PICKS OF THE WEEK
Gran Torino (A)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2008, Warner
Clint Eastwood plays a Dirty Harry guy grown old in his latest movie Gran Torino. And, as we watch C.E.'s latest screen character in action -- a widower/misanthrope named Walt Kowalski battling a local street gang -- he makes us feel lucky.... Fortunate to get another chance to watch this guy simmer and explode on screen.
It's been four years since Eastwood last played before the camera, as the gruff fight trainer/manager Frankie Dunn in his heart-breaking Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby. And though he's greatly enhanced his filmmaking credentials then -- with a run of directorial gems in Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima -- it's a real pleasure to see him pull out once more his trademark squint, acid wisecracks and deadly onscreen disposition.
The real Clint is a gentler, more thoughtful character than Dirty Harry Callahan, Bill Munny, Philo Beddoe, The Man With No Name or any of his other noir or western creations. But on-screen actor Clint still seems to relish playing his counterpart: a male fantasy figure, by his own description. That's what Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski is too -- but with a difference.
Walt, a Korean War veteran and Ford assembly plant retiree, is a seventy-something Detroit suburbanite, who has few friends and only a few obnoxious family members left -- plus the same foul-mouthed disposition and slow-fuse, deadly temper that old '70s antihero Det. Harry Callahan had. Walt, who views the world though a grimace, is playing out his last chapter, after his severance from Ford (after a half century), and though he's the neighborhood old white male grouch in an increasingly Asian community, he gets pulled, at first against his will, into the problems of the immigrant Asian (Hmong, or Laos or Thailand mountain people) family next door.
These neighbors include an irascible granny, some worried parents, and the Lor family teenagers, troubled Thao (Bee Vang) and lively Sue (Ahney Her), two kids who are both being harassed and/or courted by the local Hmong gangbangers -- and who cross paths sharply with Walt when those local thugs chivvy Thoa into trying to steal Walt's precious, beautifully preserved 1972 Gran Torino. Walt, who has as big a repertoire of racial epithets as Harry's, observes it all and eventually takes sides just as Humphrey Bogart's Harry Morgan did in To Have and Have Not -- not because it's his job but because he "(likes) you and… doesn't like them."
Increasingly, Walt noses into the Lor kids' scrapes with the local delinquents, mostly Asian or black -- and as usual with the kind of classic revenge or town-taming thriller that Gran Torino becomes, the confrontations get tenser and more explosive. By the time of the movie's sad, furious climax (which is the only moment here I'd question), Walt has faced a last battle and director-star Eastwood has notched another late-career revisionist triumph in his six-shooter canon.
It's easy to look at Gran Torino -- which comes from a salty, likable screenplay by Nick Schenck, apparently not written, according to Richard Corliss, with Clint in mind -- and dig out all the Dirty Harry connections, tossing kudos to Eastwood for reversing them -- which is sort of what I've been doing in this review so far. But, despite the obvious mellowing and self-criticism, I've always thought Dirty Harry and the Dollars Trilogy weren't as far from Unforgiven and the other late Eastwoods as some of us like to think. Harry wasn't really a racist and though the Man may not have had a Name, he certainly had a code.
Gran Torino seems in some ways a bid to re-establish Clint the star after that four-year hiatus, and I think it will. The movie, Eastwood's second directorial effort of 2008, is a tad less well-written than Changeling was and less surprising or original as a story. But, with Eastwood calling the shots, it's another fine piece of classical Hollywood moviemaking: lean and tough and laid out with an almost merciless clarity. It's also more of a comedy than he's done in a while. All in the Family and Archie Bunker parallels have been popping up in the reviews as often as Dirty Harry allusions, and the mostly amateur Hmong cast -- as well as old pros like John Carroll Lynch as Walt's equally foul-mouthed barber buddy -- give good, understated, natural performances. Especially the saucily sarcastic Auney Her.
