Thursday, 26 April 2012

'The Avengers'/'Marvel Avengers Assemble' review:

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've long been a shameless, rambling cheerleader for this summer's first major comic book movie, Marvel's ambitious 'The Avengers': a film which brings geek-friendly comic book-style continuity to the big screen in a way never previously considered possible. It's a bold move from the company, recently acquired by Disney, which - had it failed - might easily have sent the entire house of cards tumbling down, risking tentpole solo properties 'Iron Man', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'Captain America' and 'Thor' in the process. In fact combining these heroes in one movie should have been an almighty mess and perhaps one for fanboys rather than the diverse cinema audience required to enjoy global mega-success.

Yet 'Buffy the Vampire' creator Joss Whedon has, as director and co-writer, delivered not only the best Marvel movie to date (not a bad accolade in itself), but also the very best (or at least the most enjoyable) superhero movie ever. It's a relentlessly thrilling and frequently laugh-out-loud funny affair which manages to provide each of its characters just enough to do to avoid feeling like a clumsy bag of cameos. It's a rare beast that exceeds the two hour mark and yet leaves you craving more and, as has been noted by almost all who have seen it thus far, it manages to pull off the feat of making the Hulk interesting. Mark Ruffalo is cast as the irradiated Dr. Bruce Banner/lumbering green rage beast and does an exceptional job both in the flesh, as an anxious and introverted genius, and in CGI mo-cap as the show-stealing titan.

The other Avengers combine well, in terms of their disparate skill sets and distinct personalities. Pleasingly each even finds time to grow and complete their own small arch. Captain America (Chris Evans) is still the guileless embodiment of goodness that struck such a pleasant note in last year's solo vehicle, though now he's learning to assert himself as the natural born leader familiar to readers of the comics. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remains that slightly haughty man from another world with a penchant for grand, almost Shakespearean turns of phrase, now faced with the embarrassment of having his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) at the head of an alien invasion of Earth. And Robert Downey Jr is still a terrific force of nature as cocky billionaire, playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man), here learning a thing or two about subjugating himself for the greater good whilst chiding his more obviously noble teammates.

Even Black Widow and Hawkeye (Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner), who have yet to benefit from their own solo features, are given ample time to demonstrate their prowess and (though not as developed as the others) both feel like interesting and valuable parts of the ensemble. This time we even get to see a little more of Samuel L. Jackson as eye-patch sporting S.H.E.I.L.D director Nick Fury, getting involved in the action and playing a genuine part in events as opposed to being a bombastic guest star in another person's adventure. Alongside Fury are the returning fan favourite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and new supporting character Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) - who doesn't get a lot to do but whose inclusion presents an interesting option for writers of the probable sequels, for those that know her from the books.

'The Avengers' succeeds on every level it's trying to and gets everything right when it comes to making the ideal comic book movie. The various superpowers are used (and combined) imaginatively, the balance between action and dialogue is perfect, and Hiddleston's villain is deliciously charismatic, every bit as entertaining as the heroes. The gags work and even moments of pathos find the target when they arrive. It's a very different beast to Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' - commonly acknowledged as the holder of the "best comic book movie" crown - being unabashed, escapist fun rather than a rumination on The Patriot Act or an exploration of how a costumed vigilante might really be viewed by the world as we know it. But in being so proud of its pulpy routes, giving us daring deeds painted broadly and in bright colours - as Norse gods battle men in Star-Spangled spandex - it's arguably a far braver and much tougher movie to get right. And Whedon gets it completely right, painting this epic battle on a suitably large canvas.

It helps that Whedon, a past writer of Marvel comics (notably an acclaimed run on Astonishing X-Men) knows and loves this world. From a fan point of view, he ensures that Captain America takes the lead rather than the more commercially popular Iron Man and that S.H.E.I.L.D's motives are uncertain, with the organisation not truly trusted by the gang. He knows that fans want to see Thor smash his hammer upon Cap's shield and see Iron Man hold his own against the Asgardian prince and promptly delivers this spectacle without it seeming like the most cynical act of fan service, probably because he wants to see all this just as much.

'Marvel Avengers Assemble', known internationally as 'The Avengers', is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Review Round-Up: 'Cabin in the Woods', 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' and more...

