MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Gran Torino plus reviews of Doubt, Nothing Like the Holidays, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Dark Streets

Gran Torino (Four Stars)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood plays a Dirty Harry grown old in his latest movie Gran Torino. And he makes us feel lucky … to be watching him simmer and explode on screen again.It’s been four years since Eastwood last played before the camera, as the gruff fight trainer/manager in his heart-breaking Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby. And though he’s greatly enhanced his directorial credentials then — with a run of gems like Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — it’s refreshing to see him trotting out his scowl, his squint and his nasty disposition.

The real Clint is a gentler, more thoughtful character than Harry or Philo or The Man With No Name or or any of his other noir or western creations. But on screen he still seems to relish playing his counterpart, a male fantasy figure, by his own description. That’s what Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski is — though with a difference.

Walt, a Korean War veteran and Ford assembly plant retiree, is a seventy-something Detroit suburbanite, who has few friends, only the obnoxious family members left, and the same foul-mouthed and slow-fuse but deadly temper that old ‘70s antihero detective Harry Callahan had. Walt, who views the world though a grimace, is playing out his last chapter after his returment from Ford (after a half century) and though he‘s the neighborhood grouch in an increasingly Asian community, he becomes involved, at first almost against his will, in the problems of the immigrant Asian (Hmong, or Laos or Thailand mountain people) family next door.

These include an irascible granny, some worried parents, and the Lor family teenagers, troubled Thao (Bee Vang) and lively Sue (Ahney Her), two kids who are both being harassed and/or courted by the local Hmong gangbangers — and who cross paths sharply with Walt when those local thugs chivvy Thoa into trying to steal Walt’s precious, beautifully preserved 1972 Gran Torino. Walt, who has as big a repertoire of racial epithets as Harry’s, observes it all and eventually gets into the action just as Humphrey Bogart’s Harry Morgan did in To Have and Have Not — because he “likes you and (he) doesn’t like them.”

Increasingly, Walt noses into the Lor kids’ scrapes with the local delinquents, mostly Asian or black, — and as usual with the kind of classic revenge or town-taming thriller that Gran Torino aims for, the confrontations get tenser and more explosive. By the time of the movie’s sad furious climax (which is the only moment here I‘d question), Walt has faced a last battle and director-star Eastwood has notched another late-career revisionist triumph in his six-shooter canon.

It’s easy to look at Gran Torino — which comes from a salty, likable screenplay by Nick Schenck, apparently written, according to Richard Corliss, without Clint in mind — and dig out all the Dirty Harry connections, ending with kudos to Eastwood for reversing them — which is, in a way, what I’ve been sort of doing so far in this review so far. But, despite the obvious mellowing and self-criticism, I’ve always thought Dirty harry and the Dollars Trilogy weren’t as far from Unforgiven and the other late Eastwoods as some of us like to think. Harry wasn’t really a racist and the Man may not have had a Name, but he had a code.

Gran Torino, seems in some ways a bid to re-establish Clint the star after that four year hiatus, and I think it will. The movie, Eastwood‘s second directorial effort this year, is less well-written than Changeling was and less surprising or original as a story. But, with Eastwood calling the shots, it’s another fine piece of moviemaking: lean and tough and laid out with an almost merciless clarity. It’s also more of a comedy than he’s done in a while. All in the Family and Archie Bunker parallels have been popping up in the reviews as often as Dirty Harry allusions, and the mostly amateur Hmong cast — as well as old pros like John Carroll Lynch as Walt’s equally foul-mouthed barber buddy — give good understated natural performances too. Especially Her.

One irony of Eastwood’s later flexography — the movies he‘s been making since Bird, and especially the ones he made starting with Unforgiven, is that his whole major career strategy was based on star power, on using his box-office clout to carve out his directorial career. With Unforgiven (even a little earlier with Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man and White Hunter, Black Heart, he began undercutting that star power, playing against his carefully crafted macho image. Them, of course, after “Baby,” Eastwood for a while abandoned his screen image entirely and concentrated instead on directing — and though he’s gotten awful damned good at it, and has been able to choose projects he couldn’t have taken on as a star actor, I like seeing him on screen again. I don’t think this should be a valedictory. I hope he doesn’t rule out working for other directors. I even hope he makes another Western.

