Blog

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Police Story

Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)

(contains spoilers)

With Eureka Entertainment’s recently released remastered Blu Ray box set of Police Story Police Story 2, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Jackie Chan and Hong Kong action films: Police Story. 

Synopsis

The story starts with a police operation to apprehend a crime boss named Chu Tu and his men, who arrive at a shanty town to complete a drug deal. The police are undercover, monitoring the situation and waiting to strike, among them is Jackie Chan’s police officer character Chan Ka Kui. The police are discovered and a shoot-out ensues with the criminals making their escape. Chan chases down Chu Tu and his men as they drive through the shanty town (literally, in a spectacular set-piece which destroys the town entirely) and hijack a bus. Chan manages to stop the bus and places Chu Tu under arrest, along with some of Chu’s other men and his secretary Selina Fong.  Fong is released shortly after without charges, and Chan is assigned as her bodyguard as the police plan to call her as a witness in Chu’s upcoming trial.

Chu and his men escape through the shanty town

Chan arranges for one of his police friends to stage an assassination attempt on Selina to ensure her cooperation, which is successful, but when Chan has to fight off Chu’s men who are trying to kidnap Selina shortly afterwards, Chan realises things might be a little more serious. Selina soon discovers that the initial attempt on her life was staged, however, and records over a previous confession she made to Chan with what is made to sound like the pair fooling around in Chan’s apartment. Selina disappears and her absence at the trial coupled with the playing of the embarrassing new recording weakens the police’s case against Chu, who is released on bail.

Chu, lusting for revenge, lures Chan to where he is hiding Selina and his men ambush him with the help of Inspector Man, another police officer in Chan’s department who is on Chu’s payroll. Chu’s men shoot and kill Man with Chan’s service revolver, and Chan briefly manages to fight them off and allow Selina to escape. However, Chu’s men eventually subdue and knock Chan out with chloroform, and abandon him outside the city. Chan is the prime suspect for Man’s murder, and must catch and expose Chu in order to clear his name.

Inspector Man turns on Chan, shortly before being double crossed and killed himself

The story climaxes with a fight staged throughout a shopping mall, which Chu and his men have arrived at to catch Selina who has printed a large quantity of incriminating data which would expose Chu Tu as a crime lord. Chan chases them throughout the mall culminating in one of the greatest stunts Jackie Chan has done; leaping from the top floor of the mall and grabbing a pole covered in lights to slide down to the bottom, crashing through a canopy as he does so. The police arrive as Chan delivers a beating to Chu (and his lawyer!), and the film ends.

Chan takes down Chu after plunging multiple stories to capture him

The story itself is fairly simple and unexceptional, but what elevates the film is the masterful stunt-work and choreography of Chan and his stunt-team, and Chan’s comedic performance. The film itself is a series of breathtaking action set-pieces or beautifully choreographed fight scenes broken up by often comedic and often care-free scenes of story progression.  The story itself is not so important, but the more we see Chan Ka Kui interact with other characters the more we like and root for him, even if he is perhaps a little oafish and insensitive at times (particularly towards his long-suffering girlfriend May, played by Maggie Cheung). There’s a fair bit of slapstick humour, with Chan taking a cake to the face on more than one occasion, but it is in-keeping with the light tone of the film. Since Jackie Chan is a master of physical comedy, a modern-day Charlie Chaplin, these slapstick moments work well and never fail to raise at least a smile.

Chan after taking one of many cakes to the face

While Chan is the most entertaining thing on screen during the comedy scenes (as well as the action scenes, of course), the jokes wouldn’t hit the mark quite so well without the help of foils like May, Selina and Inspector Chou (who himself can be a little silly when alongside the staid and strait-laced Superintendent Li). With how good the action scenes are in Police Story, it would be understandable if the audience got restless in the more story-driven scenes, yearning for the next set-piece, but given the comedic tone and playful nature of the majority of these scenes there’s always something to keep us interested, until the latter third of the story which becomes much more serious and focused, by which point we know to anticipate the big action set piece we can feel just around the corner. The story itself is nothing special or fascinating, but how it is presented to us is endlessly entertaining.

