Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010)

Hereafter suffers from a devastating split personality, a crippling conflict between modes of storytelling competing for attention. Director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern, master builders of shadowy interior spaces, construct a fascinating infrastructure of corridors and walls drenched in mood and contrasting light. Matt Damon’s psychic, so thoroughly conflicted by his desire to lead a normal existence, is often framed in brilliant medium shots with multiple layers of texture. Eastwood and Stern put an emphasis on static faces looking out windows, longing for what’s just out of reach. The comfort of reflection is rarely available, and this establishes the loneliness streaming through every scene. Yet the segment with Cecile de France, who plays a French reporter and survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, contains a very different visual approach, one defined by bright sunlight, glare, and glean. Hers is a conflict about clarity, and the visual aesthetic matches up perfectly within glossy hotel rooms, posh restaurants, and clean corporate meeting rooms.

Yet Peter Morgen’s insufferable screenplay, most notably the entire thread in England, undermines basically every formal flourish the film has to offer. Even worse, the script ignores its own best elements, belittling the dynamic tension between mainstream discussions about the afterlife and personal experiences with death. The character’s blunt emotional words don’t allow for any subtext, any thought processes beyond the surface melodrama. The use of recent tragedies like the tsunami and the London bombings of 2005 isn’t intrinsically insulting, but the way Morgen manipulates the characters within those events is certainly heinous. The script hinders Eastwood and Stern’s formalism from ever transcending the haunting levels of imagery on the screen, keeping the mysteries of Hereafter hidden in plain sight. This is a film aesthetically obsessed with the humility and innocence of the modern world, a very refreshing approach in our current cinema landscape. But Morgen’s flimsy, suffocating narrative is unwilling to position these elements within an incomplete vision of fledgling humanity. In short, everything gets spelled out for easy consumption. This catch-22 makes Hereafter simultaneously enthralling and reprehensible, a strange combination that will haunt Eastwood fans forever.

Invictus (Eastwood, 2009)

Desperate times often call for desperate measures. But in Clint Eastwood’s stale and disappointing biopic Invictus, newly elected and embattled South African  president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seems downright cavalier about his torn country on the precipice of racial revolt. It’s as if Mandela knows he’s  destined for a happy ending, that the forgone conclusion is just around the corner.

In a nicely stoic turn, Freeman paints Mandela as practically omniscient, achieving sweeping and rather easy unity by rallying his dispirited countrymen  around a common source of inspiration. Through Eastwood’s uncharacteristically rosy lens, decades of Apartheid trauma and violence get muted in favor of the  endless array of cheers, high fives, and slaps on the back for the country’s rejuvenated national Rugby team, the Spingbok’s.

Eastwood pushes his blunt-force symbolism from the first frame as Mandela’s motorcade races down a country road dissecting two soccer fields, one occupied by black children playing in tattered clothes and the other inhabited by a white team. The children cheer for the just-released Mandela while the grizzled old white Coach spells the turning of the tide – “This is the day our country went to the dogs.” Beyond just cliche, the sequence is incredibly lazy from a film-making standpoint, marking Mandela as a messiah that the everyday folks either revere or revile, with nothing in between.

These symbolic patterns continue throughout Invictus, paralleling Mandela’s quest to alleviate national concerns (about black retribution and white fear) by sparking interest in the World Cup of Rugby and his relationship with the Springbok’s captain, an honorable and loyal sportsmen named Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The two actors only share a few dynamic scenes, so their communication of message, spread by two men of the same ideological ilk, becomes the driving force of Invictus. Freeman delves deep into Mandela’s passion, bringing a grace to the man’s every movement and glance. But each actor looks stuck by the sugary world around them, stricken by the film’s limiting, plodding screenplay. Eastwood relies almost entirely on cross-cutting between the two men, as Mandela skirts around the country preaching his plan while Pienaar miraculously gets his mates into fighting shape.

Beyond the lead characters, Invictus attempts to build a national consensus, highlighting minor players of different races like Mandela’s bodyguards or Francois’ maid. Yet Eastwood’s direction and Tom Stern’s glossy cinematography becomes far too calculated, too polished to sustain any sense of suspense. Eastwood is content using the sports movie conventions to slowly build toward an inevitable finale, one devoid of excitement or tension. The ideas for unity are strong, but the execution lacks depth of conflict.

While the true story of Mandela and the Springboks remains undeniably essential in terms of our modern historical context, Eastwood’s treatment remains unforgivably syrupy. His didactic ideologies seep through the perfectly composed visuals, in turn feeding a ravenously sentimental musical score constantly complimenting the endless shots of crowds celebrating, blacks and whites rejoicing together under an open blue sky.

