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The Bad and the Ugly.

By Coury Turczyn

JUNE 22, 1998:  Clint Eastwood, God bless 'im, is a great movie star. With his stoic chin, gritted teeth, and blazing glare, he's able to convey a wealth of screen magnetism with an economy of speech or gesture. He doesn't have to grandstand—he's Clint Eastwood, damn it. He's used this same approach as a filmmaker, too, bringing a low-key feel to movies like Unforgiven or Bird. Sometimes this is good. Other times, as in his recent book adaptations, it's not so good.

Eastwood was precisely the wrong director to bring John Berendt's atmospheric true-crime bestseller to the screen. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil enraptured readers with its sense of place, delving into the character and characters of Savannah, Georgia, while ostensibly reporting on the murder trial of prominent resident Jim Williams. With descriptive passages full of dark nightclubs and colorful personalities, Berendt's book celebrated a city that had previously gone unnoticed in the public eye (and in the process made Savannah a huge tourist destination). But as movie fodder, it presents a major problem—its narrator is a passive character; things happen to him, not because of him. So how do you make a movie where the hero just watches stuff occur? Eastwood patches things up, sort of, by making John Cusack's writer an active participant in Williams' legal defense (so much for objectivity), allowing him to question people.

Still, he mostly watches stuff—and the stuff Eastwood has chosen for him to watch are the dullest bits from the book. Instead of focusing on Savannah itself, as Berendt did, Eastwood turns his gaze to the courtroom for a barely endurable trial (for the viewer as well as Kevin Spacey's Williams). What Garden really needed was a director with visual flair and an eye for the eccentric; what the static, straightlaced Eastwood delivers is an especially nice TV movie of the week. What a tremendous bore.

The Bridges of Madison County is barely more watchable. The most that can be said for it is that Eastwood's styleless approach manages to drain a lot of the treacle out of Robert James Waller's romance novel. Eastwood stars as a National Geographic photographer of 1965 in Iowa to shoot some scenic bridges. He crosses paths with Meryl Streep's dowdy housewife and romance (not to mention sex) blossoms. (Never mind the fact that she's married and has children...gee, wouldn't it be oh-so-romantic to do a whole movie about a husband who cheats on his wife?) Eastwood does nicely capture the small moments of courtship, and his slow pacing suits the material. But by movie's end, it becomes clear that Bridges is not much more than a Harlequin-style yarn—without the fun.

If only Eastwood's agent would just stop sending him book projects...

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