One irony of Eastwood's later filmography -- the movies he's been making since Bird, and especially the ones he made starting with Unforgiven -- is that his whole major career strategy was based on star power, on using his box-office clout to carve out a directorial career. With Unforgiven (even a little earlier with Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man and White Hunter, Black Heart) he began sometimes undercutting that star power, playing at times against his carefully crafted macho image. Then, of course, after Baby, Eastwood, for a while, abandoned his screen image entirely and concentrated instead on directing. And though he's gotten pretty damned good at it, while taking on projects he couldn't have chosen as a star actor, I like seeing him on screen again. And I don't think this should be a valedictory. I hope he doesn't rule out working for other directors. I even hope he makes another Western.
The special kick of watching big, long-career movie stars in a late-inning show is that we're seeing people we feel we know, with whom we share a history, albeit an imaginary one. That's part of what makes Gran Torino such a richly enjoyable experience. It's not the best or deepest thing Eastwood has done recently. But Walt is his man, Gran Torino is his vehicle and he knows how to drive them home.
Revolution Revisited (A-)
U.S.; Hugh Hudson, 1985-2009, Warner
Do we sometimes judge movies too quickly, too harshly?
Revolution was a famous critical and audience movie flop. A revisionist take on the American Revolutionary War by star Al Pacino, then-hot director Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) and writer Robert Dillon (The River), it came out, in 1985, the year of Rambo's phenomenal success and the heyday of Ronald Reagan, to empty seats and withering critical abuse. (Interestingly, Stallone had campaigned for Pacino's part in Revolution and Pacino was offered Rambo before Stallone.) Sustaining that resounding "thumbs down," Leonard Maltin still lists Revolution as a "Bomb."
But now, Hudson and Pacino have returned to their 24-year-old film and made some substantial and important changes, including cuts, additions, and the inclusion of a new narration by Pacino's character, trapper/soldier Tom Dobb.
Does it help? Decidedly yes. The movie was an ambitious and often stunningly produced tale of Tom, a poor but indomitable Scottish immigrant caught up accidentally in the war, following his adventures and mishaps during the battles from Valley Forge to Yorktown -- along with his teenage son (Dexter Fletcher), a fiery and idealistic girl named Daisy (Nastassja Kinski) and her Tory mother (Joan Plowright) and brutal British Sergeant Major Peasy (Donald Sutherland). It was lavishly produced, eagerly awaited. And it was damned on release as a Heaven's Gate-style catastrophe, derided as pretentious, overambitious, overproduced and historically inept.
This response, and the anemic box-office performance that resulted, noticeably damaged Hudson's later career. (His movies became fewer and further between, and less marked by the kind of rich epic style that was his métier.) And it also may have helped keep that superb actor Pacino, accused of unwisely straying from the city streets that were his cinematic home ground, off the screen for the next four years.
But just as the first critics were wrong, to some degree, about Heaven's Gate (which is pretentious and profligate, but has compensating factors), the nay-sayers were even more wrong about Revolution -- a far more dramatically intelligent and physically exciting movie than, for example, the 2000 Mel Gibson Rev War audience hit The Patriot, which Maltin gives three stars. Indeed, Revolution strikes me, in this version, as one of the best and most interesting movies ever made on the Revolutionary War.
The physical production (shot in England, to more critical scorn), action scenes and cinematography are wonderfully done: lush, striking and often explosively physical. The acting has great flourish, emotion and dash, especially when Pacino holds the screen. (The scene where Tom rocks his injured boy in his arms, trying to will him back to life, is incredible.) This performance, sometimes magnificent, was unfairly castigated. That despised accent, for example, was, according to Pacino, heavily researched, authenticated and taught to him by language experts; it's not his fault if critics expected Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico or Sonny Wortzik.
In retrospect, the new narration, which often lets Pacino unleash his flair for unashamed poetry and Shakespearean intensity, deepens the role and lyricizes the movie. (Hudson had intended some kind of the narration all along, but was forced by production company Goldcrest to shove the film prematurely into release.)
Far from being a laughable failure, the revised Revolution strikes me as close to a masterpiece. I missed the movie on its first release, largely because of those reviews, but the admirers of even that earlier version aren't exactly chopped liver; they include Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone. So I hope this fine, very underrated, often terrific movie will find its audience now, that Pacino's greatness in the role will be finally recognized, and that Hudson gets a chance to direct the kinds of movies that have eluded him, after Revolution met its undeserved critical massacre in the year of Rambo, 1985. (Extras: Conversation with Pacino and Hudson, trailer.)