Chan stops the bus containing Chu and his men, who fly through the front window in a mix of action and comedy

In any action scene in Police Story, the environment can become part of the action at any time, and this gives it a unique flair compared to Western action films. For example, Chan might use a chair as a weapon, or a mobile clothes rack, or use cars or furniture to jump on to evade or attack his assailants. What is also striking, as in most of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films, is that we see it all. No quick cuts or clever camera work to make us think it’s a fluid, action-packed fight, but rather we watch the stunts and choreography play out before us in all their glory. This is explored much better in Every Frame a Painting’s video essay on Jackie Chan. It’s testament to the hard work Jackie Chan and his stunt team put into the film, as to get the stunts just right takes a tremendous amount of training, talent and effort, as well as the perseverance to try it again and again until it looks as it should, and when we see the results on screen we know that it’s worth it.

Chan sends one of Chu’s men through the air and into a display at the shopping mall

There’s not much in the way of characterisation in terms of the villains, no particularly interesting character traits or magnetic personalities to draw us into the story or create any significant impact. For example, we don’t know much at all about Inspector Man, so when he shows up Chu’s office and agrees to help ambush Chan, and is subsequently killed after completing the task, there’s no shock or emotional impact associated with it, it merely moves the story along. Likewise, Chu and his associates just seem like stock bad-guy criminal characters rather than anything unique. This does not detract from the film’s quality however, as it is on the shoulders of Chan that we place our emotional attachment, and he is ably assisted by a variety of likeable and charming characters like May, Selina and Inspector Chou.

Chan uses the environment to his advantage

For me, Police Story is not just about incredible action or choreography, but also an incredibly likeable main character whose comedic flair brings levity and entertainment to every scene. Without this lightheartedness Police Story would be something I’d maybe be interested in watching clips of the action scenes of and nothing more, but as it is, it’s enjoyable the whole way through. It’s hard to describe or show just how wonderful the choreography and action set pieces are in Police Story just with words and pictures, so if you’re a fan of action, Jackie Chan or both all I can do is urge you to see this film and witness it for yourself.

Last Week’s Films (11/06 – 17/06)

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

This film was very well received critically, but it left me a bit cold. While it was fairly creepy, I just didn’t find myself getting invested or sufficiently into it. Maybe I just prefer something more tangible and simple in a horror film, but oh well. It was fine, but not for me. 5/10

 

Last Week’s Films (04/06 – 10/06)

Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)

Another two Brian De Palma thrillers for this week, and they were both okay. In Body Double, a man spies on a beautiful woman through a telescope from the window in his apartment and sees her murdered. He then investigates, and it’s not quite as it seems. It’s entertaining enough, and a little bit cheesy, but it works. 5/10

Raising Cane (Brian De Palma, 1992)

John Lithgow plays Dr. Carter Nix and his “twin brother” Cain in this film where Dr. Nix, a child psychologist, seems to be mentally unstable and discovers his wife is having an affair. We follow his descent into madness seeing him exact his revenge and indulge his murderous impulses. Lithgow is suitably over-the-top, with a “surprise” along the way (although it’s pretty obvious). Again, it was entertaining enough, but not great. 5/10

The Ballad of Narayama ( Shohei Imamura, 1983)

Inspired by the 1958 film of the same name, 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama is set in a small secluded village in 19th century Japan, which has a tradition where once a member of the village reaches the age of 70 they must make a journey to a remote mountain nearby to die on its peak. Our main character is Orin, a 69 year old woman, and we see her final year in the village before making the journey. Although almost 70 she is still extremely healthy and capable, but resolves not to be taken by fear and to make her journey to the mountain with dignity and to cause no embarrassment to her family. The majority of the film deals with life in the village, and it seems like an extremely brutal and harsh place to live. Near the beginning of the film we witness the discovery of a dead baby who had been hidden in the snow, found after the thaw of Spring. The reaction to this is not as dramatic as you might expect, and seems to be taken much more as a part of life in the village rather than an earth-shattering revelation. Later in the film a family found to be stealing from others in the village is punished in a particularly harsh and brutal manner as well. It seems in the village it is all about survival, and to emphasise this point there are various short sequences of nature (animals fighting, mating, hunting each other for food) spread throughout the film, creating a parallel between the village and its natural surroundings, both ruled through the idea of survival of the fittest. The film is gorgeous too, the village and its surroundings beautifully presented. Perhaps not something you would recommend if someone just wants to be entertained, but The Ballad of Narayama is harsh, beautiful, artful and raw. 7.5/10

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento, 2004)

I would not recommend this at all. It’s basically a terrible mother mistreating her son and getting him into horrible situations for about an hour and a half. It’s not even done in an especially engaging or affecting way, it attempts to be provocative but for me just came off as trashy. 3/10

