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)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Last Minute Predictions

Okay, so it's 6 hours before the Oscar nominations are being announced, and I'm so stoked and high on a rush of adrenaline that I decided to post my predictions for the nominees. I seriously live for this time of year. I love it! I made this list really fast purposefully so that my gut feelings would guide me, and my choices would be pure and free from second-guessing. I want to be clear that these are the films/people that I believe WILL be nominated, not necessarily the ones that I personally think SHOULD be nominated. That being said, here are my predictions for the Oscar nominees in the six major categories:

Best Picture:

The Dark Knight
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler

Best Director:

Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Best Actor:

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Actress:

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Best Supporting Actor:

Josh Brolin, Milk
James Franco, Milk
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Ta-da! Yikes, I'm really putting myself out there. This could be disastrous, but I really hope I made some good and maybe unorthodox or unexpected calls.

Super Special Bonus Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire will receive the most nominations with 12.

Fingers crossed! I'm so excited! And a little nervous! But mostly excited!

Man, I love what I do.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Quaffable, but uh...far from transcendent.

This post exists for no reason other than that I adore Family Guy and think this is one of the funniest and most random parodies I've ever seen. Hopefully it'll bring you a chuckle.

The original:

Family Guy greatness:

That makes me so happy.

Oh, and pop quiz: What's the origin of the title of this post?

Bitch Wars

The end of the year spoils us, movie-wise. Even if you don't put much stock in awards season, you can't deny the quality of the Oscar bait films. It's a sweet time...a better time.

Alas, welcome to January, where cinema goes to die. And with Bride Wars, it looks like we're right on schedule. In this nauseating-looking exercise in female bitchery, Anne Hathaway, determined to erase any cred she earned with Rachel Getting Married (think Halle Berry with Catwoman and Eddie Murphy with Norbit), and Kate Hudson, who hasn't done anything worthwhile since Almost Famous over eight years ago, star as childhood best friends who have always dreamt of having their weddings at the Plaza and, of course, being the other's maid of honor. But oh no, their weddings accidentally get booked on the same day. Whatever will they do?

Since they're women, they'll have an epic catfight, naturally. As you know, we women are totally irrational and WILL shatter a lifelong friendship and turn into shrieking, backstabbing, tantrum-throwing, superficial she-beasts at the drop of a hat, especially if you mess with our weddings. We'll resort to calling each other fat, we'll dye each other's hair blue and ensure the other gets a bad orange tan, and we're willing to throw feminism and our self-respect out the window. What decade IS this? GAG.

I'm not the only one who finds this appalling, right? Worse yet, Bride Wars has a PG rating, so every little girl can aspire to being this petty and bitchy when she grows up.

I hope I speak for all women when I say:

Ladies, please, you're embarrassing us.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Guy Ritchie Killed RocknRoll

I think it's safe to say that Guy Ritchie has a pretty decent following, some ardent defenders, and has received considerable, if cultish, acclaim. Can anyone tell me why? His body of work is so small and the quality in that tiny quantity is so poor that I'm left bewildered and a bit angry.

Ritchie's RocknRolla, a British crime caper, is one of the worst movies of 2008. It's atrocious. Absurdly, almost impossibly bad. Watching it was pure misery. And I paid $10 to see it! My only defense is that I was duped by this awesome-looking trailer:

See? Deceptive! Looks cool, right? It's not. There's nothing interesting, exciting, or comprehensible about RocknRolla (ugh, it's annoying to type that stupid title - I die a little on the inside each time). The plot is just awful. It's rambling, nonsensical, and dull as all bloody hell. RocknRolla is unnecessary, overcomplicated, and self-indulgent. It's a hideous waste of good actors (Gerard Butler, Jeremy Piven, and Ludacris) and an egregious waste of a great one (Tom Wilkinson).

Butler and Wilkinson are the only two things separating RocknRolla from a zero star rating. Wilkinson for his mere presence, really, but Butler is actually charming and quite funny (the only humorous aspect of this glaringly UNfunny alleged comedy, aside from its laughable wretchedness, of course - although, there isn't much laughter as it's honestly too bad to derive even that simple pleasure granted by terrible movies). Gerard Butler is like a way less interesting and talented version of Colin Farrell in In Bruges, but he's the best thing in this assault on cinema and humanity, so I'm grateful to him. He's very entertaining and, to be superficial, he's really hot. Still, there's no compensation, no relief, and no excuse. I loathe this movie.

2008 saw some serious duds in the action/thriller department, but RocknRolla really bites the bullet.

Rating: 1/2* (out of 5)

You Gotta Give 'Em Hope

Milk is a disappointingly conventional biopic about a gloriously unconventional man. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), based in San Francisco, crusaded tirelessly for gay rights and became the first openly gay public official (City Supervisor) in the late 70s. Harvey Milk is an inspiration, and his story blew me away. The film itself is uninspired. Milk could have been great, and it's a tragedy that it's not.

Milk is basically a series of vignettes highlighting different periods of Harvey's life during the 70s - numerous failed attempts to win public office, romantic relationships with men, his eventual triumph, and the shocking and tragic events that followed it. The film never flows together in any cohesive way. There's an ongoing narration by Penn (Harvey's cryptic tell-all into a microphone at his kitchen table) that appears and disappears at random. The structure of the film is so disjointed that I think it could have been disastrous without the heavyweight acting of the ensemble. Milk jumps around so much that the result, narratively, seems surface. There should have been less quantity and more quality.

