Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movie Reviews and Oscar Commentary

OSCAR-BAITER or, why you should avoid the Oscars and see these movies instead.

As the movie awards season begins, many people are inundated with the pressure to see the films that are all the rave, all the hype, and all the buzz. Most average moviegoers never make it to more than one or two of these films, usually because they come to the realization that they don’t really want to.

Hollywood is so in love with its “Oscar-bait” films that it jumps off the cliff of pretentiousness and leaves most people feeling alienated. As if the general movie going public isn’t sophisticated enough to decipher a Kate Winslet accent or an historically interpretive story. Apparently, anyone in a red state is too dumb to understand or appreciate anything other than something with Larry the Cable Guy.

Oh, Hollywood, you can suck it.

I shit talk the Oscars, the Golden Globes
, and any other pop culture self-gratifying awards show that pretends to be more important than it really is. It’s not that I’m against an organization awarding its members for outstanding work…it’s that EVERY year so many great people are overlooked.

This year is no exception. Just about
anyone who has seen “The Dark Knight” would attest that it is a well made, thought provoking, and innovative comic book/crime film hybrid, which pulls together the fantasy and reality of comic book characters, making them relevant and believable, while still upholding their fictional allure.

Or, they’d at least say that the movie was pretty fuckin’ badass.

However, despite Heath Ledger’s recognition, which is justly deserved whether he had died or not, director Christopher Nolan, the man MOST responsible for the film’s success, was completely ignored, as was the nominat
ion for best picture. Apparently, hobbits can win best picture, but men in bat suits are shit out of luck. These two particular omissions are by and far the most upsetting to fans of the film and for fans of GOOD films to boot.

Instead, we are led to believe, by nomination votes, that a film like “The Reader,” or even “Benjamin Button,” are far superior films. Look, I saw “Benjamin Button.” It was a great film. Great performances, direction, cinematography, score, etc., but I couldn’t quelch the constant nag in my brain that they simply repackaged “Forest Gump” (Buttons screenplay is written by Eric Roth, who also adapted Forest Gump).

Are we awarding points for originality or for WHO copied WHAT the best?

With that being said, I am personally choosing to ignore the Oscars. Their voting process is flawed and it shows me that they need a serious revamp in the system before it can become relevant to me again. The process is outlined here.

The initial selection process of nominees is as jacked as the ratings board. Hopefully the Obama Change slogan that Hollywood so giddily embraced will trickle into their own political processes and generate a revamped and accurate feel for what films are worthy of awards and nominations.

However, one point we can’t ignore is that “the people” don’t choose the nominees. Fellow actors, directors, producers, etc. are academy members…NOT Joe Public (or six pack). So, by that token, you should be able to see behind the farce…it’s an awards show for Hollywood, decided by Hollywood, and voted on by Hollywood and shoved in your face to prove that these films matter and you should watch them, thereby filling their Hollywood pockets.

It’s all well and good that an organization wants to recognize its own BY its own, but don’t try to pretend that we should give a shit because you do. In my opinion, The Dark Knight is the epitome of “Best Picture.” It was one of the best reviewed, well received, and made more money than any other film. Wouldn’t that make more sense for a “best picture” rather than what Whoopi Goldberg checks off on her nomination card?

Here are the nominations for this year. Peruse and dis at your own discretion.

This brings me to two films I have seen during “the awards season” that I feel have not received the accolades they deserve. Although one of them has a well-deserved nomination for Best Actor, they have otherwise been ignored. Now, in the long run, the truth is that I REALLY don’t give a shit if the Oscars recognize them or not.

However, the average moviegoer (meaning someone who doesn’t read the daily trades, work in the industry, or study film) usually relie
s on these nominations when choosing what they will spend their hard-earned money on. My goal in writing reviews has always been to share my opinion, which I feel is well developed enough in regards to film that I can give you some perspective and appreciation for what you will invest your time and money on.

Nothing pains me more than seeing people buy tickets to a movie that I KNOW sucks, either by seeing it already or distancing myself from it like a gang on a street corner. I’m here for you, Joe Moviegoer. I will not lead you astray. Although my opinion will not always mesh with the general public, I am informed enough to keep you in the clear.

Having said my piece on the Oscars, I’m not going to retread it throughout these reviews. There are more important things to discuss with the
m rather than their lack of recognition by their peers.

So, let’s begin, shall we?

Gran Torino is
directed by Clint Eastwood, who seems to have evolved from punching monkeys and glinting cowboys/cops into a finely tuned filmmaker. He’s been directing for decades, but not until the last few years has he really come into the realm of great significance.

