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The Mule (2018)

Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The 15:17 to Paris (2018)

Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were three ordinary servicemen taking a train ride into Paris when they found themselves in the middle of an armed terrorist attack. The three men rushes into danger, disarmed and subdued the attacker, and treated the injured on the scene. The 15:17 to Paris is a big screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) that tells their life stories played by the men themselves. It got some of the worst reviews of Eastwood’s storied career (mine won’t be better). There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience.

I assumed telling this real-life story as a movie was going to be a challenge to produce enough meaningful material to eek out a feature-length running time, and within the first five minutes I knew that I was doomed. We’re sitting down to two single moms discussing their boys with their classroom teacher, and that teacher literally says, “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll just self-medicate later. Statistically, boys of single moms are more likely to have problems.” My response: “What the hell, lady?!” This character was obviously engineered, from her very foundation, to be a walking, talking point of exposition and disagreement. No real teacher would ever utter these words so callously. It was this rude awakening that made me realize what a terribly written slog I was in for. At no point were these supporting characters going to come across as authentic human beings. Instead, it’s a world populated by robots with bad social skills or unshakable faith played by familiar actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White of all people). Also, what little kid has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his bedroom? Did he not understand what that movie was about?

These men can rightly serve as an inspiration, rising to the occasion in a true test of courage. No one will challenge the heroism. But what else is there to this story? The attack is presented as the framing device and as it plays out we segue into lengthy flashbacks about their lives leading up to this pivotal point in time. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. We watch them get in trouble twice at school for not having a hall pass. We watch them watch football. We watch them endure training montages. We watch the trio tour the sights of Italy and eat gelato. We watch an Army team retrieve a backpack. We watch Spencer get demoted for not stitching properly. Seriously, this is given time. It’s not even until a full hour-plus into the movie before they confront the attack on the train.

Chronicling the lives of normal, real-life people under extraordinary circumstances is not by itself a fatal flaw, as evidenced by the masterful and mournful United 93. The power of empathy allows us to leap into a multitude of perspectives. However, with United 93 there was an ongoing story that could unfold because of the scope of events. There were developments, deadly complications, and the slow realization of what was happening, what was going to happen, and what needed to be done. With 15:17 to Paris, the attack is uncomplicated and over relatively quickly. There’s a reason Eastwood saves the train attack for the end because it cannot function as a sufficient movie plot on its own. Eastwood had a similar predicament with his previous film chronicling the heroism of the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. The plane crash was thrilling and Tom Hanks added some layers to the portrayal of a man uncomfortable with the spotlight. 15:17 to Paris doesn’t even have that much. It’s a tedious trek to an all-too swift climax.

The other large miscalculation was having the real-life actors portray themselves. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Sure there are broad strokes of characterization applied here and there but it’s with very minimal effort (see above for some of the just-had-to-include plot moments). This is another reason actors would have been preferable, because these guys’ lives don’t have to be interesting for my benefit. Their lives were not destined to one day entertain me on the big screen. They can simply be normal people. On the other hand, watching normal people do normal, boring things without a more enriching sense of introspection, personalities, or depth is like being trapped watching someone else’s home movies on a loop. Spencer Stone performs the best of his buds but none of them should expect a second career as an in-demand thespian.

I feel bad saying this but I really just didn’t care, and that’s because the movie gave me no reason to do so here. Yes, these three men are heroes and their sense of normality might lend itself toward a larger theme about the everyday capabilities of heroism, but there isn’t enough here to make me care beyond the train attack. The screenwriting does not present them as multi-dimensional characters and perhaps that’s because of the guys’ limitations as actors, exacerbating a spiral that only makes 15:17 to Paris less involving as it chases after the idol of authenticity. Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Sully (2016)

cpbh8ejwgaaispb-jpg-largeI think I had the same initial thought that most did when they saw the news that there was going to be a movie about the Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot: where exactly is the feature-length story? The flight itself lasted only about 200 seconds before landing on the river, and the sequence is thrillingly recreated and held off until halfway through the movie. The hero in the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks), is consumed with ensuring each and every last passenger is accounted for. When he gets the news that all survived, he can finally allow himself to breathe, to take in the full magnitude of the events, and it feels like a cleansing moment of deep emotional catharsis for him and the audience. But what’s the movie here? Apparently the NTSB and the airline insurance companies are disputing whether Sully could have safely landed the plane back at an airport instead. It’s exactly the kind of flimsy, manufactured conflict that sets itself up for moral grandstanding and a courtroom confrontation where our heroes will be vindicated, and we get all that. Sully’s unexpected spotlight wears on him as he feels like an ordinary citizen not worthy of the term “hero.” No other plane has successfully landed in water without a loss of life, so I’m sorry pal, but you’re a hero, even if you think you were just doing your job. Hanks is suitably low-key and humble and strong and emotionally resonant, though he was better on just about every front with Captain Phillips. The direction from Clint Eastwood is respectful without going into hagiography. The overall message is one of uplift, widening the focus from Sully to other heroes in New York City that day that came together to help others. It’s a moving message without having to resort to melodrama. At a mere 96 minutes, Sully gets you in and out and provides a solidly entertaining glimpse at the people who rose to the challenge when needed most. It’s a well-made movie that goes as far as it can without trying your patience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper-Poster1When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.

