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 ****

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ReelReviews #103: 1980s Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

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MARCH 2, 2017 SCREENING: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

 

Driving Miss Daisy is the ultimate low key movie. It’s easy to see why it’s the kind of film that would win an Oscar, but it’s no Sophie’s Choice or Kramer vs. Kramer type movie that markets itself as an TEAR JERKER MELODRAMA or an HISTORICAL EPIC. Rather, it’s a quiet film about the cultural changes in the deep south from the 30s to the 60s, as shown through the eyes of an elderly white lady and her earnest black chauffeur.

 

The film is almost entirely driven (no pun intended) on character interaction and dialogue between the two main characters.  Dan Aykroyd plays a supporting role as the son of the title character, who has his own life to worry about but functions in this film as a plot device to move the story along (for example, Miss Daisy crashes her car at the start of the movie, prompting Dan Aykroyd to find a chauffeur for her) Given that this movie was made in 1989, it likely started Aykroyd’s transition from mainly comedic roles to mainly drama roles, and it certainly made Morgan Freeman a household name, as it was one of the three iconic movies he starred in that year (the other two were Glory and Lean On Me).  Freeman and Jessica Tandy (as the title character) have to play their characters over several decades, and do so quite convincingly through the help of old age makeup.

 

The film adds a layer of drama by making Tandy’s character a minority herself, as she is a wealthy Jewish widow in the heavily Christian south. This becomes relevant several times in the film, like one December where she finally rewards Hoke (the chauffeur character) with a present, but swears it is not a Christmas present because she is not a Christian. There’s also the drama of one scene where the neighborhood synagogue is bombed. This felt someone forced to me as a plot device to make the main character come face to face with discrimination, but Driving Miss Daisy drives homes its points so subtly that nothing in the film was a distraction or seemed awkward.

 

Like the rest of the movie, Driving Miss Daisy ends not with a bang but a whimper, as the audience is given the suggestion that Miss Daisy died at the end of the film, only to discover (from Dan Akyroyd’s dialogue) that she’s still alive and well in her 90s, but has to go to a nursing home. Hoke has a heartwarming visit with his old boss, and the film simply ends.

 

If Driving Miss Daisy has one sin against it, it’s that the film is quite simply boring. It tells a good story, an important story, and a well made story, but one which I am not compelled to ever see again. Oscar bait, indeed, but a film that does a fabulous job of hiding that behind its humble little “aw, shucks’ presentation.

 

*** out of ****