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Posts Tagged ‘Clint Eastwood’

In the early 1960s the American actor Richard Harrison was living in Italy and had carved out a bit of a niche for himself starring in movies there, including the very first of what are now known as spaghetti westerns. The makers of a new movie in that genre approached Harrison with a view to his appearing in it, but not having enjoyed his previous experience, the actor declined. So the director asked him to recommend another actor who could conceivably carry a new kind of western. Harrison, a veteran performer with over 120 films to his credit, nowadays wryly comments that his response may have constituted his single greatest contribution to cinema, both as an industry and an art form.

The director was Sergio Leone, the film was A Fistful of Dollars (Italian title Per un pugno di dollari, while – somewhat curiously – the on-screen title card omits the indefinite article), and the eventual star was Clint Eastwood, at that point best-known as the star of TV western Rawhide. These days A Fistful of Dollars is famous as the film which brought both Leone and the spaghetti western subgenre to international attention, while Eastwood has gone on to have the most distinguished of careers as a film-maker – even to the point where his fame and success as a director surpasses that of his acting work. It all started here, in an unauthorised and uncredited remake of the Japanese jidaigeki movie Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa and Toho duly sued, to which Leone’s response was that Yojimbo itself was a derivative work, ultimately drawn from an Italian commedia dell’arte play. But he still settled out of court in the end, with Kurosawa claiming he earned more from Fistful than he did from his own film).

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars will certainly seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the Kurosawa film. A taciturn stranger (famously known as the Man with No Name, but a minor character in this film repeatedly calls him ‘Joe’) arrives in a desolate town in Mexico to find it moribund, paralysed by a struggle between rival gangs of smugglers and bandits – the Rojos and the Baxters. The local cantina is almost deserted, and the only person doing good business is the man who makes the coffins.

But the stranger sees an opportunity to maybe make a little money, for he is a lethally skilled gunfighter and quite prepared to play both sides off against each other in pursuit of a bigger payday. But Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), one of the Rojo brothers, is also a dangerously intelligent killer, and the stranger may not find his scheme as straightforward to implement as he first thinks…

I have to say that Sergio Leone was really trying it on when he tried to assert that A Fistful of Dollars is not a fairly obvious remake of Yojimbo. There are a few tweaks to the storyline early on – a visit from a government inspector is replaced by a double-cross involving some stolen gold – but in many places this is very nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the Japanese film, dramatically at least.

Looking slightly beneath the surface, things are somewhat different. A Fistful of Dollars is a much ‘straighter’ movie than its precursor, which – in its early stages at least – functions as a kind of black comedy. Fistful is by no means po-faced, but it is a particularly cynical kind of humour, articulated many in terms of one-liners from Eastwood’s character. But then the film as whole feels like it is operating on a more limited, superficial level.

It has many of the same strengths as the Kurosawa film, most notably the pairing of Eastwood and Volonte as protagonist and antagonist. (In an attempt to pitch the movie to xenophobic American markets, many of those involved are credited under somewhat unlikely American pseudonyms – Leone’s original credit was as ‘Bob Robertson’, Volonte ‘John Wells’, Mario Brega ‘Richard Stuysevant’, and so on. I’m not sure how convincing this would have been, even at the time.) It doesn’t quite manage the beautiful simplicity of Yojimbo‘s swordsman-versus-gunfighter finale, but negotiates around this with reasonable elegance.

However, Yojimbo, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is a study of character and the world, as well as being an entertaining narrative. Kurosawa loved working with Toshiro Mifune because, the director said, he was the most expressive actor he had ever come across. It seems Leone loved working with Eastwood in the same way, but for diametrically opposite reasons – he saw the actor as an inscrutable mask, observing that he had two basic expressions: hat on or hat off. (Leone was, of course, joking: he was the first, after all, to recognise Eastwood’s ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, from neutral-featured juvenile lead to flinty-eyed spectre of annihilation, as he does most famously in the ‘My mule don’t like people laughing at him’ sequence.)