american_sniper_stillFrom the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.

It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.

1412258342001-XXX-AMERICAN-SNIPER-MOV-jy-2898-Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.

Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.

If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.

Nate’s Grade: C+

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.

J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.

The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.

Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.

I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.

The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.

At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.

The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Changeling (2008)

This is one crackerjack of a story. The true-life tale of a mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), who loses her son, only to have the LAPD give her a different boy is easily gripping. The pace is a bit elegiac but the movie never gets boring, partly because Christine is beset by a multitude of adversity by the corrupt members of the 1920s LAPD who want the case to go away. Changeling can seem to fall prey to outrage cinema, and the audience is clearly going to demand some justice after watching Christine undergo a torture chamber of abuse. And justice is what we get. The last 45 minutes of this movie is protracted courtroom sequences where the antagonists get stomped upon with righteous fury. It just keeps going on and on, as if to compensate for the massive grievances Christine endures. Writer J. Michael Stracynzski (Babylon 5, my wife’s favorite TV show of all time) makes the drama stick close to the facts of the case, which is admirable but it also makes Changeling anchored to reality when there is nothing, repeat nothing, subtle in this movie. It’s hardcore melodrama all the way through, but I didn’t mind one bit. Jolie’s frantic performance suits the melodramatic material. She leaves it all on the floor, as they say in sports. Clint Eastwood doesn’t seem to be too enraptured by the material, routinely slipping into his understated direction that seems at odds with such a juicy story. Changeling feels like a tremendously fascinating story that isn’t necessarily presented in the best fashion. Still, this is fine stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Gran Torino (2008)

Clint Eastwood is an icon but he’s also proven to be a remarkable and thoughtful director in his twilight years. When the star first traveled behind the camera he mostly stuck with the action films that were his cinematic bread and butter. Then he showed something grander with 1992’s Unforgiven and rebounded back to that quality with a string of critically lauded flicks like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima. Three of those films were nominated for Best Picture, including three Best Director noms, and Baby won. The prolific screen icon has taken his directing skills up to another level in his older age and Eastwood has chosen to work on somber, mature, and meditative tales. Gran Torino is a movie caught between two different eras of Eastwood direction. It has the sheen and intentions of one of the recent loftier works and the film also taps into the suspense of his earlier action vehicles. It’s the only non-Batman movie targeted for Oscars this year that features ass kicking.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Korean War veteran living in Detroit. He worked on the Ford factory lines for over 30 years and now has the pleasure of seeing his spoiled children driving foreign cars. His neighborhood has been inundated with Hmong immigrants from South East Asia. It seems the Hmong people sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, and when the Americans left, well, it didn’t turn out so well for them. One old Hmong lady chastises Walt as a stupid old man and doesn’t know why he hasn’t fled like the other whites that used to live in the neighborhood. Things aren’t like they used to be. Gangs run rampant and terrorize the people into silence. We’re told that when it comes to the Hmong, the women go to college and the men go to jail. A Hmong gang keeps trying to recruit Tao (Bee Vang) into their ranks. He is looked down upon as a weakling and for doing women’s work, like gardening and the dishes. His initiation into the gang is to steal Walt’s pristine 1972 Gran Torino, the old man’s prized possession and one he helped build on the assembly line. Walt catches Tao in the act and eventually the boy works for Walt to repay the offense. Together, Walt and Tao form an unlikely bond. His Hmong neighbors cherish Walt for saving Tao from the gangs and the community opens its arms to him. Walt helps Tao find a job and stand up for himself, but the pull of the gangs is too strong. Walt realizes that Tao and his bright sister Sue (Ahney Her) will never be allowed to have a future as long as the Hmong gang is around.

