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Clint Eastwood

Review: High Plains Drifter

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

As a director, Clint Eastwood cannot be simply written off as mindlessly imitative. He is far too intelligent in his eclectic appreciation of what works in the films of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Eastwood has not yet subsumed what he has learned from his mentors into a coherent vision of his own. Thus, High Plains Drifter, like Play Misty for Me, occasionally promises more than it cumulatively delivers. Eastwood’s main problem here—both as director and as actor—is that he never quite gets together how he wants to come at a story which must wed a Leone-like revenge motif with a scathingly satirical examination of a town inhabited by rejects from High Noon. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name carried within his very character implicit hints of more-than-human motivation, so that at times he resembled nothing so much as a warrior Christ. Eastwood clearly had his former role in mind when he made High Plains Drifter, but that doesn’t save him from alternately overemphasizing his demonic hero’s supernatural origins and almost completely losing sight of them as he begins to focus more and more on his blackly humorous exposure of the town of Lago’s communal sins and deceits.

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Review: Magnum Force

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Don Siegel he’s not, but in this sequel to Dirty Harry Ted Post has directed his first middlin’-good feature film. A Gunsmoke–Have Gun, Will Travel regular in the half-hour heyday of those series, Post has done less-than-promising work for the big screen: Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment. Someone—not necessarily Post—has been attentive to those critics of Harry who cried “Fascism!” and has programmatically set out to do a film with Clint Eastwood/Harry Callahan against some avowed fascists—or perhaps we must say superfascists since Harry himself still casually avows “There’s nothing wrong with shooting—just so the right people get shot.” And indeed, Eastwood’s own integrity as an actor and as a mythic figure remains untarnished: Magnum Force is the first non-Leone, non-Siegel, non-Eastwood picture in which he manifests some real style instead of sleepwalking into place to pose for the one-sheets.

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Review: Sully

Tom Hanks in 'Sully'
Tom Hanks in ‘Sully’

The opening sequence of Sully is a nightmare: a damaged airplane crashes in New York City. The dreamer wakes and sits up in bed, panting in the dark. He turns his head slightly, and his eyes are softly illuminated by a little band of light. This is an old-movie technique that goes back to the silent days; it’s as simple as it is effective.

The old-fashioned touch indicates the preferred method of director Clint Eastwood, who has crafted an admirably trim, plain film out of a very square subject. Because Sully chronicles the 2009 Hudson River landing executed by US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by a white-haired Tom Hanks), the film requires one big sequence of digital spectacle: the six minutes of flying that took Sullenberger’s passenger jet from LaGuardia Airport to the surface of the Hudson on a freezing January day. (Two minutes into the flight, the plane’s engines were disabled by contact with a flock of geese.) But the majority of the movie is utterly unadorned—mostly shots of people walking and talking in nondescript hotels and generic conference rooms.

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Review: Breezy

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Breezy confirms the fitful but definite promise of Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter: Clint Eastwood can direct. Not brilliantly—at this point, anyway—but intelligently, and with conviction to spare. Conviction has a lot to do with the success of his third film, a movie one has only to synopsize in order to appreciate its bountiful capacity for ending up something dreadful: footloose hippie with big dark eyes, a funky hat, and a guitar keeps getting entangled with middleaged, joyless-playboy divorcé in real estate; she decides she loves him, he decides he “can’t cope” with loving her, they part, and an endearingly disproportionate dog reunites them. You can cut yourself off a generous portion of skepticism and still be won over by the cliché-trampling sincerity of Kay Lenz and William Holden in the respective roles. Eastwood himself stays offscreen this time (save for a brief atmosphere bit in longshot) and perhaps that helped his directorial concentration. Yet in another sense one almost feels his presence in the unforced sympathy he brings to both the young representatives of the counterculture (Breezy’s nicely characterized pals as well as the girl herself) and the well-preserved, semi-sporty, but distinctly middleaged lovers and other strangers Holden shares his California lifestyle with (Eastwood, almost incredibly, is pushing 50). It was by no means a given that Holden’s silvering hair and creased face should play off so movingly against Kai Lenz’s breathtakingly tawny-sleek flesh and clear eyes; shot after shot unobtrusively defines their awakening to a kind of mutual knowledge beyond facile paraphrase, and when Holden turns to Lenz in the night after recounting the failure of his marriage and fairly gasps, “You’re so incredibly new!”—well, it’s a considerably more awesome moment than anyone would have expected from a one-time cattle drover on Friday night CBS.

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Film Review: ‘American Sniper’

Bradley Cooper

There was a time when American Sniper would’ve been an ideal Oliver Stone project—a story of the battlefield and the homefront, of ideals and damage. Its subject is Chris Kyle, the sharpshooter whose action in four Iraq War tours reportedly made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. A Texas rodeo rider before he joined the Navy SEALs, Kyle was nicknamed “Legend” by his fellow soldiers and the “Devil of Ramadi” by Iraqi fighters. His life had a lurid ending—a terrible irony that reframes his story in a larger context of troubled veterans and PTSD.

