Friday, January 30, 2009
Tis The Season
The following column is reprinted from the Feburary issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
We dedicated filmgoers are well into our Holiday Movie Season, where just about every movie is a so-called prestige release, all angling for Oscar worthiness, all virtually devoid of the usual spectacular explosions and without the expected easy popcorn brutality, all trafficking in those wonderful seasonal virtues like mortality, self-sacrifice, Nazism, abject poverty, soul searching, and even martyrism. You know, have a happy new year, and bring on the steady deluge of awards. (Or to paraphrase Robert Downey in Tropic Thunder, go for the “full retard.”) Let’s look at two of the current crop (both firmly middlebrow, both blatantly delving into the always troublesome social morass), which I managed to sit through despite continually brimming eyes, a sagging heart, and clenched teeth and fists, all flat out characteristics of those entrenched into our own versions of the onslaught of the Holiday Movie Season.
One of the more enduring qualities of Clint Eastwood’s directorial style is its no-frills, slow-build-to-fruition, style-embedded-within-story, assuredness. Clint’s acting style isn’t much different, whether he’s playing a lone cowpoke or a big city cop—a few grunts, a coupla squints, and an exasperated whisper go a long way. The little-bit-goes-a-long way patented Eastwood acting and directorial methods are all on display in his latest, Grand Torino, a movie that’s mostly a gentle tale of peace, love and understanding masquerading as a urban avenger story.
The 78-year-old Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, an unadorned racist, Korean War vet, ex Ford autoworker, and seemingly, the last white guy standing in the Highland Park section of Detroit. Unable to connect with his soft sons and his selfish grandkids, the ever cranky Walt finds himself enmeshed in the lives of his Hmong next door neighbors, after initially being repelled (and calling them every variation of Asian ethnic slurs he can come up with), and realizing (like a million white liberals claim to every day) that their basic values and honorific ways are closer to his than the very family he is estranged from.
After Thao (Bee Vang), the quiet teen neighbor boy, attempts to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Grand Torino from his garage, and with the intervention of the boy’s cultural adept sister Sue (Ahney Her), Walt begins to act as both mentor and guard dog, eventually tangling with the gangbangers trolling the streets outside. While the movie (scripted by newcomer Nick Schenk) wasn’t specifically written for Eastwood, the producer/actor/director/icon must have realized that it offered him not just a chance to take on the juiciest of senior citizen roles, a part that plays half-irascible and half-charismatic codger; but an ever better opportunity to draw directly from Clint’s on-screen history of iconoclasts, tough guys, justice seekers, and plain ornery outsiders. As simple and straightforward as both the narrative and muted-tones look of the film is, it is sturdied with the weight of Eastwood’s populist movie past.
Eastwood has a ball with Walt, and he has it both ways. Walt is clearly meant to be the kind of bootstrap -American who lives by strict codes of maleness, of turf, of self-sufficiency, however outmoded or curdled they may have become. Of course, when all is said and done, and with Eastwood putting a simple-but-righteous spin on his cinematic legacy, Walt also stands for the type of American who can recognize another version of the ever burgeoning middle class, and the type of guy who is willing to change his sturdy ways for the higher good. The best part of Grand Torino is that all those intertwined themes of renunciation and redemption are handily built on the under carriage of a simple and well-made film. It is prime Eastwood, well oiled and road ready, cruising just under the speed limit on all cylinders.
This bustling, colorful, even epic story of an Indian “Chaiwalla” (a boy who serves tea) who winds up on Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is an unvarnished rag-to-riches fable, a wholly predictable embellishment of escape from poverty that simply rolls over its inherent hokiness and rollicks full throttle to a well-earned finale that audiences can’t help but welcome, even a hardboiled nitcrit like myself.
Danny Boyle is one filmmaker who seems to pride himself on his own eclecticism, easily moving from the deadpan fever dream that was Trainspotting (1996), through the modernist blood-and-guts thriller 28 Days Later (2003), on to the tough-but-sweet realistic family film Millions (2005). Boyle always exhibits a stylistic energy that is pure cinematic vitality, and his directorial touch is a dexterous one. Slumdog Millionaire smartly interchanges magical realism with disturbing authenticity, and Boyle (with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and a soundtrack by A.R. Raman) charges it all up in a Technicolor blender, a cascading whirlwind of imagery, interaction, and deft filmmaking that is mainstream moviemaking at its best.
Beaufoy’s adaptation takes its central conceit from the novel Q & A by author Vikas Swarup: Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), former Mumbai slumdog and current tea boy, is making his way up the game show ladder much to the consternation of the show’s slick host (Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) and he turns him over to the authorities, everyone reasoning that an uneducated child of the streets couldn’t possibly know the answers without resorting to some form of cheating. From this set-up, the movie zooms backwards and forwards, the camera pulling back to reveal India in all its vastness and squalor, in all its loveliness and its underbelly, then diving down and in frenetically, peppered with quick cutting and hand held cameras, music popping, streets pulsating with throngs until it finds its way back to the ever still Jamal, a archetypical dead end kid with an offputting sense of stillness-he’s the film’s anchor, and the old-fashioned Warner Brothers Studio-styled plotline-Cain and Abel brothers, a dame in distress, leering gangsters and nefarious faux do-gooders—all coagulates around him.
The movie is a feel-good primer, a crowd pleaser and certain Oscar contender, but it shouldn’t be looked down at. Despite the films Warner’s-meets-Dickens core, Boyle and his team manage to wink their eyes at you and plunge past the mawkishness. Sure the film’s a pictorial delight, an ironic ancillary to a movie that purports to actually depict Third World squalor, but it also a rousing and rip-roaring yarn, a paean to India and a multi-colored celebration of destiny and obstacle overcoming. When the credits start to roll and Boyle lets loose with a dead-out nod to the Bollywood movie feature you can only shake your head in wonderment—it is indeed somehow possible to be both accessible and artful.