Movie Project #24: Mystic River [2003]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Mystic River [2003]

Mystic River [2003] 
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Country: USA
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 138 minutes

In Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated drama, Mystic River, the gut-wrenching feeling of guilt hangs over the head of every major character, all because of one fateful day in Boston in the summer of 1975.

Three boys, no more than ten years old each, are playing street hockey when one of them notices a fresh batch of cement on the sidewalk. Naturally, they grab a stick and take turns writing their names in it. A man driving by notices this, stops his car and scolds the three boys. He flashes a badge and demands to give one of them a ride home to tell his mother what he was doing. Unfortunately, this man is no cop, and he abducts the poor boy as his friends watch him ride away. It isn’t until days later that the boy escapes his captors, his life forever scarred.

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Movie Project #43: For a Few Dollars More [1965]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

For a Few Dollars More [1967]

For a Few Dollars More [1967]
Director: Sergio Leone
Genre: Western
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté
Running Time: 132 minutes

I didn’t hear what the bet was.
Your life.

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy. I wrote about the first in the series, A Fistful of Dollars, earlier this year, and my initial plan was to watch both films back-to-back. This didn’t happen, but no matter — it was great to come back to the trilogy with a few months perspective.

For a Few Dollars More [1965]

Clint Eastwood once again stars as the “Man with No Name”, though he is referred to by others as Manco (meaning “one-handed/one-armed”). Manco is a bounty hunter who is pursuing El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), a ruthless bastard who is also one of the most wanted fugitives in the west. After running into Colonel Douglas Mortimer (aka “The Man in Black” played by Lee Van Cleef), another bounty hunter who is chasing El Indio, the two men decide they have a better chance to take down the fugitive and his goons by working together. Their partnership is shaky at best, as evidenced by their introduction in which they shoot each other’s hats (an amusing and effective scene), but they have a mutual respect for each other.

While A Fistful of Dollars relied solely on Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More focuses on this unlikely partnership. Eastwood is at his best here, as the poncho-wearing, cigar-chomping Manco, but Van Cleef is just as good, if not better. It’s a lot of fun watching these two legends play off each other, each one slyly trying to one-up the other. Volonté makes a formidable villain, brilliantly playing a nasty shell of a man, one who we learn more about thanks to a couple of flashback scenes. By the end, you will undoubtedly want to see him get his comeuppance.

For a Few Dollars More [1965]

All of the familiar traits from Sergio Leone are on display here — wide, panoramic landscapes, extreme close-ups, and an unforgettable score from Ennio Morricone. On the flip side, the poor voice dubbing is again noticeable and even distracting at times. No matter how many films of this manner I have seen, the dubbing takes some time to get used to.

In many ways, For a Few Dollars More builds upon what its predecessor set out to do. Seeing “The Man with No Name” team up with another bounty hunter adds an intriguing element to Leone’s Spaghetti Western, and the sheer star power of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Volonté is a sight to behold. It’s undeniably a great film, but perhaps its strongest asset is that it set the groundwork for the biggest and best entry in the trilogy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

8.5/10

 

Movie Project #27: A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]
Director: Sergio Leone
Genre: Western
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté and Marianne Koch
Runtime: 99 minutes

Let’s get this out of the way first: A Fistful of Dollars is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Yojimbo. The similarities are undeniable — essentially the swords are swapped for guns, and the setting is moved from Feudal Japan to the Old West. If you can get over that bit of information, you will find a badass western with Clint Eastwood at the top of his game.

A Fistful of Dollars jumpstarted the popularity of the Spaghetti Western genre, and it began the classic Dollars Trilogy (which also includes For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Eastwood is the lead in all three films, playing a character commonly known as “The Man With No Name”.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

In Fistful, he is also known as “Joe”, a gunfighter who enters a small border town and begins to play two feuding families against each other. On one side are the Rojo brothers led by the crazy Ramon (Gian Maria Volonté); the other, the Baxters, led by town sheriff John (Wolfgang Lukschy). Seeing their rivalry as a way to get rich, Joe sets up shop at the local saloon. The saloonkeeper, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), reaffirms his thoughts by remarking that everyone here either ends up very rich or very dead.

Watching Joe manipulate the two factions is a thing of beauty. Eastwood makes this character a total badass, a man who is in control of every situation, even in towns unknown to him. The lead character is now iconic — who can forget his poncho, the cigar chomping or constant squinting? The rest of the cast do well in their roles, but their audio is dubbed over since the actors were all speaking their lines in different languages. This disconnection is a bit jarring at first, but I was so entranced by the action on screen that it didn’t bother me as much as it might for others.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

A Fistful of Dollars could perhaps best be described as “bite size” Leone. The film has many of the same techniques that he would perfect in his later westerns (i.e. wide screen camera angles and extreme closeups), but it is significantly shorter than the three hour epics of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Thus, it would be much easier to take in one sitting.

Fistful holds up remarkably well today, and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is just as fantastic as ever. I had a lot of fun watching this film, and I will happily give this one a high recommendation.