A Fistful of Dollars seems largely to have been conceived in visual terms. Most of the dialogue doesn’t go far beyond ‘Ey, gringo’ cliches, and the plot is, as we have discussed, obviously derivative. What makes it distinctive is the big set piece moments: rapid intercutting between wide shots and huge close-ups of silent actors, their faces filling the screen as the trumpets of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack soar above the action. This is a director’s movie, a cinematographer’s movie, perhaps above all an editor’s movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the film feels a little superficial as a result (although the constraints of the production – it was filmed ‘as silent’ with dialogue and sound added later – may also have had an effect). Leone doesn’t seem particularly interested in making any specific point, with the result that the film just feels like a very violent melodrama, about and punctuated by acts of cruelty and murder, populated by thin (maybe ‘archetypal’ would be a better way of putting it) characters. A key moment in the plot comes when the stranger risks himself to help a family torn apart by the Rojos – in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance effectively foreshadows this moment of hazard, but here it just seems rather out-of-character for Eastwood.

Nevertheless, on its own terms this is a highly accomplished film, and very entertaining too. All the intelligence and charisma that Eastwood would show throughout his acting career is on display; the same is true of the artistry and skill of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Opinion may still be somewhat divided as to the place of A Fistful of Dollars in the history of the western – is it a bold new take on, or perversion of the genre? – but it is still a great movie.

 

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Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.

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Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.

 

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It looks like it’s going to be a slim year in terms of visits to watch new movies: checking my notes, I see I’m five or six down on my running total for the end of September 2013. Partly this is the result of a change in my working practices, with the result that there have been many fewer two-movie days across the summer, but it’s also down to my becoming a fairly regular visitor to the local Picturehouse’s Vintage Sunday strand. New films are, after all, always at least a little bit of a leap into the dark, whereas something forty or fifty years old which is still on the big screen must have something special about it.

Which brings us to Don Siegel’s famous 1971 thriller, Dirty Harry, the latest recipient of a Vintage revival. As ever, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a film on TV or DVD: watching it on the big screen is a wholly different experience. I note that this movie, which was originally an 18-certificate, has now slid down to a 15, and wonder what this tells us about changes in cinema, censorship, and society: certainly there are elements of this film which seem as urgent and timely as they must have done forty-three years ago.

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Clint Eastwood is unchallengably cool as Harry Callahan, a detective inspector with the San Francisco PD. The film tells the story of a battle of wits and wills between Callahan and a demented killer calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson). Scorpio starts by picking off people from the rooftops with a hunting rifle, demanding to be paid to stop, but later moves on to kidnapping. Callahan – nicknamed Dirty Harry because, as he says, he gets ‘every dirty job that comes along’ – has to stop him, but can he do so while by being a responsible, rule-respecting policeman? Or even a good human being?

Dirty Harry has lasted because, first and foremost, it’s simply a very well-made film: Siegel’s direction is a masterful example of economical storytelling, Clint is at his most impassively charismatic, Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score adds a lot, and the script, though passing through many hands on its way to the screen, balances elements of action, character, and humour superbly well, barely putting a foot wrong throughout. You could quite easily watch Dirty Harry and think of it as nothing but a supremely polished piece of tough action movie-making – and I’m sure many people do.

But, of course, one of the other reasons why Dirty Harry is still important as a piece of cinema is that it uses the thriller format to introduce and explore a lot of other political and moral ideas, all of them to do with rights and what it means to be a good person. Callahan is a cynical, no-nonsense kind of guy: he shoots first, and then probably shoots some more later. And yet he is surrounded in his work by sociologists and politicians – the mayor in particular is depicted as a slightly wussy bleeding-heart – who seem less concerned with what’s actually right than he is. Callahan, the film makes clear, will do anything in pursuit of a just goal: in one of the film’s most vivid sequences, he tortures the wounded Scorpio for information that he hopes will save the life of a kidnapped girl (the camera pulls back for what seems like forever from Callahan and the killer, until both figures are swallowed by darkness).

The result of this, of course, is that Scorpio walks out of hospital (the evidence being inadmissible) and Callahan gets a rollicking from the DA for ignoring the criminal’s rights. Callahan is duly outraged, and by this point we probably are too: what about the teenaged girl Scorpio has tortured, raped and murdered? What about her rights? It is a debate which is still with us today, with these same questions being asked in the right-wing press all the time.

Of course, Dirty Harry is guilty of stacking the deck in favour of its rather illiberal argument – not least because the mouthpiece for it is Clint himself, who was at the height of his powers at the time the film was made. Callahan is always in the right, and we’re even invited to feel for him a bit – there are references to his dead wife, killed by a drunk driver. Rather less subtle is the depiction of Scorpio, who is depicted as not much more than a frothing, rabid psychopath – he is barely humanised at all, and we learn next to nothing about him (Robinson is just credited as ‘Killer’). He is just plain bad, a dangerous animal to be put down as quickly as possible (and, again, Robinson’s memorably nasty performance serves the film well – I should perhaps mention that I had the privilege of meeting Andrew Robinson a couple of times a few years ago, and in real life he is one of the most amiable and pleasant people you could ever hope to meet).

