Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gran Torino (2008)

Is anything year more terrifying than Meryl Streep in Doubt? Yes. His name is Clint Eastwood. He stars, directs, and even sings on the soundtrack of Gran Torino. In the film, he plays a badass racist old widower named Walt. He channels bits of Harry Callahan in his acting, but also shows a more tender side, √° la Frankie Dunn from Million Dollar Baby. At first glance, Gran Torino seems like a film about generational gaps, but rather it is about the similarities that different people share as an outspoken racist war vet, Walt, befriends his new neighbor: a troubled, misguided Hmong youth, Thao.

The meeting of these two characters revolves around Walt’s mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino: Thao attempts to steal the car in order to be initiated into a local gang. The gang is the cause of a few physical altercations and various other shenanigans in the neighborhood, most of which are stopped by Walt and his military-issue rifle. To repay Walt for the trouble caused, Thao’s mother orders him to work for Walt. Thao’s new chores include washing the Gran Torino. Blatant enough as the gesture is, Thao’s sister, Sue, feels the need to point out the irony. Little moments like this happen throughout the film and Eastwood crams the symbolism down the audience’s throat. I’m not saying that glaring symbolism is a bad thing, in fact I am in favor of it. The target audience (or the audience most likely to watch this film) seems to be predominantly Dirty Harry fans, and they might not be scouring the film for its hidden meaning. Eastwood makes sure that the audience can’t miss the morals of the story.

As the film progresses, Walt becomes more lovable. His racism seems to be an unchangeable part of him and he is simply accepted by his Hmong neighbors for who he is. His racist remarks aren’t taken personally, but it is rather seen just as a part of his vernacular. It is almost as if Eastwood is trying to say, “Love your racist grandparents. They’re probably just misunderstood.”

Another message Eastwood attempts to convey is that love is the only thing worth living for. In an emotional conversation with Thao, Walt talks about the love of his life, his late wife and how much she meant to him. Walt encourages Thao to go after the girl of his dreams lest he regret it later.

Eastwood’s score parallels the movie well in both the images and the themes. Whenever Walt grabs/loads/cocks his rifle, a militaristic drumroll begins to play. At first I felt the music was slightly clich√©, but it agreed well with the boldness and forwardness of the rest of the film.

Major Spoiler Alert
Click to read spoilers

Also embedded in the film is an awkward religious message. Walt refuses the religious advances of Father Janovich until the violence in the neighborhood escalates and “Thao and Sue will never find peace in this world as long as that gang’s around.” Walt finally listens to the priest and attends confession. Inspired (by God?), he now knows what he must do: sacrifice himself for the well-being of his new friends. He embarks on a suicide mission and ensures that the gang members are put away for his murder. Walt had no reason to live after his wife passed; he just needed to find a reason to die. The police find him lying on the ground with arms extended just like Jesus on the cross.

With Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood has added yet another fine film to his already outstanding career. It is a powerful and emotional film led by Eastwood’s terrifyingly badass portrayal of Walt. Through Walt, the film shows that just as insignificant personal differences can cause racism, they can also help to overcome it.

Grade: B

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Reader (2008)

According to IMDb, “The Reader opens in post-WWII Germany when teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes ill and is helped home by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a stranger twice his age.” After he recovers from his sickness, Michael returns to thank Hanna for her kindness. Hanna changes clothes and catches Michael watching her; it seems as if this is exactly what she wanted him to do. Realizing he’s been caught, Michael immediately flees the scene, only to return on a later date. Upon his return, Michael is greeted with a chore: shoveling coal. It seems as if they both know the result of the task: Michael will need a bath. Hanna’s apartment, much like the character herself, has no illusion of privacy and she is able to sneak a peek at Michael as he bathes. They make love without mentioning the age difference or the nature of their relationship. None of it matters. The secret affair continues and Michael begins to read some of his schoolwork (The Odyssey, The Lady with the Little Dog, etc.) to Hanna. As they see more of each other, more books are read, their sexual affair continues, and their emotional bond strengthens. One day, Michael goes to visit Hanna, book in hand, only to find her apartment empty. He is heartbroken, and attempts to forget about her as he enrolls in law school. Upon observation of the Nazi war crime trials, Michael crosses paths with Hanna again; she is the defendant, accused of multiple war crimes.

