The Outlaw Josey Wales

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series over at French Toast Sunday. It was also a suggestion for something I should watch from the 1001 Movies list from fellow French Toast Sunday member Nick “The Rehak” Rehak.
the-outlaw-josey-walesJosey Wales (Eastwood) is a small time farmer with his wife and young son, living a peaceful existence in their Missouri home. That is until one day when, whilst Josey is out ploughing the field, he hears a ruckus at his house and arrives to find a gang of hoodlums attacking the place. Josey is knocked out in the fray, and awakes to a destroyed home, a pair of bodies in need of burying and a mighty case of desired vengeance, prompting him to learn how to shoot and head off in search of the red-booted gang who took everything he loved in the world. Continue reading

Invictus

South Africa, May 1994. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was released from prison 4 years ago, and has just been elected as the country’s president. Amidst a nation-wide racial clash, Mandela believes that the key to a united country could lie within the national rugby team, the Springboks, and their captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).
Mandela’s plan, it seems, is for the Springboks – a team so despised by the black population that they instinctively root for whoever is playing against them, and who hadn’t been doing terribly well before Mandela got involved – to win the Rugby World Cup in less than a year’s time, though experts believe they’ll get no further than the quarter finals at best. The Springboks, with only one black player and a uniform of apartheid’s green and gold, find themselves in a position where their president wants them to be cheered on by the entire mixed nation, so embark on a PR campaign involving playing and teaching rugby to the poor black kids from the slums of the country. Going in, I thought his plan would have been to create a team comprised of 50% blacks and whites, thereby creating animosity as to whether the players were recruited for their skill or the colour of their skin, but in effect his plan was… nothing. Other than some inspirational speeches, standard marketing techniques, a slightly more intense training regime and an admirable cause, the aim seems to be just to will the team to win. Much like Million Dollar Baby, I could have done with some more time spent on the reasons behind the success, not simply showing it.

The subplot involving Mandela’s begrudgingly mixed race security team being forced to work together, eventually bonding over the rugby matches, was well played if predictable, but ably showed the success of the president’s plans. I’d have liked more time spent on Mandela as a person, maybe depicting his rise from prisoner to presidential candidate in an extremely racist country, as opposed to skipping through it in an all-too-brief opening montage. The man behind the title is hinted at – his broken family, way with the ladies and fondness for afternoon tea – but such a prolific, historical figures surely deserves a full biopic that doesn’t spend half it’s time on the rugby field. But then Eastwood’s recent biopic, J. Edgar, has received largely negative reviews, so there could be a reason for why he didn’t do the same here.
The closest the film comes to spectacle is in the rugby matches, and I’m no sports fan. Every modicum of emotion that can be wrought from the game has been, but those unfamiliar with it’s intricacies (I’m only just out of this category) could believe it to be simply about mid-pitch wrestling matches and kicking a ball between two posts.
Morgan Freeman has been trying to play Mandela for years, eventually getting the project off the ground with his Million Dollar Baby/Unforgiven director Clint Eastwood. He does a great job with the accent and the performance, but his casting was such an obvious choice that it dullens the impact. There is no-one else that could have portrayed the character better, and its doubtful that were someone else casting the film they’d’ve asked anyone else. If Freeman weren’t involved, the project probably never would have gone anywhere, and perhaps that’s how it should have been. Damon is good too, and it shows the notoriety of Eastwood as a director that Damon, one of the most outright and capable leading men working in Hollywood today, is willing to take a supporting role just to work with him.
Some plot points are clearly superfluous – much attention is put on Chester, the Springbok’s only black player, injuring his hamstring so he is unable to play a couple of matches – and far too much time is spent on the less interesting sports aspects over the far more captivating figurehead at the heart of the story.
Choose life 5/10

Million Dollar Baby

The second part of my Clint-Eastwood-directing-himself-and-Morgan-Freeman-in-a-supporting-role double bill see Clint take on a genre he’s never really (that I know of) looked at before, the sports movie (please feel free to let me know if he has, I’m often wrong about these things and he’s been working for an awfully long time).

If there’s two criticisms that can be lauded onto Eastwood, it’s that he doesn’t direct happy stories or portray more than one character. He’s not renowned for making lighter films with happy endings or playing people who aren’t grumpy, stoic curmudgeons with their trousers too high, and his streak continues here. I know he’s made a few lighter films (Paint Your Wagon, Every Which Way But Loose) but I haven’t seen them, and I’m guessing he plays the grumpy, stoic, possibly singing straightman to a comically messy primate who never stops annoying him. Again, please let me know if I’m wrong and recommend any films where he flashes a smile, once.