It’s actually quite tempting to consider Dirty Harry as part of a group of films, all made around this time, reflecting the unease of the traditional American establishment with the values of the counter-culture which had arisen in the previous few years. Harry dresses very conservatively; Scorpio has long hair and, all due respect to Robinson, a slightly effeminate voice. Eastwood taking him on doesn’t feel a million miles away, thematically, from Charlton Heston confronting the cult of zombie-hippies in The Omega Man. By 1971 it was clear that the hippy dream was merely that, and perhaps films like Dirty Harry are another expression of the status quo reasserting itself.

Dirty Harry is a powerful movie, even if its main contentions – let the police do their job, and worry less about criminal rights and more about victims’ rights – are just simplistic. Perhaps the film even recognises this itself, in its rather ambiguous conclusion: having ignored the orders of his superiors and finally disposed of Scorpio, Harry takes out his police badge and looks at it for a moment, then hurls it away in apparent contempt. But is that contempt for the badge itself, and what it stands for? Or contempt for himself, and the things he’s been forced to do in pursuit of justice? We are left to decide for ourselves. It is subtle moments such as this that raise Dirty Harry above the level of simple quasi-fascist wish fulfilment and make it the great film that it is.

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There are, as they say, two kinds of people in this world: those who can think of a witty and original gag for the opening line of a review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the rest of us. But hey ho. The conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (working title apparently River of Dollars, though I also like Garth Ennis’ quasi-suggestion of A Coffinful of Dollars) made its first appearance in 1966, when Clint Eastwood was just on the threshhold of proper major stardom, a state which he has managed to maintain without too much effort for the nearly fifty years since the film came out. There’s nothing like getting off to a good start, is there, and it is somewhat ironic that Eastwood himself was deeply reluctant to do yet another spaghetti western (and indeed refused to take part in further Leone projects like Once upon a Time in the West). Critics were initially fairly sniffy about the film, but its reputation as one of the greatest westerns ever made has grown down the years, which is no doubt why it is still receiving swanky restorations and revivals nearly five decades on.

gbuThe plot of Leone’s epic tale is somewhat convoluted, unfolds at a fairly languid pace, and is not entirely essential to the success of the venture. As the American civil war rages in the background, the film follows three drifters as they go about their business: Blondie (Eastwood), Angel-Eyes (Lee van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach). Blondie and Tuco initially have a deal where Blondie repeatedly turns Tuco in for the bounty on his head, gets the money, and then rescues him from the hangman so they can both do a runner, but this not entirely surprisingly turns sour and leaves Tuco questing for a brutal revenge. Angel-Eyes, meanwhile, has business of his own, trying to track down a huge treasure which has gone missing in the fog of war.

Their paths cross when Blondie and Tuco meet the only man who knows the location of the gold, shortly before he dies. Both of them end up knowing half of the treasure’s location, which makes them potentially very rich men, provided they can put their mutual antipathy on hold long enough to track it down. However, this also puts them squarely in Angel-Eyes’ sights, and he is even less noted for his sweet and reasonable nature than they are…

Time and its own influence have probably robbed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of much of its impact: Eastwood may have been ambivalent about his association with Leone, but it’s a connection which fundamentally informs his own work in the western genre. Seriously bright people such as Rich Hall scorn Leone’s westerns as empty jokes, and in a way it’s easy to see why: if you look at the classic American western, it is all about the classic values of the country. The west is a place for principled and heroic self-realisation, a place of freedom and potential. The west in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on the other hand, is a desolate wasteland where the only certainty is violent death, and moral alignments are just labels on empty bottles.

This film works on some level as a very black comedy, and one of the main ironies is in the title. Blondie may be tagged on-screen as good, Angel-Eyes as bad, and Tuco as ugly, but realistically there is very little to choose between them: they all three share a high degree of moral flexibility and a staggeringly lethal level of skill at gunfighting, and they are all only really motivated by the desire for money. Everything else is really just a grace note in their characterisation – Blondie occasionally expresses a little compassion for the men caught up in the war, and Angel-Eyes seems to rather enjoy killing and torturing people, but there really isn’t much to choose between them. They are both detached, rather emblematic figures, in any case: compared to them, Tuco may come across as a sort of oafish, demented rodent, but he is still by far the most humanised of the trio. We learn much more of his background and character, mainly because he probably talks more than the other two put together. If he is ugly, it is because of his very humanity and frailty compared to the others.