Last Week’s Films (28/05 – 03/06)

Well, it seems I have a lot of catching up to do…

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1972)

A woman witnesses a man being murdered through her window in the apartment building across the street. The police are skeptical as she happens to be a journalist who writes unflattering pieces on police practices, so when they don’t find anything she gets a private detective to help her investigate. It was alright, a little strange in places, but well-enough made. 5/10

Batman Ninja (Junpei Mizusaki, 2018)

A Batman animated film where he ends up in feudal Japan fighting the usual rogue’s gallery. The idea of it was a little interesting, as was the animation at first, but the story was really dull and some of the voice acting (particularly the Joker) was awful. 3/10

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (Sam Liu, 2018)

Another animated Batman film. This time it’s set in a Victorian age Gotham with Batman trying to catch Jack the Ripper. Like in other Batman animated films the animation is not great, it just looks like an extended episode of a TV show. The voice acting was a little better in this one than Batman Ninja but overall I couldn’t get into this one much either. 4.5/10

Last Week’s Films (21/05 – 27/05)

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018)

This is yet another Star Wars film that has fallen a bit flat for me, much like Rogue One and The Last Jedi (although those two are probably more enjoyable than this one). You can tell that they changed directors halfway through production, the film doesn’t seem particularly well focused and is a little bit messy at times, and overall the film is a little bland and uninteresting. None of the performances were particularly interesting either, Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo has none of the effortless cool and aloofness of Harrison Ford’s equivalent, and although I like Donald Glover in general his Lando didn’t seem like anything more than an imitation of Billy Dee Williams rather than anything unique. The worst thing though was the cinematography (particularly the lighting). Everything was painfully dark, and it was hard to make out faces or details in most of the scenes that weren’t set outside in daylight. It’s fine, but fairly bland like most of these big franchise films. 5/10

Last Week’s Films (14/05 – 20/05)

Deadpool 2 (David Leitch, 2018)

I enjoyed the first Deadpool film, its plot was pretty dull, but I laughed at the jokes and enjoyed Ryan Reynolds performance. In Deadpool 2, the 4th wall breaking jokes seemed much more grating, and the plot was still incredibly dull (as expected). It was still fine, and there were some jokes that did manage to hit the mark for me, but overall I enjoyed it a fair bit less.  After seeing the various trailers/teasers over the past year or so, I knew I probably wouldn’t enjoy it too much… Whether it’s actually a worse film than the first or I’m just more of a misery guts now than two years ago is up for debate, but all I can say really is this: If you like Marvel films and enjoyed the Deadpool 2 trailer, you’ll like this too. 5/10

The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)

After winning the Academy Award for Best Director in the 1938 ceremony for The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey said “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture”. He was talking about the other film he directed in 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow, and I’ve always wondered if he was right. After watching The Awful Truth I can safely say that he was 100% correct. A screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne about a couple who are set to be divorced but go about ruining the other’s new romantic dalliances, it’s well made and has some amusing lines and sequences, but when compared to the heartbreaking and powerful Make Way for Tomorrow it doesn’t really stand up. While still happy to have watched The Awful Truth, it’s not something I would have expected to have won any Oscars. 5.5/10

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

(contains spoilers)

After the violent and grim nature of the past two entries(Unforgiven and Halloween), I felt it was time for something a little more optimistic and heartfelt. For that, I turn to Studio Ghibli, and their 1995 film Whisper of the Heart. When people talk about the best of Studio Ghibli, they’ll usually refer to Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and the likes of Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke, which are all incredible films, but for me Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart stands right up there with them all. Eschewing the fantasy settings and elements of a typical Miyazaki Ghibli film and instead following a teenage girl in contemporary Tokyo, Whisper of the Heart is a film about passion, art, inspiration, creativity and love, and the difficulties that can be faced in following your dreams.

