, with its spare score, stately sense of composition and masterful title card, written in archaic, flavourful Western language, it's clear that he's reaching for a definitive statement - and finding it. This isn't just a solid genre piece or a lively revenge flick with vivid stylistic trappings. Not this time. Unforgiven is a character study of epic proportions in which a reformed man, clinging to sobriety and the morality of his late wife, still haunted by past deeds committed in a fog of booze, slowly begins to transform back into that hollow-eyed compassion-vacuum: an Angel of Death who revels in blood-letting and mythologises murder.

He's blessed, too, with one of the best casts of the decade. Jaimz Woolvett is formidably annoying as the "Schofield Kid" - but his whining, bragging and repetitive dialogue is rather the point - while Hackman is magnificent as the malevolent sheriff, and Freeman stays mercifully clear of the cliches that have dogged his later work. Saul Rubinek, as the nervy writer trying to navigate a world he really doesn't understand, brings something altogether new to the genre, but best of all - almost as good as Eastwood, in fact - is Richard Harris. Yes, his English accent falters a little during his farewells, but it's an irrelevant quibble with a jaw-dropping performance. Arriving in the film as that Western ever-present, the gunfighter with a past whose mere name results in widespread quivering, he moves from garrulous theatricality - recalling Alan Mowbray's heroics in My Darling Clementine - to despondent self-loathing, and then bitter verbal recrimination. The sequence in which Rubinek passes him a gun with which to shoot Hackman, is one of the most unusual, arresting and memorable scenes in Western history, shot through with tension, sadness and a gleeful contempt for genre convention. You think it's reached its zenith when Harris places an emphatic hand on his cell bars, as an admission of defeat, only for Hackman to prolong his misery, dropping the shells onto the floor, each one prompting a jerk of agony from the "Duck of Death". Sorry, "Duke".

Of the women who earn their living "playing billiards" with strangers, only Frances Fisher and Anna Levine really get anything to do. Fisher is a sort of player-manager madam, whose escalating, even horny, desire for revenge is cleverly juxtaposed with Levine's apparent apathy: she may be the real victim in all of this (even without her ears being cut off), but the only wish she expresses in the whole film is to give Munny "a free one". Incidentally, Fisher's fairly broad performance and the staging of the pivotal beating remind you how far Eastwood has come, calling to mind the nasty harpies and knife-wielding psychos who tended to turn up in his lesser work. Happily, we're light years away from the offensive triviality and gratuitous unpleasantness of Play Misty for Me and Sudden Impact. There's a reason why Unforgiven is the film that Clint chose to dedicate to his mentors: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

The '50s was the Golden Age of the Western, a decade when filmmakers like John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher took every old-hat notion going, and sat it on its head. Mann turned Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper into vicious killers, Ford x-rayed John Wayne's screen persona, and Boetticher and his screenwriter Burt Kennedy created a series of fascinating antagonists often more human than their nominal hero (Randolph Scott). Unforgiven takes those movies, rips out every romantic notion and leaves the bloodied, rotting carcass in front of the saloon. No-one need ever make another Western, because Eastwood's genre epitaph says it all.


The Rookie (Clint Eastwood, 1990) - Near the start of this film, you think that Clint's talking about a car, but really he's talking about a woman. Classic. As you might expect, he plays a tough cop who's on the trail of one of the Scousers from Harry Enfield (Raul Julia) and his nympho bird, but finds himself saddled with a blazer-wearing foetus haunted by a voice in his head saying "Jump, Joey! Jump!" (Charlie Sheen). Aside from his moustache and three-stripe tracksuit, Julia may be the least interesting adversary of Eastwood's career, largely because of the laughable disconnect between his main avenue of work (stealing and re-spraying cars) and the measures he takes to cover it up: namely shooting everyone in sight.