It’s hard to take the movie purely on the surface without some preparation. Because in synopsis, Gran Torino sounds like a ham-fisted after school special where Old Man Dirty Harry teaches the youngsters about the dangers of gangs and violence. The film is hard to fully describe without it sounding like a parody. Yet Gran Torino manages to come together along the journey. The movie balances gracefully even when it seems like it is going to dip into self-parody. Simply put, having Eastwood point a gun and growl, “Get off my lawn,” the quintessential geezer line, is almost calling out for ridicule. The gang storyline feels at times incredibly natural in approach and its casual, realistic dialogue, and at other times the storyline, like the film, feels like it is leading you by the nose. Some of the stock characters are sketched so thin, like the self-centered granddaughter who wears a midriff-bearing outfit to her grandmother’s funeral (all the better to witness your navel piercing, my dear). The spoiled children and grandchildren come across as too broad to be believable. The messages are all familiar, the characters are even somewhat familiar, but Gran Torino emerges as something more understated and perceptive than “Archie Bunker with a gun.” It’s a moderately rich character piece that follows one man resorting to his better nature in his golden years. Walt’s redemption may be predictable from the first minute but that doesn’t make Gran Torino any less satisfying. In fact, the movie on a whole is an embarrassingly entertaining experience. Sure, there’s a certain primal rah-rah vengeance angle to it, and watching a 78-year-old man kick around some youngster is always worth watching. But the novelty of the movie is not cheap xenophobic wish fulfillment, watching an old white war vet eliminate the immigrants in his neighborhood. The draw of this movie is an old-fashioned tale told well, which is equally earnest and glum.

The dialogue can be forcibly blunt as it spits out every offensive racial epithet, slur, and stereotype known to human ears (it’s practically the comedy routine of the unfunny Carlos Mencia). The screenplay by Nick Schenk confuses racist pabulum with comedy gold, like hearing an old lady cuss, but Eastwood manages to make it work. The rampant racist dialogue tends to get tiresome unless it begins to chip away and reveal more about a character. Naturally, Walt shuns being politically correct because he is uncompromising. He shakes his head and glowers at what the kids today have turned into. He’s meant to make others feel the same discomfort he feels in today’s world, and words are his weapons at his old age. The backbone of the script is the friendship Walt forms with Tao and his family. Because it begins so reluctantly and moves at a steady pace, the audience is emotionally invested and the friendship is rewarding to witness. The movie presents a fairly universal message about the redemptive power of human kindness, of helping one’s neighbor. It’s a petty big melting pot out there and there’s no reason to dig in and combat change. Gran Torino lacks the forced sanctimony and transparent manipulation of other “important” race-relations movies, like 2005’s Best Picture-winning Crash.

The movie is impossible to view without it also becoming a commentary on an iconic actor’s screen legacy. What does a retired Dirty Harry at 80 look like? I imagine something like Walt, an embittered war vet grumbling about the change all around him that he is powerless to ignore. Eastwood takes great pains to be an angry curmudgeon even until the end, which allows the actor to tap his little seen comic ability. There’s a funny scene where Walt takes Tao to the barbershop for a lesson in how to “talk like a man,” which naturally involves playfully insulting your fellow man. Eastwood knows how to make a racist and standoffish character sympathetic and engaging. It’s a pleasure watching Walt become affectionate and protective, and yet the character’s redemption doesn’t ever feel contrived. His character is scarred and weary and wears his pants up to his armpits, but Clint makes it work. He can be sad and badass and appalling all at the same time. The character is somewhat similar to his character in Million Dollar Baby, a grumpy man closed off to the world who mentors a young kid. The flick presents a semi-dignified swan song to what happens when men of action grow old.

Eastwood directs with his typical steady hand and cool decision-making. The camerawork is intimate and sparing, never yanking the audience out of the story. The visuals mimic the characters in that nothing feels over polished. I enjoyed the small bits that pointed to something deeper, like Walt pointing his finger, a pistol and lining up his antagonists. I also enjoyed that Walt refrains from ever spilling his guts about his guilt during the Korean War except in a way that feels true to the character. Eastwood also shows a bit of his directorial prowess by hiring a bunch of Hmong actors that have had no acting experience. Some of them fare better than others, and some are in fact kind of bad, but this decision makes the movie feel more authentic. Now, it’s rare for me to cite sketchy acting as a plus for a movie, and that should be a testament to Eastwood’s directing skills. The man has a way with people; since 2003 he’s directed four different actors to Oscars. It must have been what Angelina Jolie was hoping for when she signed up for Changeling, the earlier Eastwood directorial effort from the fall. I think the biggest mistake Eastwood makes as a director is singing the closing song that unrolls right before the credits. Clint’s raspy singing voice is not the best way to close a movie.