This could be taken for evidence of the cynicism of Leone’s film, which seems to be dismissive of conventional morality – this is a story about three very greedy, very violent men, after all. The civil war is presented stripped of any moral context, any sense of it being a struggle between good and evil: it is just pointless, bloody chaos through which the leads move – they treat it more as an inconvenience than anything else. But it seems to me that this is not a wholly cynical film: there are repeated scenes where the camera tracks along great numbers of wounded men from the war, usually accompanied by some of the most soaring and emotive sections of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The film may scorn morality, but it is not entirely without compassion: even Eastwood’s character comments on the pointless waste of life he observes in the war. In the end I would say the film is profoundly cynical rather than totally amoral.

Leone’s conception of the film is distinctive – especially by 1960s standards, when John Wayne was still making westerns – and it is matched by his realisation of it. There is a curious convention at work where anything not actually on the screen is totally invisible to any of the characters (Blondie and Tuco saunter along at one point, completely oblivious – it would seem – to the vast military encampment just to their left, until the camera pans onto it, anyway) and the rest of the film shares this non-naturalistic sensibility. Much of the time people are either tiny specks off in the distance, or enormous sweaty faces overfilling the entire screen, and Leone seems very comfortable just telling a story with images and music rather than dialogue. He is, of course, more than ably assisted by Ennio Morricone, whose legendary operatic score is central to the success of the movie. It’s true that at times the music sounds like full-scale war has broken out between Hank Marvin and a mariachi band, but this is still an incredible score – many people who’ve never even seen the movie will know the central theme within a few seconds of hearing the first note.

Pictures and music come together to extraordinary effect in the film’s set pieces, mainly towards the end of the story. The climactic three-way gunfight largely consists of extreme close-ups of people’s hands and eyes not really doing very much, while Morricone’s music goes berserk over the top of it, but even better – if you ask me – is a sequence a little earlier in which Tuco searches a graveyard for the treasure. As his excitement builds, so does the music, and as the music builds so the cutting of the picture and the movement of the camera both accelerate, to an almost frenzied level. Conventional storytelling it isn’t, but it is still hugely impressive film-making.

You could probably have a go at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for its violence, its cynicism, and its near-total lack of female characters, but I think this is all to some extent a matter of taste. For me, it isn’t really a contender for the title of best film ever made, or even the best western, but it is still the product of a singular and coherent vision, as well as more than satisfying the requirements of its genre. While you’re watching it, you’re always aware you’re watching a piece of art, but you’re also being thoroughly entertained – and that’s what I call a good time.

 

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Hello, and welcome to another review sponsored by the ‘There’s Pretty Much Sod-All Else On’ Corporation, this time of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. I have to confess that much as I admire and enjoy Clint the Icon, I haven’t felt obliged to see any of his films as a director in recent years: the last one I saw was Flags of Our Fathers (not even knowing it was one of his, to be honest). The great British public seem to share my feelings, for once: I had the place pretty much to myself for the matinee I attended. Perhaps expectations for this film are unusually low, anyway – you would expect an adaptation of a hit musical from a feted director like Clint to come out around Christmas time, ahead of the awards season, rather than during a lull in blockbuster season.

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Jersey Boys is not about competitive cyclists or the travails of the knitwear industry, but then you probably knew that. It is another entry in the reliable old pop culture biopic genre, devoted on this occasion to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The film opens in 1951 by introducing Valli (John Lloyd Young), a naive young trainee barber with an astonishing falsetto voice, and his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a wiseguy hustler. Both of them enjoy the patronage of underworld figure Gyp DeCarlo (a relatively restrained Christopher Walken). Along with a few friends, the guy are trying to carve out a musical career in between bouts of not especially petty crime, but it’s fair to say these two careers do not dovetail especially well – it’s hard to plan a concert schedule when various band members keep going to prison.

However, Valli and DeVito, along with their friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), eventually hook up with precociously talented musician and composer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and the stage is set for the kind of long slog that usually presages overnight stardom. A string of hits like Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Big Girls Don’t Cry follows, but – as ever – success brings its own problems, with creative, personal, and financial differences eventually threatening to destroy the lives of the quartet.