Many regard The Rookie as Eastwood's worst ever movie: perhaps swayed by the atrocious dialogue (it's essentially just people saying "motherfucker"), his preposterous partner, and the bit where he's (perhaps) raped by the razor-wielding Sonia Braga. There's certainly further evidence of the nastiness that pervades most of Clint's lesser movies, as well as sort of hypnotic idiocy in excess of almost everything else he's ever done. But, for all that, the first half is great fun, lit by a neat freeway chase staged by Dead Pool director Buddy Van Horn - in which Clint has to dodge swanky sports cars being shoved off the back of a moving lorry - and the star's masterclass in grizzly growling. Then the focus shifts almost entirely to Sheen's titular cop - a man so tormented that he headbutts a mirror - and the bottom falls out of the film. Still, at least Sheen, one of the only Brat Packers to miss out on The Breakfast Club, gets to moan about his dad. That final hour of the film is almost entirely stupid, though a special mention is required for the hilarious set-piece in which Charlie Sheen runs around shouting, "Come on! Come on", and then shoots a dog.

It's an inauspicious re-teaming for Julia and Braga, who won international plaudits in Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spiderwoman, but Clint's motivations are rather clearer. Hollywood folklore has it that he had to make this one, a kind of Dirty Harry 6 (albeit with a pay-off in which his Nick Pulowski makes Callahan look like a Liberty activist), in order to get the backing for Unforgiven. That seems a reasonable trade-off, even in light of the woof woof bang bang. (2)


And here's one I wrote a few weeks back, but forgot to tack up. Note the poverty of my invention, as I again justify a lousy Clint film by harping on about Unforgiven:

Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971) - When a smug radio DJ - who would be faithful to his girlfriend if only he didn't have so many demons (wanker) - opts to boff Lucille Bluth, little does he know that she's going to go all Stabby Titmus on him. But that's what happens, as Lucille graduates from behaving a bit like me as a teenager - needy, desperate, not very good at dealing with rejection - to behaving like me now: scary, fond of lounge pyjamas and weirdly obsessed with Clint Eastwood.

The star's debut behind the camera isn't my sort of film, and isn't very well-directed - goodness knows how he went from this erratic, of-its-time slice of slasher silliness, full of clunky cuts, extraneous coastal footage and ostentatious crane shots, to High Plains Drifter in the space of a year and using the same DP (Bruce Surtees) - but if he hadn't made Play Misty, then I suppose we might never have had Unforgiven, so sitting through it seems a small price to pay.

Lucille (oh, OK, Jessica Walter) brings a dynamism and an appealing vulnerability to her role, alongside all the silly shouting and stabbing, but it's not enough to sustain a film this dated, dislikeable and tiresomely sensationalist - especially when Clint and Donna Mills are so utterly dreadful. The "twist", which is set up with an almost insulting lack of subtlety, is fairly well handled once it arrives, though my favourite bit was when the movie decided to dispense with its plot for 15 minutes while everyone went to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Had I been enjoying it up to that point, I might have felt a bit more annoyed. The musical footage includes that popular number, Willie and the Hand Jive. Smirk. (2)


The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011)


Some men run towards a cop, shouting.


They fight.

Repeat for an hour and a half.



Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1994) - Kung fu meets Benny Hill in this delirious helping of cartoonish nonsense from Yuen Woo-Ping. It's a bad, magnificent, beautiful, stupid mixture of jaw-dropping wire-work, abysmal comedy and shambolic plotting that expects us to accept Michelle Yeoh as a bloke and Donnie Yen as goofy comic support. Yeoh is the allegedly mannish kung fu supremo and spinster Wing Chun, who becomes entangled with a wronged woman, a gold-digger and a gang of marauding bandits, whilst falling for guileless wally and childhood sweetheart Yen, resulting - of course - in all manner of airborne martial arts mayhem.

It's Yeoh's definitive role, as her lone, aloof fighting machine allows her defences to crumble - though only in romantic terms - leading to some wonderfully sweet moments alongside the film's more visceral delights. Though the plot is all over the shop, the film is grounded and imbued with real resonance by her dynamic performance: not just the whirling, diving and high-kicking that you'd expect, but her subtle expressiveness, variety and swagger too, Wing's calm, personable persona swelling with bravado whenever she's compelled to fight. It goes without saying, of course, that most of her action scenes are stunning. The fiery duel is rather a non-event - and utilises a double due to competing filming commitments - but her rescue mission is nicely done, the tofu fight is a wow and her three scenes with a rather vague villain are just absolutely gobsmacking.

