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Review: Gran Torino, Beauty in Trouble, Revolutionary Road, Bride Wars, Hotel for Dogs, Bustin’ Down the Door, Female Agents and Man on Wire

By January 30, 2009December 31st, 20133 Comments

Gran Torino posterClint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his vale­dict­ory per­form­ance in Gran Torino is com­pletely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a work­ing class wid­ower liv­ing on a sub­urb­an Detroit street, one of the few ori­gin­al res­id­ents still around as the neigh­bour­hood fills up with Hmong immig­rants. In a gang ini­ti­ation his teen­age neigh­bour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as pen­ance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the sum­mer. They get to know each oth­er – and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.

Gran Torino is a well-made film, worthy of it’s its crafts­man lead char­ac­ter, but the chief pleas­ure is see­ing Eastwood one last time gently tweak­ing that per­sona, allow­ing him­self the occa­sion­al smile. We won’t see his like again.

Beauty in Trouble posterFor all it’s pleas­ures, Gran Torino isn’t the best-crafted film of the week – that hon­our goes to Czech drama Beauty in Trouble which doesn’t put a frame wrong for any of its 110 minutes. Set amongst the Prague work­ing class, strug­gling after a flood has wiped almost everything out, the char­ac­ters are all vividly multi-dimensional and the plot has an eleg­ant, surprising-yet-inevitable qual­ity that I really like. Beauty in Trouble is like a great Mike Leigh film – only Mike Leigh him­self hasn’t made one of those for a while.

Revolutionary Road posterSam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road is also about con­sequences, mostly inev­it­able and mostly unanti­cip­ated. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio play a young mar­ried couple in the sub­urbs in the early 60s – if you’re a fan of “Mad Men” you’ll be famil­i­ar with the milieu. They’re both unsat­is­fied although (it turns out) not about the same things. Winslet wants to leave the ‘Burbs and start again in Paris and recre­ate the energy and pas­sion of their early life togeth­er. DiCaprio, not sure what he wants, agrees but by the time he gets cold feet it’s too late to go back to the way things were.

It’s a chal­len­ging film to review, this one, as I genu­inely can’t think of much wrong with it (DiCaprio is bet­ter than I’ve ever seen him, it looks great, there’s more than one scene so tense you daren’t breathe) and yet I don’t love it. Perhaps it’s one of those you end up admir­ing instead?

Bride Wars posterThe depress­ing rom-com sub-genre of wed­ding movies reaches a new low with Bride Wars. Two best friends (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) get engaged at the same time and a movie-friendly coin­cid­ence double-books their dream wed­dings at the same ven­ue on the same day. When neither backs down, the child­ish com­pet­i­tion starts includ­ing hil­ari­ous hijinks like sab­ot­aging hairdress­ing and spray-on-tan ses­sions. At the end when one of our heroines (you’re not going to watch this are you? No? Good) decides not go through with her wed­ding I could clearly hear sniffly tears from one of the pat­rons behind me, so it’s obvi­ous that there’s still a mar­ket for this pat­ron­ising, shal­low nonsense.

Hotel for Dogs posterDon’t take your kids to see Hotel for Dogs unless you are pre­pared to go straight to the pet shop after­wards – dozens of cute canines are on dis­play, their antics refresh­ingly free of CGI embel­lish­ment. Two orphan kids in an unhappy foster care situ­ation res­cue lost dogs and set them up in one of those aban­doned lux­ury hotels we’re going to see so many of in future. Paced so under-10s can fol­low along eas­ily, Hotel for Dogs pro­voked much hil­ar­ity among the lit­tlies I shared a screen­ing with but there are pre­cious few bones offered to the adults.

Bustin' Down the Door posterBustin’ Down the Door is a straight doc­u­ment­ary about that peri­od in the mid 70s when surf­ing changed from a pas­time or life­style to a career poten­tially worth mil­lions of dol­lars. The prob­lem with surf movies (and skate, ski­ing and moun­tain bik­ing movies) is that if they don’t have any meta­phor­ic impact they’re not much more than well-made ESPN shows – there’s really very little there to interest a non-surfer des­pite the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion and the emo­tion­al stor­ies on display.

Female Agents posterFemale Agents is an expens­ive WWII melo­drama about a group of French women sent under­cov­er by the Allies to pro­tect the secret of the impend­ing Normandy land­ings by res­cuing a geo­lo­gist who had been cap­tured while sur­vey­ing the beaches and then assas­sin­at­ing the SS Colonel who has dis­covered the secret. Old fash­ioned in a rip­ping yarns sort of way, the women a re selec­ted at the begin­ning from a group of ex-pat French mis­fits in a pro­cess that resembles some­thing like The Dirty Dozen, the Nazis are all abso­lute stinkers (though we are spared any monocles) and the Brits are not ter­ribly good act­ors. Like a 21st cen­tury Cockleshell Heroes and just as realistic.

Man on Wire posterDon’t miss Man on Wire, finally get­ting a wide release after wow­ing Festival audi­ences last year. In 1974 crazy Frenchman Philippe Petit recruited an oddball crew to per­form the stunt of a life­time – a wire-walk between the newly con­struc­ted World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan, 411 metres above the ground. Immaculately told, using abund­ant archive images and foot­age as well as eye-witness accounts from the still dis­be­liev­ing wit­nesses, Man on Wire is a mag­ni­fi­cent char­ac­ter study of obses­sion and single-mindedness. You will be on the edge of your seat, I guar­an­tee it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 January, 2009.

Nature of Conflict: Beauty in Trouble is dis­trib­uted in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I am sup­posed to be doing some work for.


  • noizy says:

    Dan! You’ve caught my unne­ces­sary apo­strophe disease…

    “…worthy of it’s craftsman…”
    “For all it’s pleasures…”