So, there’s a sense in which this is a story which you have probably seen before a number of times – the arc of the plot is the same, just the names and the songs change. Certainly, in the UK at least, the songs are rather more familiar than the names: we’re talking about a group which was really at its peak nearly half a century ago. Quartets of clean-cut young men in matching bow ties and suede cardigans singing close harmonies in surprisingly high voices is not a major element of the modern youth music scene, after all, and I do wonder slightly who the intended audience for this film really is. People who remember the Four Seasons from their heyday are likely to be – how can I put this? – knocking on a bit, and unlikely to be enthused by the heavy concentration of F-bombs in the dialogue of this movie. On the other hand, people going to see this movie simply because they enjoyed the stage show may well be disappointed too, because I suspect they are rather different beasts.

Jersey Boys the stage show is a cousin to the jukebox musical, that odd beast where existing pop songs from a popular artist or group are repurposed to serve a (usually highly contrived) narrative – the index case being, I suppose, Mamma Mia!. This movie isn’t like that at all: it is, for want of a better word, a diegetic musical, where practically the only songs and dancing in it occur when the Four Seasons are actually performing on stage. This means the first act of the movie is much more in the vein of GoodFellas than anything else, set in a highly-clannish Italian-American community in the mid 50s, and realised in a very orthodox way.

Virtually the film’s only traditional musical-style number – complete with people singing and dancing in the street, with large numbers of backing dancers and an invisible orchestra – comes during the closing credits, and it was for me the most uplifting and energising part of the whole movie. The Four Seasons’ songs are such pure and joyous pop that I’m not sure they’re best served by being embedded in a fairly gritty mob-related drama, nor indeed vice versa. Some of the innocent pleasure of the non-diegetic musical really might have helped, but it would have meant rethinking the whole tone of the enterprise.

Then again, maybe Clint just didn’t want to do a traditional musical – there are certainly fleeting moments here where it seems as if he’s threatening to parody the bio-pic genre. ‘What are we going to call ourselves?’ cry the boys, and, literally, just at that moment a huge neon sign lights up in front of them with THE FOUR SEASONS written on it. A moment where Gaudio, struggling for a title for his new song, hears their producer observing that ‘big girls don’t cry’, strikes a similar note. At times you’re not quite sure how to take this movie – the presence in it of Joe Pesci (not as an actor, but as an actual character) just adds to the sense of things being oddly out of whack.

On the other hand, most of the time this is fairly dramatic stuff, played in a down-to-earth manner. Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio are credited as executive producers, which doubtless explains why they are presentedly slightly more favourably than the other two Seasons, but no one gets entirely crucified, not even the one who got the whole band in hock to the mob. Walken is the only established star in the movie (well, Clint sneaks himself a cameo courtesy of a clip from Rawhide which the boys watch on TV), but the guys playing the band do solid work (as the title suggests, this is very much a boys’ movie, women being relegated to the roles of girlfriends and mothers and wives).

In the end, though, Jersey Boys is a workmanlike movie rather than anything special, and that’s mainly down to the inconsistency of tone it has – is it a slice-of-life drama from the mean streets of 50s Jersey, or a fabulous non-naturalistic piece of 60s pop froth? The film pendulums back and forth between the two, and the broad sweep of the main plot really doesn’t have very much original going on in it. Not actually a bad movie, but a very long way from being essential – obviously the soundtrack is fantastic, though.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 30th November 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. When I came out to Japan, I was assured that the time difference was only eight or nine hours — and this is mostly true. However, cinematically speaking it’s a different matter. Compared to the United Kingdom, Japan is usually a little bit behind — although this can stretch to anything up to a year. On the other hand, sometimes we’re ahead.

Reaching the Pacific several months after its UK release is Michael Caton-Jones’ Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction (Japanese title: Smile of Ice 2), an ‘honestly, you shouldn’t have bothered’ sequel to the notorious 1992 original. As Sharon Stone apparently negotiated herself a very juicy deal where she got paid a huge wodge of cash whether the movie got made or not, one can perhaps view the finished product as an exercise in amortising expenses rather than a proper movie. As a proper movie, it isn’t very good.