The Rain People (A-)
U.S.; Francis Coppola, 1969, Warner Archive
Three years before The Godfather, the young (29) Hollywood phenom Francis Coppola -- with two splashy directorial jobs (You're a Big Boy Now, Finian's Rainbow) and several prestige scripts (This Property Is Condemned, Is Paris Burning?) under his belt -- decided to hit the road with a band of like-minded young Hollywood rebels, including Walter Murch and George Lucas, to shoot his own version of a picaresque neo-realist American film. His hand-picked and very promising cast included young James Caan, as a sweet, brain-damaged ex-college football star named Killer, Robert Duvall as a sexy motorcycle cop who lives in a trailer camp with his young daughter, and, in the demanding central role, Shirley Knight as pregnant young Long Island wife Natalie Ravenna, who flees her husband, her parents and her life, to try to discover or heal herself on the road.
The result is one of Coppola's best but lesser-seen films and personal favorites -- and an example, like 1974's The Conversation, of the kind of film he probably most wanted to make before the world-wide success of 1972's The Godfather set him on a different, more elaborate and dangerous road. The Rain People, befitting its title, is moody, perceptive and very smart -- and in love with both its shifting landscapes and the flawed, lonely but very alive people who pass through them. It suggests the work of a writer like Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers or Horton Foote, handled by a director like Robert Mulligan or Arthur Penn. Except for one brief wedding party scene, it doesn't really suggest The Godfather. But, once you watch it, and justly celebrate the young filmmaking community who made it, you'll see Coppola in a different light, more soulful, more compassionate, a lover of the lost and the wounded.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Blue Murder (B)
U.K.; various directors, 2008, Acorn Media
More good British mystery from Acorn: this time a six-episode season of one the current British audience cop thriller hits, Blue Murder -- with Caroline Quentin as Manchester police boss and single mom Janine Lewis. Series creator Cath Staincliffe and the other writers give the show a nice balance between pungent street suspense and affecting domestic drama. The supporting cast is typical quality/Brit, (Ian Kelsey, Paul Loughran, Nicholas Murchie and Belinda Everett as Lewis' crew), and the direction (Juliet May, David Drury, and Sue Tully) is crisp, economical and vividly detailed. At the center, Quentin plays quite a cop and quite a mom; she's believable and admirable in both roles.
Includes: Private Sins: Parts I & 2, Tooth and Claw, Having It All, This Charming Man, Inside.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The International (B)
U.S.; Tom Tykwer, 2009, Sony
Bad timing, anyone?
Is The International, director Tom Tykwer's smash-bang high-finance thriller -- with Clive Owen and Naomi Watts fighting a huge, corrupt, worldwide bank with a penchant for political chicanery and hired assassins -- really beside the point, now that big banks everywhere have gone kerflooey? I don't think so. The movie-going public, assaulted by mortgage madness, financial foolishness, dangerous derivatives, bailout blues, and yowling TV pundits, may not have been in the mood for a thriller like The International, about an evil bank run by murderous financiers and super-rich investment crooks. But it's still a slick, fast super-thriller, in the Bourne mold.
This one starts off in Berlin, where our sexily scruffy hero, Interpol agent and ex-Scotland Yard tough guy Louis Salinger (Clive Owen, at his Bogeyest) has found a whistle-blower inside the rich-and-rotten-as-hell IBBC, a.k.a. International Bank of Business and Credit. (IBBC is based on the real-life, scandal-ridden and now defunct BCCI, or Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which went belly-up, after years of shady deals, in 1991).
Soon, both the whistle blower and the agent are dead, and Louis and his fellow bank-tracker, earnest New York City Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are up to their ears in mayhem, with Louis running all over the globe in pursuit of slick, villainous financiers and their professional assassins -- including Brian O'Byrne as a chief killer named The Consultant, Ulrich Thomsen as hunky double-dealing financier Jonas Skarssen, Patrick Baladi as one of those typical well-behaved little corporate creeps you're always running into (this one named White), and the great German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl as the menacing mutterer, Wilhelm Wexler.
All these villains are dressed, uh, slickly, while Liz is a plucky Plain Jane and Louis is messy and angry. It's a positive pleasure to watch Louis kick these smug money-men around and watch a few of them die -- though, of course, Louis is a step behind them, as well as the eight-ball, for much of the movie. The plot is complex and full of formula political thriller stuff. But The International also has tangy locations (Istanbul, Milan, Lyon, Berlin, Manhattan). And it's so packed with characters that three ensemble movies could have been stuffed into it without a button popping.
It's also a good arena for Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) snazzy technique. Here, he's reunited with his virtuoso Lola cinematographer Frank Griebe, and they give us another set of wild rides --including what may be the wildest in of any movie this year: a mad Guggenheim Museum shootout, starting with a tense but nonviolent street pursuit, and ending with assassins and cops blazing away all over the Guggenheim's twisty circular ramp, before exhibits and video installations. Staged to the nines on a look-alike replica of the Guggenheim, re-created on a Berlin soundstage, it's so kinetic and blow-you-out-of-your-seat stunning, that it redeems the whole movie. I'm a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, but not always of the sometimes soulless, gimmicky abstract expressionist minimalism and junk-chic pop art that often found its way onto those circular walls. There's something wondrously satisfying and absurd about seeing it all blown to hell like this.
Clive Owen is the actor I would have chosen as the next James Bond. (I'm not saying I would have been right.) But I like him better in this kind of hard-edged, sad-eyed neo-noir tough-guy role. Naomi Watts deserves more, but does perfectly well with all they give her. And though the movie lacks fully developed characters, it has lots of people and actors who catch your interest on the fly, like the "French Connection-ish" Manhattan street cops Iggy and Bernie, played by Felix Solis and Jack McGee. O'Byrne and Mueller-Stahl are fabulous heavies: O'Byrne looks a bit like the younger Bob Newhart turned button-down killer. (You wouldn't want to meet this guy in a board room.) And Mueller-Stahl has another of his patented ice-cold killer-philosopher roles. (You wouldn't want to meet this guy in a seminar.)
The International had to be reshot for action, so it has bloodshed aplenty. The other big set pieces include a Milan political assassination and another chase in Istanbul, through mosque and on rooftop, that reminded me a little of Melville's La Samourai. But the Gugghenheim shootout is the killer here. Hopefully, you'll also recall, while watching this, that politicos and bankers always have their own accounts to settle, whether they're in BCCI, IBBC, or ICBC (International Conmen and Blowhard Creditors.)
Crossing Over (C+)
U.S.; Wayne Kramer, 2009, Weinstein Company
Writer-director Wayne Kramer goes the Short Cuts-Crash-L.A. kaleidoscope route in this okay message drama about the pitfalls and evils of U.S. immigration policy and urban racism. It's a multi-ethnic ensemble movie, but Harrison Ford is the obvious star, playing an old Immigration and Customs cop, Max Brogan, who's gotten disillusioned about the callousness and human wreckage of his job. And who wouldn't be upset the way the deck is stacked here, in a series of crises and predicaments calculated to sadden or madden anyone but the knee-jerk acolytes of our old pals Blimp Rushbomb, Glenn the Grinning Wreck Beck and Sean the Sham Hammity.
Illegal alien Mexican moms are arrested and pulled from their children. Chinese American teens are sucked into street crime. Iranian American high school girls speak up unwisely in class about the causes of terrorism and get their whole family split up and deported. And an evil immigration guy, Cole Frankel (Ray Liotta) trades a green card for sex with Aussie actress Claire (Alice Eve) -- while his idealistic lawyer wife Denise (Ashley Judd) tries futilely to save that beleaguered Iranian family. Meanwhile, everyone keeps crossing paths, sometimes with drawn guns.
It's all wildly melodramatic, and those incessant coincidental meetings would be implausible even if they all lived in say, Green Bay. L.A., on the other hand, is a big city.
But the movie's heart, albeit scattered, is in the right place. And you can understand why Kramer, born in South Africa, is exercised about racism. Kramer is the writer-director of that tangy Las Vegas drama The Cooler, and he knows how to keep a story whipping along. Unfortunately, he's directed these scenes much better than he's written them.