There's also a nice night-time scrap featuring Donnie Yen, who shot the action scenes. He's cast against type as a thick, endlessly grinning comic character - and unlikely love interest - and does OK, coming to life in the fight sequences as you'd expect. Incidentally, he was disappointed that Woo-Ping - his mentor - barely used any of the titular style in the movie. Wing chun was spotlighted memorably in Yen's 2008 film Ip Man, and its sequel, prompting a resurgence of popularity in China. Here, I do think Woo-Ping sometimes pushes too far with his innovative action staging, going past fantastical to unsatisfyingly artificial. I'm far fonder of Crouching Tiger's magical flights of fancy than Kung Fu Hustle's knowing excesses, and there are hints of the latter throughout. There is, though, a respect for Yeoh's balletic grace and mastery of the medium that seems to rein him in. Well, a bit. Some of the time.

Wing Chun is a mess, and appears almost proud to be so, wearing its low comedy, negligible story and transparent improbabilities like a badge of honour, and regarding a running gag about halitosis as at least as valuable as its actual strong suits. But the film is also staggeringly brilliant, full of virtuosic fight scenes, striking location photography and moments of quiet, tender revelation, and lit by the mother of all performances from the mother of all female action heroes. To illustrate the film's problem with its own brilliance/ineptitude, take a look at the film's gender politics, which include not only the initially contemptuous treatment of Kingdom Yuen's smelly sidekick, but also a female hero who bows to no man, and an unexpectedly mature treatment of female sexuality that comes out of nowhere in the movie's second half. Or have a listen to the score: part rousing battle music, part nostalgic love theme and part what appear to be outtakes from The Benny Hill Show that were thrown out for being too heavy-handed. The whole thing is just ridiculous. It should be better than it is. But it doesn't care. (3)


Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) - A brilliantly-scripted, very old-fashioned comedy about a frustrated actor and full-time chauvinist (Dustin Hoffman) disguising himself as a woman to land a part in a soap, then falling for co-star Jessica Lange. It's incredibly witty, slyly satirical in both its take on sexual politics and modern entertainment, and positively reeks of greasepaint, recalling such fine movies about the thespian trade as Twentieth Century, A Double Life and John Osborne's The Entertainer (the poster of which is tacked above Hoffman's bed). The film gambles on a rather conventional trip to the country (with one notable exception) to affirm the central relationship, but pulls it off magnificently, the diversion so well-handled that it draws comparison (perhaps intentionally) with my favourite film of all time, Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night, while the wrap-up - always the hardest part in a film of this type - is simply flawless.

Movies about cross-dressing tend to be a drag (pun very much intended), or at least to fall down in those sections - I Was a Male War Bride and Love Crazy are a pair of fun comedies that stop firing when Cary Grant and William Powell put on women's clothes, but Tootsie belongs in that rarefied bracket that don drag for their entire length, and yet succeed superbly, a Some Like It Hot for the '80s. Of course, whether it works depends a great deal on whether Hoffman can convince as a woman. He can, while exhibiting impeccable timing, displaying that effortless ability with quick-fire dialogue, and unleashing a succession of magnificent reaction faces. The supporting cast is also note-perfect, with Lange tremendously appealing as the self-deprecating love interest (this was before she decided to get a different face), Charles Durning and director Pollack excelling in well-written parts, and Bill Murray scoring big as Hoffman's roommate, his humour so dry it's in danger of catching alight. It's just an absolute joy from start to finish. (4)


Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) - This is an astonishingly awful spin on Back to the Future, with middle-aged divorcee and mother-of-two Kathleen Turner passing out at her school reunion, and waking up back at school, a few weeks shy of graduation. That promising premise is given the most appallingly flat, confused and meaningless treatment, with no apparent dramatic stakes, no plot developments of even the slightest interest, and Turner repeatedly vocalising her plight - and her considerable life experience - for no apparent reason, much to the general bafflement of every other character in the film. She also keeps saying that she loves and misses her kids, but toys relentlessly with the idea of dumping their father (Nicolas Cage), meaning that they wouldn't - of course - ever exist.