Click to read spoilers
Hanna is convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Years pass and Michael is now portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. He sends tapes of himself reading The Odyssey and other books to Hannah resulting in one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie: Michael is reading a passage from The Odyssey as the camera pans around the inside of his house showing myriad books. This turns into a montage sequence including Hanna listening to the hundreds of tapes that he sends to her.

The first half of the movie, with David Kross as Michael, plays out as a beautifully tender yet fiercely passionate love story interrupted by Hanna’s involvement with the SS. The second half, save for the scene mentioned in the spoiler alert above, is a rather convoluted mess. Nico Muhly’s nebulous, unmelodious score occasionally detracts from the film, adding to the film’s convolution. Ralph Fiennes was not great in this movie, but David Kross showed a lot of potential and Kate Winslet portrayed Hanna brilliantly. The film acts as not much more than a simple love story with a web of complications, but it is a compelling and beautiful love story, that is worth watching.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 8, 2009

People's Choice Awards

In case anyone actually cares (hint: if you do, you shouldn't), the Nielsen Ratings slut, The People's Choice Awards, has once again plagued American airwaves. See the losers winners here. The Dark Knight swept up all major categories, exercising its blockbuster prowess in true Hollywood fashion.

Other notable awards include the Favorite Game Show award which was given to Deal or No Deal--the show to watch if you aren't Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and can't spell Jeopardy correctly.

Barackroll won Favorite User Generated Video. If you haven't seen the video, I recommend you check it out. But that is about all you should take from the PCAs. Avoid pretty much all of the TV shows (Two and a Half Men) and movies (27 Dresses) that won awards here: they are invariably terrible (with the exception of The Dark Knight which was slightly better than terrible).

Skins (Series 1)

I normally don't post things about television, but Skins is possibly one of my favorite shows. See Film School Rejects' review of the first season of the British teen soap opera here. The second season (series) of Skins wrapped up last April and the third series is about to start (on British TV channel E4 of course).

You can check it out on BBC America or buy the DVD. Not that I condone this type of thing, but I'm sure you could find it online. Maybe you could find it here.

Series 1: A
Series 2: B+

Oh and I forgot to mention. Skins is where the wonderful Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) got his start.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

In Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He is suspected of cheating and is being interrogated: how does he know the answers to the questions? The movie plays out mostly through flashback as Jamal recounts the events in his life where he learned the answers: as a child he remembers meeting a movie star, the answer to the first question. As his childhood is told in episodic vignettes, a love story starts to bloom.

Slumdog Millionaire may be a love story, but the film is as gritty as it is charming. The majority of the shots in the flashback scenes use some form of Dutch angles; there are very few level shots in the film. This contributes to craziness and disorder experienced by so-called slumdogs. The children are homeless and are threatened by rival religious sects and kidnappers. In the scenes that take place during the filming of the game show, however, the camera moves much more gracefully mimicking what would happen on the American TV show.

At the beginning of the film, a question is shown on screen asking the viewer how Jamal made it to the final question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The answers: a) he was lucky b) he knew the answers c) he cheated d) it is written. Fate plays an obvious role in the film as Jamal relies on fate on multiple occasions. Fate never fails to reunite him with his lover and always seems to guide him in the right direction. Jamal gradually learns to respect fate and relies on it as he answers the 20,000,000 rupee question.

The perfect balance of grit and charm is what makes this movie so special. All the tribulations Jamal must go through makes his reward that much sweeter, a sentiment that the audience is able to share. Slumdog Millionaire is unabashedly emotional and possesses candor that speaks directly to the heart in a take-it-or-leave-it-put-it-all-on-the-line manner. The result is an emotionally compelling film that leads the viewer on a journey through time, fate, and the tragically beautiful slums of India.

Grade: B+