Clint 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.
For 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.
Sam 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?
The 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.
Don’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 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 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.
Don’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.