Thursday, October 14, 2010

HEREAFTER opens: finally -- a Clint Eastwood movie I can (nearly) embrace

TrustMovies is delighted by HEREAFTER, the new Clint Eastwood film about near-death experience, life after the big D, and love in the here-and-now. Apparently, though not exactly alone in his delight, TM's opinion goes against those of many critics who generally favor Eastwood's earlier oeuvre and are rather down on this new one. For this reviewer, however, it's the reverse: Million Dollar Baby and Grand Torino (to name but two very popular Eastwood films) struck him as among the most over-rated, not to mention over-the-top, heavy-handers in recent film history, yet Hereafter is often surprisingly delicate -- never more so than when it is dealing with one-on-one moments between its several protagonists.

Eastwood (shown on set at left) is a director who generally favors cliché. It's one thing to do this where themes are concerned: How many are there, really? We're stuck with a very limited repertoire. It's how a director handles the theme that counts, and here Eastwood has often brought out the sledge hammer.  Which makes it all the more remarkable how precisely and with great feeling the scenes between his various protagonists turn out. Granted, he's used some wonderful actors -- Matt Damon (two photos below, left), Cécile De France (below, right), Steve Schirripa (also fine -- yet so different -- in the recent Hungry Ghosts), Richard Kind, Jay Mohr (two photos below, right), Stéphane Freiss -- plus some new actors (whom we should soon see more of) and one, Bryce Dallas Howard, who's better here than I've seen her in any other of her films.

Eastwood has also given his actors the space to react, respond and live -- and then put this together (the editing -- by Joel Cox and Gary Roach -- is superb) so that we're with these people moment-to-moment and about as deeply and realistically as movies make possible. Unlike, say, Changling, in which performances were good but the direction too pushy and the movie (as often happens with Eastwood films) far too lengthy for what it had to show and tell, Hereafter runs two hours (plus credits) and is all of a piece. And -- wow -- how its pieces fit so interestingly together!

During the first few minutes of the movie, we are treated to perhaps the most spectacular set piece to have appeared in any Eastwood film (forget that: any film that I recall) with special effects for a change so special and real that this viewer was blown away. Other than the initial shot of the event, as seen from above, Eastwood keeps his camera low so we're with the participants all the way. This is stunning stuff. But because it happens early in the movie and nothing else remotely comes up to this level of shock and awe, you might think that Eastwood has mis-considered by giving us something this spectacular at the beginning, rather than at the end. Not at all.

Like (almost) everything else in the film, because this scene is of such high quality, we don't miss not getting more of the same. Each ensuing scene proceeds in similar fashion -- providing us with just about the best of its type that we could want. Whether it's a suspense scene (in the subway with the young boy and his brother's cap), a "building the relationship" scene (in the cooking school, as Howard and Damon, blindfolded, taste various foods), or a scene about love, loss and career (de France and her boss/lover, played quite well by Thierry Neuvic -- below, right -- talk over the "next step"), Eastwood and his cast nail it every time.

A word of praise must be doled out to screenwriter Peter Morgan, who, up to now, has given us some fine films about state, sports, politics, and people (The Queen, The Damned United, Frost/Nixon, Longford). Suddenly, here he is dealing with something otherworldly. And doing it about as well as anyone has done. The afterlife is not a subject of which I am overly fond. I don't believe in it (but then how would I -- or any of us -- know?), I don't care about it (we ought to make the best of our time now, not when we're gone) and I find the amount of time that our art and culture spend on this subject rather frightful and disappointing.

And yet I loved this movie. Because, though it is just a movie, it takes us quite pleasurably away from the everyday and into the realm of fancy and fantasy -- while keeping us grounded by making every fanciful event, feeling and moment utterly humane. So well do we care about and understand the characters on view that we'll follow them anywhere, even into the otherworldly. This is the mark of very worthwhile mainstream filmmaking.

Now, about that caveat I mentioned in an earlier post (and above, by using the word "almost"): my biggest, my only gripe, really, is why Mr Eastwood, since he has handled so much else so beautifully, could not have found some way to bring us the death/near-death experience and/or the medium's (Mr. Damon) experience of communicating with the dead without resorting to the same old clichés of white light and sudden, short appearances of fractured images of the departed. We've seen these countless time already; surely film vocabulary is large enough to encompass a new way to show us near-death and communication with the dead? And if not, then how about just using sound effects? Those that Eastwood and his sound crew have managed in this film are actually quite good, so why not drop the visuals and just go with sound? Or better yet, because the acting is of such a high order, why not let the actors make the connection between the medium and his subject solely on their skillful interpretation of these moments? That would be something to see!

Perhaps the filmmaker and his studio (the ever-obvious Warner Bros) decided that mainstream audiences would not be able to accept such subtlety. But you never know until you try. Meanwhile, we have so much else to savor here: Mr. Schirripa's delightful cooking classes; Ms de France's artful ability to turn a high-level, power playing TV reporter into an vulnerable, confused young woman (compare this performance to the one's she currently giving in Mesrine: Killer Instinct); Mr. Damon's wonderful ability to underplay for maximum emotion; Ms Howard (below, left), with her cheery exterior, so sweet and slightly over-the-top, collapsing into sobs on the staircase; and the splendid set of twins Frankie and George McLaren (shown above, but don't ask me which is which), who bring such gravity and kindness to the movie.

I could go on because, despite my caveats, there's so much to love about Hereafter that I look forward to seeing it again soon. Meanwhile, you can view it starting tomorrow, October 15, here in NYC at AMC Lowe's Lincoln Square or Regal Union Square 14, as well as elsewhere around the country.


GHJ - said...

Good to hear Jim! A few other writers I admire have actually liked HEREAFTER as well. But the majority opinion is definitely negative. I'm a Clint enthusiast as you know and will watch anything he does. I fear this film will tread on similar ground as the schmaltzy INVICTUS, but from the sound of your review Clint handles such precious themes well.

TrustMovies said...

As a Clint enthusiast (which I am most definitely NOT), your review will be at the top of my must-read list. Yes, INVICITUS was schmaltzy but more than that, pretty boring (another one of his too-long movies). I can't imagine that you won't appreciate HEREAFTER more. But we shall see....