Friday, August 12, 2011

New to the Collection: Gran Torino

Every time Saucy adds a new DVD to his increasingly mammoth film collection, he will take the time to provide five indelible scenes that convinced him to spend his hard-earned sheckles on something he could have gotten for free with a DVD burner and a Netflix subscription. Unless he doesn't feel like writing about five scenes, at which point he will write about something else. This installment discusses Gran Torino, the 2008 film by very old yet very accomplished director and actor Clint Eastwood.

When I first saw Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino in the theater, I knew that I liked it. However, I don't think I knew that I liked it as much as I do. It got to the point where every time it was on HBO, I was sticking with it. Sometimes five minutes. Sometimes ten. If it was anywhere remotely near that scene where Eastwood gets out of the truck and has a showdown with three black street toughs, only to gain their respect by mocking a white guy trying be "down" by chatting urban slang, I would wait as much as a half-hour. That's just a totally inexplicable yet completely enjoyable scene.

I have heard different things about the film:

"The script was over-the-top in its use of racially charged nomenclature."

"The nonprofessional actors who played Eastwood's Hmong neighbors couldn't act their way out of a paper bag."

"The story ripped off Million Dollar Baby with Eastwood's character's contentious relationship with the priest."

"Eastwood basically went balls-out for an acting Oscar by crying on camera."

And the truth is I agree with some of these things (hell, these may just be original thoughts of mine that I didn't actually read anywhere else). Still, I like the film very much. And most of it is because of Eastwood's perfromance. The character of Walt Kowalski allows Eastwood to maintain his signature bravado, while allowing him to display a vulnerability unlike anything you have seen Eastwood portray before. Plus, it is an incredibly brave performance, with Eastwood spouting dialogue that could have drawn the ire of liberal Hollywood (and probably did; usually a saint to the Academy, he didn't get so much as a nomination for this role). The guy is simply a magnetic performer whether he's telling a gang to get off his lawn, doing a oddly flirty scene with a girl 65 years his junior, insulting an Italian barber, or getting blown away because said gang thinks he's reaching for his Smith & Wesson.

All this being said, what I would like to address here today with your permission is Eastwood's work as a director. Whatever you think of the film Gran Torino, there is one statement that simply can not be disputed: Eastwood is the greatest elderly director in the history of film. In fact, what he has done since turning 70 is quite simply unprecedented. Here is a list of the films Eastwood (who was born in 1930) has released since 2000:

Space Cowboys (2000): An effective yet disposable space romp he co-starred in with Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner.

Blood Work (2002): Decent police procedural with Jeff Daniels. Can't say I have seen the whole thing.

Mystic River (2003): First step in the Renaissance of Clint. It was nominated for a Best Picture and only lost because they had to give at least one Lord of the Rings movie an Oscar for Best Picture. It features incredible performances by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Marcia Gay Harden.

Million Dollar Baby (2004): Even better film than Mystic River. Features indelible performances by himself, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman, plus one of the most incredibly effective tonal switches in the history of cinema.

Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): Both released in 2006, Letters from Iwo Jima is the more esteemed film, and deservedly so. Talk about chutzpah: He tells a story from the Japanese side of World War II. Only Eastwood could make a film that dares to show the Japanese soldier as a man trapped inside difficult circumstances while portraying American soldiers, in spots, as uncaring beasts. Other than Unforgiven, this may be Eastwood's high-water mark.

Changeling/Gran Torino (2008): I thought Changeling was pretty good, but nothing spectacular. Gran Torino, I have already talked about. Not one to waste time, Eastwood actually tossed off Gran Torino during a break from the Angelina Jolie picture.

Invictus (2009): Didn't love it. Thought it was way too rah-rah. And the shooting of the rugby scenes was horrible.

Hereafter (2010): Don't know. It's been sitting on my DVD player for weeks now. Have to watch it soon before Netflix puts out an all-points bulletin.

