Eastwood is something of a cinematic oddity. An iconic performer who remains the only individual in Hollywood who can actively remember working within the studio system. He is liberal (to a degree) in his social views, and will often cast non-‘conventional’ performers alongside him, but personally, often portrays highly authoritarian individuals. He is an accomplished melodic composer, often providing the main themes to his movies. He unfussily produces movies (not always a benefit – J. Edgar (2011) in particular would have benefitted from a few extra takes), and over nearly fifty years, directed a body of meticulously enjoyable films. He also remains one those actors who I love as much as my dad, and that bond is something quite special.
So here we go, my top five Clint Eastwood films that he either directed or starred in.
- Play Misty for Me (1971 – Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s directorial debut prefigures every unsettling friend request, every unwanted text we have ever received in our lives. It’s a profoundly disturbing film as it explores the unintended consequences of a single rash decision. It’s a warning note to impulsiveness. I have a huge amount of affection for Eastwood’s hair in this film, but even that is second to the magnificently disturbing portrayal of irrationality and obsessiveness by Jessica Walter. Always seek out the more unhinged U.S. cut if possible.
- Pale Rider (1985 – Clint Eastwood)
The only decent Western of the eighties, Pale Rider is Eastwood’s second attempt at playing an avatar of death after his sophomoric directorial effort High Plains Drifter (1972). Eastwood’s symbolic portrayal within the genre in Leone’s Dollars trilogy is venerated, but in his own directorial efforts, he sought to show how hollow many of the assumptions of the genre were. The landscape was decayed and individuals were without honour. By playing Death, Eastwood was underlining how the genre only really operated on the casual cruelties individual selfishness wrought upon burgeoning societies. There is a bittersweetness to this film, one that transcends Unforgiven (1992), in the decision to have a young girl (Sydney Penny) fall in love with Death, a piercing demonstration of the hopelessness of our attractions.
- The Beguiled (1970 – Don Siegel)
I’ve written about this film before (https://asidesteps.com/2016/04/01/the-beguiled-1971-don-seigel/) but feel I fouled up in my condemnation of the sexual politics of the film (and placed far too much anticipatory faith in Sofia Coppola to redeem it in her own version). Whilst it can be distasteful at times in its portrayal of women, they are all presented with agency and intelligence, two characteristics that cannot substantially be attributed to Eastwood’s creepy Union soldier. His initial flattering of Mae Mercer’s Hallie turns quickly to sexual intimidation and bigotry once he loses his position of power. It reveals the shaky foundations (and lack of real conviction) that fuel many ‘progressive’ campaigns. In itself, this a relationship of real complexity and interest, however superficially frustrating it may appear, and the film deserved better than my ‘woke’ original condemnation.
- The Eiger Sanction (1975 – Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s seventies spy thriller rises above the grungy aesthetics and dodgy sexual politics of its decade on the strength of its final third. There is something about rock climbing that is utterly terrifying on the big screen – think of the opening to M:I-2 (2000 – John Woo) or the closing sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen). Perhaps it is the knowledge that genuine risk is involved in the production. Perhaps it is that cinema has always had a powerful depth-of-field and that this is only enhanced with heights. Nail-bitingly terrifying, Eastwood’s ascent is a sequence you cannot tear yourself away from.
- The Bridges of Madison County (1993 – Clint Eastwood)
Often overshadowed by the admittedly towering achievement of Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County stands testament to complete mastery Eastwood has over the form. Where the former film relies on Eastwood’s iconicity as a movie star, Bridges brings together his plaintive simplicity of melody, his mastery of tension within drama, and his quiet everyday control of restraint performance. The moment where he sits in his car, the rain battering the windshield, desperately deciding whether to throw away his life or live with regret is burned into my memory. I can recall his hand clutching the door handle as vividly as I recall many of my birthdays. It is a moment so understated that most directors would mess it up. But Eastwood has an understanding of how tiny gestures of movement and expression are explosive on the big screen.
(A Perfect World (1992) – relies on a similar control on performance, this time from Kevin Costner, and is just as affecting.)
When I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016 – Dan Trachtenberg) I really liked it. It had fantastic central performances and it genuinely kept me guessing up until the final fifteen minutes. The tediousness of the final sequence almost, almost, ruins what has gone before. So why feature them at all. Why is there a need to tie an enjoyable movie so tenuously to a forgettable film from the previous decade? Are we that desperate that everything has to be a franchise.