The film follows a 14 year old girl named Shizuku, and begins with a look into her school and homelife. Shizuku seems bookish and creative, checking books out of the library at school and sharing lyrics she has rewritten for the song “Country Roads” with her friend Yuko. We see that her parents are both incredibly busy with work and studies, and Shizuku is largely left to her own devices, spending much of her time reading books in her room. When looking at the checkout cards in the books she has borrowed from the library, she notices the same name appearing on them all: Seiji Amasawa, and wonders what kind of person he might be (I imagine checkout cards don’t exist anymore and they just use computers now, but they used to have a card in each library book  into which they wrote the name of each person who borrowed it, and date). I love this as a narrative device, it’s really simple and lends itself well to romantic daydreaming. If someone is checking out all the same books as you, it’s likely they share your interests and you would imagine you’d get along well with them. Naturally, since Shizuku is a lover of romance and fairy tales, she lets her imagination run free. We also see as Shizuku meets a male fellow student, not knowing his name but finding his demeanour and attitude irritating, after he finds and reads her rewritten lyrics including a joke version “Country Roads” changed to “Concrete Roads”.

Shizuku and a cat on the train

Later, when delivering lunch to her father at the library where he works, Shizuku notices a cat on the train with her. It gets off at the same stop she does, so she decides to follow it, and ends up at an antique shop. She is drawn to a statue of a cat that the owner of the shop, Nishi, tells her is named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The Baron is part of a pair of statues, and Nishi tells Shizuku he has been looking for its partner for many years. He also shows Shizuku an old clock he has just finished repairing and tells her the romantic story behind it. Realising the time and that she’s late delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku runs from the shop to the library and as she nears the entrance she hears someone call her name. It’s the irritating schoolmate from earlier, who has arrived on his bike with the lunch she had left at the antique shop in her rush to the library. It’s establish Nishi is his grandfather, and he insults Shizuku as he gives her the lunchbag, and she notices the cat from before on the back of his bike as he rides away.

The film continues to follow Shizuku’s daily life, mainly at school, where we see her talk with her friend about crushes and the lyrics she is writing, until she again visits the antique shop, finding it closed but with the cat from before sitting outside. Her irritating schoolmate shows up again and lets her into the shop to look at the statue of the Baron, before she goes downstairs to find him working on making a violin. She discovers his ambition to become a violin maker, and his plans to move to a village in Italy where he can be taught the art from the masters. She asks him to play something on the violin for her, and he plays “Country Roads”. Shizuku sings along with her rewritten lyrics and Nishi arrives with his friends to accompany them on their own instruments. After their joyous rendition of the song ends, Shizuku learns that her annoying schoolmate is none other than Seiji Amasawa, the boy who had been borrowing all the same books as her from the library.  She reacts angrily at first, feeling her romantic daydreams about Seiji were completely ruined, but calms down and the two become close as the days pass, spending more time together.

Seiji tells Shizuku about his plans to go to Italy

On the rooftop at school, Seiji tells Shizuku that he will be going to Cremona, Italy for two months to study violin making on a trial basis to see if the masters there think he is capable, and it’s at this point that Shizuku chooses to dedicate herself to following her own dreams, inspired in part by Seiji’s determination to test himself, and resolves to write a story in the two months Seiji is away, to test her own capabilities. She visits Nishi in his shop to ask permission to use the Baron as a character in her story, who agrees on the condition that he is the first to read her finished story.  She expresses doubt about her talent and ability to write a good story, and Nishi laughs, telling her she sounds like any other artist. He gives her a geode, tells her there are emeralds within but they must be looked for, refined and polished, much like it is hard work for creative types to look inward and find the gems within, and polish them to their highest standard.

The geode Nishi gives to Shizuku

Shizuku works hard on her story for the next two months, letting her schoolwork deteriorate in pursuit of her goal. Finally she is finished and rushes to Nishi’s shop to have him read the story. It’s fairly long, so Shizuku waits outside while Nishi reads it, and when he comes to tell her he has finished she breaks down crying, fearing she isn’t good enough and comparing herself unfavourably to Seiji who seems much more advanced in achieving his goals. Nishi tells her that he enjoyed the story, that it’s a little raw and needs polishing, but that it is a good first draft. He invites her inside for noodles, and tells her that Seiji was even more upset than she was when he finished his first violin.  Nishi then tells her the full story behind the statue of the Baron. He was in Germany as a youth, where he found his first love, a woman name Louise. The two frequented a cafe there which had the statue of the Baron, but the owner wouldn’t sell him as he was part of a pair, and its partner was being repaired. Eventually, Nishi managed to buy the Baron with the promise that Louise would buy its partner after it was repaired, and the two would be reunited when Nishi returned to Germany. Unfortunately, shortly after Nishi returned to Japan, World War II began and he could not return until much later. He was unable to find Louise or the Baron’s partner, and though he has been looking ever since, was unable to be reunited with either.  The stories in Whisper of the Heart are generally romantic in nature, like fairy tales, and work well in showing how and where creative people can get some of their inspiration. Nishi’s real life story ties in to Shizuku’s own work, and also marries well with her romantic daydreaming and general love of fairy tales.