The special kick of watching big, long-lived movie stars in a show is that we‘re seeing people we feel we know, with whom we share a history, albeit an imaginary one. That’s part of what makes Gran Torino such an enjoyable experience. It’s not the best or deepest thing he’s done recently. But Walt is his man, Gran Torino is his vehicle and he knows how to drive them home.

By the way, here’s the Western Eastwooid could still do, maybe even that he should do. An adaptation of Dorothy Johnson’s story Lost Sister. It’s a masterpiece waiting to happen, and it could even be shot partly in Monument Valley. Meanwhile, it’s nice to see that squint again.


Doubt (Four Stars)
U.S.; John Patrick Shanley

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a gorgon nun and a progressive priest in a Bronx parochial school in 1964, stage a classic actor‘s battle in Doubt, director-writer John Patrick Shanley’s tense, humane adaptation of his Tony-winning play. And they make it an obvious but deserving candidate for this year‘s prestigious film acting prizes.

I know I’ll give Streep and Hoffman a lot of consideration for best actress and actor honors in the various critics’ votes, and I will also think hard about their excellent castmate Viola Davis, in the supporting category. I emphasize “actor” for Hoffman, since the Golden Globes have unaccountably nominated him as “supporting actor” for one of the stronger, juicier lead male parts of the year. Skip to the end of the review for my argument against this.

Anyway, in Doubt, Streep plays, to a fare-thee-well, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the old-fashioned and relentless principal of St. Nicholas grade school and Hoffman matches her scene-for-scene as Father Brendan Flynn the parish priest — a young liberal with a smartly jokey and accepting manner, a flair for coaching and a teasing smile that Sister Aloysius finds suspicious.

She finds it even more damning when young and earnest Sister James (Amy Adams) reports an incident involving a young black student and altar boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), who drank some altar wine and had an encounter of some kind with Father Flynn. Abuse, thinks Sister Aloysius, who’s so old-school, she doesn’t even like ballpoint pens, much less the church‘s new direction under John XXIII. She’s a woman with a low prosecutorial voice and a basilisk eye, and she has probably rooted out many a randy priest before. Flynn, for all his biblical-slanted blarney, is guilty in her eyes of molestation in the house of the Lord. Of that, she has no doubt.

But Sister Aloysius has a worthy, and wordy, foe/debater in Father Flynn, who will not go quietly into the sexual/sacred hell she‘s prepared for him. And he has surprising aid, and support, from the boy’s mother, the long-suffering and worldly-wise Mrs. Miller (Davis, in a scorching duet scene with Streep) and eventually from Sister James herself, who comes to believe she was wrong. That’s the drama, and it is a drama. You may think you have Doubt all figured out, but you’re wrong. Even after the climax, doubts will linger. And they should. That’s the drama — and Doubt is a genuine drama, with formidable performances by great actors.

It also has the feeling of a real story from a real place and time — which is what you ultimately come to feel it is. I attended a Chicago parochial school for one year as a non-Catholic student — at St. Thomas Aquinas in Hyde Park, Chicago — and every scene here brought back a rush of atmosphere. And I liked my second grade teacher nun, Sister Roberta Theresa. I also very much liked this movie.

Now, back to supporting actors. Speaking again from experience, as an old college stage actor who played many a supporting part, and even won an acting prize as Jeeter Fry in Green Grow the Lilacs, I deeply resent the obnoxious movie prize poll habit of nominating lead actors in supporting categories. It’s hard to make an impression with fewer lines and more limited stage or screen time, and that’s why the Academy and its many imitators shouldn’t keep stretching the definition to accommodate people the studio, or the Golden Globes, want to push.

Anjelica Huston and Judi Dench had genuine supporting roles in Prizzi‘s Honor and Shakespeare in Love. Geena Davis, Marisa Tomei and Mira Sorvino, the supporting actress winners for The Accidental Tourist, My Cousin Vinny, and Mighty Aphrodite, were all female leads, even if they were young stars-to-be playing their breakthrough parts. Tommy Lee Jones, a great favorite of mine, was a second lead in The Fugitive; in fact, he had the best part in the picture. And, if Hoffman isn’t the male lead in Doubt, then who the hell is? And why the hell was the actor who played his part on Broadway, Brian F. O’Byrne nominated for a lead actor Tony?