After “Mi
llion Dollar Baby,” where Eastwood took your emotions on a rollercoaster ride and didn’t strap you down, he delved deeper into his treasure trove of emotional resonance and gave us an adaptation of “Flags of our Fathers,” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” (which I still haven’t watched and shame myself for), both of which received a mixed bag of reception, but are undeniably well-made. Personally, I think a lot of people skipped out on those films and shit talk them without the real insight (i.e. having really seen them).

Eastwood then churned out “Changeling,” which no one saw (yet another mark of an Academy Award nominated film). Some would argue that “Million Dollar Baby” is Eastwood’s crowning achievement as a serious filmmaker. I, however, beg to differ.


Gran Torino, Eastwood’s latest offering is a perfect blend of many of Eastwood’s past films, culminating the hard-edged characters he’s played throughou
t the years into what we might imagine they might be if they retired in a mixed race neighborhood in Michigan.

It’s a simple premise: After the death of his wife, a retired Korean war vet faces the changing times with much disdain and hardship as he is deeply set in his ways in an ever-changing world. After the teenage son of a Hmong family (southeastern Asians) attempts to steal Eastwood’s mint Gran Torino, Eastwood attempts to steer the boy away from a life
of gangs and crime, while putting his own demon’s to bed.

Eastwood plays it cool, grumpy, and stoic, all while giving the depth and torment of a man who has always
lived his life by a certain standard yet finds that even in his dwindling years can still find it within himself to change.

Eastwood’s character is an unforgiving racist, but not in a deeply violent or hateful way. We all want to pretend that we are so perfect and politically correct, but the truth is that most people stereotype all races, genders, etc., whether they admit it or not. I call bullshit on all of you who say you don’t. Eastwood’s character merely voices those thoughts and stereotypes.

And, honestly, it generates more laughter than anything else, which I felt was healthy for an audience to sit through and laugh together about it. We all know it’s wrong and not acceptable to any degree, yet it exists in almost all of us, so it’s more of a tension release in
which we can all laugh at our own ignorance.

The racism in the film is heavy handed and tackled to a great degree. Eastwood never lets up his slurs, even to the bitter end, but his mind is forever changed and altered as he begins to accept his neighbors as family, learning and developing a repor mor
e deeply felt than that of his relationship with his own sons and grandchildren.

If anything, the racism pulls the film together. You want
to cheer Eastwood on, push him to interact, to socialize with those he slurs under his breath. And through each interaction he loosens up more and more, peeling back the layers of a man who put up a fa├žade of hate for so long that he can’t even remember why it was there to begin with.

I don’t know if Eastwood has any sons that he’s trying to send a message to, but the relationship he has with his film counterparts is depressing to watch. His grown sons in the film are arrogant, spoiled, distant, nonchalant, and unappreciative of the man they call their father. They attempt to convince him to go to a home, almost as if it would just be easier to have him locked away somewhere rather than have to check on him as he lives on his own.

I have no doubt many people have felt this way when confronting the prospect of caring for their parent’s in their dwindling years. And it’s sad, really. Eastwood's character lets everyone know that just because he’s old doesn’t mean he's incompetent or unable to sustain himself. However, his sons seem to know so little about the man that they don’t see any other way.

What drives Gran Torino is the relationship between Eastwood and the Hmong boy, Thao, who attempts to steal the title car. It’s painfully obvious that throughout the film the boy becomes more of a son to Eastwood than his own blood. And, as heartbreaking as that is
, it’s just as heartwarming. Again, you want to cheer the relationship on, Rocky style.

And although the racism and gang violence is on the heavier side of things, Eastwood balances everything out with a healthy blend of humor, esp
ecially in the fish-out-of-water department. Watching a racist old vet start to blend with another culture, one he portends to hate, is more funny than painful and is a testament to Eastwood as an actor who can still reel us in even if he isn’t uttering famous one-liners.

Gran Torino is a meditative film, driven by a constant sense of dread. As things build to good things that lead to better things that lead to everything almost too perfect, you feel that something must go wrong, deeply wrong, and you find yourself clinging to the hope that somehow, someway you can see a happy resolution before the credits roll.

“Sense of dread” films
are the best. I chew my nails, I tap my foot nervously, and my mind is working like a supercomputer as I try to figure out how things will pan out, or, more importantly, how I WANT them to pan out and if the film will follow suit. Gran Torino is chalk full of good things evolving into better things while the impending “showdown” awaits and you just know that it’s going to go one way or another but you just can’t put your finger on it.

This is what makes movies great. This is what makes movies WORK.

Another highlight of this film is that of what a man leaves behind. Man, and the struggle to leave a worthy legacy in his wake, is something that infects all of us, one way or another, some deeper than others. Some ponder it daily, striving minute-by-minute to make a difference that will impact future generations. Some simply deal with the mess they’ve made, never having any hope for making great strides of progress.