9/10

Movie Project #43 and #44: Mulholland Drive [2001] and Million Dollar Baby [2004]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Mulholland Drive [2001]
Mulholland Drive [2001, David Lynch]
Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux.

I don’t know if there has been another film in my project that has lingered in my mind like Mulholland Drive. I know David Lynch is a very peculiar and often confusing director, and I was proud of myself for keeping up with everything that was happening in the movie. Well, at least until the last twenty minutes or so. That’s when shit hit the fan and I suddenly became lost. Thanks to some theorizing with others and with the help of Wikipedia’s extensive encyclopedic entry, I gained a better understanding of what the hell was going on near the end. With everything in perspective, the movie almost made sense.

Mulholland Drive is very much a hate it or love it type film, as evidenced by my girlfriend’s remarks of frustration as the credits rolled. Lynch’s works certainly aren’t for everyone, but I have a fond connection to his quirks and eccentricities. Nothing is ever as it seems, but it’s hard not to remain fascinated even as you remain clueless. This is particularly true with Mulholland Drive, and I felt that the movie kept getting better and better as it went along. Just doing this brief writeup has made me want to watch it again, this time to pick up on hints that I know I missed the first time around. That, to me, is the sign of a damn good film. 8.5/10

Million Dollar Baby [2004]
Million Dollar Baby [2004, Clint Eastwood]
Starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman.

I was a little disappointed that I already knew the big “twist” near the end of Million Dollar Baby. I had heard others discussing it after its release, and I was mildly worried that it would ruin my movie watching experience. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all. Watching Hillary Swank rise through the ranks from white trash waitress to a badass boxing machine was a lot of fun. The boxing scenes in particular were very impressive and felt authentic. While I knew not to expect a happy ending, I almost wish the movie went in a different direction, as the last 20-30 minutes were completely different from the rest of the film. It was a jarring transition, even though it was handled with care.

Still, there’s a lot that I liked about Million Dollar Baby. As far as sports films go, this is one of the better ones. It certainly helps that Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are in excellent form here, with the latter doing his trademark narration as well. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say this is the best picture of 2004, but it is definitely a good one, and I am glad I decided to watch it despite knowing the outcome. 8/10

Movie Project #22 and #23: Zodiac [2007] and Unforgiven [1992]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Zodiac [2007]
Zodiac [2007, Fincher]
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo

Zodiac is one of the only David Fincher films that I hadn’t seen, and I was particularly intrigued by its strong cast and dark subject matter. The movie revolves around the infamous Zodiac killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. While the cast is extensive, the story focuses mainly on those working to find the killer and reveal his identity. Three men in particular become obsessed with the story: Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a newspaper crime reporter who is trying to decrypt the letters that the killer is sending the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), has better luck at this and becomes outright consumed with determining the Zodiac’s identity. Finally, there is Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who is officially assigned to the case. All three men reach incredible lows as the case gets the best of them. This is a story of obsession more than anything.

Zodiac is a rather exhausting film, clocking in at a whopping 157 minutes. There is certainly a lot of story to tell, and the character development is a major plus, but I still feel a good twenty minutes or so could have been removed. This issue aside, the film does a stunning job transporting viewers into the 1970s. Everything from the vintage clothing to the old muscle cars to Mark Ruffalo’s epic sideburns help encapsulate the era. Fincher’s directing, as expected, is wonderful, and the cast delivers strong performances overall. There’s a lot to like about Zodiac, but it didn’t blow me away like other Fincher films. 7.5/10

Unforgiven [1992, Eastwood]
Unforgiven [1992, Eastwood]
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

When it comes to Clint Eastwood, I still have a lot of catching up to do. I have missed out on a lot of his most well-regarded films over the years, and Unforgiven was perhaps my most glaring omission. This 1992 Best Picture winner really impressed me, and it is easily in the top three or five Western films I have ever seen. Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a reformed outlaw (and recent widow) who is persuaded to take on one last job to make money to support his two young children. He recruits his old partner-in-crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help him out, and they form a reluctant trio with a tough-talking youngster (Jaimz Woolvett). Their journey brings them to the hard-living town of Big Whiskey, where a group of prostitutes have pooled together a reward for whoever kills the two men that sliced up the face of one of their workers. The town is run with an iron fist by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a mean son-of-a-bitch who has banned all weapons from those passing by.

Unforgiven is dark and violent, but it tells one hell of a story. The movie has a bit of a slow burn (which I loved, though it may grow tedious for others) before exploding into chaos and mayhem during the last twenty minutes. The drastic change near the end was so explosive that I still can’t stop thinking about it. Many of the characters seem like decent folk at first, but their evil ways start to seep through over time, clearly showing that no one ever really changes. The progression of Little Bill stands out most, as he seems to have decent motives for his town (no weapons, no crime), but his violent behavior makes him absolutely frightening. Eastwood, Hackman, and Freeman are all amazing here, and I also really enjoyed Richard Harris’s character of English Bob, a sniveling coward of a man. The cast, the set pieces, the story of revenge and change… I loved so much about Unforgiven. A great film, and one of my favorites so far in this project. 9/10