The glaring failure to convey subtext only heightens the knowledge of how great Eastwood can be with potentially hollow material. A Perfect World remains an indelible example, a beautifully constructed period piece on the clash between 1950’s childhood innocence and adult sin, poetically exploring the nuances of each character beneath the surface. But unlike World, the heart and soul of Invictus exists entirely for easy digestion, without doubt of the process or end result. Invictus not only falls prey to the pitfalls of the Sports genre, but also becomes a tired time-capsule of personal wistfulness, ignoring the glaring complexities of the social and political situations occurring beyond the playing field, while joyously reveling in the befuddlement of the spectacle. Victory and unity are only this harmonious in the fantasy dreamscape of Hollywood.

Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008)

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The Man with No Name, the ultimate emblem of vigilante justice, has long been a filmmaker of great complexity and compassion. But Clint Eastwood’s latest film Gran Torino, while not on par with The Outlaw Josey Whales, or White Hunter, Black Heart, or A Perfect World, or Mystic River, is one of this year’s best, clearly showing Eastwood’s evolving interest in the relationship of opposites, between cultures, individuals, communities, and emotions. At first glance, Gran Torino looks like the simple story of racist Korean War Vet widower Walt Kowalski who lives in a run-down neighborhood flooded with gangs and immigrants, whose everyday existence becomes tested by a series of escalating events of violence. However, nothing in an Eastwood film is without careful construction, and everything evokes a remembrance of past memories. The great conflict at the heart of an Eastwood film, Gran Torino included, is how the characters enable the past to control the present, and in turn the future. In Mystic River, past trauma’s destroy characters, whereas in Unforgiven and A Perfect World, previous acts of violence end up producing salvation for the young. Gran Torino certainty evolves the themes of these previous Eastwood films, but it also shows Eastwood as an evolving humanist, a filmmaker transcending easy solutions of violence in favor of calculated visions of sacrifice. Sure, moments in Gran Torino are heavy handed, even a bit corny, but for the most part the film carefully plays with Walt’s changing world in ways that produce simple pleasures of character interaction and simple moments of sadness, like Walt’s final phone call to his youngest son, in which the conversation doesn’t breach the surface of formality. The mint condition car of the film’s title doesn’t come to represent Eastwood’s iconic stature, or his brilliantly pliable work as a filmmaker, but of the beauty and wisdom and durability the past can offer the present. Instead of bloodshed, or child abduction, or abuse, Gran Torino provides connections with the past that aid instead of hinder the present, enduring just long enough for the tides to turn toward a substantial existence, a thematic progression of substantial weight.

Changeling (Eastwood, 2008)

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A bit too many dramatic close-ups, or musical crescendos, or plot twists, so Changeling ends as a rare case of grandstanding from master director Clint Eastwood. When I say grandstanding, I mean an overwhelming interpretation of formal par excellence (commissioned wonderfully by stalwart cameraman Tom Stern) in place of his usual emphasis on story. That said, Changeling resonates most beautifully when off the beaten path, i.e. when away from Angelina Jolie’s heartbroken but convicted grieving mother. One moment at the scene of the crime, where an L.A. cop ascends on a dirty, rigid, and altogether rusty ranch, Eastwood’s pacing finally brims with the menace felt so deeply in his masterpieces of recent years. A misfire for sure, but one packed with mood and atmosphere to fawn over.

Future Prospects: Mann and Eastwood

Two of my favorite American filmmakers, Michael Mann and Clint Eastwood, are currently undertaking films of great potential (not surprisingly these are my number one most anticipated movies of 2008 and 2009). Both directors are working in the crime/mystery genre and in period piece settings, rare for Mann, not so much for Eastwood.  Clint’s film Changeling stars Angelina Jolie as a mother who suspects her recently returned son (he was kidnapped) is indeed an impostor, an enticing enough premise under the guidance of such a master. Mann’s gangster saga Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FED chasing him, and might be the best fit between material and artist in a long while. Pictures of Eastwood’s film can be found all over the Web and aren’t very indicative of the master’s grace and style, but just yesterday the first images of Public Enemies emerged and it’s astonishing how the mere composition of the amateurish photos capture Mann’s signature professionalism. Using the recently released pictures of a supposed Dillinger bank robbery under way, here’s a few notes to peak your interest.    

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One of Depp’s thugs moves his Tommy Gun methodically across the screen.

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Depp’s Dillinger is eerily reminiscent of Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) in Heat

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Mann’s group aesthetics executing beautifully.

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A pitch perfect shot of Depp in the Mann universe.