Imagine Oliver Stone’s high-strung emotionalism and blunt-force style brought to bear on this scenario. Now imagine its opposite: That’s Clint Eastwood’s deliberately neutral take on the material, a measured directorial approach that is likely to disappoint those looking for either a patriotic tribute to the troops or a critique of war and its effects.

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Review: The Eiger Sanction

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Clint Eastwood does his own mountain-climbing rightly enough, as a camera swooping out from closeup to acrophobic helicopter longshot verifies time and again. One tight-lipped smile of appreciation for that, and little remains to be said in favor of Eastwood’s fourth directorial outing. From the behind-the-credits sequence of an unidentifiable supporting player ambling through some locations-for-locations’-sake European streets, The Eiger Sanction lacks shape, rhythm, and any notable tone or point-of-view. Its grotesques—Thayer David as a 100-percent albino named Dragon who directs an international Murder Inc. from a secret red-lit room, George Kennedy as a hot-damn-buddy Western type, and Jack Cassidy as a patently treacherous faggot—are (un)directed so broadly, yet without a true sense of outrageousness, that one is inclined to feel sympathy for the performers (though only Kennedy seems to deserve any). More ordinary sorts are blatantly set up over and over to be knocked down by an incredibly predictable putdown script (Gregory Walcott, as a Dragon man who keeps rubbing Eastwood the wrong way, is such a clod that the only thing conceivably dangerous about the character is his incompetence as a tough guy). After sharing with us his own amusement at being proffered as a professor of art history who has retired from the killing game in order to enjoy the stash of masterworks bought with his ill-gotten gains, Eastwood walks uninterestingly through the rest of his part, counting on the uninflected slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am machismo that didn’t see him through High Plains Drifter either; on the evidence of his second and fourth films (he didn’t take a role in Breezy and I’d appreciate a chance to reconsider Play Misty for Me), he should leave the direction of himself to other people. The story involves the Eastwood character in one of those murky internecine projects wherein, by the time the action has run its course, we’ve had it demonstrated ad nauseam that the potentiality for betrayal is inherent in any relationship a truism that has been worked out more scrupulously in other thrillers where the conclusion didn’t seem so foregone.
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Film Review: ‘Jersey Boys’

Christopher Walken

They didn’t have a member die in a plane crash or overdose on drugs, so the backstage saga of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons mostly remained out of the public eye. Until, of course, the 2005 Broadway smash Jersey Boys, a still-running musical that revealed a few genuinely colorful tales lurking in the backstory of the falsetto-driven vocal group. That property comes to the screen under the calm guidance of director Clint Eastwood—and though more a jazz man, he appears to have responded to the late-’50s/early-’60s period and the ironies beneath this success story.

Turns out the original members of the Four Seasons emerged from a milieu not far removed from the wiseguy world of GoodFellas—a comparison that becomes delightfully concrete in one of the story’s revelations.

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Blu-ray: ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’

There’s something of a shaggy dog story quality to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), the offbeat road movie / caper film starring Clint Eastwood as Thunderbolt, an ex-thief on the run from his former partners, and Jeff Bridges as a hotshot kid who calls himself Lightfoot and decides to become this flinty veteran’s sidekick. It was the directorial debut of Michael Cimino, who wrote the original screenplay. Eastwood had initially intended to direct it himself but was impressed enough by Cimino’s work co-writing Magnum Force that he gave the young filmmaker a chance to take the helm. Cimino directs the film as a mix of character piece and lighthearted crime story with dark shadows around the edges, taking his time through the twists to hang out with his odd couple heroes.

Cimino introduces the two characters in tandem in the opening scene: Eastwood playing preacher in a rural Midwest church while Bridges (dressed in a pair of black leather pants) smiles his way into the seat of a Trans Am on a used car lot. Before the sermon is over, a gunman (George Kennedy) steps into the church and opens fire on Eastwood’s minister, who takes cover and makes his break with the calm focus of a man who is no stranger to such situations. As he runs from his would-be assassin, Lightfoot revs the engine and then takes off from the lot, leaving the salesman in a cloud of dust and confusion, and he inadvertently ends up playing getaway driver for Thunderbolt. A partnership is born of the chance meeting and Lightfoot clings to his reluctant new friend and mentor as they hit the road.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