J. Abrams produced 10 Cloverfield Lane. He made the decision to tie a standalone spec script called The Cellar into an established property in order to increase its chances of box-office success. It’s a mercenary move. Similarly, Super 8 was the result of shmushing together an alien invasion movie and an idea about children making home movies into one film. This is the reason why Abrams is a powerful player in Hollywood and not just another script doctor.
Because as a writer, he’s okay. He has a good grasp of character, and there is the necessary tidiness of plot that comes from mainstream filmmaking. His themes are digestible. But Abrams is a writer who is witty rather than funny. Anyone half-decent can write a witty line; movies are full of characters who sound the same and have razor sharp back-and-forths with each other. But funny? Funny, as in it goes beyond language funny… that’s another thing. This isn’t a slight; he’s a talented writer, miles better than many of his contemporaries. But there is no desire in him to write anything in the slightest bit dangerous.
(He is also susceptible to one of my least favourite tropes of script writing, the geek getting the hot girl. These are symptoms of the writer revealed. The geeks, often frustratingly, but safely awkward, are typically ‘nice’ guys, but in Hollywood, quite unlike real life, they end up with a considerably more attractive partner. And I get it. Because it’s true for these screenwriters. They were nerds in school who moved to Hollywood and married a beautiful actress. But it doesn’t quite ring true for a wider society.)
Despite opening on an image that could easily be the start of an episode of The Simpsons, Super 8 is a narratively comfortable story of childhood friendships. It is heavily indebted to, and nostalgic for, the films directed and produced by Steven Spielberg in the eighties. The only slight difference being that Abrams wants to explore our relationships with our fathers in a way that Spielberg had no interest in. By his third film, Abrams has a more sedate approach to directing. There still is an awful lot of needlessly intrusive lens flare, but Abrams is more content to pull back the camera, focus on long shots, and allow the dialogue sequences to play out within a landscape. Until the action scenes, where his habitual Dutch angles and swooping field of vision come into play.
But after three of these films, it becomes apparent that Abrams just doesn’t trust us as an audience. There are scenes in the film that move away from the children’s point-of-view, allowing us to clearly understand certain motives. It ensures we have easily identifiable bad-guys. There is no space in these movies for our imagination; everything has to be explained to us. It’s and unsubtle, and slightly insulting approach to movie making and makes us feel less like a communicant in cinema and more like a customer. Movies are meant to be magical. They’re meant to evoke semi-religious feelings inside us, as we participate in a whole other life, world or perspective. Abrams has little interest in this, and is content to spoon-feed us brief moments of enjoyment.
As I watch his films I do appreciate the gifts that he has. He is not a hack. But his movies are safe and contained. They never play in the theatre of our minds. Children ran out and played The Goonies (1985 – Richard Donner) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982 – Steven Spielberg) in their back gardens and local parks. No one could, even if they wanted to, play Super 8. There’s no space for imagining.
Twice in the last twelve months have my energy bills gone up, and this is with no significant change in oil wholesale prices. I moan about this, because it highlights the cruelty corporations will inflict upon working people in order to make profit for its major shareholders. Housing is not a luxury; it is a necessity. The fact that this necessity is exploited, and that individuals rarely even complain or resist such exploitation, is significant. Most people choose to blame society’s ills upon those people living off benefits. It strikes me that we have lost a degree of humanity when we choose to attack another human being rather than a faceless corporation. It’s an argument that not all people appreciate at the photocopier at 8:30am on a Monday morning…
Resident Evil: Apocalypse pushes the insidious Umbrella Corporation to the forefront; they are clearly responsible for monetarising healthcare and denying ordinary civilians health, security and justice. As such, the zombies become positioned as easy targets – they are people, nominally like us, yet different in small, but significant, ways. George Romero’s greatest strength in his zombie films, particularly in the abandoned second trilogy that began in Diary of the Dead (2007), was to accept that the zombies were a unique lifeform in and of themselves. He began to explore the consequences of humanity sharing this planet with another lifeform, albeit one that was predatory. There is little such exploration in the Resident Evil films, the series instead choosing to present a streaming mass of villains, as a hostile ‘other’. They become the ignorance of man; our inability to understand the ‘other’ and subsequently treat them as fodder.
Apocalypse moves away from the sterile, almost futuristic laboratory setting of the first film and into more traditional landscapes. This is a horror/action picture set in abandoned churches and schools and graveyards. It is a safer terrain; a less intimidating aesthetic to an audience primed on an endless stream of horror movies. There are a few nods made to the videogame origins of the series – such as some fairly pedestrian first-person visuals – but largely, this is a fairly standard piece of genre filmmaking. It lacks the visual strangeness that Paul W. S. Anderson brought to his instalment.
- At this point the series begins to position Milla Jovovich as iconic. From now on, the franchise will take every opportunity to show her, legs astride, arms locked out in front, two pistols in hand.
- Frustratingly, this film has more tedious endings that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003 – Peter Jackson).
Resident Evil rankings:
- Resident Evil
- Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Baby Driver (2017 – Edgar Wright)
One of those films that gets inordinately over-praised because it is an ‘original idea’, Baby Driver had a few decent car chases (but don’t get carried away – these weren’t anything special) and a jukebox, almost musical, feel to the soundtrack. But aside from Jamie Foxx, the film struggled to find a single decent, engaging performance. Kevin Spacey sleep-walked, John Hamm was woefully out-of-his-depth (the man is little more than a small-screen actor) and Lily James took a role that could have been performed by any one of the attractive, capable performers that flood into Hollywood. But most egregious was the central performance from… christ, I can’t remember his name. And I am tempted to google it – as I have been tempted to research as to why exactly he was foisted upon us, given that I have never seen him before (is he on telly or something?) – but I can’t find the willpower, given how irritating his performance was. Much is made out of the fact that ‘Baby’ doesn’t talk much, but the reality of the film was that he wouldn’t shut up. His performance was needy and inhuman, so committed was he to dancing and prancing and posing in any conceivable situation.
In short; there was a much better film here if only there had been a decent cast.
Seen on a large screen at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost £11 or so.
Song to Song (2017 – Terrence Malick)
In the UK this film has only been released for a two-week engagement on one solitary screen in London… so of course I went to see it.
By now, the critics have turned on Malick, and with the same level of predictability, a few lone voices have rushed to his defence. Both groups are as frustrating as the other, because this was a moderately engaging film that seemed to explore two ideas with a degree of inscrutable intensity. Firstly, that it takes an awful long time to figure out who you are, what your values are, and how you want to live in the modern world. And that secondly, during this process of figuring yourself out, you will make some compromises that you will live to regret.
Now, neither of those ideas are particularly earth-shattering. Nor are they permissible by those who see themselves surrounded by a generation of fecklessly indulgent millennials getting very passionate about various meaningless ideals (foremost of which are their own identities. Second of which is Buffy feminist?). But they are truthful (if not particularly honest) ideas, and this film, clearly suffering from Malick’s usual affectations, excavated them within a non-linear, but easily pieced together, narrative. I liked it.
(Plus, I took the day off work to see it, and movies are always better when you are playing truant.)
Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £4.50.
The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)
There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest. I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent. But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors. It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost about £8.50. 35mm screening – a lovely print (that called it Mad Max 2)
The Warriors (1979 – Walter Hill)
Wonderful to see, not least because I’d only ever seen Walter Hill’s very silly director’s cut before. The heightened horror of New York City felt more and more perverse on the big screen… though I can’t help but feel that the ending just comes out of nowhere. It almost feels like the budget just ran out at some point. It doesn’t hold the same passion for me as some of Hill’s contemporaneous works, but it was still a delightful hour-and-a-half.
Seen immediately after the above on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £8.50, though why this wasn’t a double bill, I don’t know. 35mm screening and a lovely print.
The Beguiled (2017 – Sofia Coppola)
I had, rather shamefully, put an awful lot of hope into this film, such was my mealy-minded dismissal of some of the sexual politics at play in Don Seigel’s version of the same film. But those criticisms (available here) were shallow in their thinking, and susceptible to the quick condemnation of art that plagues my generation.
Because those hopes were ultimately misguided. This was a beautiful film, and full of some rich performances, but it was a superficial affair. Coppola displayed little inclination to examine any of the sexual (or indeed, racial) politics that are inherent to the set-up. Moments of heighted tension in the original film, such as the visit from the confederate soldiers and the destruction of the tortoise, seemed limp and lacklustre in this version. A beautiful waste.
Seen on one of the small, but still bigger than most, screens at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost £9.