While every one of these films is not a masterpiece, it is amazing that Eastwood is still cranking out decent-to-wonderful films at the age of 81, sometimes two per year. It becomes even more amazing when held up to the resumes of some of the other filmmakers who reached 70 years of age.

Robert Altman - Turned 70 in 1995. Made only one great film after that year, 2001's Gosford Park. The rest were middling entertainments like The Gingerbread Man, Cookie's Fortune, and Prairie Home Companion.

Luis Bunuel - This is an interesting one. He had three films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film after 70. Tristana and That Obscure Object of Desire did not win, while abstract art piece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeisie took home the Golden Boy. That is some serious dap, but I would still give the nod to Eastwood's output.

Cecil B. DeMille - After the age of 70, he won a Best Picture Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth and made a film that will forever be shown during the Passover holiday in The Ten Commandments. This being said, The Greatest Show on Earth's biggest recognition is possibly being known as the worst film ever to win Best Picture and The Ten Commandments is just a large, bloated religious tentpole picture. Advantage, Eastwood.

Alfred Hitchcock - My favorite film director of all time. Thought I would mention him. He released Topaz, Torn Curtain, and Family Plot after his 70th birthday. These are all forgettable career lowpoints. Sorry, Hitch.

John Huston - Hmmm, maybe. He definitely has a decent output after 70. Wise Blood and Under the Volcano are both available via the Criterion Collection, right? They must be good (oh wait, Armageddon and The Rock are also available in Criterion releases). Prizzi's Honor was a Best Picture nominee in 1985. And then there is Annie. The guy who directed The Maltese Falcon directed a flick about an orphan redhead for cripe's sake. Nah. Until I can verify that Wise Blood and Under the Volcano are not as sh*tty as that one where Bruce Willis plays an astronaut, I'm going with Clint by Cyrano de Bergerac's nose.

Stanley Kubrick - Kubrick only released one film after entering his eighth decade. Eyes Wide Shut, which he didn't live to see on movie screens, is an underappreciated masterpiece. But it doesn't allow him to be mentioned in the same breath as Eastwood in the "films after 70" category. No, I simply put him out there because when I talk about film, I am contractually obligated to slurp Stanley Kubrick.

Akira Kurosawa - The Japanese master Kurosawa made Ran at the age of 75. That doesn't allow him to stand as a greater oldie filmmaker than the ageless Eastwood, but...HOLY SH*T, he made Ran at 75!!!

Sidney Lumet - The New York filmmaker made mostly disposable flicks once he turned 70 (Critical Care, Gloria, Find Me Guilty), but he does deserve some recognition for making his last great film - Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - at 83.

Mike Nichols - This is a stretch. Wit and Angels in America were television movies. Closer and Charlie Wilson's War were decent flicks, but they did not stay in the memory too long.

With these men mentioned and rebuked, we come to the only man who can possbily compete with Clint Eastwood in the area of film quality after the age of 70. Woody Allen. Whatever you think about Allen's personal life, he has continued to churn out movies since 2005: He followed the very effective thriller Match Point with a light comedy in Scoop. Then came the mediocre Cassandra's Dream, which was followed by a return to form in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which he directed Penelope Cruz to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In 2009 came Whatever Works, a film whose only real significance was the fact that it brought Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David to the big screen and Allen back to New York. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was released in 2010 (haven't seen it) and earlier this year, he released Midnight in Paris, which was a very solid, comedic venture with elements of time travel and literary hoidy-toidiness. While there are certainly some winners here (Match Point being the best), Allen seems to have a tendency as of late to release one good film and one stinker, and none of the films could arguably be seen as matching the director's best all-time work.

So I believe I have proven my point in incredibly verbose fashion: Clint Eastwood is the greatest 70-and-older filmmaker in the history of cinema. Check out Gran Torino and, when it comes out, his next film, J. Edgar, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the legendary lawman and cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover. After all, the Man with No Name may seem timeless, but the years eventually catch up. Unless Clint is part vampire. At which point, we can look forward to quality films for the rest of eternity.

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