Monday, January 26, 2009

Old Car, Old Star

The success of Gran Torino has left me totally angry and bewildered. Critics and audiences rarely agree so enthusiastically, but such is the curious case of Gran Torino. The Metacritic critics give it an average rating of 72 out of 100. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Gran Torino is 76% fresh. You can find it on the IMDB Top 250 at position 82. That means that viewers have ranked it as the 82nd best film of all time. Some of the films that Gran Torino is, apparently, better than: Billy Wilder's 1960 masterpiece The Apartment (#89), Stanley Kubrick's polarizing-yet-undeniably impressive Full Metal Jacket (#93), the Coens' Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men (#95), Orson Welles' trippy Touch of Evil (#94), the exquisite Life is Beautiful (#87), a little film called 2001: A Space Odyssey (#84), and, most egregious to me, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (#98). It's creeping up way-too-quickly, like within the next ten, on comedic milestone Some Like It Hot (#81), Singin' in the Rain (#79), Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (#78), Metropolis (#77), All About Eve (#75), and yet another brilliant Chaplin film, City Lights (#71). What is this? Is Clint Eastwood trying to pick a fight with Charlie Chaplin?

Two weekends ago, Gran Torino went wide (couldn't it have stayed narrow?) and took in $30 million at the box office to become the number one movie in America. Last weekend, it fell to number two but still scooped up over $20 million more. This weekend pushed the total gross all the way up to $97 million! I can't believe this movie is going to pass the much-coveted $100 million mark! Gran Torino has also been named one of the best films of the year (National Board of Review). It has been nominated for awards and even won a couple (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor - the screwy Board of Review again). I'm so grateful that the Academy shut it out, but still, all the accolades and the overwhelming public and critical love... do I put this...


Seriously! What kind of topsy-turvy hell is this? Is this a cosmic joke? Am I part of an experiment, à la The Truman Show? This is reality. Welcome to it. And yes, the melodramatics WERE necessary.

So, just in case people don't know, Clint Eastwood actually released two films in 2008 - prestige project Changeling starring Angelina Jolie and Gran Torino. Oh, how I WISH all the hullabaloo was about Changeling, but it's not. It should be, though! Changeling is an astronomically better film and one that has been horribly passed over and forgotten. But hey, who cares about substance and pesky things like "plot" when you can see an almost 80-year-old Clint with a gun? I was surprised that he was releasing two films in the same year again, but as the two projects were unrelated (no Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima here), I suspected that the SECOND one, Gran Torino, would suffer from hasty production (it did) and fade away (it didn't). I saw the trailer for Gran Torino for the first time, oddly enough, right before Changeling. It was the last trailer before the film started. I laughed heartily on the inside. It looked so absurd and, well...bad. Certainly no one would take it seriously. And putting it immediately before Changeling made it look even more ridiculous. A couple months later, Gran Torino came out of nowhere and starting getting rave reviews and awards buzz. I remained skeptical for as long as I could until my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a shot. I kept my mind wide open, though my instincts proved correct.

I know I sound really livid, and don't get me wrong, I definitely am in the broader scheme of things, but the movie itself doesn't especially anger me. It's really too inconsequential to let it be that significant. What does anger me, however, is that I watched it two and a half times in preparation for this review. Anyway, here's the thin plot: Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, disgruntled Korean war vet, the last white guy holding his ground in a neighborhood that has become a melting pot of Asians, Hispanics, and other random minorities that Walt doesn't like. So, Walt is old, and he's angry. And he has a 1972 Gran Torino. A Gran Torino is a car.

The movie begins with Walt at his wife's funeral. Walt scowls and growls at his ungrateful, estranged, and incredibly annoying family. Walt growls a LOT. His family wants to put him away in a home (naturally eliciting a growl from Walt) because they're afraid he'll get into trouble in the "old neighborhood." Well, yeah, seeing as how Walt has a loaded shotgun (a throwback weapon? connection to the past and his roots and such?) on hand at all times, I'd be concerned, as well. His family members are such one-dimensional monsters, though, that all they really care about is their inheritance and the eternal question: who will get the Gran Torino when the old bastard croaks? Walt is more insistently pestered by possibly the most irritating character of the year, a barely legal baby-faced priest who babbles on and on about how he was close with Walt's wife (why? isn't that odd to anyone? and does Walt seriously think that she would be cool with the vigilante stuff?) and that she made him promise to watch out for Walt after she died. Walt, of course, scoffs...until he doesn't anymore. Do you doubt that they become pals?

Right on cue, an Asian family (of Hmong origin) moves in next door to Walt. As he's insanely racist, especially toward Asians (Korea, ya know), this isn't good. The teenage lad next door that Walt will inevitably mentor is Thao, a sensitive introvert who washes dishes and gardens and doesn't do the manly things his family expects of him. His gang member cousin wants to recruit him. So, Thao is standing on the precipice of life: will he succumb to gangbanging or transcend his social status and make something of himself? Gee, I wonder.

