ReelReviews #105: 1990s Best Picture winner: Unforgiven (1992)

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MARCH 4, 2017 SCREENING: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

 

At last, I arranged a screening of Unforgiven. This iconic early 90’s movie is a rare example of a “Best Picture” winner that was actually pretty mainstream and popular with the general public, at least as far as Westerns go (the previous year’s winner, Silence of the Lambs, was likewise an unusual Best Picture winner because it was popular and a horror film).

 

Unforgiven has been described as a “revisionist western” and a “eulogy to the western genre”, apparently because of its treatment of its source material.  Well, it certainly did not end the western genre, as anyone who’s seen The Hateful Eight (2015) can tell you.  Those who described Unforgiven that way may have been referring to the way the film takes the “anti-hero” treatment established by Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns to the extreme here.  There are no “good” characters in this movie, and a lot of the scenes with Eastwood’s character referencing the “old days” seem to work on another level and are self-referential to his own career in westerns.  While Unforgiven did not kill off Westerns, it was indeed Eastwood’s final Western movie to date, and he’s unlikely to break that streak now that the actor is in his mid 80s.

 

I enjoyed Unforgiven, which was a very difficult feat for the film to achieve, given that I generally avoid Westerns and Unforgiven was deliberately made to be as bleak and depressing as possible.  The cast contains a slew of earlier Oscar winners:  Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, etc., and they create some very memorable characters here. The basic story is about Eastwood and his two companions seeking out two men to assassinate as revenge for those characters beating and mutilating a young prostitute.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the film’s message is basically that killing will not bring peace of mind and will just result in more killing. This simple concept is done in a very compelling and grounded manner, so much so that the execution of the two scumbags (which occurs in different scenes) is done in a sloppy manner (for example, one is killed while reliving himself in an outhouse).

 

Gene Hackman, who plays the local sheriff and symbol of law enforcement, ends up ironically being the most “evil” character in the film, after he arrests and tortures Morgan Freeman’s character to get information about Clint Eastwood.  Freeman’s first appearance in the film to me seemed to be a token attempt to add forced “diversity” to a Western movie, but his role in the story turned out to be well written and pivotal to the film.

 

With its soft opening and ending coda appearing on screen, Unforgiven has a strange “storybook” type of quality for such an ugly and dark movie. While it’s not the kind of film I would want to watch a second time, and some parts seemed to drag or go off in a random direction, most of Unforgiven is very compelling and cinematic.  I’m not sure if it’s the “Best Picture” of 1992 only because its fellow nominees like A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman were also solid movies in my mind. But what it is, Unforgiven can be forgiven for the aspects of I didn’t like. It’s a first-rate movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #5: Jonah Hex (2010)

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MARCH 13, 2014 SCREENING: JONAH HEX (2010)
Having just reviewed a movie based on Marvel comics, its time to give DC their due and take a look at one of the more obscure DC adaptations: 2010’s Jonah Hex. This film was a box office flop when it was released (grossing only $10 million on a $47 million budget), so I think its safe to say that they’re won’t be a sequel. Instead, DC is pressing ahead with ideas like “Superman vs. Batman”. If there’s one problem with the recent trends in comic book movies, its the constant recycling of the same villains and plots in endless Batman and Superman movies. Worse, some “fans” applaud Hollywood for taking the lazy route, and since they make money they keep doing it. Jonah Hex was an example of doing something different, but since it failed, its unlikely DC will take that risk again. Jonah Hex, after all, got terrible reviews. But here’s the most unfortunate thing: Jonah Hex is actually a pretty good movie.

Maybe its lowered expectations, but since I knew critics hated this film, I was a bit wary of screening it, and hoped I wouldn’t be sick of the movie and tune out after 15 minutes. I’ve had similar experiences on many occasions. (Critics hated 2010’s The Nutcracker 3D, but I was willing to give it a chance and thought they were too harsh – as I watched the opening credits, I thought “Hey, this is actually a very nice presentation that sets up the mood nicely!” Unfortunately for me, by the time the “mouse king” showed up 20 mins. later, the movie had worn out its welcome and was a train wreak from that point on). With Jonah Hex, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a great intro showing how the main character came to have his horrible facial scar, then some very artsy animated opening credits letting you know you’re watching a comic book movie (with strong narration from Josh Brolin as the title character), and then a solid 25-30 minutes that sets up the movie and has a raw, gritty, outlaw feel to the whole thing. Perhaps Jonah Hex would have done better if it had simply been marketed as an old fashioned anti-hero western, instead of a hip “comic book movie” for teens.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the movie is not without flaws. I wasn’t pleased with Megan Fox as the female lead in a 70s Clint Eastwood type film, but she does an adequate job. The film also has an additional plot device that looks cool but didn’t really suit its world or have much relevance to the plot. Jonah is able to communicate with the souls of the dead by touching their corpses, and there’s an additional twist that he only has some much time to speak to them before their bodies begin to turn to ash (only to return to their “normal” dead state when he stops touching them). This supernatural element added a bit of eeriness to the movie, but it has nothing to do with the Jonah Hex comics so I can see why fans of the comic book hated it. Ia also felt the movie simply fell apart at the end, and the last 20 minutes of the film de-evolved into some silly over-the-top CGI fight that was reminiscent of Will Smith in “Wild West West”. The recent trend in Hollywood has been “steampunk” (having stuff in a late 19th century setting presented in a futuristic sci-fi angle). That’s fine, as long as there’s a reasonable technological explaination and it looks believably retro. Giving us slick CGI, frantic editing, and heavy metal and rock themes for the movie’s music soundtrack doesn’t work at all. (and I actually liked the non-modern music used in Jonah Hex, but I hated a “western” with heavy metal songs).

There was a lot of controversy with Thomas Jane being turned down in favor of Josh Brolin as the title character. I could see Thomas Jane in this role (he was solid as The Punisher), but Brolin was awesome as Hex and easily one of the best parts of the movie. The still photos aren’t very impressive, but his presence on screen easily made him a great western anti-hero, and he carries the film in every scene. Considering that his father (James Brolin) and his stepmother (Barbra Streisand) never impressed me as actors, I find that Josh Brolin has consistently proven to be a great character actor and is probably one of the most underrated people in Hollywood today. It’s a shame he won’t get a second chance to play this character again.

Jonah Hex has a brisk 80 min. running time, so its one of the shortest modern super hero movies, and its also one of the most interesting, since its not really a superhero movie at all, but an outlaw bounty hunter telling the audience his life story. (Technically, its not even a “western” either, since most of the action takes place back east in the former Confederate States of America – Virginia, Georgia, etc.) Bottom line, the film has its problems, and the ending was terrible, but it really drew me into its world and I liked it. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.

 
** ½ out of ****