Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hit It & Quit It: More Movies: Gran Torino, Fanboys, Academy Thoughts

Gran Torino
Outside of the conceptually cool, but kind of boring Flags of Our Fathers, I don’t think I’ve seen a Clint Eastwood directed-movie of the last 20 years. They’ve never appealed to me. I’ve always shied away from what I expected to be self-important films filled with Hollywood bombast. Not really sure why, but with the release of Gran Torino, I was feeling that I needed to check one of these out, particularly one with Eastwood in the starring role. The fact that the film was shot in Detroit, my hometown, sealed the deal. And I’ve got to say I loved Gran Torino. It had me buzzing and blabbing about it to anyone who would listen.

Now to be fair, there’s an excellent chance I loved it for all the wrong reasons. The acting is pretty shoddy, there’s not a degree of subtlety, the script strikes me like a Sam Fuller-penned B Movie, and Eastwood seems to be channeling his inner-Sleestack. While most of the cast seems to be acting like they’re in a well-intentioned, but poorly acted Indiewood film circa 1998, Eastwood seems like he’s on the set of Showgirls, The Terminator, or Dirty Harry.

Eastwood plays the surliest of cranky old men. He hates everyone. He hates his kids, his grandkids, his pastor, and he hates the church. To the chagrin of his kids, he refuses to leave his home in the inner city and take flight to the suburbs. Problem is that his inner city neighborhood is crime ridden, and full of blacks and Hmongs, both of whom he hates. As the film progresses, Eastwood forges an unlikely and unexpected alliance with his Hmong next door neighbors, who are trying to keep their sensitive son out of the Hmong gang scene. Eastwood, meanwhile, has become a neighborhood folk hero. He’s trigger-happy and single-handedly cleaning up the neighborhood crime scene.

The film lacks any subtlety. Throughout the film, Eastwood’s eyes are shooting daggers at all those he’s contemptuous of. But it’s not enough for him to glare menacingly. He also groans audibly. It’s a bizarre sound mix choice. It’s as subtle as Lurch in the Addams’ Family groaning while he rolls his eyes. In fact, it’s the exact same deal.

Every scene, every conversation and every action hammers home one of the film’s themes. The grandkids play video games in Church. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans. Eastwood’s son sells Japanese cars. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans. A white kid walks around in baggy jeans and a backwards baseball cap. Eastwood glares. Eastwood groans.

When Eastwood isn’t chewing up the scenery, the film has an indie sensibility. Perhaps this is aided by The Hmong neighbors who are dodgy actors. But the film does take an indie-like look at the American Dream. It questions the suburban values of those who have achieved the dream and questions whether those on the wrong side of the economic divide can ever achieve that dream. And this gentle probing into the nature of America butts right up against Eastwood’s acting in the most deliciously, bizarre way.

Throughout the movie, Eastwood is delivering Dirty Harry and Terminator-like zingers with a monosyllabic, whispered certitude. To a bunch of thugs, Eastwood challenges, “I'll blow a hole in your face then go inside and sleep like a baby.” Fantastic stuff. Even as he enters the Hmong world, he continually calls them zipperheads, gooks, questions if they’re eating dogs and drops lines like, “Get me another beer, Dragon Lady! This one's running on empty.” It’s like a B movie extravaganza.

Again, I’m not familiar with much of what Eastwood has done in the last 20 years. But it’s like some indie director had the best intentioned debut film ready to go and somehow got Clint Eastwood to act in it, but once Eastwood was on set, he went off the rails, hijacked the movie and in so doing, made it a brilliant, cult classic. I can’t rave enough about this one.

I should start by saying I could take or leave Star Wars. I like all the original ones and never saw any of the new ones. I also had no idea this movie existed until the night before I saw it. In other words, no expectations, no vested interest. And, you know what? I liked it. Fanboys is set in a pre-Phantom Menace universe and follows a group of Ohio twenty somethings on a cross-country road trip to break into Skywalker Ranch and steal a rough cut of The Phantom Menace. It’s not earth shattering, but it was fun. It’s a comedy in the Clerks II, Apatow vein. Charming, sweet, and raunchy all at the same time. The actors seemed like they were having a blast while making it, and that goes a long way sometimes. There are some clichéd and underdone moments and the film suffers from “Good Looking Geek Syndrome,” but hey, I had a good time.

Your Acadmey
Each year I never manage to see more than 2 or 3 of the nominated films for the Academy Awards. Even though I saw a ton of big Hollywood movies this year, I still only saw two of the films nominated. Go figure. But I thought I’d weigh in on the best actor debate. If you believe the hype, it’s coming down to Mickey Rourke vs. Sean Penn. And what do you know? I saw both those films. And while both performances were great, I got to come down on the side of Mickey Rourke. Randy 'The Ram' Robinson was a one-of a kind character, played expertly by Rourke. And while Penn did a great job as Harvey Milk, I’ve complained loudly over the last several years about how the best actor and actress awards go to actors doing impersonations. I’m looking at you Ray Charles guy and June Carter Cash lady. No offense to them or to Sean Penn this year, but I’d rather give the nod to an actor who crafts a unique, original, never-before seen character. And that’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson as portrayed by Mickey Rourke.


valerie soe said...

Hey DP,
Two great Clint Eastwood movies to check out are "High Plains Drifter," a weird, creepy existentialist Western from early in his directing career, and "Unforgiven," made much later as a sort of commentary on Westerns. Haven't seen many of his modern-day flicks that I recall but Gran Torino is on my list. We used to have a Gran Torino when I was a kid--GM green with a black hard top. What was I talking about?

Danny Plotnick said...

You know, I always forget he directed movies in the 70s. I have seen the Gauntlet and Play Misty For Me. I do need to check out High Plains Drifter though. I'd love to see your family cruising around in a Gran Torino. You should check it out.

Insp Harry said...

Eastwood couldn't make a self-important, bombastic movie if he tried & contrary to your loopy assertions he's actually a very subtle director & Gran Torino is a very subtle movie. It never makes any big speeches about race, immigration, assimilation, old age, regret, sacrifice, or any one of a dozen other themes & yet it manages to say more in its entertaining, deceptively sly manner than a dozen Big Important Message movies put together.

I would recommend you check out The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), another film that blends the tough guy Eastwood persona with the tender, humanistic side so much on show in his later work. Some think Unforgiven is Eastwood's greatest western but Josey Wales for me is the better picture.

Another fine film worth checking out is Honkytonk Man, which has a number of similarities with Gran Torino, not least Clint's dying depression-era musician seeking to make something of himself before the blood that he coughs up regularly finishes him off for good.

Danny Plotnick said...

Well, I stand by my loopy assertion that the movie isn't subtle. But like I say, whatever mojo was going down, I loved the movie. Thanks for the tip on Josey Wales. A couple folks have mentioned that one to me and I'm planning on checking it out.

beyondasiaphilia said...

Hey DP, finally saw GT tonight & liked it, although I think you're right in your assessment that Clint acting was in a totally different time zone than the rest of the cast. I was also sorry to see the movie take a turn toward an exploitation flick in the last reel. But all in all a good film & seemed to be a pretty realistic view of Detroit's general malaise.

Plotbox said...

Valerie, Glad you finally saw it. What are your thoughts from your Asian-American Cinema lens?