A note on Harrison Ford: I first met Harry Ford 45 years ago at the Belfry Theater in Williams Bay, where he was one of three resident actors (a paid summer job once held by Paul Newman). He also did most of the carpentry and set-building. I was a local high-schooler writing the publicity, acting and stage-managing; my mother, Edna, painted the sets and cycloramas. As I mentioned recently in my Flash of Genius review, the Nabisco corporation wasn't very nice to her -- but Harry was. They worked together on the sets and he suggested that she turn actress and play the Conjur Woman in Dark of the Moon. And she did. With great relish.
He was a good actor and a good guy then, and he's good now. He's right to start making some smaller, more thoughtful movies and taking paterfamilias roles. Crossing Over is no Short Cuts and no Crash either. It's closer in quality to Ford's recent flawed Ron Shelton cop thriller vehicle Hollywood Homicide. But it's a good thing that filmmakers like Kramer at least try these more potentially rich or substantial ensemble stories. There are worse things than trying to make a good liberal message movie. Like listening to Sean the Sham, Glenn the Wreck or The Blimp.
Nobel Son (C)
U.S.; Randall Miller, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Alan Rickman, who probably has the nastiest sneer in the business, gets to use it nearly nonstop in Nobel Son, a would-be dark comic thriller that didn't crib the right formula. Writer-director Randall Miller (of the well-regarded Bottle Shock) here casts Rickman as Eli Michaelson, a newly awarded Nobel Prize-winning chemist. Though in the bloom of his fame, Eli is actually such a foul human being -- philanderer, exploiter, cad and thief -- that he winds up the target of a meticulous kidnapper named Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), a meticulous psychopath who abducts Eli's gentler son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) and starts a cascade of revelations that expose Eli for the swine he is.
Also involved in the action are Eli's cheated-on wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), a prying detective (Bill Pullman), an obsessive-compulsive gardener (Danny De Vito) and a Village bombshell poetess named City Hall (Eliza Dushku). That's a damned good cast, and an interestingly motley character assortment, but Nobel Son lacks the panache and style -- and sheer narrative smarts -- of a truly dark comedy like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers or Dr. Strangelove.
Dubious strategies abound. Why does Thaddeus kidnap Barkley, a slam-dunk job but a silly notion, instead of Eli himself? Putting Eli in Thaddeus' clutches would seem the natural plot here, and it would also allow us more sneering space and a proper comeuppance for the prize-winning cad. And it would eliminate even more ridiculous crimes later on.
Anyway, despite a brisk pace and a really attractive cast, Nobel Son left me cold. Never mind Eli. The movie is nasty, mostly because of its younger generation. Brutal Thaddeus. Doofus Barkley. Even as alternatives to the odious Eli, they're faulty. And I thought Dushku, who looks just right for this part, was wasted. That leaves Steenburgen's Sarah and Pullman's detective Max Mariner, but they didn't connect either. Now, I realize dark comedies aren't supposed to be charm schools (or ballrooms). But the plot isn't brainy or sophisticated enough to compensate. If one more character got kidnapped, I was ready to abduct myself out.
Nobel Son is the kind of movie -- intelligent on one level, phony on others -- that makes you want to tinker with it. I would have made De Vito the kidnapper, along with Rickman the victim -- and let Hatossy and Greenberg do some maladroit detection and tussle over Dushku. Pullman would be better off doing his dumb detective routine here. And Steenburgen would have been funnier as a nymphomaniac paying Eli back. But the hell with it. It takes more than a good cast and moxie to revive the spirit of the Ealing Studio, Guinness, Sellers, Wilder and Kubrick. By the way, I would have changed this movie's title too -- to Nobel Savage.
Pride of the Marines (B)
U.S.; Delmer Daves, 1945, Warner Archive
Black List victim Albert Maltz wrote this moving, fact-based World War II bio drama about Marine Sgt. Al Schmid (John Garfield), who was blinded in battle and had to struggle to readjust. You'll be hard put to find any Communist propaganda here; this is fine rousing wartime flag-waving stuff, with a prickly, dedicated lead performance by Garfield -- another Black List victim. With Eleanor Parker, Dane Clark and Rosemary DeCamp.