Saturday, January 10, 2009

I Miss My Mustang

So anyway, back in the day (sometime around Nineteen Dickety-Two - never mind) I had a sweet-ass 1967 Mustang Coupe. Given my druthers (don't ask, it's a hillbilly-ism), I'd really want a '67 Shelby Cobra Fastback (Eleanor in Gone in 60 Seconds) - it may be the most perfect car ever made (you fuckin' Camaro enthusiasts can suck my fat, hairy ass). Anyway, my Mustang had a beefed-up 302 (I know Jack and shit about car engines and Jack just left) with all kinds of nifty bells and whistles for drag racing (I got it from a neighbor who bought it for his son when he was a teenager). It had flashy chrome wheels, leather interior (bucket seats), and the touchiest fucking power steering known to man (hand-to-God, you nudge it and the damned car would pull a 90-degree turn). My mom got me a new paint job as a high school graduation present (she wouldn't let me get red - thought I'd be a cop magnet; so I settled for this sharp midnight blue metallic). It died on me not long after I started my second year at Western - luckily, it wasn't long until I met a girl with a car - I shoulda married that one; oh wait...I did! I sold my Mustang to a guy at work for $650 about two years ago - not bad for a car that didn't run. But still, I'd give just about anything to have it back and to have the means to get it fixed up proper.

Which leads me to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. Brad commented the other day that it's hard enough for anyone to put a single film together in a year, and Eastwood (at 78) did two!!! I didn't see Changeling - I'm sure it's terrific and judging by the two I'll bet it was his intended Oscar-bait film. But it just sort of seemed like rental material to me. Torino I was dying to see from the very first time I caught a trailer. It just had vintage I-ain't-gonna-take-no-shit-off-nobody Eastwood smeared all over it like gang graffiti on an inner-city bridge. Last time ol' squinty-eyes tried to make two in a year (a whopping two years ago with the Iwo Jima films - aren't people supposed to slow down as they get older?), the second one came out on top as the clear victor - ironic that, like this year (I'm guessing) that's not what he intended. I don't see Gran Torino running away with Oscar nom's and wins this year - but it's certainly one of the most entertaining and well crafted films of the year.

Eastwood stars (and directs of course - out of his last 21 films that he's appeared in, he's directed 15 himself, and has an additional six that he merely directed in that time) as Walt Kowalski - veteran of the war in Korea, recent widower, and one of the last Caucasian hold-outs (in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood) that hasn't run for the hills with the influx of minorities. The character of Walt is this interesting amalgam of Dirty Harry Callahan, Gunny Sgt. Tom Highway (I just lost some of you didn't I - if so, you're required to go rent Heartbreak Ridge now...NOW GODDAMN IT NOW!!!), and Archie Bunker. It's funny actually that the screenplay apparently wasn't written with Eastwood in mind...but frankly, having seen it I can't begin to imagine who else could play it. Kowalski is (at least vicariously through us - the audience) abso-friggin'-lutely hilarious. He's brash, he's hateful, he's bigoted and rude and has the restraint of a pissed-off bull. He's that mean old guy that everyone has met at some point or another - you know, always pissed, hates just about everybody. And he doesn't take any shit off of anyone - mess with him and he will fuck you up...verbally for certain, and physically if the situation calls for it. He's just lost a wife that he worshipped, has two sons that he's never connected with, hates at least one of the daughters-in-law, is disgusted by his grandchildren, and the world's getting too damned fast for him and to hell with trying to keep up. Much of the humor comes from Walt's ranting and grumbling - much of it racially motivated. Fortunately, you find yourself laughing not at all the racial slurs and prejudice, but at Walt's unabashed delivery of it - and more often then's absolutely uproarious.

His life at this point is mowing his 5-square-foot patch of grass (with none other than one of those old rotary blade, non-electric mowers from the 50's), talking to his dog, chasing off or just ignoring the priest from the local church, drinking his beer on his front porch, scowling at the "chinks/gooks/slants" next door...and looking after his baby - a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino - which it seems he purchased right off the factory where he himself "installed that steering column". His neighbors are Hmong (pronounced Mohng), Asian "hill-folk" (for lack of a better term) from various areas in China, Laos, and Vietnam. It's his baby that gets him more involved with his neighbors and serves as the focal point of the story. He slowly befriends the Hmong, first with the older daughter, Sue, then later younger son Thao (whom he "affectionately" refers to as Toad) after he, feeling pressure from a local gang, is coerced into trying to steal the Gran Torino. I love that Walt never gets any of the Asian names right - not that he can't, he just doesn't care. One girl (named Yua) he continually refers to as YumYum (and boy does she earn that moniker). Anyway, as penance for his indiscretion, Thao is forced to spend time with Walt - where the predictable bit of bonding occurs. This bonding however is played out so expertly and delicately that it never feels cliched or forced.

I really miss this Clint Eastwood. The man truly is the original Hollywood bad ass. It's a shame really that he's indicated that this is more or less his final appearance in front of the camera. This was such a gloriously entertaining - and yet simultaneously - touching and intimate film. My only gripe is that I wish he'd let an experienced film composer have a crack at his films - at least this time he didn't try it himself...he let his son do it *joy* (with old faithful Lennie Niehaus orchestrating (?) and conducting). Still...if Clint had two or three more films like this in him I doubt anyone would mind in the slightest. I highly doubt anyone is clamoring for a string of Grumpy Old Men - Kickin' Ass films, but seeing it done smartly, effectively, in the hands of a master - films like Gran Torino would always be worth my $5 or $10 of admission price - fuck it, my mom wants to see it too...I'll be glad to take the trip with Walt again. Damn I love movies like these - and GOD DAMN I MISS MY CAR!!!

I'm going to go find a corner and cry like a little girl now...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Getting Back On Track...Again...Again...

So anyway, I'm not entirely satisfied with my first two attempts, they're...flawed. Honestly, I have no idea how to write about a film. But, everyone has to start somewhere. At the very least I could benefit from a good editor. Hell, the "top" critics in the country have an editor for crying out loud. So...where do I go from here? Well, I think I'll just jump right into Frost/Nixon. While I don't share Brad's feeling that my previous endeavors completely spoiled the films (for Pete's sake, Valkyrie is a dramatization of historical fact - how much is there to spoil?), I'll concede that they were a bit long in detail. So I'll try to keep things a touch more concise this go around. Keep in mind that there might be an occasional spoiler strewn about...but this was a real event, I'm not going to tell anyone anything more than the wikipedia article on the subject would have. So without further ado...

Watergate is a pop culture buzz word. Strike that, Watergate may arguably be the pop culture buzz word - for at least the last century or so. At the very least, since 1974 any political scandal to reach even the fainest of notoriety has had the suffix "-gate" attached to it. I find it humorous, but not terribly surprising, that many people under the age of 40 (or so) know the term, but don't actually know what it was that Nixon did (just search a message board about the film and you'll see exactly what I mean)! Of my loyal following, I'm the only one that was actually alive when some of the events of the film Frost/Nixon took place - granted, I was still shitting my pants 6 or 7 times a day and could barely roll over under my own will power ('s that different from now...?), but I was alive and breathing. I'll confess, until this film came along, I was completely unaware of David Frost and his series of interviews with President Nixon in 1977. Honestly, I don't even know what he actually looks like now...I haven't bothered to look him up online yet (suppose I'll get to it eventually). The point is, it doesn't matter. The film doesn't offer any insight or new perspective on the events of the Watergate break-in and Nixon's subsequent resignation. What it does do (and damned effectively) is portray, with a great deal of fictionalized drama for plot and effect, a stirring perspective on two men at a singular and important point in American history.

I would absolutely have loved to see this in its stage form. The film was written by Peter Morgan (based on his play of the same name). I can only imagine that a great deal of the first hour of the screenplay has been drawn out considerably - the logistics of staging the final act alone are a bit mind boggling, let alone all the set-up and character development of the first couple acts of the film. Here, the film stars its two original stage leads - Michael Sheen (of The Queen and Underworld fame) as British entertainer and talk show host David Frost (note I refer to him not as a journalist because by this point in his career, Frost was anything but), and Frank Langella as former President Richard Nixon. I've always liked Sheen - his turn as Tony Blair in The Queen was fantastic. Even when he's portraying a villain or just an evil bastard there's still a charm and accessibility to the man. Until these interviews, Frost was a virtual failure here in the U.S., and while popular abroad, still somewhat looked down upon as something of a second-rate entertainer and playboy. Sheen owns it in this character - you love to loathe him and hate to like him, but you do.

Then there's the matter of Langella's portrayal of Nixon. Dozens of actors and comedians have had there stabs at the man in the last 30 years or so. Everybody has a Nixon impression - hell, I have a fucking Nixon can't help it. Male or female, young or old, you can't help but try to be Nixon when talking about him. Langella is on an entirely different fucking plane of existence with his Nixon. Sure he's got the height and size about right (Nixon was about 6'1" or so, Langella is 6'3"), and has - with the aid of make-up and a few prosthetics - a passable resemblance to him. But the mannerism, the personality - it is Richard Nixon. You might as well have dug the bastard up and brought him back from the dead. It's really is. You watch any archival footage of the real Nixon and compare it to Langella's performance - you'd swear he was a freakin' clone or something. A spot-on portrayal of a real-life historical figure seems to be like candy to the Oscar crowd - so, having said that...Langella should be a shoe-in for Best Actor...hell, he's already got the Tony for it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote was good, Forrest Whittaker's Idi Amin was terrific...but Frank Langella's Richard Nixon - that's fucking art man...abso-fuckin'-lutely poetry in motion!!! The final act - particularly the last interview - is one of the best nail-biting of a film-going experiences as I've ever seen. I need to see the real interviews to see which is the more entertaining - if the film's even close, then goddamn that must have been something to watch.

Given his directorial resume, Ron Howard isn't necessarily the first director I would have associated with this film - and it's one helluva resume. I honestly believe that - and you have to remember what a fantastic group of films the man has directed - this is arguably his finest work to date. It's certainly his most intimate and personal. Howard has said in many an interview that he was inspired to shoot this after seeing the Broadway performance - and it shows. Obviously, by virtue of having originated the roles, Sheen and Langella wouldn't have needed much coaxing or prodding. But I can't help but think that Ron Howard helped them bring the epitome of their "A-game" into the film. It also benefits from some very tight cinematography and the assistance of being allowed multiple angles and takes to get everything just perfect. I also can't help but think that Howard probably really wanted James Horner to score the film...but also knew precisely what kind of score he'd be getting in the end. To which I would venture a guess is exactly what he didn't want. Defaulting to his second favorite composer, Hans "go-team-go" Zimmer didn't exactly seem like a natural choice either, but that's what we ended up with. And honestly, I can say without a second thought that this is the most restrained I have ever heard the man. There's no bombast - no Charge of the Synth-Brigade to be found. It's primarily a piano-based score, with flourishes of string orchestra thrown in when deemed necessary. The final cue of the film (leading into the end credits) is the most intense piece in it and that's not saying much as it's just upbeat and rhythmic. Overall though it stays out of the way mostly, and accentuates the drama when called for.

History (at least for the last 35 years) has done a bang-up job of dragging Nixon's name through the mud, putting the man in a vice and tightening for all it's worth. So much so that any proponents of the man (few that there still are - I certainly don't count myself as one of them) have never had a fair shake at lightening the burden of his disgrace. Nearly every biography, every film, every miniseries and play and documentary about the man and those events can't help but have a left-leaning slant...and certainly Frost/Nixon is no exception. What it does do, despite its own agenda, is still manage to bring a faint glint of pity and dignity to the President (not necessarily Nixon the civilian ,but Nixon the President). Frost's agenda was to get what the American people were foaming at the mouth for - a confession - and (perhaps even more ambitiously) an apology. Everyone wanted to give Nixon the trial he never had...the film doesn't detract from that. Frost (more or less) got what he wanted, and so following did the American people - the film let's us relive that moment. But what it also does is succeed (rather inadvertently or not) in allowing us, the viewers (most of whom likely despise the man) to feel a glimmer of empathy with a disgraced man - who, whether you believe it or not, seems to have only been doing what he thought was the right thing to do at the time.

Call it bullshit, call it whatever you want - hate the bastard as much as ever, I do...and I wasn't even fucking there (hell, many of us weren't even sperm yet)! I still say that by the end of the film you just can't help but feel ever-so-slightly sorry for what (at least by the portrayal in this film) was a broken man with a debt that could never be repaid and a crime that could never be forgiven. I'm of the opinion after watching Frost/Nixon that in about five years from now (give or take a month) a Frost/Bush series of interviews would be just as well received and serve to relieve some of the anger and bitterness that has engulfed this nation for the last eight years. The parallels between the events then and those now are uncanny, and it almost seems ironic, maybe even precognitive that this film was made and released when it was.