Turner is actually very good, but she's powerless against a script that's more concerned with churning out smug one-liners than giving us anything even resembling an engaging story, and a turn from Cage that may genuinely be the worst performance I have ever seen in a movie. As a whining, bleached-blonde crooner, Cage behaves in a way that bears so little relation to how humans actually act that I think he may have been sent by robots to destroy our movies. You know how bad Gary Oldman was in Leon, with every conceivable recognisable trait replaced by some fucking terrible twitch? Well that's what Cage is like here, only he's so committed to sinking Coppola's melancholy sci-fi romance that he can't even speak properly. Bizarrely, though, he can sing - actually rather well. It's a good job that Cage (Coppola's nephew) is so bad, though, because otherwise I'd be forced to round on the ever-wooden Sofia Coppola (the director's daughter) and the perma-gurning Jim Carrey (apparently no relation), whose mindless supporting characterisation makes his part in The Mask look like the very model of restraint.

There are a couple of nice moments dealing with Turner's late grandparents (now, of course, in her life once more), but both times the film immediately jettisons the emotional impact by doing something unfathomably stupid. When Turner breaks down at hearing her grandmother's voice on the phone, and proceeds to touchingly discuss mortality with her mother, the writers decide that now is just the right time for a cock joke. And after she opts to visit her grandparents ('30s movie legends Leon Ames and Maureen O'Sullivan), the lovely set-up is spoilt by a shallow conversation about reincarnation, partially redeemed by the revelation that Turner's daughter is named after O'Sullivan, and then trampled into the dirt by a deus ex machina of a lodge meeting that's so fucking dreadful I thought my eyes were about to start bleeding. All that, and an ageing make-up job in the book-end scenes that appears to have been done by the team responsible for Brokeback Mountain - and my primary school nativity play.

Helen Hunt's in the movie - looking the same age she does now - Joan Allen does a bit, John Carradine has a walk-on and John Barry contributes a reasonable if repetitive score, but whatever the film's promising credentials, it remains a load of absolute fucking shit. (1)


Millions (Danny Boyle, 2004)
- This is a magical, charming fable written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and shown through the eyes of a hallucinating child - much like The Butcher Boy or In America - that, sadly, starts to falter in its final third. The story sees a fortune fall from the sky into the laps of little Alex Etel and his elder brother. The catch: they have 12 days to spend the lot, before the Euro comes in. The other catch: someone wants it back. And while Etel is desperate to help the poor, guided as he is by visions of the saints, his brother wants a scuba suit, a bike chauffeur and someone to hang up his coat for him at school. Boyce's script is whimsical, wise and clever, recapping and re-writing Bible stories to supplement its vivid view of the world, which is sentimental and idealistic whilst still practical and rooted in realism. The portrait of young minds is recognisable and attractive, and there are loads of good jokes and some very funny supporting characters, including Pearce Quigley as an incredibly ineffective PCSO ("Statistically, you're going to get burgled," he tells a roomful of unhappy looking residents).

Unfortunately, after that glorious bus ride with a papier-mache donkey, the film slightly loses its way: the only thing that really works in the muddled last half-hour is a devastatingly effective chat by the railway tracks that gave me a lump in my throat the size of a football. Most of Boyle's films run out of steam before the end, but I think here the problem is with the script, which vehemently rejects formula, but sadly kicks out clarity at the same time, whilst incorporating an overbearing subplot about a nasty bank robber, and a familial disagreement that's interesting at first, but doesn't pan out well enough. Perhaps Boyce's much-lauded novelisation does a neater and more coherent job of developing and tying up the story. I wasn't impressed by Etel in Cranford, but these first roles are usually more effective because the young actor is just right for the role, and so it is here. His limitations lend his character an earnestness and slight detachment from the real world that suits the material. I'm not really sure what accent James Nesbitt is attempting to approximate as the dad, but he's quite an underrated actor, and he's very good here in a relatively challenging part.

This low-key, low-budget movie does a lot right, but after that wonderfully engaging first hour - notable for a delightfully light touch - it does somewhat lose its way, becoming muddled and a little draggy. And a Cartman figurine is frankly an inappropriate Christmas present for a child. Still, a film this unusual, literate and appealing is always welcome, and kids should love it, especially since the film's youngsters are so adept at outwitting their adult counterparts. (3)

See also: Slumdog Millionaire, my favourite Boyle film, is reviewed here. I didn't think quite so much of Trance.


Thanks for reading.

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