Rumpy-obsessed author and maybe-psycho serial killer Catherine Tramell (Stone) pitches up in London and finds herself banged up (not a new experience for her) on suspicion of killing a famous soccer player (Stan Collymore — no, really). Shabbily relentless cop Roy Washburn (David Thewlis) retains brilliant psychoanalyst Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to assess her mental state with a view to stopping her bail, which he does. For various reasons her bail comes through anyway, and before long Glass finds himself the unwilling subject of Trammell’s attentions…

Well, I haven’t really seen the original movie and this sequel doesn’t really make me want to. When the list of great spectator pastimes is written, watching people getting up to it will be somewhere near the bottom, just above watching people talk about getting up to it, and Basic Instinct 2 contains lengthy sequences of both. These are dull or embarrassing rather than actually erotic.

Somewhat more interesting is the thriller plotline, wherein Glass finds himself in the frame (this may even be a deliberate pun on the part of the screenwriters, which suggests they should reassess their priorities) for various murders of people from his past. This is actually quite engaging, although the script doesn’t offer an alternative suspect to Trammell until rather late in the day. This plotline thankfully features a lot less of Stone, who gives an atrocious performance throughout, and rather more of Morrissey and Thewlis, both of whom battle heroically with the rather thin material they’re given.

The London setting and British cast give this movie a certain novelty value, mostly based on the ‘ooh, it’s whatsisface off thingummy’ factor?But it’s not nearly as clever or interesting as it thinks it is and at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the film’s morality is deeply unsound. Are we supposed to empathise with or root for a character who is straightforwardly presented as a manipulative, amoral psychotic? That seems to be the intention, but a dodgy script and Stone’s performance make that almost as unlikely as most of the rest of the events in the movie. It’s just about watchable when Stone’s not on screen, but never quite tops the unintentionally hilarious opening sequence.

Arriving from the UK late-summer timezone is Jared Hess’ Nacho Libre, another star vehicle, this time for Jack Black. Really loosely based on fact, this is the tale of a Mexican friar who moonlights as a masked wrestling star.

Regular readers will know I like to include a mini-synopsis for every movie; well, that was it. Okay there’s a bit more to it, involving Black acquiring a very thin tag partner, having rather unmonastic feelings about a nun (Ana de la Reguera, appropriately hot yet pure-looking) and… oh, you get the idea. But not a lot more.

It bowls along fairly amicably, powered by Jack Black doing all his usual schtick: silly voices, singing, falling over for comic effect, and there are quite a few laughs. But not as many as you might think, and for a rather peculiar reason — this movie is not formulaic enough.

You can’t fault Jared Hess for wanting to avoid the clichés which usually beset this kind of tale (underdogs rise to sporting greatness), but without them the story seems disjointed and episodic. This is a very mainstream, knockabout comedy, or it should be, but Hess strives for an atmospheric quirkiness that seems rather out of place.

Jack Black is good value and I did enjoy the movie, but it’s not a comedy classic. It seemed to deeply confuse all the Japanese people at the showing I went to, but that’s probably not a good thing.

From early autumn UK time arrives Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (Japanese title: Tomorrow World 2027). This movie is supposedly based on PD James’ rather literary SF novel of the same name — but friends, I’ve read that book, and other than a couple of events and a few characters, the movie has only the loosest resemblance to the original story.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a London office worker in the near future. Life in 2027 is rather grim, partly due to draconian laws intended to keep the illegal immigrant situation under control and the activities of terrorists intent on overturning these laws, but mainly because everyone in the world has been entirely infertile since about 2009. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Theo’s ex Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up, needing his help: Theo has high-up contacts which he can use to get transit papers for a refugee girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who Julian and her (ahem) activist pals desperately need to get out of the country. Or so it initially appears…

The James book was written at least 15 years ago and is, as I said, rather literary. Cuaron’s version is relentlessly gloomy, frequently kinetic and concludes with an enormous gun battle featuring a couple of tanks. To say that there is a bit of political commentary in this movie is understating things — there are explicit parallels with Iraq and Abu Ghraib, not to mention some domestic British issues.

If you don’t mind that kind of thing you may well enjoy the movie. Cuaron creates a convincingly dismal and dismally plausible dystopia, with just enough of today in it, although Owen’s London Olympics sweatshirt may be a gag too far. His direction favours lots of flashy very long takes, but this doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is thoroughly well-acted by people like Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Sir Michael Caine. If the ending is a bit inconclusive, well, so’s the one in the book. This is a good and thought-provoking movie, even if it is a bit crashingly unsubtle in places.