Here, Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a knowledgeable, best-there-is boxing trainer who can’t seem to get it together to be more than the owner of the run-down Hit Pit Gym. His latest fighter, Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) has a promising career ahead of him, with Frankie having gotten him almost to a title fight, but alas he leaves for a more prolific manager, leaving Frankie high and dry. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed white trash  Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has joined his gym and is looking for a trainer, though Dunn is adamant that he doesn’t train girls. Her pluck and commitment eventually wears down Dunn, assisted by persistent advice from his assistant, Morgan Freeman’s retired boxer and former recipient of Dunn’s training, Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris.


The story is a little corny and at times downright predictable. It’s clear that Maggie and Frankie will work together, each filling a void in the other’s life (Maggie’s father is dead, Frankie’s daughter has fled and refuses to acknowledge his efforts to contact her), and once they get going her rise through the ranks is unbelievable, especially as she never received any training until she was 31, but the delivery is spot-on. Heartstrings are at times shamelessly plucked, but justifiably so, and there’s a blindsided moment I genuinely didn’t see coming on first viewing. This isn’t your average rags-to-riches underdog sports movie, and it’s proud of this. There’s moments of humour, most noticeably from Dunn trying to talk to Maggie (“I’m going to try and forget the fact that you’re a girl”) and from Jay Baruchel’s simpleton wanna-be-but-never-gonna-be boxer ‘Danger’ Barch.


Swank is, expectedly, brilliant, earning her second Oscar as she all but becomes the downtrodden heroine. Her family has never stopped putting her down (look out for Garfunkel & Oates’ Riki Lindhome as her welfare-cheating sister!) but she retains a dogged sense of determination, saving up all her money from waitressing jobs where she has to steal half-eaten steaks to survive, just to buy a speedball for training. The outcome of her trying to do something nice for the family that’s never done anything for her is genuinely heartbreaking. Eastwood is good, but it’s well trodden ground for him, and Morgan Freeman is wonderfully understated – until he gets a chance to show off some moves later on.


There’s a lot to recommend about the film, but not a lot to bring you back. It’s certainly worth watching at least once, and I took a great deal away from it, but most of that was that I didn’t want to go through the harrowing gut-punch of an experience of watching it again any time soon.


Choose film 8/10

Unforgiven

The first part of my double bill of Clint-Eastwood-directing-himself-and-Morgan-Freeman-in-a-supporting-role sees the American icon define the genre that not only made him the prolific star he is, but that he has almost singlehandedly kept alive since it’s surge in popularity in the 60s and 70s; the western.
Unforgiven sees Eastwood as William Munny, a former hardened killer reformed by the love of a good women and the birth of his two children. With his wife dead and their herd of pigs stricken with fever, Munny accepts the offer from young upstart The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to kill two ruffians who cut up a whore after she laughed at one of them having a small penis. They team up with Munny’s former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and head out to the town of Big Whiskey, lorded over by Gene Hackman’s occasionally violent ‘Little’ Bill Daggett, where other hired killers, including Richard Harris’ English Bob, are also heading to claim the bounty.
Eastwood’s Munny isn’t your typical western hero. In fact, no character in this can ever be truly classed as heroic. Munny has what could politely be called a sordid past, and his desperation to honour his late wife by not succumbing to his younger urges is evident. A self proclaimed no good son of a bitch, Munny is a shadow of his former self, unable to shoot straight or even mount a horse. Freeman’s Ned has a woman at home, yet has no qualms about visiting the whorehouse in town, Schofield has his own secrets and Bob is an outright liar, gambler and killer. At times it seems that Little Bill, supposedly the villain of the piece, is possibly the most moral character here, opting not to kill the prostitute abusers in favour of fining them horses instead, with the sins he commits in the present are nothing compared to those done by Munny in the past, and his intentions are only to keep his town free from guns and violence, except from his own. I found it odd though that nothing was made of Freeman’s race, as he and his partner are the only non-white characters in the film, yet there are no even passing references when the townsfolk describe him. I’ve just realised I’m annoyed that Morgan Freeman wasn’t racially abused in a film.
The script, which did the rounds in Hollywood for 20 years before Eastwood picked it up, is pocked with sharp humour and great lines (“If I see you again, I’m just gonna start shooting and consider it self defence.”) and works not just as a study and disassembly of the westerns that came before it, but as a damn good, prime example of one itself. Harris’ English Bob has his own biographer (Saul Rubinek), whose role is to take Bob’s stories and lyricise them a little; in essence creating the cowboy myths and legends that make up the staples of the genre. It’s a film about shattered dreams and fallen heroes – the actors as much as the characters – as it’s not often you see Eastwood rolling around in pig shit, Morgan Freeman asking someone if they sleep with prostitutes or just use their hand or Lex Luthor beating the crap out of Dumbledore. It’s clear that Munny could quite easily be any one of Eastwood’s previous stoic, bitter, hard as nails cowboys who’d let themselves go for a few years.
The film deals with the seriousness of death and murder, with no post-kill smart alec quips. One characters defiant “I’ll see you in Hell, Willaim Munny,” is met only with a considered, matter of fact “Yeah.” It’s almost as prolific as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time in the West, and definitely ranks in the top 5 westerns.
Choose film 9/10