It is man’s struggle, especially, as he gets into the twilight years and things haven’t quite worked out how he expected. He never finished that novel. Never went fishing with his sons. Never got over that girl. Never finished that degree. There is a laundry list with unchecked marks that we will take to our graves.

Gran Torino explores the dwindling legacy of a man in his twilight years; what he has, what he’s lost, what he’s leaving behind, and the amends he’s making as the end grows near. It’s a dual contemplation, one both for Eastwood the character and Eastwood the director.

For my money, Gran Torino is a meditative and thought-provoking film which explores the lives we lead vs. the lives we thought we would and how there is still hope to fix your legacy even as you reach the end of it.

Which takes me to my next film, The Wrestler. Director Darren Aronofsky goes off the stylistic reservation, creating what feels like a shot for shot documentary than a feature film.

Like Gran Torino, w
e have a simple premise, but a deeply (I can’t find my thesaurus and “deep” is where I’m at, so DEAL) involving tale with multiple thematic elements (man, that sounds like film school student blotter…fuck it). An aging wrestler, played to perfection by Mickey Rourke, deals with debilitating health and the pangs of loneliness and regret as he finds himself delving into his later years.

Rourke is a marvel to watch. He IS the show. As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke gives us a ringside seat into what we p
robably would never imagine as the life of a professional wrestler. The Ram is long past his prime, having reached his peak in the pro wrestling world decades past, he is now doing low-key shows to make extra cash while working stock at a grocery store.

He has an estranged daughter (played by the always lovely Evan Rachel Wood), and is enamored with a local stripper (playe
d by the always…eh…well, Marisa Tomei…with pierced nipples). He lives in a trailer park and sometimes goes to the local American Legion to hawk his wrestling goods and sign autographs.

He’s an old dog still swimming in the pool of young talent, guys that are hungry to get where The Ram was twenty years ago. And yet, he’s still got it. The showmanship, the professionalism, the drive, it’s all there, even as his bo
dy is literally falling apart.

Again, we face the themes so present in Gran Torino, involving man and his legacy. The Ram has nothing to be ashamed of professionally. He has a bevy of fans who routinely come to him for autographs and handshakes, and the promoters still treat him with respect and admiration.

However, his personal life is in shambles. I never heard any mention of a wife or girlfriend, and his daughter is completely cold and distant, wanting nothing to do with him. Tomei’s stripper shares a similar dilemma with The Ram, as she is getting on in years (the kiss of death for strippers is much younger) and although she is still smokin’ hot, she finds that her career, her own legacy leaves much to be desired.

She is a mother and a woman who wants to have and be more, but is limited…this is all she knows. And, like The Ram, when all you know is jeopardized it can seem that there’s nothing left living for…or maybe that you’ve been looking in all the wrong places.

After suffering a near fatal heart attack after a match, The Ram decides to forego a big rematch with his old rival and focus on the things that he has neglected his entire life…namely his family and a career outside wres
tling. However, his career is merely taking a position at the deli counter in the grocery store and the only family he has is his estranged lesbian daughter.

The Ram also reaches out to Tomei’s stripper, as so many “customers” tend to do, and is met with the expected stop sign. However, with her recent epiphany, she relents and agrees to hang out with The Ram socially. It’s tough for her to do, but she’s at a crossroads…at what point does she reciprocate? At what point does she move on and take a chance on someone?

Similarly, The Ram, now done with wrestling and working full time to win back what he has lost, convinces his daughter to speak with him and confesses to her in the most heartbreaking moment of the film and the shining moment for Rourke. He knows he fucked up. He knows that there’s no reason for her to forgive him or feel sorry for him, but the fact remains that he still loves her and wants to make amends.

She agrees to have dinner with him and you just know that somehow, someway it’s never going to happen. What happens after he misses the dinner is definitely a foregone conclusion though. With the most sincere honesty that leaves a lingering sting in the air, she tells him she never wants to see him again…and you can feel she means it.

And even through all his screw-ups, you want The Ram to win. Like Rocky did so well more than thirty years ago, you want the underdog to have his day. No matter his wrong doings, which are fairly average compared to worst-case scenarios, you want The Ram to get the golden ticket.

While trying to continue the tiptoeing romance with Tomei, The Ram finds that she is still clamoring to hold onto her life, even while trying to be a part of his. Like The Ram trying to still be a wrestler and juggle his family and love life, it’s too much to take at once. Tomei rejects The Ram once again and he has sunk to the lowest point since his heart attack.

So, what does a man do when he has lost everything? His career, his passion, his family, his love? He turns to that which has been the constant in his life, the one thing he could always count on. For The Ram, it’s wrestling and in a great big “fuck it” moment, The Ram calls up the promoters and agrees to the rematch with his old rival.

