Gran Torino (this post contains PG-13 language)

Vintage car. Vintage Eastwood. Go see it. gran-torino

Let me start out by saying I loved this film. I really did. Now that I have that out of the way.

This film is not perfect. In fact, it has some fairly irritating flaws, flowing mostly from a script that could’ve used another round of revisions. Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is a grizzled, old, racist, Korean War vet with about the crappiest family on the planet. They’re over the top stereotypical, overindulged, self-centered  middle class jack asses–completely one-dimensional without any hint that they’re anything more than a plot device. Clunky as hell.

Then there’s this big info dump in which one of the Hmong characters, Sue, explains to Walt, and the audience who the Hmong are. I get that most people probably don’t know, so some info along those lines is necessary, but the script dumps in all in one place–an annoying piece of exposition in the middle of an otherwise well-paced story. A nit pick I suppose, but it ripped me right out of the movie.  The script just can’t keep from getting in the way of itself. It seems to allow for complexity of character in some places, and then falls flat by reverting to one-dimensional caricatures in others. It’s fairly uneven, and helmed by a less skilled director/lead actor, I think this film falls flat on its face.

But on to the good lest you forget I actually liked this movie: Eastwood is brilliant both in front of and behind the camera. Behind the camera, he gets fine performances from his Hmong cast members, many of whom had never been in a film before. They’re not awesome performances, but they’re pretty solid. I really liked Sue, portrayed by Ahney Her. Her performance was a little wooden in parts, but she managed to be endearing, and extremely likeable as she treated Walt  like a person rather than treating him like a category of person. Bee Vang, portraying Sue’s brother Thao, also performs admirably, suitably capturing the awkward teenager who doesn’t fit. He actually manages a steady evolution throughout the film that can be tracked through his body language alone. If you watched the movie without the dialogue, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out what was going on with this kid.

Eastwood himself is fantastic. His character isn’t likeable at all. He’s a shit. But Eastwood makes you care about what happens to him anyway. Even from very early on, when all evidence of redeeming qualities is lacking. Walt Kowalski is a guy with baggage. A guy with a past. And the gravity of it is everywhere. It’s there when he does something as simple as spit tobacco juice on the sidewalk, or growl when he finds his beer cooler empty. And sure, he’s channeling Dirty Harry here to a degree, but I would be a touch surprised if he wasn’t nominated for best actor for this role.

One other thing I appreciated about this film was that even though it’s clearly a serious drama, there were quite a few laugh out loud moments mostly stemming from some of the appalling insults Walt dreams up for the other characters in the film. You never know exactly what’s going to come out of that guy’s mouth. Good stuff.

I did trash the script earlier–it could be a lot better. But one thing it does well is depict the glue that binds people together. I don’t want to describe the glue–that would give away some of the best parts of the movie away. But I think Gran Torino will make attentive viewers ponder what sort of people they are and whether or not they have that gluey quality.

Finally the car. The car is a character too. It, like Eastwood’s character is an artifact from another era–a surviving piece of a past that seems long gone and altered to the point of being unrecognizable. And Walt couldn’t make his Gran Torino get 30mpg if he tried. It’s a gas guzzling heap of solid metal without automatic locks or windows, sans air bags, missing a fancy alarm system. There’s nothing safe about it. It is what it is. And so is Walt. He is what he is and he doesn’t apologize for it. When he finally embraces his Hmong neighbors, he’s still a cranky, old racist, who honestly doesn’t seem to learn a thing about acceptance from his neighbors even though he becomes intensely loyal to them and protective of them. But I don’t think Walt’s meant to be the guy who learns something. We are. And as problematic as the script is, Clint Eastwood, both behind and in front of the camera, makes it work.

Gran Torino is rated R for violence, smoking, and naughtly language, which includes swear words, uncivilized terms for human body parts, and a cornucopia of racial epithets.

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Changeling (aka Law and Order starring Angelina Jolie)

changelingOkay. Changeling hasn’t gotten universally positive reviews. And even though I thought the film was riveting, I can kind of see why. Here’s a film that was marketed as this dark mystery. Well there are certainly mysterious things that happen in the film that make the viewer think, “Hmm. What’s up with that?” and “I wonder how that’s going to turn out.” But the film focuses on an actual kidnapping case that is more or less solved with a lot of the film remaining. If one expects what the trailers promise–a taut thriller–one will be disappointed. Changeling more or less follows the structure of Law and Order: the crime is solved, and then we move to the courts where everything is resolved one way or another.

If, however, one goes into the film expecting a dramatization of the real life kidnapping of Walter Collins, one will be delighted. And here’s why. Clint Eastwood made a damn fine film. The real life story is so incredibly appalling, and takes so many bizarre twists and turns, that a film based on it, almost necessarily, seems to go in too many different directions. In fact, if the story didn’t have basis in reality, it would almost be unbelievable.  But knowing that this stuff (more or less) really happened, it’s fairly appalling, and it’s pretty tough to look away.

It’s also pretty tough to look. I’m glad I saw it. But I won’t ever watch it again–not because it’s bad, but because it makes me feel uncomfortable in the same way that Sherry Baby and Monster did. Along with those two films, Changeling left me wondering exactly what kind of crap world we live in, Monster and Changeling especially, because they’re both based on real events.

And Angelina Jolie is the reason this film is so hard to watch. A viewer could walk into this film having never thought about what it would feel like to lose a child, but it would be pretty hard to walk out without having gleaned the horror of it from Jolie’s performance. She’s angry, helpless, frantic, and completely bared and vulnerable. As her deep frustration grows, so did mine. It’s difficult not to go through this ordeal alongside her. Director Clint Eastwood deserves some of the credit of course, but Jolie once again proves that she’s far more than a pretty face.

I have two gripes with the film. The first is with LAPD Captain JJ Jones, played by Jeffrey Donovan. My gripe is on two levels. First, I don’t think the guy is a very talented actor. I watch his show Burn Notice, but more for the ancillary characters played by Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless. In fact, the first few episodes I watched, I fairly well hated the wooden Donovan. He’s grown on me in the context of the show. But in this film, he has this wildly vacillating Irish accent (well Irish is my best guess) and he’s stiff as a board. Which I might buy if I hadn’t seen him already playing stiff board in something else. But in addition to Donovan’s annoying performance, the character of the Captain is fairly one-dimensional as well. It’s difficult to beleive the real life guy was as much of a complete slime as this film suggests. Perhaps he was. I’m not going to say it’s impossible. But just one small indicator that this character has some small vestige of a soul would have been nice.

The second is that you’ll leave the film questioning the motives of some of the key players and wondering what exactly happened. The film doesn’t tell you. And there are plenty of possibilities to mull over.  The curious can easily discover what happened, but that’s extra work, and I already paid nine bucks and spent two and a half hours watching this thing. I don’t think I should have homework.

But, gripes aside, I highly recommend Changeling. In addition to the kidnapping plot, it shines a light on LAPD corruption, along with some of the indignities faced by women early in the last century.  Superior supporting performances by Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, and Michael Kelley round out this compelling historical drama. Don’t miss it!