Shizuku and Seiji look out over Tokyo

The film finishes with Seiji’s return, where he has decided to first finish high school before pursuing his violin making in Italy.  Shizuku makes a similar decision to focus on her studies in order to learn more about writing, and the two continue their relationship. Seiji professes his love for Shizuku as the film ends, and talks about marriage in the future, to which she happily agrees. The abrupt and somewhat corny ending has its critics, but I feel it fits well with Seiji’s character. As Shizuku says herself in response, he’s “a violin maker, not a writer”. Its simplicity and optimism also works in its depiction of young love, free of complication and cynicism, simply hopeful and pure.

My love for this film comes from its relatable depiction of the creative process. The hard work, the self-doubt, the joy in finally making something even if it still needs refinement. In showing us what inspires and drives its characters, it gives its audience inspiration as well. Young love is ripe and well trodden ground for stories and cinema, but Whisper of the Heart’s love letter to creativity and pure, motivated characters sets it apart. If it’s not my favourite Studio Ghibli film, it’s certainly at least in contention. Tragically, this was Yoshifumi Kondo’s only feature film as director after death by aneurysm at the age of 47. While we can only dream of what might have been, I am eternally thankful for the joy of Whisper of the Heart.

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Halloween

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

(contains spoilers)

I know that this is probably 5 months too early, but it doesn’t have to be Halloween for you to enjoy Halloween… John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic’s incredible box office takings (it made about 200 times its budget) supercharged the popularity and prevalence of the slasher genre in the years to follow, spawning many sequels, rivals (notably the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series) and imitators. There’s some quality, charm and value in what was to follow, but really none of it held a candle to Halloween. What I love most about Halloween, and the main reason I’d place it above its rivals is how effectively it builds tension, using camera, lighting, sound and music cues to create a sense of dread and menace for its silent antagonist Michael Myers. Michael doesn’t have to speak for the audience to realise how dangerous he is, the film is constructed in a way that consistently portrays him as an intimidating figure. The film isn’t particularly excessive or gratuitous in its depiction of violence, really it’s all in the build up.

The film opens in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963, a point of view shot outside a suburban home, we watch through the eyes of an unknown person as they look through the window of the house at a teenage girl and her boyfriend fooling around on the sofa. We watch as they retire upstairs, and the camera slowly and deliberately moves into the house following this mysterious person’s point of view. We get to the stairs and see the boyfriend exit the house, and the mystery person goes upstairs to the girl’s room, putting on a clown mask he finds on the floor. He enters the room, we see the girl recognises him as “Michael” and then the mystery person stabs her to death. The camera then quickly moves back downstairs and out into the street where a car has pulled up, two adults exiting the car and also recognising this mystery person as “Michael”. They remove the mask and the camera pulls out to reveal whose point of view we have been following: a young boy in a clown costume for Halloween.

We then cut to 15 years later, and are introduced to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), on his way to a maximum security mental hospital with a nurse to pick up a patient to take to a judge. We learn this patient is Michael Myers, and Dr. Loomis feels that he is not even human, more like evil incarnate. It’s a dark and rainy night, and upon arrival at the hospital some of the inmates seem to be loose in the grounds. They stop at the main gate and Loomis exits the car to investigate. An inmate manages to jump onto Loomis’ vehicle and break in, driving away into the night. Loomis knows it’s Michael Myers, who will be on his way back to Haddonfield.

Cutting back to Haddonfield, we are introduced to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a bookish and innocent high school student whose father is a realtor. On her way to school, her father asks her to leave a key at the old Myers house, where the murder took place 15 years ago, which he is trying to sell. When Laurie approaches the house, the camera switches to a view inside the house, looking out onto the porch at Laurie, and we hear heavy breathing. Michael steps slightly in to shot accompanied by an ominous musical sting, his face obscured by the dark, and creates a sense of dread regarding his intentions.

The film continues in this vein for the next 20 minutes or so, following Laurie as she goes about her day at school and walking home with friends, talking about their plans to babysit in the evening. The camera often watches from afar, and sometimes feels as though it’s stalking the other characters. Michael is seen to be following them in his stolen car, and Laurie catches glimpses of him through the day (accompanied by musical stings, and sometimes a portion of Michael’s trademark theme). Laurie will see Michael, look away, then when she looks back to see if anyone is still there sees no one.