It may seem like a small point. But in a way, it’s a class issue. Supporting actors and actresses deserve a level playing field. Viola Davis, for example, shouldn’t have to compete with Meryl Streep — though here, in her one big scene, she does a pretty good job of it. All the acting is excellent and, under Shanley’s compassionate yet scarily precise hand, it makes for a very fine, provocative and prize-worthy film.

No doubt about it.


Nothing Like the Holidays (Two-and-a-Half-Stars)
U.S.; Alfredo De Villa

Another excellent cast — including Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Debra Messing, and Vanessa Ferlito — has been assembled for this Latino community Humboldt Park variation on the kind of Christmas family ensemble comedy-drama we’ve seen many times before, and that Arnaud Desplechin handled so beautifully this year in the French A Christmas Tale. Every scene is lively, every performance is sharp, and, as the angry mama, Elizabeth Pena has never been better.

But, toward party’s end, the script gets too obvious. Reality suffers, and, despite the good will Holidays builds up, so does the movie. Kudos and Feliz Navidad to this whole cast, though.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (Two stars)
U.S.; Scott Derrickson

Remaking a movie classic can be like saving a planet. Sometimes you should think twice about it, no matter how seductive the idea.

The new movie version of The Day the Earth Stood Still — based on director Robert Wise‘s 1951 science fiction classic about an extraterrestrial named Klaatu, who is sent to warn the Earth’s inhabitants of impending nuclear disaster, and who hangs out with an earthling family to see if we’re worth saving — is a good-hearted but pretty shallow special effects extravaganza. It‘s a movie that keeps throwing in scraps of the old movie to try to make up for the fact that its new ideas are often lousy.

“Klaatu barada nikto” is the 1951 movie’s famous alien catchphrase, the activating message for Gort the robot. But this show couldn’t klaatu a barada if its nikto depended on it.

Part sci-fi chase thriller, part disaster epic, part family trauma drama, and part global warming cautionary tale, this new Earth sends Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, Jennifer Connelly as astrophysicist Helen Benson and Jaden Smith as her ill-behaved tyke Jacob (counterparts to the roles played in the original by Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Billy Gray) on a race with catastrophe, in which we’re often just as worried about Jacob’s manners as whether the world will end.

The ‘51 original was a great message genre movie, a sci-fi sermon against the nuclear arms race that still packs a punch — and it was just ‘50s-hokey enough in its visual effects (a flying saucer, a robot named Gort) to become a charming period piece. The new movie — directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and written by David Scarpa — may become a period piece. But its charm is mostly invisible, even though its effects summon up everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Good Earth.

Even its premise now seems faulty. Why will the planet be saved by unleashing hordes of rampaging metal insects who look as if they might, locust-like, devour everything? And can the good example of the Bensons really change Klaatu’s mind when a bad example is being set by the president, his know-it-all Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) and the military? Can Jennifer Connelly and John Cleese (as Nobel prize winning Professor Barnhardt, who specializes in altruism) tip the balance for humanity?

One thing the new Earth does have is a lead actor who really looks and acts like a man from outer space. The original had Rennie, an Englishman educated at Cambridge, whose advantage was that he seemed more sophisticated and civilized than that film‘s earthlings, especially gee-whiz little Billy Gray (Father Knows Best). Reeves, with his opaque dark eyes, chiseled features and strange humorless delivery (something like an anchorman from The Twilight Zone) often sounds as if he came from several worlds away, here more than usual.

Actually Connelly does look as if she could redeem humanity. But poor Kathy Bates, always great in the right roles, has been saddled with one of the worst parts of her career: Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson, who looks and acts like a cross between Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Nurse Ratched. Holy klaatu barada nikto!


Dark Streets (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Rachel Samuels

A film noir musical? About a persecuted and swindled owner-heir with a grudge (Gabriel Mann), two sultry showgirls (Bijou Phillips and Izabella Miko), lots of gangsters, a bad lieutenant (Elias Koteas, in his De Niro mood) and a lot of bastards who have been wreaking the same havoc with the electric company that John Huston did with public water in Chinatown? Bad stuff. Based on a play by Glenn Stewart and set in some weird hellish hinterland that might in fact be the outtakes from The Cotton Club, this is one movie that doesn’t work on any level. And by the way, I‘m sure the outtakes of The Cotton Club are better than this. Maybe even the outtakes of The Love Guru.

– Michael Wilmington
December 12, 2008

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon