The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976). Although this film is highly regarded (Orson Welles thought it was one of the great Westerns), I see it as just another run-of-the-mill Eastwood-directed Western, not as good as Unforgiven but a watchable time-filler nonetheless. Eastwood famously took over the directing reins early on from Philip Kaufman (a much better director, for what it’s worth), which resulted in “The Eastwood Rule” (an actor can’t just fire a director and take credit for the resulting film, or something like that). There are plenty of stories about this … Kaufman’s talent may have been the problem, since Eastwood as an actor/producer had a habit of picking directors who would go along with whatever Clint wanted, and Kaufman wasn’t that kind of man. (I remember my cousin, who worked on Magnum Force, telling me that Eastwood directed the picture, while the nominal director, Ted Post, took care of the second unit.)
It’s probably apocryphal, but there’s one story about Josey Wales that speaks to Eastwood’s ability as a director, even if it’s not true. According to Wikipedia, Eastwood was frustrated about Kaufman’s attention to detail, and so at one point, when Kaufman went off to take care of some business associated with the scene then being filmed, Eastwood told the cinematographer to shoot the scene before the light got too bad. As a director, Clint Eastwood is all about shooting the scene before the light goes bad. To choose one example, Flags of Our Fathers was budgeted at $80 million and around 100 days of shooting. Eastwood brought it in for $55 million in just over 50 days of shooting. There is nothing wrong with this kind of filmmaking, and Flags of Our Fathers was a good movie. And I’m not saying that Eastwood doesn’t pay attention to details. But, at least from my outsider’s perspective, he seems to hire solid professionals who he trusts to do their jobs (including the details). I can’t imagine him doing 50 takes of a scene. I picture him taking his professional crew and professional actors with their professional script, saying “Roll ‘em!’, watching the take, and saying “that’s a take. Next!”
It should go without saying that in this, his directing style takes its lead from his acting, which has always been minimalist. Eastwood has worked hard to create a particular image, and it is usually effective, although he needs to be carefully cast. He’s an icon, not an actor. When he’s iconic in Josey Wales, he’s excellent. On those occasions when he is asked to do more, he’s something less than excellent. #761 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976). A fired-up, partisan documentary about a mine workers’ strike in Kentucky. Kopple is making propaganda here, although without the self-aggrandizing moves Michael Moore would make famous a couple of decades later. I am not the most trustworthy judge of this pro-labor film … I’ve been a union member for almost 40 years, and whatever my disagreements with my various unions, I take a kneejerk stance regarding labor issues, so there’s no way I’m going to complain just because Kopple is on the union’s side. There is some frightening footage of the miners at work (it doesn’t look like the kind of job anyone would want, and should make you think twice about the use of coal power), and a remarkable sequence where some company thugs shoot at the picketers … the camera gets knocked over, it’s a dangerous situation, but eventually the camera operator gets a clear picture of a man holding a gun out the window as he drives by. It’s cinéma vérité, emphasis on vérité. An Oscar winner for Best Documentary, and #557 on the TSPDT top 1000 list. 10/10.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Not what I expected, which was both a good thing and a bad one. It was nice to see an action movie that did more with its action scenes than just crank up the CGI and befuddle the viewer. And the pacing, which led some critics to call the film “European”, is also refreshing simply because it is different. On the other hand, Drive frequently walks a fine line between “European” and “boring”, with long periods of silence that aren’t uncomfortable but merely showy. Ryan Gosling plays Clint Eastwood, Nicolas Winding Refn plays Sergio Leone (and a bunch of other directors), Carey Mulligan stares into Ryan Gosling’s eyes, and Christina Hendricks doesn’t even turn up until the film is more than half over. The film’s R rating comes largely because of “strong brutal bloody violence”, and for once, that’s a legitimate description … the movie is not constantly violent (if it were, there wouldn’t be time for all of those moments of silence), but when the violence occurs, it is indeed strong, brutal, and bloody. Drive is not as good as some of the more rapturous reviews would have you believe, but it is a nice change of pace, Albert Brooks is terrific, and even if she doesn’t get enough screen time and she is done up to be purposely dowdy, I’ll take Christina Hendricks whenever I can. An Oscar nominee for Best Sound Editing. 7/10.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962). This week’s Creature Feature wavers between Ed Wood bad and marginally interesting. The movie makes no sense if you think about it for more than five seconds, and it rarely overcomes the limitations of its $62,000 budget. Suspense is created by the old “Something’s in the Closet” routine, and in fairness, that part works pretty well (until we finally see what’s in the closet … it’s not very scary). It’s notable for a few things that were a bit shocking for its time (the film sat on the shelf for a few years for its questionable content, and apparently didn’t turn up in the UK until a DVD release only a few years ago). The version we watched back in the day on TV was edited by several minutes to remove gore and a bit of sexual content (luckily, that stuff is back in the versions you see today). You get to see a man’s arm pulled off, you get to see exotic dancers, you get to see exotic dancers in a catfight … none of this is any good, with the possible exception of the arm coming off, since it was so unexpected. You also get Virginia Leith as “Jan in the Pan”, and the image of her head (in a pan) being kept alive is the best thing about the movie (plus Leith gets all the best lines … if you don’t believe me, check out the essay I mentioned last week, “Jan in the Pan: Soliloquies and Dyads in The Brain That Wouldn't Die”). 4/10. Next week’s Creature Feature: House on Haunted Hill.