Thao gets pressured into giving the gang a try. To prove his worthiness and his manhood to the other gang members, they give him an initiation task: steal the old man's Gran Torino. He tries, gets foiled by Clint with a gun, and flees. The gang comes to Thao's home to rough him up, and the brawl spills over onto Walt's lawn, prompting the catchphrase du jour, grunted down the barrel of a shotgun: "Get off my lawn." Because of this, the neighborhood hails Walt as a hero. He wants none of it. Thao's sister Sue drags him into their lives. Thao is forced to pay penance for his attempted robbery by working for Walt (by his maternal figures, one of several instances of Walt being conveniently guilted into doing something by Asian customs).

After an hour of excruciating build-up, Gran Torino turns into Tuesdays with Morrie. Walt and Thao (or Toad as Walt ignorantly calls him) hang out and fix things, Walt teaches him how to be a man, and they form a bond that Walt doesn't have with his own sons (I don't blame him, they're awful). In the third act (the script structure is embarrassingly visible), Walt cares enough about Sue and Thao that he wants to make sure that they can live in peace without the influence of gangs (isn't this futile? won't more keep moving in indefinitely?). This is Walt's penance, his big redemption (for being a nasty foul-mouthed SOB and killing people in Korea). Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Walt periodically coughs throughout the movie? That's cinematic code for fatal illness. Ugh, it's so painfully obvious. If you can't see the ending coming, this is probably your first movie ever. I will concede that while the ending is wildly and messianically predictable, I was surprised by the WAY the final events went down. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. It doesn't make the movie better, just slightly less boring.

The first hour of Gran Torino is some of the worst cinema I've ever seen. I was laughing hysterically at its badness. It's basically just Eastwood growling and spewing racial slurs amidst terrible dialogue, appalling acting, and atrocious pacing. I wouldn't say it gets "good" in the second hour, it just gets less bad. It becomes tolerable and mildly amusing. I couldn't pinpoint what I was feeling until my fellow viewer likened it to watching your kid in a school play. "Oh, bless his little heart." I knew I had this dumb smile plastered on my face, as if I had been lobotomized. Clint Eastwood gives a decent performance, but it's nothing special. The National Board of Review awarded him Best Actor for this movie. That is royally fucked up. Pardon my language, but I guess Walt's constant cussing wore off on me. Eastwood claims this is the last acting he'll ever do, which is like catnip to critics and awards voters who will want to bestow what I call a "nostalgia award" upon him. He's old, he's had a long career, and he's paying homage to the badass persona he created decades ago. I would have been furious if he had gotten an Oscar nomination.

That being said, he IS a badass. I fully admit that. He's almost 80 and has his slacks hiked up, but no one is going to mess with him. I guess there's this primal part of all of us (correct me if I'm wrong) that gets an adrenaline rush from that type of machismo. It's And I can get into it, although I do have some feminist guilt about it. Anyway, Clint does a good enough job, but the character is so pitifully developed that by the time you're supposed to care about him, you're still ten steps behind where the screenwriter wants you to be in the arc of identifying with this character, and you don't. At least, I didn't care. How can you care about a cartoon in an allegedly real world?

And then there's the racism. I have never heard the word "gook" more in my life, and I've taken two semester-long classes on Vietnam and read tons of literature and saw lots of films. There's a line that separates a character being racist from the movie as a whole being racist. Gran Torino crosses that line. The racist remarks are so putridly pervasive that it just gets obscene. Feel free to disagree, but I think Gran Torino, and by association Eastwood, come off a bit racist.

Gran Torino is so messed up. Everything is skewed; nothing happens as intended. The tone is inconsistent. Is this a shoot 'em up? Is this a Lifetime movie? Is it a redemption drama? It's kind of all of those, but also none of those. The cliché-riddled script by Nick Schenk isn't even palatable enough to qualify for remedial screenwriting; it's that awful. Bee Vang is actually really good as Thao, but all of the other acting is misery personified. Special awards go to the actors playing Walt's family (not even worth mentioning their names), Ahney Her (Sue) with her awkward over-enunciation, whiny screechiness, and memorably terrible recitation of the inherently hideous and stupid line "Booga booga booga," and the abysmal, perpetually dumb-looking, flatter than all holy hell Christopher Carley (the priest) for making Stanislavski roll over in his grave and weep with their assaults on the craft of acting. Carley is the worst, though. You shouldn't want to punch the priest.

I have a huge problem with the ending (I won't reveal, but if you've seen it and want to discuss it, I'd be happy to do so). The ending, and again this is Walt's influence on my language, pussies out. Gran Torino is exorbitantly self-indulgent, but Eastwood pushes it beyond that, and what you get is pomposity. Not digging it, Mr. Eastwood. Not digging it.