Laurie sees Michael as she looks out of her classroom window
Laurie sees Michael peek out from behind a hedge while walking home from school

In these types of shots Michael appears as a small or obscured figure in the frame, primarily identifiable by his mask.  That Michael is often seen from a distance, inactive and unmoving, gives an impression of a menacing figure and creates a sense of tension and foreboding, but the distance makes the danger seem less immediate and instead makes us tense about possible dangers to come. As well as following Laurie’s day and Michael’s stalking, we see Dr. Loomis rushing to Haddonfield where he is certain Michael will return to commit further atrocities, and his attempts to alert local law enforcement to the danger. Loomis helps to add to the sense of danger around Michael, regarding Michael as a remorseless, evil “it” and more devil than human. This build-up by Loomis makes Michael’s stalking seem even more menacing, and helps to ensure the audience does not look for human qualities in Michael to empathise with casting him firmly in the role of the monster.

At dusk we watch as Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) drive together to their babysitting jobs, Laurie looking after a small boy named Tommy, and Annie looking after a girl named Lindsey across the street. On the drive over, it is dusk and we can see Michael following the girls in his stolen car. By the time they arrive at the houses they will be babysitting at it’s completely dark, and the girls haven’t noticed Michael following and watching. A little later, Annie’s boyfriend calls and tells her he is now free for the night, so Annie takes Lindsey over to Tommy’s house to sleepover there and be looked after by Laurie. She gets into her car to go pick up her boyfriend and is murdered by Michael who was hiding in the backseat. Tommy had seen Michael outside of Lindsey’s house and told Laurie the “boogeyman” was outside, but he had disappeared from sight by the time Laurie looked outside and is dismissed as being part of Tommy’s imagination.

Tommy sees the “boogeyman” outside his window

Not long after this has happened, Lynda (P.J. Soles), another friend of Annie and Laurie’s, and her boyfriend arrive at Lindsey’s house. Finding the house dark and empty, and thinking they have the place to themselves, they head upstairs to fool around. Afterwards, Lynda’s boyfriend goes downstairs for some beer and is stabbed and killed by Michael. Michael heads upstairs wearing a sheet and Lynda’s boyfriend’s glasses, standing silently and still in the doorway. Lynda thinks it’s her boyfriend and reacts flirtatiously, but when Michael just continues to stand silently she gets bored and calls Laurie. Laurie answers and hears as Michael is strangling Lynda with the phone cord, but thinks it’s just Lynda playing a prank and hangs up. Having not heard anything from Annie, and after this strange call from Lynda, Laurie is a little suspicious and decides to go over to Lindsey’s house to investigate. There she discovers Annie’s corpse displayed on bed upstairs along with Judith Myers’ headstone, whom Michael had murdered 15 years previously. In the same room she finds the bodies of Lynda and her boyfriend, and screams in terror. Michael emerges from the shadows and slashes at Laurie, but she manages to escape the house and runs back across the street to the children.

Michael emerges silently from the shadows

Michael follows and attempts to kill Laurie again, who struggles with him and manages to stab him with his own knife. But Michael rises and follows again, and once more Laurie gets the best of Michael and manages to stab him in the eye with a wire hanger. Thinking that Michael has been killed, Laurie goes to the children, but Michael rises once more and goes after Laurie. The children flee and look for help, Dr. Loomis sees them run from the house and enters, goes upstairs and shoots Michael six times, knocking him out of a second story window. When Laurie and Loomis look outside, the body has disappeared. The film ends with shots of all the places in Haddonfield Michael has visited in his reign of terror, accompanied with the sound of Michael’s heavy breathing, and ends on a shot of the Myers’ household…

Michael rises again after being stabbed by Laurie

Anyone watching this film for the first time today will probably find it cliched, but many of the horror tropes in Halloween like the promiscuous teens being killed off, the silent masked killer and the Final Girl trope became popular largely due to Halloween’s immense success. Disregarding the tropes, there’s still a lot, even now, that separates Halloween from its imitators and successors. I think there’s a lot of value in thinking about how they portray Michael; where he appears in the frame, how often we see him, how he’s lit and music/sound that accompanies him. All in all, I can’t get tired of watching this film, regardless of how tired some of the tropes it uses has now become. Plus, the theme song is fucking great!

