Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Gran Torino (2008): I wonder if in real life, Clint Eastwood is the grizzled old man with a scarred past that he's portrayed in nearly all of his recent films (think Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby). He's made the claim that Gran Torino will be his last film as an actor, and this is a great note to leave on. Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a hardened Korea war vet living in Detroit and surrounded by the increasing immigrant population. When a Hmong teen living next door tries to steal his 1972 Ford Gran Torino as a gang initiation, Walt slowly takes the teen under his wing and sets out to reform the neighborhood.

I'm a sucker for redemptive mentor stories (Good Will Hunting, Karate Kid, Dead Poet's Society), and this is one of the finer mentorship films I've seen in awhile. Walt knows that he's not the best role model--he's antisocial, foul-mouthed, and has a bit of a temper--but he's the perfect mentor for Thao, the passive and cowardly Hmong teen. Thao learns to stand up for himself, finds his own voice, and begins the transition from boyhood to an adult man. There are touching and hilarious moments as the abrasive and sarcastic Walt meets Thao's family, helps him "talk like a man" in a barbershop, and gets Thao a construction job.

But there are some deeper truths beyond the mentorship, especially the story of a man coming to grips with his own death and the legacy he leaves behind. The opening scene is the funeral of Walt's wife, a compassionate and deeply religious woman. Walt's posture is grim, his outlook on his life somber. Yet his interactions with Thao begin to transform him, as does realizing his own mortality. A man's life marked by hostility--he has some dark memories from the Korean war, and he is blatantly racist throughout the film--becomes a meditation on violence and its consequences. While the ending is quite predictable by the final 30 minutes, it is a satisfying conclusion that ultimately points to Christ.

Touching, redemptive, and surprisingly hilarious--I laughed more out loud in the theater than I did for Tropic Thunder--Gran Torino is a great film with some powerful redemptive themes, and one of the best films from 2008.

Eagle Eye (2008): Preposterous: adjective. contrary to reason or common sense; utterly absurd or ridiculous. That might be the best way to describe this technological thriller. There isn't a sense of believability anywhere in this film. Copy store slacker Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) comes home from his twin brother's funeral only to receive a cryptic cell phone call from a woman. This woman seems to know everything about Jerry and can anticipate his every move. Single mother Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) also gets a call from the woman telling her that her son will be killed if she doesn't comply. Together, the two of them must avoid FBI agents and follow the woman's bizarre instructions, trying to figure out the mystery behind the woman's voice.

While the film has a preposterous premise, the action sequences are actually quite fun. A chase scene throughout an airport baggage area is especially thrilling. The actors do their best with a mediocre script (the key dialogue consists of screaming "s**t!" over and over again). LaBeouf and Monaghan are quite good as two people caught up in a crisis bigger than themselves. I can understand why people could enjoy this film as a fun action thriller. But the lack of believability just bothered me for the length of the film.

It's difficult to review this film without some spoilers, so here's your spoiler warning. The voice behind the cell phone calls can somehow control every electronic device in the nation. Everything. Cell phones, cameras, traffic lights, signs, computers, giant cranes, power lines, everything. These are all controlled simultaneously with exact precision, such as remot-controlled junkyard cranes picking up fast-moving police cars with impeccable timing. This voice also directs Jerry and Rachel into some implausible situations that simply don't make sense to the overall plot. Why have them steal risk their lives to steal a briefcase with special syringes in order to board a military jet when the voice could simply get anyone to fly them where they need to go? How does the voice manage to disconnect precise power lines in order to fall perfectly on a man running away on the empty midwestern road? (Big Spoiler coming up next!) Why go to the trouble to assassinate the president using complicated and untested explosives while involving inexperienced people when the voice can literally launch military plans on command? Wouldn't it be easier to just launch a missile, like the missiles that get launched at Jerry? But then we wouldn't have a movie, I suppose.

Overall, it's a fun but flawed film. If you want a similar but far superior film, rent the Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State.

RocknRolla (2008): After a few film flops, Guy Ritchie is back to the snark-filled British crime films that made him famous. If you've seen Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, then you've already seen RocknRolla. With numerous intertwining characters throughout the film, it's actually quite difficult to give a decent plot synopsis. Basically, a shady real estate deal between a Russian billionaire and a British gangster goes sour when the Russian's accountant tips off a few hoodlums to steal the $7 million intended for the deal. Added to the eclectic mix is a drug-addicted rock star presumed to be dead, and you've got yourself an uber-complicated plot with almost too many characters to keep track. There are a few great actors in the mix--Tom Wilkinson, Gerard Butler, and Thandie Newton--that kept the film going.

The unique features of this Ritchie film are twofold. First, while the characters have a bit more backstory than previous films, they lack depth or empathetic quality. Simply put, the characters are somewhat shallow. That being said, the film is at a bit slower and darker pace than the others. This is less of a crime-comedy and more...well...just crime. I'd compare it to Layer Cake or Lucky Number Slevin--decent crime thrillers with a hint of wit.

Is it worth a rental? If you like Guy Ritchie's other films or British crime movies, then maybe this is for you. It kept me entertained, but as for redemptive value, there isn't much here.

City Lights (1931): Silent film isn't for everyone. You really have to be in the right mood to be able to watch a movie that has absolutely no talking for 90 minutes. But if anyone can captivate an audience through silence, it's Charlie Chaplin. I recently named this the best romantic comedy I've ever seen. Chaplin plays a lighthearted tramp--basically a homeless guy--who falls in love with a blind flower girl. After befriending an eccentric millionaire, the tramp works hard to raise the money for an operation to restore the girl's sight. What follows is a barrage of comedic scenes where Chaplin simply thrives, including a boxing match and a burglary.

The best part of the film is how much can be communicated between people without dialogue. A glance, a posture, just a raised eyebrow or upturned lip can communicate so much more than words. The looks that Chaplin gives the flower girl are so precious and heartwarming, words would almost ruin the moment. Chaplin's comedic timing is also nearly flawless, especially perfect in a brief scene where he repeatedly stumbles near an open elevator shaft only to dart back away at just the exact moment. You can also see how this film is a significant influence on all future romantic comedies with its tight balance between humor and affection--even the subtitle is "a comedy romance in pantomime."

City Lights is simple, charming, and has one of the better endings in classic film. Go rent this classic for your next date night!

Blindness (2008): What begins as an interesting psychological thriller--the population of a city inexplicably begins to go blind--quickly turns into an repugnant meditation on the brutishness of humanity. This film is just plain ugly. The blind are herded into a derelict mental institute, forced to create a Lord of the Flies-esque society filled with violence and a lack of civility. With a harsh metallic soundtrack, blurred images that will give you eye strain (on purpose, perhaps?), and a pointlessly disturbing plot, the film ends with no viable explanations or purpose. I expected more, but it just didn't happen. Unless you're into causing yourself physical and emotional pain, don't see this film.

1 comment:

  1. Gran Torino is certainly one of the best films of 2008 for me. It is so good. I've seen it twice in the theatre now and I'd like to see it again. And yeah, hilarious!

    Glad to see that you thought Eagle Eye was also ridiculous. Just... terrible.

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