I'm off on holiday to Rome for a week so I don't have time to write up full reviews for the last few films I've seen - which is a pity because a couple of them were fantastic and all of them were enjoyable. With that in mind, here is a short round-up of some recent releases:

'Cabin in the Woods', cert '15'
Completed in 2009 but not released until this month due to the bankruptcy of MGM, 'Cabin in the Woods' is an incredibly funny and whip-smart take on the horror genre from producer/co-writer Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard. It's got the splatter horror humour of 'Evil Dead' and is similar to 'Scream' in that it deconstructs the slasher genre and subverts its tropes. But unlike 'Scream' it does this without ultimately becoming just another slasher movie: it goes much further than that, delving into what makes such movies work and questioning why they satisfy audiences in the first place. It grapples with such concepts as audience complicity in movie violence and the way young people are portrayed in American movies, as well as being hilariously funny, incredibly gory and full of imagination. When it all kicks off in the final third, I can promise you there is nothing quite like it.

Aside from Chris Hemsworth, who has since become the star of 'Thor', the cast is mainly comprised of familiar faces from Whedon's TV work, the best of whom is 'Dollhouse' supporting cast member Fran Kranz. Kranz steals the show absolutely and owns most of the script's most inspired lines of dialogue. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are also excellent, though to explain their roles in any depth would constitute a spoiler. I don't usually care about those (being a "journey not the destination" type of guy) but 'Cabin in the Woods' is most certainly a film you don't want spoiled. One of the year's best so far, which is unusual for a film that's been on a shelf for three years.

'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia', cert '15'
An honest-to-gods masterpiece, this Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a lot in common with the almost equally excellent 2009 Romanian film 'Police, Adjective'. Both share the same fascination with the banal side of police work not usually explored in cinema, as ordinary cops perform quite boring duties. Both films have patience in common, allowing us to observe these men at work without any embellishment. But whilst the Romanian movie explored whether the semantic definition of law should hold more weight than our own understanding of morality, this feature ponders how such men can maintain their humanity when forced so often to encounter acts of barbarism.

Most of the film takes place over one night as regional police escort a murder suspect around the countryside in the hope that he will reveal the location of his victim's body. That's about it as far as the plot is concerned. There is an increasingly frustrated local police captain who loses his temper with the uncooperative prisoner, a doctor brought along to identify the cause of death and a prosecutor who is charged with gathering all the evidence and shaping the official report of the night's events. The men trade stories and exchange views on humanity, marriage and culture, but there is little "action" in the traditional sense. Yet it never comes close to being boring, thanks to well observed dialogue, interesting characters and some of the most scintillating photography I've ever seen: both of the Turkish countryside and of the human face in extreme close-up. A miraculous movie and spellbinding experience.

'Headhunters', cert '15'
From the production company behind the 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' adaptations, this Norwegian screen version of the Jo Nesbo thriller is more glossy than its Swedish counterparts and better paced. It's also as mad as a bag of hammers, with a plot that turns on the hero's decision not to recommend a Dutch former CEO for a top corporate job in Oslo. The Dutchman, as luck would have it a former commando specialising in tracking elusive targets, takes this very badly indeed and decides to pursue Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) across the country with the aim of killing him. He kills lots of other people along the way too. Oh, and Roger Brown in an international art thief in addition to Norway's most respected corporate headhunter, though this never really comes to anything.

It's completely implausible from start to finish and possibly one of the most violent films I've seen this year, though it moves at a fair clip and seems to understand its place in the world. I can't honestly say I liked it, but I enjoyed watching it far more than I did the Swedish 'Dragon Tattoo' movies and it certainly feels more cinematic than that trilogy.

'Le Havre', cert 'PG'
Incredibly slight, this affable French comedy from Finnish aueteur Aki Kaurismäki concerns an ageing bohemian (André Wilms) who lives a simple life in the port town, tending to his sickly wife and owing money to the local shopkeepers. The community depicted here are reminiscent of the sort of oddballs who populate Jeunet comedies, though the sense of humour is less wacky and more deadpan. It feels old fashioned and contrived, in a very sweet way, though the film's politics are far from conservative. Instead the film deals with the issue of France's refugee internment camps and revolves around the decision of the local community to shelter a young African boy who is on the run from immigration.

Considering how big an issue immigration is in French politics currently, 'Le Havre' is a bold film which posits sympathy for immigrants as a very French way to behave - as the community band together against forces who would see the boy imprisoned and prevented from reaching his mother in London. That it treats this divisive subject matter with such a deceptive simplicity and lightness of touch, within a heart-warming and congenial comedy, is worthy of applause. A compassionate and humanitarian film without bad guys.

