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Films A-Z

A day late, a dollar short and wearing a brand-new shirt with a food stain on it — that’s my life story and I’m sticking to it. So naturally on the heels of so many other movie bloggers, I decided to participate in the A-Z film lists.

Enjoy…

A is for “Apocalypse Now”

 

 

B is for “Blazing Saddles”

 

 

C is for “Clueless”

 

 

D is for “Dead Man Walking”

 

 

E is for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

 

 

F is for “The Fall”

 

 

G is for “Gojira”

 

 

H is for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

 

 

I is for “Idiocracy”

 

 

J is for “Jindabyne”

  

K is for “Key Largo”

 

 

L is for “Lars and the Real Girl”

 

 

M is for “The Maltese Falcon”

 

 

N is for “No Country for Old Men”

 

 

O is for “Out of the Past”

 

 

P is for “Plan 9 from Outer Space”

 

 

Q is for “Quills”

 

 

R is for “The Rules of Attraction”

 

 

S is for “Secretary”

 

 

T is for “12 Angry Men”

 

 

U is for “Unforgiven”

 

 

V is for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

  

W is for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

  

X is for “XXX” (a.k.a. “That Movie Where Vin Diesel Was Not Shirtless Often Enough”)

  

Y is for “Young Frankenstein”

  

Z is for “Zoolander”

No. 17: “Unforgiven” (1992)

“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” ~~Bill Munny

Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) likes to think he’s a man whose occupations chose him and not the other way around. Marriage, followed by widowerhood, led him to a hard life as a father and hog farmer in Kansas. Whiskey, devilment and killing occupied his younger days, though not because of any real talent. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks,” he remarks to a fellow gunman, and he means it. For better or worse, chance, he believes, has dictated the course of his life.

The way Eastwood plays him, Munny’s delusional and right. Splendidly lensed and acted, Eastwood’s expansive “Unforgiven” is a thorough study of fate versus human nature. Herein lies the dark magic of Eastwood’s Western: The actor/director takes typical Western themes — lawlessness and justice, wild men “tamed” by good women — and upends them. Greed and lust push lawmen to abuse power, while killers operate according to their own moral codes. He asks: Does chance make men what they are? Or does chance play understudy to human nature, be it twisted and cruel or merciful?

Don’t wait on easy answers; Eastwood isn’t about to provide them. “Unforgiven” is a hard film, and in it Eastwood travels into the furthest corners of man’s psyche. He does so by merging two stories: that of Munny and Little Bill Daggett, the violent sheriff of small-town Big Whiskey, Wyo. Munny believes marriage and sobriety cured him of wickedness, but temptation tests him: The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a boastful gunman, wants Munny to partner with him on a bounty hunting mission. They could collect $1,000 for killing two men involved in carving up a prostitute (Anna Levine) in Big Whiskey. Munny resists — “I ain’t like that anymore” — but soon realizes he needs the money. Farming he can’t master, but killing? That he knows deep down and in ways he doesn’t like to talk about.

Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s old partner in crime, knows killing too, and he signs on for a piece of the reward. “I guess they got it comin’,” Ned figures, but in tracking the offenders he discovers he cannot pull the trigger. This offers a counterpoint for Munny’s transformation, who reclaims his will to kill at the same moment Ned loses his. This proves useful because Daggett, remarkably sadistic for such a principled lawman, does not welcome gunslingers. Nor does he suffer braggarts, and that includes English Bob (Richard Harris), who rides into town with his biographer (Saul Rubinek) and intends to collect that reward. Daggett has other ideas, especially since it’s the injured prostitute’s friends who’ve offered the prize. Those who undermine the sheriff’s authority, Bob learns, pay a brutally steep price. Hackman’s ability to move from quiet condescension to volcanic rage in these moments is disturbing.

One of the most impressive aspects of “Unforgiven” is the amazing depth David Webb Peoples’ script gives its characters. The line between “heroes” and “criminals” is blurred by the ways the act of killing affects the killers. Daggett holds a position of honor, but he is so ruthlessly self-serving that he’s hardly a beacon of morality. (Hackman, in fact, makes him a despicable villain for the ages.) Munny claims to have reformed but reverts to his old ways easily — only, he says, to avenge a friend’s death. Yet in his steely expressions and tone of voice, Eastwood suggests this change could be more permanent, that Munny might have opened a door he cannot shut. And somewhere in the middle are Ned (Freeman smartly plays him as relieved and disgusted with his inability to pull the trigger) and The Kid, who realizes too late that the fantasy of murder and its reality are vastly different.

On par with the acting is the film’s cinematography and set design, both nothing short of awe-inspiring. Big Whiskey seems every inch a quaint, congenial Western town, but it’s almost too quaint; there’s an undercurrent of unease. Meanwhile, panoramic shots of the dusty plains surrounding Munny’s farm, nearly empty for miles and framed by sunset, highlight his isolation. “We’ve all got it coming,” he tells The Kid, and he’d rather be alone with his demons when it comes for him.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Unforgiven” (1992); dir. by Clint Eastwood; starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Frances Fisher.

The moment: Early morning (3:13 a.m.), my bathroom floor. A showdown between M. Carter @ the Movies and a spider with eyes big enough to reflect the flashlight beam.

The correlation: Evil Glinty-Eyed spider: “I don’t deserve to die like this. I was huntin’ bugs.” Me: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Squish.

10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)