The Dollars Trilogy

Widely regarded as the first spaghetti western (actually 1959s Il Terrore dell’Olkahoma), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is at least the first important one, birthing the greatest western icon since John Wayne in Clint Eastwood’s drifter, immortalised by a hat, beard, poncho and a squint. Before Leone, Eastwood was known best for his TV western Rawhide (the theme tune of which is sung at the country and western bar in the Blues Brothers) , but this shot him into not just the Hollywood A-List, but into the pantheon of American icons as the nameless cowboy out to make a profit from a small town heading into ruin. Run by two warring families, the Baxters and the Rojos, Eastwood sees a unique opportunity (unique that is unless you’ve seen Yojimbo, from which this borrows heavily) and sets about pitting the two families against one another. Leone’s direction, only cutting a shot when he has to, combined with Ennio Morricone’s whistling score and the spectacular cinematography of a barren, bleached landscape under a harsh, unforgiving sun makes for a spectacular western steeped in both American characters and European style.
Inconceivably, Fistful’s lesser yet still unmissable semi-sequel For A Few Dollars More didn’t make it onto the list, but I watched it again anyway. This time, Eastwood’s identically attired yet still nameless drifter finds that it may be beneficial to team up with Lee Van Cleef’s rival bounty hunter to catch their latest target. Look out for Klaus Kinski as a hunchbacked member of the gang they’re chasing.
The closer to this trilogy is widely regarded as one of the best films in the world, and currently holds the number 4 spot of IMDb’s top 250. From the opening score, undoubtedly one of the greatest in cinematic history that would be my ringtone were it not Reservoir Dogs’ Little Green Bag, you can tell you’re in for something special. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly follows, as the title suggests, three men, whose lives converge around a loot of gold buried in a grave. Eastwood’s Blondie is debatably the ‘Good’, a bounty hunter returning criminals for reward, then shooting the noose when they’re hanged so he can collect it again in the next town. Eli Wallach’s Tuco is the ‘Bad’, one such vagrant Blondie hands in, and Lee Van Cleef is given short shrift as the ‘Ugly’, as hired killer Angel Eyes, who always goes through with a job he’s been paid for. Unlike the previous two films, this is not the Clint Eastwood show, and if anything Wallach, the most interesting and entertaining character, is given the most screen time as the three set out to torture, beat and murder the others for a shot at the gold. Although the plot gets lost a little in the middle, when the US Civil War takes over, but by the three-way standoff at the end any flaws are forgiven. It’s the kind of scene that just doesn’t work on paper (shot of eyes, then a gun, then feet, eyes again, repeat for 5 minutes) but is unequalled on screen, and the ending is perfect.
A Fistful of Dollars: Choose film 8/10
For a Few Dollars More: Choose film 7/10
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Choose film 9/10

Dirty Harry

Would this film have had such a cultural impact without Clint Eastwood’s performance as the eponymous San Francisco detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan? Probably not, as Eastwood’s depiction of one of cinema’s most legendary and hardest badasses is the only thing worth watching in this picture. After the infamous early scene, where Harry foils a robbery using only a .44 Magnum and one of the most quoted lines in the history of people saying something someone else said first, the action peters out, leaving a fairly standard, character driven police procedural, as Callahan attempts to solve the case of the Scorpio killer, loosely based on the real life Zodiac killer recently seen in David Fincher’s film of the same name.
The film rises a little when it detracts from the central plot – the dealing with an attempted suicide is a particular highlight, but is Eastwood’s performance and a decent script enough to watch this movie? Will I choose life, or film? Can’t tell myself in all this excitement.
Choose life 5/10

Changeling

In the spring of 1928 Walter Collins, the 9 year old son of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, restrained, passionate, focused) goes missing. Five months later, the police find a boy that matches Walter’s description, but Christine is sure that he is not her son, seeing as he is a few pounds heavier, circumcised and three inches shorter. With the help of Walter’s dentist, schoolteacher and the local pastor (John Malkovich), she begins to uncover a web of conspiracy and lies within the Los Angeles police department, so eager to have good publicity they’ll manufacture it themselves, but when she digs too deep she is shipped off to an insane asylum. Jolie remains just the right side of hysterical throughout, and Amy Ryan pulls off an outstanding but far too brief performance similar to her scene stealing role in Gone Baby Gone. The film is gripping, and the true story is at times chilling and sickening as truths begin to emerge, but I feel it would have been a more superior picture had we not discovered whether Jolie’s replacement son was the real deal or not.
Choose film 6/10