Gran Torino isn’t among the same ranks as Eastwood’s other output, like Letters from Iwo Jima or Mystic River, but it’s a small-scale story told with fortitude. Even as I write this review, and you dear reader read them, I feel like I’m failing in my attempt to make the movie sound good. True, on the surface it sounds like a bizarre after school special that would be destined to slip into self-parody and open mockery. Eastwood as star and director makes the material click. Walt’s journey from grumpy bigot to grumpy bigot who has opened up and made amends is greatly entertaining and humorous throughout. Gran Torino can be seen as a deconstructionist take on the fading era of Dirty Harry and Eastwood’s cinematic tough-guy legacy. Clint fans will eat all of this up.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Grace is Gone (2008)

This Iraq War drama means well but it comes across as manipulative and morally questionable. John Cusack stars as a former military man who just found out his wife, on active duty in Iraq, has been killed. The bulk of the film’s conflict deals with how Cusack will tell his two daughters that mommy is not coming home again. Instead of being upfront with his children, he takes them out of school and whisks them away on a family trip to an amusement park. His reasoning is that he wants to squeeze in a few more happy memories before the kids hear the news. To me, this is irresponsible and psychologically damaging; those kids will resent their father holding onto such important information while he encouraged his kids to shop in ignorance. The film is about 80 minutes of watching a guillotine hang over someone’s head, just waiting for the moment to hit. It can get rather uncomfortable. Somewhere in this misguided drama is a poignant look at the domestic cost of the Iraq War from the family’s perspective, a perspective yet to be fully articulated by the movies. Instead, Grace is Gone is a well-acted but contrived drama that favors delaying the pains of reality to the point of incredulity.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Clint Eastwood’s WWII epic is all about scaling down legend, deconstructing myths, and illustrating how truth can become hazy in the name of the greater good. It’s very well made, noble, reverent, intelligently written but somewhat empty at its center, feeling far too mechanical to become one of the great war movies of modern times. The structure is needlessly scattered into three interconnected storylines: 1) the ongoing battle of Iwo Jima between Japan and the United States, 2) the stateside bond tour by three of the six men responsible for raising the flag in the iconic photograph, and 3) a son in present day writing a book about his father’s war experiences in the Pacific. I really don’t feel that splintering the narrative added anything to the story; in fact, there’s a late segment that’s a barrage of character deaths that would have been far more powerful had it not been assembled into an afterthought of a montage. The battle moments are tense and bloody, with just a tinge of Saving Private Ryan familiarity (shaky cam POV, washed out colors, chaotic editing, graphic gore). I would have actually preferred more battle action but oh well.

Most of the film focuses on our three soldiers (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) dealing with the pressure of a spotlight they feel is undeserved. You see, the raising-the-flag picture, perhaps the most famous war photograph of all time, was a group of men replacing a flag. There were no bullets buzzing over heads, no bombs blasting; it isn’t even the first flag. The men wince at being called heroes. They’re made to become U.S. military shills, encouraging the nation to keep buying those war bonds. This segment provides lots of moments of interest by illuminating a chapter few know — the story behind the story. These moments of insider info have some juice to them, led by a suave SOB performance by John Slattery as the man in charge of drumming up dollar signs.

Phillippe is an actor I’ve been keeping tabs on ever since 2000’s Way of the Gun, and he is the moral center of the movie, showing grit and humility. It’s mostly a performance of stoic silence, but he has a very strong scene when he confronts a war widow wanting the truth and he lies between his teeth to comfort her. Beach (Wind Talkers) gets the best role as a solider of Native American blood that is still seen as a second citizen in his own nation. There are plenty of revealing moments of casual racism (people call him “chief” more than his actual name) that explain why he took to the bottle with such ferocity. Beach is an emotional wreck and deeply haunted by the disturbing memories of war. He has to be practically pried off of a widow he is clinging to and crying uncontrollably. The cast is full of young Hollywood actors and it might due some good to become acquainted with their faces before stepping into a theater. It can get confusing. Yet another reason a disjointed narrative is a bad idea.

Where Flags of our Fathers cannot make the leap from good to great is in the area of character. After two hours, you don’t really feel like you know anyone better. There’s a distance that stops the audience from fully investing. I think Eastwood and the film have such noble aims that the movie becomes more of a statement than entertainment. There isn’t any conclusive climax; the film seems to directly go right into a voice-over heavy resolution. On a technical front, Flags is very impressive and Eastwood has created his most visually lush film to date. From a human standpoint, it falters and flags. It’s admirable and attractive but I doubt come Oscar time that this war-weary ode to heroism will have many followers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.

]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.

Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.

No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).

For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.

Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.

What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.

Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.

Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.

Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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