Friday, 13 April 2012

'Battleship' review:

Some crazy, wayward geniuses have finally done it. They've adapted a board game into a summer tentpole movie. I'm not suggesting this is a contribution to culture the universe was crying out for, but you've got to admire the sheer gumption of writers Jon and Erich Hoeber for somehow, just about, crowbarring enough of the narrative-light children's game into what otherwise amounts to a generic sci-fi invasion movie. The film carries the most hideous strapline I've ever seen, with posters proudly proclaiming the film is from "Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers", and the very concept of adapting a board game into a movie is worthy of derision (as things stand we're probably just a few months from the announcement of a rom-com called Connect Four), yet somehow these inspired scribes get away with it careers intact.

'Battleship', directed by Peter Berg, stars Taylor "he's so hot right now" Kitsch as a taller, blonder version of Maverick from 'Top Gun' - a "the most talented soldier I've ever seen" type who wastes his potential sleeping in with the admiral's daughter (Brooklyn "all models are actresses now" Decker) and stealing chicken burritos from closed convenience stores - in what amounts to the most bizarre screen depiction of self-destructive, directionless youth yet committed to film. His long-suffering brother (the appealing Alexander Skarsgård), a dedicated Navy careerist, makes him enlist as a seaman to turn his life around, yet he can't quite curb his brother's impulsive nature and as a result Kitsch is one screw-up away from being kicked out of the military by Admiral Liam "paycheck" Neeson.

Whilst on a huge naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii, and after costing his volleyball soccer team victory in the final of an inter-naval world cup soccer tournament (yes, seriously), Kitsch's problems quickly escalate as an alien invasion sees the fleet decimated and the young buck placed in acting command of the remaining vessel. It's then that our bronzed hero has to thwart the alien invasion combining, you guessed it, his lone-wolf unpredictability with a new found respect for the uniform. The alien ships are some of the best CGI I've ever seen, the action sequences and city destruction stuff is suitably loud, and pint-sized pop sensation Rihanna is improbably present as a trash-talking heavy weapons specialist. It's that kind of movie.

Where 'Battleship' wins out over Bay's 'Transformers' movies is in Berg's less frantic, more competent direction, and also in the fact that it's sometimes genuinely funny on account of how absolutely knowingly stark raving mad it is. There are so many strange happenings and oddball character moments that I couldn't possibly remember them all, but indie heartthrob Hamish "The Future" Linklater stands out in his role as the token infuriating science nerd. However 'Battleship' is even more militaristic than 'Transformers', with the whole thing playing like a glossy Navy recruitment commercial. Our hero has to learn to respect the hallowed institution of which he is a reluctant servant, with his troublemaker side exposed by such subversive traits as asking "why?" when given an order. Don't question the rules: follow them, says the film.

If the military is entirely awesome and humanity's best friend in 'Battleship' - which basically bends over backwards to satisfy retired seaman (if you're into that kind of thing) - then science is very, very bad indeed. The aliens only invade because of bloody science, with its blasted curiosity about the universe. Whilst, fittingly for a film shot on 35mm, digital technology - both alien and our own - is found to be no substitute for the romanticised tech of the past (such as the titular obsolete warship). There's also a slightly insidious "yellow peril" undercurrent to this Pearl Harbor-set movie, as every new alien development is first assumed to be either Chinese or North Korean in origin. I suppose this is why Kitsch quickly finds himself with a half-Japanese crew, as the filmmakers attempt to say "some of our best friends are Asian".

So that's 'Battleship'. A big-screen celebration of American military might, loosely inspired by a Hasbro board game, which just about gets away with how awful that is based on solid direction and a self-deprecating sense of humour. People say silly things whilst even sillier things happen all around them, but it's all very big and exciting and the reason we went to the movies when we were 12.

'Battleship' is rated '12A' and is out now in the UK which, if this film is anything to go by, does not rule the waves.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

'The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists' review:

Innocent and family-friendly without ever being too cutesy, 'The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists' is Aarman's latest stop-frame animated feature film, loaded with the usual inspired sight gags, quickfire puns and unalloyed charm. Here, in a loose adaptation of a book series of the same name, we follow The Pirate Captain (as voiced by Hugh Grant) - a rubbish but well-meaning scourge of the high seas whose single greatest wish is to win the coveted Pirate of the Year prize.

However he has been thwarted in this quest for the last two decades by a combination of his own ineptitude and the fact that his rivals are supremely impressive shownman - as voiced by Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven and Lenny Henry. It is a pity we don't see them beyond two brief fleeting appearances, as each quickly establishes an entertaining character, but I'm sure they'll be back; This whimsically entertaining yarn, though it provokes broad smiles rather than hearty belly-laughs, has the makings of a successful franchise.

In his quest to usurp his more decorated colleagues in the running for this year's prize, the open-hearted and guileless Pirate Captain stumbles into Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who correctly identifies the pirates' "parrot" Polly as the last remaining dodo. Darwin promises the discovery will make Captain rich beyond his wildest dreams - making him a sure winner of the coveted accolade. But the lovelorn scientist has his own agenda (and a trained chimp for a henchman) and leads the band of misfits through chases and various mishaps over the city of London, bringing the plunderers into confrontation with the pirate communities arch-nemesis, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Cue the big action finale, which takes place on board a magnificently realised Victorian warship.

Some of the humour is winsomely subversive - with the scientists of London inventing an airship simply so they can look down women's tops, and with Hayek's Cutlass Liz oozing a peculiar Plasticine sex appeal. At one point, whilst Martin Freeman's first mate is trying to restore his wounded pride, Pirate Captain reminisces about the simple joys of running people through with a sword. It's not explicit but it isn't strictly sanitised either. Yet even so it is somehow entirely gentle and lacking in cynicism - with these being less "jokes for the adults" than a key component of Aarman's long established anarchic, Pythonesque sensibility.

Imaginative, with plenty of quality gags and a heart of gold that won't tickle your gag reflex, 'The Pirates!' is good fun, rife with the sort of subtle parochial details that defined 'Wallace & Gromit' and 'Creature Comforts' (Blue Peter badges, custard creams and the homely charms of "ham night"). It's not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the studio's recent computer generated 'Arthur Christmas', but it is certainly more refined and will probably better stand the test of time. That it remains quaint and understated in stereoscope is an achievement in itself.

'The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists' is out now in the UK, rated 'U' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

'Wrath of the Titans' review:

Perhaps I need to see a doctor because, the day after showering the universally acclaimed 'The Kid With A Bike' with disdain, I've gone and enjoyed what is (on paper) one of the year's most derisory blockbuster offerings: 'Wrath of the Titans'. The sum of its parts don't make for an appealing read: a post-converted 3D sequel to one of the most forgettable and bland flicks in recent memory (2010's re-make 'Clash of the Titans'), directed by Jonathan Liebesman - the guy responsible for the roundly condemned 'Battle: Los Angeles' - and starring Sam Worthington, the Aussie who has quickly become Hollywood's blandest action star. Yet, in the wake of the 'Transformers' movies, I now find myself impressed by any mainstream, effects-laden picture that is coherently made and sticks to a sensible running time (in this case a cool 99 minutes).

Under Liebesman's direction the "franchise" has adopted the ubiquitous shakey-cam approach designed to trick the viewer into feeling as though they are watching live news footage rather than the stuff of fantasy. And though I'm usually frustrated by this messy and disorienting technique, here - in a sword and sandal story of ancient Greek legend - it adds a refreshing immediacy and grit to a genre more commonly associated with glistening bronze pectorals. As Perseus, Worthington always has dirt under his fingernails and caked all over his body. He acquires fresh, gaping wounds from each new encounter with the mystical creatures he beats and, though we all know he will triumph, there is a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout: though the demigod son of Zeus he seems to be a fragile, mortal man in the company of much more powerful creatures.

A sequence near the start, that sees Perseus chase a winged and two headed beast through the streets of his small fishing village, feels far more kinetic and frantic than any other I've seen in a film of this kind. It may seem a bizarre and counter-productive choice to frame broad fantasy as realism but in doing so 'Wrath' is much more interesting than its prequel. Additionally you have Liam Neeson reprising the role of Zeus and Ralph Fiennes appearing again as Hades - with both lending the intended considerable gravitas (that's probably how the payments appear on their balance sheets) to moments of otherwise jaw-dropping sillyness. For his part Worthington isn't bad either: for the first time in a major American movie (at least that I'm aware of) he has been allowed to retain his Australian accent - breaking continuity with the original (but who really cares?) but allowing him to be a much more natural presence than usual.

The post-converted 3D isn't even terrible. The first film was rightly cited as an example of the practice at its worst, but here it's unobtrusive but ever-present and, in certain grand battle scenes, the sense of depth created gives the film's ultimate villain Kronos the necessary scale. In fact, the CGI rendering of Kronos is something of a triumph, with some really fantastic images created, with an early dream sequence being the overall highlight (as we see the gargantuan molten lava hands of the deity scooping up handfuls of soldiers and dropping them from a great height). Some of the other effects (notably the cyclops) fare less well, but overall the effects in 'Wrath' range from decent to spectacular.

Of course, I've chosen to accentuate the positive elements above. All said 'Wrath of the Titans' is still not a particularly good film. The dialogue doesn't venture beyond speaking important plot points aloud, with characters immediately greeted by name each time they appear and moments of action explained (like a rubbish radio play). As in the previous entry, the supporting characters are ill-defined and boring, and even an improved Worthington is not the most charismatic of leading men. Among the worst offenders is Bill Nighy who turns up as a former god and indulges in the worst kind of campy over-acting (which undermines the film's determinedly serious tone), whilst Rosamund Pike can't help but be an empty vessel as the film's perfunctory love interest.

When it comes to the love interest subplot (or tangible lack thereof) the film is at its very weakest, because Perseus falling for Pike's Andromeda seems to be based on nothing more than the fact she is the film's available female (FAF). As the FAF, Andromeda is never really shown to be particularly close to Perseus and they engage in few tender moments over the course of the running time. Only when the fighting is over is there that tokenistic kiss that condescends to say "and now here's some romance for the ladies". But it's insincere romance of the highest order. I've written before about the way major franchise action films have a serious problem with relationships. Or more to the point, writers have a hard time knowing what to do with them. Case in point: Gemma Arterton's FAF from the first movie is established to have died in the interim, allowing Perseus to go off and be a bloke without having the old ball and chain around.

Women exist in films like 'Wrath of the Titans' to be attained or conquered by the (male) protagonist and no more than that. Once conquered they no longer serve a purpose and are either killed off or arbitrarily separated from the hero (often to be attained all over again). The filmmakers may well point to the fact that, in 'Wrath', Andromeda is cast as a warrior queen who leads her troops into battle with a sword, rather than as some bashful damsel. Yet she is a passenger; She accompanies Perseus on his journey but never advances the plot herself. The one piece of knowledge she provides is awareness of the location of a more important male character... and even then it's because he's practically in the next room.

That 'Wrath of the Titans' is better than I expected, exceeding my sub-zero expectations, is not necessarily cause for celebration. But I'd be lying if I denied being entertained: impressed by the effects and immersed in much of the action thanks to the immediacy of Liebesman's camera. That said, it's got to rank as a second or third tier sort of blockbuster in a summer that's packed with genuine titans, such as 'The Avengers', 'The Dark Knight Rises', 'The Amazing Spider-Man', 'MIB: III' and the heavily-promoted 'Battleship'. But, as recent summers have shown, you could do far, far worse than see this particular bit of disposable pap. And - though saying so is sure to torpedo any slim credibility I might have accrued as a critic - I'd sooner sit through this again than watch a Belgian 11 year-old ride a bike.

'Wrath of the Titans' is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

'The Kid With A Bike' review:

I'm fast falling out of love with slow, mostly eventless cinema and though this is not the fault of the Dardenne Brothers' overpraised 'The Kid With A Bike', it is that film which will suffer from the backlash for now - being the straw that broke this proverbial camel's back. What used to feel refreshing and in no small way revelatory now seems overly slight and uninspiring. I'm talking about the banal scenes in which we are cast as curtain-twitching voyeurs as people chat about what to have for lunch, or the sustained tracking shots that say "we're doing this because we can" and increasingly little else. The things I used to admire which now feel every bit as tired and cliche as the Hollywood tropes they once stood in bold opposition to.

As I said at the top, 'Bike' isn't the worst offender in these regards (or even close for that matter). On another day I might have lauded 'The Kid With A Bike' as patient, well-observed and sensitively acted. The Dardenne's don't judge their characters and the film is redemptive and life-affirming without being sickly. Young Thomas Doret is superb as the titular kid, wounded and out of control 11 year-old Cyril, whilst Cecil de France is winsome as his foster mother. The Belgian Jeremy Renner (Jeremie Renier) - the ubiquitous Euro star who first found fame with the Dardennes in such films as 'The Promise' and 'The Child' - is ever-reliable as the deadbeat father who abandons his son. It's not even that the film outstays its welcome: it's only 87 minutes long. Perfect running length in a world in which movies seem to feel obliged to exceed two hours.

Yet with its very slender plot (a boy is left frustrated and angry after being abandoned by his father and takes this out on his foster carers, stropping around and being a nuisance) there is nothing here to suggest 'Bike' wouldn't have been equally effective over a half hour. In fact, even given that the film's two or three moments of action are stretched out, the boy's last act change of character seems contrived - the resolution, for all the filmmakers cumbersome attempts at last-minute jeopardy, feels all too tidy. And in having Cyril succumb to the lure of a gang of PlayStation 3 and Fanta obsessed local criminals (the suburban Belgian mafia, as I like to call them), is the film suggesting a boy will turn to armed robbery if bereft of a strong father figure? Take that single mothers!

I am more than aware that I'm being a little unfair on the gentle and well intentioned 'The Kid With A Bike', but I guess how you feel heading into a film - about life or cinema - has an effect you can't possibly hope to separate from the experience itself. It probably didn't help that I saw it right off the back of another, longer and even more tiresome movie, which left me resentful of the time I'd spent sitting in the dark on what was a beautiful, sunny day. On another day, who knows? But right now I feel inclined to blow petulant raspberries in its direction.

'The Kid With A Bike' is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 2 April 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (12/30): 'Unforgiven'

A huge box office and Academy Awards success in 1992, Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' proved to be one of many recent false dawns for the Western. Like the Coen Brothers 2010 'True Grit' and contemporary favourite 'Dances With Wolves', 'Unforgiven' not only managed to renew audience enthusiasm for tales of the Old West but also became an instant classic of the genre. Spectacular film though it is, this popularity was no doubt assisted by the presence of Eastwood, starring and directing, which gives the film extra weight and pop culture significance. It's, as things stand, the last Western from an actor more closely associated with the genre than any other (with the possible exception of John Wayne) and proves a fitting coda.

As cantankerous former gunslinger William Munny, Eastwood is effectively looking back on his own past as a screen icon with the same mixture of shame and pride as the anti-hero. Munny professes to have been cured of wickedness and sin by his late wife, yet you can immediately tell this is not so much a change of character as an act of repression. As he gets further and further into his last great adventure - tracking down two cowboys who deformed a prostitute, in the company of his best friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and near-sighted outlaw wannabe The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) - his pretense at a moral crusade gives way to a lust for violence, especially when in the service of vengeance.

Like all the great modern Westerns, the decline of the Old West (and of the genre itself) is built into the narrative. But in this morally grey film the transition period from frontier barbarism to gentrified modernity is fraught with contradictions. Gene Hackman, who won as Oscar for his trouble, plays lawman Bill Daggett, who forbids weapons in his town in order to maintain the fragile peace. His real passion is for building a house in which he hopes to retire finally free from conflict (giving rise to that great line "I don't deserve to die like this... I was building a house"). It is his willingness to forgive the cowboys, rather than beating or hanging the men as demanded by the other prostitutes, that serves as the catalyst - whilst his zero tolerance policy for those who cause trouble is the act which finally unleashes the demons that lurk within Munny's soul.

There is no right or wrong or morality in 'Unforgiven' and the town of Big Whiskey. Not in Hackman's attempts to keep the peace or in Eastwood's attempts to avenge a wronged woman. There is only ever an ill-defined moral high-ground masquerading as the pretext for violent acts - with revenge the perfect cover for cruelty. Perhaps Freeman is the only honest and decent man in the picture (abandoning the outlaw party as soon as it comes to killing) - and he pays the price for it. So is it a nihilistic film, suggesting that forgiveness and freedom from our most violent impulses are impossible? Perhaps, though I'm not sure. I think Munny's final alcohol and rage fueled rampage is as much a comment on audience expectations as anything else - with the viewer complicit in Eastwood's decline from faux nobility as we will him to go badass on the sheriff and his posse. We all want to hear Eastwood tell the crowded bar "Any man who doesn't wanna get killed better clear on out the back".

It's a mechanism the director subverted to dazzling effect at the climax of the more recent 'Gran Torino', with both films being as much about star semiotics as anything else as Eastwood comes to terms with his own screen image.