2008 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road!
When I wrote my Top 10 Movies of 2008 list, I began by listing the many movies that I hadn’t yet had a chance to see. Well, even though 2008 is well behind us, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the films that I missed. (I’ve had some time to do so, since these days it is apparently anathema to Hollywood to release any decent new movies during January or February. Am I wrong??)
Below are two films that were on my missed-in-2008 list. There were certainly elements of both that I enjoyed, but neither of them would have made my Best of 2008 list even if I had seen them in time.
Gran Torino — Clint Eastwood is a pretty amazing guy. The man is in his seventies, and he is putting out new films at a pace to rival Woody Allen. He released two films that he directed in 2008, Changeling and Gran Torino. For Gran Torino, in addition to directing, he also starred (for the first time since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby), produced, and worked on the soundtrack. Eastwood plays retired Korean war veteran Walt Kowalsky, a sort of Dirty Harry meets Archie Bunker figure, a man almost gleeful in his anger and constant use of racial slurs. As you might expect, over the course of the film the lovable fellow underneath shines through, and he learns some valuable lessons and teaches some to others (in this case, a pair of neighborhood kids).
The biggest pleasure of Gran Torino is watching Mr. Eastwood growl his way through every scene. There’s a surprising amount of humor in the middle section of the film, and his comic timing is impeccable. (I would love to see how his growls and grimaces were spelled out in the screenplay. Did someone actually type out “grrr” for those moments, or was that all Clint?) Eastwood cast a number of non-actors in the roles of the local kids, and although there are some spots of dodgy acting (such as Thao’s supposed moment of rage at a climactic moment when Walt locks him in his basement to stop him from confronting the local gang), for the most part the kids are quite compelling. The biggest weakness of the film is its one-dimensionality. If you stopped the film after the first 10 or so minutes, and then wrote down on a notepad what you think will happen to all of the characters, I’d wager you’d be able to pretty accurately predict the remainder of the film. There just aren’t any surprises as the story-lines unfold. And the characters themselves are all pretty one-note. Take Walt’s ridiculous family, for example. They’re one-dimensional buffoons, played mostly for chuckles. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they were more likable, normal people? Wouldn’t that make us, as an audience, have a more complex reaction to the way Walt treats them? Wouldn’t that help to make Walt more UN-likable at the start of the film, thus giving his character more of a journey over the course of the movie? Such was not to be, though, and to me that significantly weakens the over-all film.
Revolutionary Road — It’s a Titanic reunion with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates together again! Sam Mendes continues his examination of life in the American suburbs (Exhibit A: American Beauty) in this story of Frank and April Wheeler, two happening kids who met cute, got married, had a child and moved out to the suburbs. Except, instead of cuing the happy ending, both Frank and April have found themselves increasingly trapped in the lives they have created for themselves. April (Winslet) had dreams of being an actor, but when the film opens we see her humiliating appearance in a failed local community play. Frank (DiCaprio)… well, Frank never had any specific dreams for himself, but he is quite cognizant of his unhappiness in his office job. After 30-45 minutes in which we watch their unhappiness and their arguments, Frank and April come up with a plan for their redemption — they decide to leave their boring suburban life, move to Paris, and start over. After hatching this plan, suddenly everything seems exciting and new for the couple. If you’ve ever seen a movie like this before, though, it’s pretty clear that that happy ending in Paris ain’t gonna happen.
As with Gran Torino (and as with The Reader, Kate Winslet’s other prestige film out this season which I also found to be mediocre), there is a lot of acting talent on display here. Both Winslet and DiCaprio are terrific — eminently watch-able. The always-great Kathy Bates has a nice little role as Helen Givings, the perky real-estate saleswoman who helped Frank and April find their nice suburban house on Revolutionary Road. Then there is Michael Shannon as John Givings, Helen’s slightly-deranged son. Shannon only has two scenes in the film, but he makes quite an impact — his John Givings is a force of nature, shocking and hysterically blunt. His two scenes are critical moments in the film, in which the failings and hypocrisy of the Wheelers are laid bare. But these scenes also incredibly bizarre, and don’t really fit in tone with everything that has gone before. It’s as if Shannon has wandered over from an entirely different movie.
In the end, it’s a pretty unpleasant film. I suppose that is the effect that the filmmakers were going for — so, in that, they succeeded — but I can’t say that I got much enjoyment out of watching it. The last 15-or-so minutes of the film are particularly brutal. I respect the great talent of all the professionals involved in making this movie, but it’s not one that I need to see again.
Come back on Friday for a look at a film that, unlike these, just might have made my Best of 2008 list had I seen it in time: The Wrestler.