Arriving from the near future (late December, to be precise) comes the war movie Flags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood (so it’s a thoughtful sort of war movie). When I say this movie is concerned with the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody clash near the end of the Pacific War, you will understand why I suspect it hasn’t done very well over here, well-made though it undoubtedly is. The Japanese are not actually demonised as such, but it remains unavoidably the case that a major plot point concerns them horribly killing a likeable character played by Jamie Bell. I was uncomfortably aware I was the only European in the theatre when I saw this movie — I nearly shouted ‘now you know how it feels when we watch Mel Gibson movies in England!’ but I thought better of it.

Anyway, the movie goes back and forth between the battle (lavishly recreated) — specifically the famous raising of the American flag atop the island — and the fates of the flag raisers when they are flown home to participate in a drive to raise money for the war effort.

This is a rather slow and worthy movie, but hey — it could have been another drum-beating embarassment like Pearl Harbor, so let’s not complain. The cast features a mixture of established young stars like Ryan Phillipe and Paul Hunter and relative unknowns like Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (who’s particularly good), together with older performers like Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough. Without being too specific, the movie makes various wise points about the difference between the myths and realities of war and the effect this can have on the participants when they return home. I suspect you actually have to be American to fully get this film, in the same way you have to be Catholic to really get The Exorcist, but I found it to be thoroughly engrossing and as well-made as one would expect from a Clint Eastwood project. I predict nominations and maybe even the odd actual Oscar.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 4th March 2004:

It’s over ten years since Clint Eastwood’s long service and considerable skills both as an actor and director were justly rewarded by the Oscars awarded to Unforgiven. Clint has, of course, kept working as solidly as ever since then, but the honest truth is that (with the odd exception) the actual movies haven’t really been anything special.

However, this run of mediocre films has been broken in impressive style with Mystic River, a crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in Boston, it’s the story of trio of men, once childhood friends, who are brought together by violence and tragedy. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a semi-reformed criminal and tough guy, a devoted family man. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective, struggling after his wife has left him. And Dave (Tim Robbins) is a man left with permanent psychological scars after being kidnapped and abused as a child. When Jimmy’s teenaged daughter is murdered, Sean finds he and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) have been assigned to the case, while Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) finds herself having terrible suspicions about just what her husband was doing on the night of the killing…

Yes, well, not a lot of laughs in this one (and a total absence of performing orang-utans too). But don’t let that put you off, as this is an utterly engrossing and thought-provoking film built with scarcely a dud performance anywhere in it. The plot is complex, with a lot of back-story, most of which emerges through the minutae of the police investigation – but it’s never confusing or contrived. The other main strand of the film concerns Penn coming to terms with the death of his daughter and the growing suspicions surrounding Robbins’ character. It’s more emotionally involving, but equally absorbing, and the two complement each other perfectly.

I’m always slightly wary of films which set out to make serious points and send messages to the audience, but Mystic River manages to do this subtly and calmly. It’s interesting that Clint Eastwood, an actor for many years synonymous with a certain kind of cinematic violence (and whose primary big-screen persona was basically that of Angel of Death) has chosen to make a film suffused with a tremendous dread of and hatred for violence of all kinds. Violence causes violence, the story suggests, resulting in people trapped in a cycle of anger and revenge out of which good can never come. It’s a grim moral, and this is an intense and often brooding film, but it’s also a compulsively watchable one.

Clint’s direction is appropriately unflashy for the most part, and he does sterling double-duty as composer of a low-key but very effective soundtrack. But he must surely take some of the credit for a welter of superb performances from virtually the entire principle cast. Robbins exudes a strange shambling menace as the emotionally damaged Dave, Marcia Gay Harden is outstanding as his wife (and if you ask me deserved to win the Oscar eventually picked up by Renee Zellweger), and Penn is never less than utterly convincing as Jimmy, a man virtually unhinged by grief and rage. Some of these performances are perhaps a little obvious and mannered, but no less praiseworthy for that.

Mystic River perhaps outstays its welcome a bit, and the slightly odd, ambiguous ending will not be to everyone’s taste. But it is a superb drama, tightly written and brilliantly performed, and thoroughly deserving of your attention. I think it bears comparison with the best of Clint Eastwood’s past work, and is also a major piece of evidence for those who would claim that his achievements as a director far surpass those of his acting career. Highly recommended.

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