And then there's the song. Oh, the song. The theme song of Gran Torino is "Gran Torino." How creative. The song, sung by Jamie Cullum, is overall pretty lame. But the special part of its use in the film is that we are graced by the heavenly, dulcet tones of Clint Eastwood's 80-year-old voice. And if you haven't figured it out, I'm being totally sarcastic. Eastwood's singing sucks! I have spent so much time trying to come up with an apt description for his sound that someone else hasn't already said, and this is the best I've got: When he sings, Clint Eastwood sounds like a Muppet with emphysema.

Now, for your visual/aural pleasure, I've assembled three video clips to give you an idea of what his singing sounds like. I implore you to watch all of them in their entirety, as I believe it will make this experience more rewarding, and it means a lot to me, but if you really can't watch them all the way through, watch at least 30 seconds of singing, enough to get a good feel for it.

So, I hope that was informative as well as fun. It was a happy trip down memory lane for me. Hey, a good way to travel down memory lane is in a Gran Torino! Ahem. Anyway, his voice is kind of an amalgam of those three voices.

And now, prepare yourself for the real thing. Luckily, Eastwood only croaks the first verse. Break out the cotton balls and enjoy!

That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

Clint Eastwood shot Gran Torino in 32 days. In 37 days, Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho. Clint Eastwood is no Alfred Hitchcock.

Rating: ** (out of 5 stars)


Bill Treadway said...

Once again, you floor me with another quality piece of writing. :)It's hilarious yet thought provoking. It's informative and entertaining. I think it's some of your best work yet.

I recall that Eastwood mentioned in interviews that he filmed the first draft, as he did with Million Dollar Baby. Well, Clint, you should have wanted a second and third and fourth draft. It just wasn't fit to film.

Gran Torino fits for me as Meh Eastwood- the kind of movie in which you leave the theater and say Meh afterwards. I agree with you that when he usually has 2 films out in one year, one of them usually suffers. (The Rookie in 1990, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997, Any Which Way You Can in 1980). I think the Iwo Jima set was an exception- both were equally excellent.

As for Mr. Eastwood singing, you'd think he had learned his lesson from Paint Your Wagon (1969- THREE hours of Eastwood and Lee Marvin singing..I WISH it had been like the spoof in the Simpsons..)At least Oscar and Cookie Monster sing in tune (for them, that is..)

Anyway, great job as usual, Lisa.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Clint Eastwood and Frank Langella are both auditioning for the lead role in The Cookie Monster Story this year :)

What an immensely entertaining and insightful review! "A Muppet with emphysema" is my new favorite movie review quote. I'm so glad the song (and picture) got snubbed by the Oscars!

Lisa Draski said...

Bill, thank you so much! Oh my god, I LOVE the version of it in the Simpsons! "Gonna paint a wagon, gonna paint it good..." :)

That's hilarious about Frank Langella, anonymous/Matt (you can just put your name, I think it's okay!). :)

And Second Anonymous, um...I'm not sure what to make of, what do I make of that? Just want to know what I'm dealing with, hope you understand!

a cat of impossible colour said...

This was hilarious! The movie hasn't come out here yet, but the trailer looked so godawful that I really am not tempted to see it. And now I'm even less tempted.

Second Anonymous comment is terrifying. Just a side-note. On another side-note, I think I need to re-watch Paint Your Wagon, if only for the rendition of "I was born under a wandering star."

And thank you for your lovely comment on my blog - I really appreciate it, and it's nice to (virtually) meet you!

Andrea xx

Lisa Draski said...

Bill: Eastwood shouldn't be boasting about filming the first draft of this script. That there was only ONE draft is appalling and, frankly, makes me fear for the future of cinema.

Sorry, I got carried away, it's not as apocalyptic as all that. But come on, the script is terrible! It should get a Razzie. For him to mention it in the same breath as "Million Dollar Baby" is pretty messed up.

Andrea: Thank you so much for your comments! The trailer struck me exactly the same way. The movie's overwhelming success here is ridiculous.

It's nice to virtually meet you, as well! And thank you for stopping by! I hope you'll come back. :)

Lisa Draski said...

Note: The comment by Second Anonymous that is referred to here has been deleted. I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt, but that kind of crudeness isn't cool. It's not my style. And it was, indeed, a bit terrifying.

- The Management

Lisa Draski said...

P.S. I have never actually seen "Paint Your Wagon," but Bill and Andrea, you have me salivating at the impending badness-inspired hilarity.

*adds "Paint Your Wagon" to her mental queue...and to her Netflix one*

Bill Treadway said...

When you hear Lee Marvin murder "Wanderin' Star", you'll weep for musical cinema.

I love musicals- I think a lot of the mid-late '60s movie musicals are unjustly maligned (Doctor Dolittle, STAR!, Hello Dolly, The Happiest Millionaire and Half a Sixpence are all **** movies in my book)but Paint Your Wagon is BAD.

Getting back to Gran Torino and first drafts, I don't think anyone should shoot the first draft. The first draft is the All Story Draft, where you're still working out everything. Making a film based on a first draft is something akin to a premature baby. It's a baby, but it's not quite ready yet.

I think three drafts are the least number necessary. The second one you finesse what's missing and the third is the final polish.