It isn’t too likely that a U.S. Senator would arrange the mass murder of several bands of Confederate renegades after their postwar surrender; less likely still that he would himself be present at the grisly deed; and least likely of all that the ex-Confederate officer charged with rounding up and bringing in the guerrillas would, upon watching the massacre, have no more to say than “Dammit, Senator, you told me those men would be decently treated!” There are only two ways to take an outrageously implausible story and turn it into the Winning of the West; and if you don’t have the audacity of a Sergio Leone you might just get by with the humble, trusting naïveté of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has demonstrated, over the past few years, a steadily decreasing tendency to imitate his mentors (most notably Siegel and Leone) as he continues to develop a style of his own. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the directorial style of another western legend who got behind the camera, John Wayne, in its penchant for relying on explicit, often moralistic dialogue, on larger-than-life heroes and villains (often viewed from low angles), and on the instant, positive expressiveness of a powerful screen presence (Eastwood’s own) more than acting versatility or directorial imagination.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie covers a lot of territory and glimpses a large enough cross-section of Western character types, Leone-ish villains, and just plain folks to fill an album of rare and intriguing daguerreotypes. People getting mixed up with and along with one another travel through raw frontier country, seemingly dissociated in their respective enterprises—running away from fascistic Yankee vigilantes, looking for new suckers to buy patent medicine, following a dream of a milk-and-honey land (described in a loving son’s letters) and ending up in a boom town gone bad, repaying the debt of a life saved with unflagging allegiance to the “outlaw” who saved it—but their variety and amicably contrary professions and predilections are among the film’s most likable features. As Josey Wales (Eastwood) moves from that richly colored, deep-wooded Missouri hills country to arid parts west beneath skies brushed a thin blue, where an abundance of rocky places accommodate the likes of bandits, Comanche, and the frontier flotsam of dying boom towns, one begins to feel that the landscapes of the movie are as various as Eastwood’s veritable throng of characters. The progression from East to West, from the cypress-dripping South of Siegel’s and Eastwood’s The Beguiled to starker outcroppings of men and stone that characterize a contemporary Western like Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid seems as natural as the accumulation of humankind that marks Wales’ journey.

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Review: The Enforcer

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

James Fargo’s The Enforcer, with Clint Eastwood billed as “the Dirtiest Harry of them all,” also makes him the limpest, and represents the deterioration of the Dirty Harry Formula—if indeed there ever was such a thing.

Donald Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) told a many-layered story built around two men “above society”: Scorpio, a homicidal maniac whose madness figuratively puts him above society even as Siegel’s camera and mise-en-scène place him there visually, and Inspector Harry Callahan, who is set apart by his badge, the emblem that begins and ends the film. Contrary to the report of many who reviewed the Siegel film, Harry is no cold blooded, fascist executioner. He is sensitive, feels responsibility, takes unto himself the guilt for the inadequacies of the System and its failure to provide proper protection for the people. It is the clash of his individual morality (more that of guardian than vigilante) with the complex sociopolitical realities of the world around him that really informs Siegel’s film, and culminates in Harry’s throwing away his badge and walking into the distance behind the final credits to become one of “the little guys.” Guided by Siegel, one agrees with Harry’s impatience at a System musclebound by its own laws and procedures; yet one also understands the legitimate concern of people like the Chief of Police, the D.A. and the Mayor, and knows that Harry’s impetuousness, however effective in the Scorpio manhunt, would be grotesquely inappropriate in most police work.

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Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]

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A Fistful of Dollars

Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was American—what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwood—true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the Cinecittà interiors. And the faces of the supporting cast—swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selections—became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.

A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categories—director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.

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Review: Bronco Billy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Clint Eastwood’s seventh excursion as director takes a stab at the territory of rustic fun, presumably as a follow-up to James Fargo’s Eastwood-starred Every Which Way But Loose. The problem is that the screenplay for Bronco Billy, which details the adventures of a modern-day cowboy and his tatterdemalion crew of helpmates in a threadbare touring Wild West show, is a ramshackle thing: poorly plotted, sloppily constructed, and teetering off into confusion halfway through – something from which the film doesn’t recover till the very end. That the movie nonetheless affords a moderate amount of entertainment, and seems in the memory to have given pleasure even though one might not recall the storyline, is due to the direction and the performers. It’s a perilous thing for any film to depend on sheer niceness to carry it through, but Bronco Billy just about manages it.

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Review: Bronco Billy

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

For his summer 1980 film, Clint Eastwood has chosen a sentimental, often corny script that layers screwball comedy conventions over the meanderings of a band of misfits who make a lifestyle, if not a living, out of being what they want rather than what they are. The script is the film’s greatest weakness, with its labored exposition, unmotivated dialogue, repetition without variation, insistent moralism, and tired rehashings of the bored-rich-girl-who-needs-a-good-screwing and living-sanely-in-an-insane-world clichés. But Bronco Billy’s aggressive sincerity overcomes the script’s problems. The notion of a band of drifters and dreamers, recalling Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Christmas 1978’s James Fargo–directed Eastwood hit Every Which Way But Loose, again provides an excuse for impromptu zaniness while pushing many of the same thematic buttons: menacing lawmen; the emptiness of wealth; the pre-eminence of the independent, self-motivated American; barroom brawls and good ol’ boys; the celebration of old-time chivalry (Bronco Billy as a Lone Ranger without a mask) and of strong women who deserve their men—in short, the reaffirmation of the same values upheld in country music and in the classic Western movie.

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