This is what sets The Wrestler apart from your typical underdog story. It’s not wrapped up with a neat little bow on top. It’s not cut and dry. Because, ultimately, that’s where the movie connects on a human level…that’s life. I’m not saying you can’t have a happy ending, but it never works out how you plan it and you very rarely get everything you want.

The Ram’s epiphany is th
at his legacy, his passion, doesn’t rest with his estranged daughter or with the infatuation with a stripper. His heart belongs in the ring, no matter how cheesy or inappropriate that may seem to someone else. He has already screwed up every relationship and side job in his life. But, the one thing he got right, the one thing he truly put himself into, is all he has left.

“I’m still jumpin’ from the top rope,” he says at one point. And that is where he is at his crowning, shining moment. A man’s life is made up of many moments (not trying to alienate the ladies either, I’m just speaking from my own perspective…catch me on my review for “Confessions of a Shopaholic” for the flipside), many choices, and ultimately our legacy is created from that.

In one regard, Gran T
orino is about how it’s never too late to change our lives for the better, while The Wrestler is about how sometimes change isn’t the answer to our lives. In the end, both films left me with this;

What we leav
e behind is also what we take with us.

Fortunately, both of these fil
ms will leave their own legacy that can affect viewers and hopefully challenge some thought about these themes for as long as the future holds. When the Eastwood’s, the Rourke’s, the Aronofsky’s, etc., all leave this earth, their testament to not only film, but to the human condition, will continue to live on with great films like these.

So, next time you’re at the theater and you’re looking for something with substance, devoid of the Oscar-bait stigma, consider settling in with one of these films. Without pretense or agenda they will likely leave you with a resonating experience rather than a confusing itch as to why such a film would be honored by its community.

MOVIE GRADES: A+

7 comments:

mr.boy said...

Loved both of these movies! I think D.A. got robbed in the director's category too. "The Wrestler" in the hands of any other director could have turned into pretentious, shmaltzy oscar bait.

Interesting tid-bit. Dark Knight has made more money than all the oscar nominees combined.

Suck it, Hollywood!

Brian said...

"not until the last few years has he really come into the realm of great significance."

Umm... Unforgiven... hello? 1992, Best Picture/Director? Yes, the bs Oscar thing again, but that film actually deserved it. ("Deserves got nothing to do with it, Little Bill"). There would be no gritty modern westerns (modern western? wtf?) like Open Range or 3:10 to Yuma without Unforgiven to show the way.

PSHI said...

By "Few" I mean his "later" years. "Unforgiven" is definitely in Eastwood's new regime of grown up films (not to dis his early works, but his new cadre of films are filled with more substance than twitchy sneers and bad ass one-liners).

I really liked "Open Range" and still need to see a non-haji copy of "3:10 to Yuma." The fucks that videotaped it put their hand over the camera at the point when Crowe kills his own men. Fucking amateur pirates!

"Gran Torino" and "The Wrestler" are right up your alley, B. Catch 'em if you can.

Brian said...

Oh, already caught G Torino on Hajicolor. (Most of haj's work is pretty on the level, mainly DVD quality, even on new titles. They must be pirating direct from Hollywood these days).

Great film, though I would have preferred the ending I thought I was gonna get (but yes, it works best the way it's filmed). But come on, do we really need to hear Clint SING in the closing credits?

PAINFUL

Unforgiven still kicks ass and is way deeper than I think you're giving it credit for. I think you need to rewatch it sometime. Watch that one, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino back to back to back, and then try and pretend they couldn't have all been made the same year.

BTW, I wasn't a huge fan of his Iwo Jima flicks. Sorry, but I don't really care about the Japanese point of view in WWII. They were evil fucks and there's really no disputing it. No one tries to make the Nazis seem sympathetic (ok, other than Tom Scientology), but IMO the Japs were way worse than the Krauts. You ever read Flyboys? (book sequel to Flags of My Fathers). If you have, you know what I mean.

Be home in a month.

paul said...

Yeah, Clint singing at the end of Gran Torino was just awkward and weird...and yeah, I was thinking of the same ending.

At the "moment" I was like, "Okay, if he shoots the guy in the window first, he can then..."

Alas, an ending like that would have taken the movie down a notch, all said and done.

I actually think I should give "Unforgiven" another watch. I saw it in the theater when it came out and didn't love it like everyone else.

However, I think my tastes may prove to appreciate it more now.

I have Flyboys sitting on my shelf and have yet to read it. However, evil Japs sounds pretty interesting so I may have to give it a read.

Home in a month? Freakin' sweet! I will be a happier man when you are back with the fam.

Anonymous said...

so...when do we convert from movie blogs to baby banter?

FYI: word verification: dowgs

paul said...

In the process of building the new website. I hope to have it up by August and will definitely be expanding my topics of discussion.

Be on the lookout.

My word verification: procrastinate