Dune (1984 – David Lynch)
You’re struck by just how fully realised the world the Lynch created on screen. It may be a little ridiculous in places, but you never feel that any performance or detail of set design is drawing attention to the unreality of it all. Everyone is fully committed to the world; a world that is clearly as much of a nightmare as the one presented in Eraserhead (1977 – David Lynch). This is not true of most science-fiction. These kinds of stories rely on an almost biblical sense of prophecy and world-building, and Dune is no exception. So much time is spent establishing the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, that his ultimate fulfilment of his potential seems a little rushed. It’s a film that makes you pine for a series of increasingly desperate sequels.
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £11. 70mm screening!
Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick)
I was very hungover when I saw this.
(Which is to say that it remains my favourite Kubrick, but the uncomfortable exploration of sexual desire that haunts this film was lost on me as I fell asleep on several occasions whilst watching the film. What I will say is that the quickly issued dismissals of certain affected aspects of Kubrick’s style, such as his use of rear projection, were almost unnoticeable when viewed on a big screen from a celluloid projection. It’s one of those many instances where the clarity of home viewing, and the easily accessible pause button, do no favours to a film.)
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £8 or so. 35mm screening – lovely print.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 – Matt Reeves)
Planet = good
Beneath = brilliant lunacy
Escape = bit dull
Conquest = oooh, this is really quite good
Battle = yawn
Planet = affection for, given this is the first one I saw in the cinema
Rise = much, much better than it deserved to be
Dawn = awful hideous mess
And now War which was pretty decent, but no matter how good the CGI gets, and no matter how manipulative the plots of these movies are, I can’t help but get distracted by the fact that I am watching a bunch of cartoon monkeys on screen. I suppose that at the end of the day I am going to root for a drunk, malicious Woody Harrelson over a bunch of anthropomorphic pixels. He’s a better special effect at the end of the day.
Seen on a medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost 6.50.
My Cousin Rachel (2017 – Roger Michell)
Another film dampened by a particularly wet performance – this time from some overpromoted posh boy actor (whose name is also not worth looking up) – who struggles to bring any shade to his character. This is all that more pathetic when you consider that he essentially wants to sleep with his mum. It is the weakness of the film that his character is placed at its centre, when the interesting person is Rachel Weisz’s eponymous cousin Rachel. Indeed, Roger Michell’s (an above average director who always includes at least one breath-taking sequence in each of his films) direction only comes to life when she is on the screen. Beyond that, the film is little more than the extreme competence of mumbling yokels and lavish production design that comes with any British costume drama.
Seen on the small, but adequate screen at the Panton St. Odeon. Ticket cost £6.50.
Unstoppable (2010 – Tony Scott)
I just get really sad when I see a Tony Scott film. Because it just breaks my heart that I’ll never have a new one to see. He was (and is) my absolute favourite director, and… it’s really difficult to get this down.
Like, I accept that there will be a lot of art that I will never get on top of. I will never read all the books that I should read, or want to read. I get that there will be James Bond films made long after I die, and therefore, there will be Bond films I don’t get to see. But Tony Scott is finished. His work is accomplished. And there is part of me that desperately wants it to be unmanageable.
Because Unstoppable was so full of life and so focussed that you feel things would have started to turn around for him. The critical establishment (which had been very sniffy about the last decade of his work) would have been presented with a series of deliberate, spectacular thrillers. It felt like we were just about to enter a new phase of his work, that would have been as distinct as his 2000s work was from his nineties work.
The painterly exploration of image and editing had been mastered. And what strikes you when you see these films on the screen is how controlled the shots he uses are. He’s not cut-cut-cutting in that way that we simplify his style to; instead he only brings in the multiple camera presentation at moments of high tension, where he uses them to draw out the suspense and prolong the nervousness we feel whilst we watch the spectacle on screen.
And the film contains everything we love about him. The texture of celluloid. The verisimilitude of exact details within the production design and script. The dedication to practical effects. The central performance of such charm and charisma from Denzel Washington. It makes you wonder how some films still manage to be good without any of those ingredients.
Unstoppable is Scott’s exploration of how competence is something essential that we don’t value enough. We’re all looking for people with flair, but the reality is that it is the people who can get the job done, without fuss or arrogance, are the ones who ultimately prove to be exceptional.
Seeing this film made me go home and watch several other Tony Scott movies. Hell, I watched Man on Fire (2004) twice in two days. It’s that good. He was that good.
And god, I miss him.
Seen at the NFT screen 1 at the BFI Southbank. Ticket cost £8. 35mm screening – beautiful print.