Most of this is the fault of Dustin Lance Black's painfully amateurish, formulaic, and repetitious script. He was in way over his head on this project, which was his first screenplay. He will get an Oscar nomination, but he won't deserve it. The script is a mess. The subplot involving one of Harvey's two main lovers, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), is annoying and superfluous. Jack is selfish and terrible for Harvey, but Harvey just can't resist him. This storyline screams, "Look, Harvey has flaws and weaknesses!" It's a pitiful attempt to add more dimensions to the character. We don't need to be TOLD that; Sean Penn makes us feel and believe that Harvey is fully human, someone who makes mistakes and suffers from self-doubt as much as he triumphs and perseveres. He is not meant to be a messiah (although I think the film leans that way at times). There's the random introduction of some random kid in a wheelchair calling Harvey as he's about to commit suicide. Things happen too conveniently (life-summation phone calls before pivotal plot moments, one boyfriend exiting and another entering almost instantaneously, a terrible, cliché oversymbolization of opera), the film lingers too long, and it was even a bit boring here and there. It's frustrating, because Harvey Milk and all the actors who are working their method butts off deserve a better screenplay.

It's interesting to see Gus Van Sant going the mainstream, traditionally narrative route. This is a total departure from mood outings like Paranoid Park (and thankfully light years away from the atrocious Psycho remake - shudder). I'm happy that he's getting such widespread recognition. His directing is quite good, and the story is obviously coming from a very personal place. I believe he did the best job possible with the script he had, but I think he was more concerned with the message than the structure. Pity, because the message would have been stronger if the film had been stronger. Milk is a sprawling epic of sorts, and Van Sant manages to hold it all together. It's a lot to keep under control, and I admire his efforts and his passion for the project. I've certainly come a long way from despising him for desecrating Alfred Hitchcock.

None of the aesthetics of the film are particularly noteworthy. The film has a nice grainy 70s-ish look to it (cinematography by Harris Savides) and is interspersed with some stunning real footage from the past. Only Danny Elfman's brilliant score really stands out. He just keeps on proving that he's one of the best composers we've ever had, and one of the most versatile. There's an operatic, powerfully emotional, and swooningly gorgeous quality about his layered melodies. It's a knockout. And it does precisely what a score should do, which is complement the film and elevate it to another level.

I'm not sure if Milk has THE best ensemble of the year (The Dark Knight, In Bruges, and Slumdog Millionaire come to mind), but it's definitely a top contender. Diego Luna - the poor guy - does what he can to make an annoying caricature charming. Allison Pill is fantastic as tough and cool Anne, Harvey's campaign manager and the lone female in his universe. Josh Brolin is just exploding off the radar lately, and I'm thrilled for him. He's getting a lot of acclaim for his role as Dan White, Harvey's nemesis on the supervisory committee. He's great here, bringing humor, gravity, and emotional nuance to a character who could have been a stereotypical mustache-twirling baddie (if he had a mustache, that is), but his best work this year was in W. as the titular fool. Emile Hirsch impresses me more all the time. He's equal parts hilarious and intense as Cleve Jones, a wayward teen who joins Harvey's crusade.

I don't know what happened to James Franco, but somewhere between Spider-Man 3 and now, he turned into a really amazing actor (yes, I know he apparently did good work on Freaks and Geeks, but his film career has been dismal at best). His performance in Milk is so sensitive and beautiful that it makes my heart skip a beat and a few tears come to my eyes just thinking about it. He has the most heart-melting and sincere smile and such a gentle disposition that it's no wonder Harvey is so in love with him. He plays Scott Smith, who I firmly believe was Harvey's one true love and soul mate. Franco deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination. This is his best performance to date, and I'm excited to watch him in the future. He also sort of reminds me of Heath Ledger in this film. I can't really explain it, maybe it's how he looks or just his spirit, but it's lovely.

Sean Penn is stunning as Harvey Milk. He IS Harvey Milk. It's a staggering, electrifying, profoundly touching performance. He's riveting from start to finish, whether he's giving powerful Barack Obama-style speeches or breathtakingly and exquisitely exposing Harvey's heart and soul to us. He draws us so completely into Harvey's life that script problems seem trivial compared to his awesome talent. It feels like he's speaking to only you and to the whole world at the same time, and always intimately and passionately. Honestly, I think this is the best work of Sean Penn's career. Who knew it was possible for him to get better? Well, here's the proof. He's one of this year's strongest and most deserving Oscar contenders.

With Proposition 8 still looming over us, Milk is more relevant than ever. It's a serious film about a serious issue, gay rights, that has somehow broken into the mainstream, and I think that's amazing. I'm sure his story will inspire revolutionaries of today to continue and hopefully one day finish his work. Milk has more than its share of flaws, and I can't dismiss them (I wish I could), but the acting is so transcendent, the story is so moving and inspirational, and the message of perseverance, tolerance, and hope is so potent and so essential to the advancement of society and humanity that it deserves to be seen and celebrated.

After Harvey Milk was elected City Supervisor in 1977, he asserted, "It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We've given them hope." And, after all, as Harvey says in the film, "Without hope, life's not worth living."

Rating: **** (out of 5)