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Unforgiven

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

(Contains spoilers)

I used to say that the hotel chain Best Western should just change their name to Unforgiven, because I like lame jokes, and love this film. While I might reconsider that today, it’s certainly up in the top 3 shooting it out with Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made in 1992, long after the height of the genre’s popularity, Unforgiven is a revisionist Western, abound with moral greys and questioning the ideals of the traditional Western films of the 30s to 60s. It’s something of a bookend, a farewell to the Western in a time of its declining popularity, and so it’s appropriate that it stars and is directed by one of the most famous and popular faces of the genre in Clint Eastwood.

For me, Unforgiven is about stories and bravado, and how these things break down when put to the test in the harsh light of reality. The film opens with a long shot of a man digging a grave in low light, text crawl on screen telling us of a woman “not without prospects” who married a notorious outlaw named William Munny (Clint Eastwood), disappointing her mother, and who later died of smallpox. The film moves to a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where a prostitute is cut and disfigured by a cowboy for laughing at the size of his manhood, and the sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) orders the cowboy and his friend who accompanied him to pay the brothel’s owner Skinny compensation for the damaged “property” in the form of some horses. This soft punishment angers the prostitutes in the brothel, who put out a $1000 reward for the assassination of tthe two men, setting the events of the film in motion.

When we first see William Munny on screen, he is working on his farm with his two young children, having trouble wrangling pigs. He is approached by  man on horseback, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).

The Kid approaches William Munny at his farmhouse

The Schofield Kid is full of swagger, and requests that the infamous William Munny accompany him to Big Whiskey to assassinate the cowboys so they can split the reward. At first Munny refuses, but after a few days reflecting on his failing farm and the tough future it would bring for his children, he rides off to catch up with the Kid and recruits an old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help. When they catch up to the Kid, they are again met with bravado and arrogance.

Munny and Logan approach the Kid

The Kid boasts about men that he has killed, and that killing the two cowboys for the reward money will be no problem for someone like him, but we soon learn that he is extremely short-sighted, and can barely see 50 yards in front of him. The Kid paints himself as a man not to be reckoned with, prideful and quick to anger whenever Ned or Munny may question his supposed abilities, but as the film continues we will see this bravado disintegrate. Before the group gets to Big Whiskey though, there is a subplot involving an infamous gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), who has heard of the reward money and plans to go carry out the assassinations himself. We meet English Bob as he is making his way by train to Big Whiskey, and feel his notoriety through the fearful way other passengers react to the name. We also see his formidable marksmanship in a bird-shooting contest with another passenger. English Bob is accompanied by a biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who hopes to catalogue Bob’s deeds for his next book. Through English Bob, Unforgiven will show us for the first time how stories, bravado and reputation don’t necessarily compare favourably with reality.

When English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey, he brazenly flaunts its no weapons within town limits rule and is soon beaten and arrested by Little Bill. In the jailhouse, Little Bill reads Beauchamp’s book “The Duke of Death” containing a story of English Bob getting the better of and shooting down a notorious gunfighter in a tavern, defending a woman’s honour. Bill tells Beauchamp that he was in the tavern that night, and rather than the glorious, skilful gunfight depicted in his story, the reality was much more messy, cowardly and honourless. English Bob was drunk, and the only woman involved was one who slept with the gunfighter, which made Bob jealous. Bob fired on the gunfighter in a surprise attack, and missed twice. When the gunfighter went to return fire, his pistol exploded in his hand, and as he was lying incapacitated on the floor, Bob approached him and shot him through the liver, killing him. To further demonstrate Bob’s cowardice and the shallowness of his bravado, Bill offers him a pistol in his jail cell, but Bob refuses, preferring not to take any chances in a gunfight with Little Bill. The next morning, Bob is kicked out of town, and Beauchamp decides to stay and write about Little Bill, who seems to be a truly hard man.

English Bob, beaten and driven from Big Whiskey

Soon after, we see Ned, Munny and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey amid heavy rain during the night. They go to the brothel and speak with the prostitutes to learn more about the two men they’ll be killing, and where they will find them. Munny, rain-soaked and feverish, sits downstairs while Ned and the Kid cavort with the prostitutes upstairs taking an “advance” on their reward money. Little Bill arrives and beats Munny for carrying a pistol, throwing him out of the saloon. Ned and the Kid hear this commotion and leave through the upstairs window, meeting with Munny and disappearing into the night to recover outside of town. We have heard that Munny is a man to be feared, but instead all we have seen so far is an old man with a failing farm, too sick to defend himself from Little Bill.  Once Munny has recovered, the three men head off to complete their mission, ambushing and killing one of the two cowboys. Ned and Munny find that they have lost their taste for murder, with Ned unable to take the shot to kill the cowboy in the ambush, instead passing the rifle over to Munny, who reluctantly commits the deed. Ned decides to return home, having had his fill of this unpleasantness, while Munny stays on with the Kid to finish what they started.

Ned, Munny and the Kid reflect on having killed the cowboy

Munny and the Kid head to a cabin in which the final cowboy is hiding out, protected by some of Little Bill’s men. The Kid ambushes the cowboy as he visits the outhouse, shooting and killing him, and the Kid and Munny escape to the outskirts of Big Whiskey where they await one of the prostitutes arriving with their reward money. The Kid is clearly affected by his murder of the cowboy, admitting that his previous boasts were all just stories and he had never killed anyone before, breaking down and swearing off the life of an outlaw for good.

The Kid, troubled after his murder of the cowboy

A prostitute arrives with the men’s money, and informs the two that Ned had been captured by Little Bill, tortured to death while revealing Munny’s identity. Munny reacts to this news by drinking Ned’s bottle of whisky, his first drink since meeting his now-dead wife when he swore off the life of an outlaw. He gives the money to the Kid and sends him back to Kansas to give a share of the money to Ned’s wife, and a share to Munny’s children, then heads into Big Whiskey for revenge, where we see Ned’s body outside of the brothel, as a warning to other would-be “assassins”.

Munny enters the bar, crowded with Little Bill and his associates, with a shotgun and asks who the owner is. He shoots the unarmed owner down in cold blood, explaining he “should have armed himself, if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.” He then moves the gun to Little Bill, with one shot left. Bill tells his men to open fire as soon as Munny shoots him. The shotgun misfires, but Munny is quick in drawing his pistol and manages to shoot Bill along with some of his men and emerges unscathed. Munny tells the remaining men “Anyone don’t wanna get killed, better clear on out the back”, and they oblige him by retreating. Bill, still alive but gravely injured, says he doesn’t deserve to die like this, to which Munny replies that “Deserves got nothing to do with it”. Bill tells Munny he’ll see him in hell, Munny pauses, replies with a simple “Yeah…” and finishes off Bill with a final gunshot. On leaving the bar to escape, Munny shouts into the night that if any man takes a shot at him, he’ll kill him, his friends, and and his family in retribution. We see various men hiding in the shadows outside the bar, all too afraid to take a shot at Munny. William Munny’s reputation, the horrible stories about his past as an outlaw, coupled with the terrifying display the men witnessed themselves in the bar as Munny gunned down five men single handed, allows Munny to escape unscathed even when vastly outnumbered, solely through the power of fear and reputation.

Munny seeks revenge in the bar, preparing to shoot Little Bill

Munny threatens to return for further vengeance if any of the prostitutes are harmed, or if Ned is not buried in a proper manner, then leaves the town of Big Whiskey, riding into another rain-soaked night. The film finishes with a final long shot of the farmhouse in low light, a title crawl explaining that Munny’s wife’s mother visited the farmhouse years later to see her daughter’s grave, with Munny and the children already long gone, rumoured to be in San Francisco where they have “prospered in dry goods”.

Throughout Unforgiven we are forced to think about stories and bravado. The Kid’s stories and boasts about men he killed and his prideful nature, English Bob with his own biographer and hard reputation, and of course William Munny’s storied past as an outlaw and scoundrel. We see it break down in various ways, whether it’s just outright lies as in the case of the Kid, or exaggeration and poetic license with English Bob. We compare Ned and Munny, who ran wild together in their past outlaw days, and how they have differed in old age. With Ned now unable to even take a single shot in anger, and Munny driven back to his old violent ways through tragedy. Munny found salvation, a better life and a way out of his old outlaw lifestyle through his wife, but fell back into violence after she was gone, although still trying to be better than before. We can think of how the title, Unforgiven, applies to him in this way: once absolved and saved by his wife, but later at the mercy of his predilection towards violence.

It’s fair to say this is one of my favourite Westerns, and, for me, probably the best film Clint Eastwood has directed.  Whether or not you enjoy Westerns, I still recommend Unforgiven.