Day By Day

Monday, January 12, 2009

Movies to Miss: Benjamin Button and Gran Torino

We went to see a couple of films this weekend. Neither was very appealing to me, although they did have their strong points.

Let's start with the good stuff. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a gorgeous film. The cinematography, set design, and costuming are superb. Several times during the nearly three hours of watching I said to myself, "now that's a beautiful shot!" The trouble with the film, though, is that I was so uninvolved in the story that I could make such observations. I could also note filmic references -- Gee, there's Juliette Binoche reading an old diary to a dying person, now where have I seen that before? In fact much of the movie seems to be lifted from other work, The Notebook, Forrest Gump [also written by Eric Roth], Titanic, 2001, etc.

There are a couple of brilliantly executed set pieces. The tugboat attack on a submarine was particularly well-made and was the only point in the film where I was sucked into the story. There was a lot of good acting from supporting players, especially Tilda Swinton who is always wonderful, but the main characters, played by superstars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, evinced no real passion and their relationship was completely uninvolving. Still it would have been a good movie if the screenwriters [Eric Roth and Robin Swicord] had taken advantage of its unusual conceit [Brad Pitt's character is born old and ages backward toward infancy] to make some sharp and possibly profound observations on the human condition, but the meditations offered in this flick never rise above the level of dorm-room BS sessions. Particularly annoying was a long and silly piece on the role of happenstance in human affairs. And there were other nonsensical aspects to the film. I kept wondering, for instance, why David Fincher and associates decided to place the whole thing against the backdrop of Katrina's impending disaster. What did it mean that the backwards clock was still operating at the end of the film? And why should I care about any of this?

That's the real problem with this flick: I didn't care. It isn't a bad film, and it has a few good moments, but ultimately it is, like much of Fincher's work, cold, empty, and devoid of significant meaning.

And then there was Gran Torino Clint Eastwood's tribute to his own cinematic self. Unlike Benjamin Button, this was a tightly written and plotted piece of fiction that actually had some purpose. It served as a commentary on the career of one of Hollywood's most important figures. It has been billed as Eastwood's last film appearance, and it seems to have been designed [by Nick Schenk] as a farewell to his most famous characters. Walt Kowalski, as played by Eastwood, is "Dirty Harry" in retirement, the plot situations reference those of the "Outlaw Josey Wales" and Walt handles a cigarette just as "The Man With No Name" wielded his Denobili Black Cigars. There are even references to "Coogan's Bluff" and "Million Dollar Baby". All of this is great fun for anyone who has followed Eastwood's career.

The story is well structured and carries a clear message, one of disdain. Kowalski, a retired auto worker, still lives in his old neighborhood which has been invaded by immigrants for whom he has undisguised contempt. His wife has just died and he is alienated from his family, for whom he has undisguised contempt, his religion, for which he has undisguised contempt, you get the idea. His only connections are with other old men who remember when life was better. They gleefully flout all the strictures of today's PC culture, and it's fun watching them do so.

In essence the whole film is a long expression of disdain for contemporary American culture and a sad yearning for a better world that is rapidly receding into the past, but it is not despairing. Eastwood also offers a hope for the future. At the beginning of the film Walt Kowalski has walled himself off from the world he so despises and waits, grimly defiant and nursing dark secrets, to die. But the world won't leave him alone and slowly but surely he is drawn into violent confrontation with the enveloping forces of evil. In the course of doing so he gradually forms profound ties with his immigrant [Hmong] neighbors and particularly with their teenage son to whom he becomes a hero and mentor, passing on to them the values and skills that once made America great. And as he protects and nurtures the boy and his sister, Walt begins to re-engage with the world, finding in them something worth living and perhaps dying for.

It is a film guaranteed to resonate with conservatives, especially those who remember the world as it was before the catastrophe of the late "Sixties". And it is fun to watch Clint deliberately violate every rule in the PC canon. But ultimately the film just isn't very good. Eastwood, in reprising his most famous roles, has reduced them to the level of parody. He growls, he grits his teeth and sets his jaw in nearly every scene, he even shouts at some teenage gangbangers, "Get off my lawn!" Particularly embarrassing are the episodes in the barbershop where he and John Carroll Lynch instruct the Hmong boy in how to swap ethnic insults with people. I'm old enough to remember the days when such talk was common, and the dialogue here is so formulaic and over the top as to be ridiculous. And that could be said of much of the movie. It is hyperbolic, but then that has always been a characteristic of Eastwood's work. He's much more comfortable with a sledge hammer than a scalpel. Most embarrassing of all is the final confrontation between Eastwood and the gangbangers. It is so obvious and so cliched that it alone would have ruined a good film. Here it is just one of many false notes.

I won't say much about the supporting actors. Many of them are non-professional and it shows. Even the pros aren't very good because the dialogue is so unrealistic and the situations so contrived.

As in all Eastwood films, the parts of Gran Torino click into place smoothly and form a coherent whole. He's a very efficient film maker. The trouble is, the parts aren't very good and ultimately neither is Gran Torino.