As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Sunday, December 17

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


A/C
« Jeremy Piven Poisoned Out Of "Plow" Friday Flickr Feature »

Column Fri Dec 19 2008

Gran Torino, Seven Pounds, Yes Man & The Tale of Despereaux

Gran Torino

I think in the end Clint Eastwood's latest directed effort (his second of the year, in case you're counting, after Changeling) will be remembered as a minor effort from one of the greatest living American directors. But I can also see Gran Torino being a real crowd pleaser, as Clint returns to film acting in a sort of Grumpy Old Bigot Man role that I'm 75 percent sure is supposed to be funny even though the film dives into some fairly serious shit concerning gang violence, rape and the healing power of racism. But in the end, I can't really recommend the film because, outside of Eastwood's performance, the acting in the film is god-awful — strictly amateur hour, after-school special level stuff that I could never get into or get past.

Eastwood plays Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, whose wife has just died. The film opens at her funeral service in the local church, and we immediately see that Walt has little patience for other human beings, even those in his own family. He literally snarls at anyone who pisses him off...which is pretty much everyone. He's mad at two people whispering and smiling during the service; he's mad at the way his granddaughter dresses for the event; he's mad at the young priest (Christopher Carley) who was friendly with Walt's wife and who promised her before she died that he'd check in on Walt to make sure the crotchety bastard was doing alright. Every offer for help, every attempt by his grown kids to move Walt out of the terrible neighborhood where he lives (he is apparently the only white guy still living in the crime-ridden area) is met with something that goes beyond resistance. Walt hates the world and the world responds in kind.

Knowing that Eastwood has previously revisiting types of roles he's played in the past, it was easy to see Gran Torino (named after the mint 1972 car that Walt owns and displays proudly for all of the thieving neighbor kids to see) as an update on Eastwood's "Dirty" Harry Calahan role. Only this version of Harry got older than he ever thought he'd live and the streets that he fought so hard to keep clean ended up consuming him and his way of life. What is left is a man bitter at having fought so hard in Korea against the "gooks" only to have them (or a version of them in his eyes) take over the street that he and his wife loved so much. Walt doesn't hesitate to protect himself and his little home with guns galore. He is literally the old man who spouts, "You kids get offa my lawn."

Despite every effort, Walt become friendly with Sue (Ahney Her), the teen girl who lives next door, whom he rescues from being harassed by a group of black gang members (Walt does love to pull out that old chestnut "spook"). Eventually Walk even is somewhat accepted by the girl's family, who are Hmong, an Asian culture from the mountains of China and Southeast Asia who came to America when the dirty commies took over Laos in the mid-'70s (look at me doing my research!). These distinctions between Asian people never really occurred or mattered to Walt (he never even bothers to pronounce "Hmong" correctly), but they invite him to a party, give him beer, and feed him good food, so he enjoys their company.

One day, Sue's brother Thao, a geeky kid who is being tempted by the Hmong street gangs to join their ranks, attempts to steal Walt's Gran Torino. Walt nearly blows the kid's head off. Thao's family is so ashamed of his actions, they essentially offer him to Walt as a servant until he has paid his debt to society in Walt's eyes. Naturally, this master-slave relationship becomes more like mentoring as Walt and the kid become buddies, and Walt teaches the awkward kid not only valuable skills that might help him get a job one day, but also life lessons on how to talk to girls and how to be more of a man. A couple of very funny scenes between Walt, his barber (John Carroll Lynch) and Thao are one of the few genuine highlights of Gran Torino, as Walt attempts to show Thao how real men talk to each other.

As I mentioned, what I could never get past with this movie was just how bad most of the acting is. Eastwood seems to be struggling a lot of the time to pull his cast up to his level, and they never really get there. And while there are some extremely funny moments in Gran Torino, the abrupt tonal shift when his encounters with the Hmong gang intensify feel forced and pedestrian. Make no mistake, as much as this tale of a lovable racist attempts to be life affirming, this one is R rated for language and some pretty brutal violence.

Every once in a while, I can sit through a film, laugh at its jokes, be impressed with some aspects of it, but ultimately it just never clicks for me. That's Gran Torino in a nutshell. I will never complain about seeing Eastwood onscreen, because it's impossible for me not to find him compelling in every way as an actor. I know Eastwood has at least one more movie left in him as a director (The Human Factor with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, set for release next year), but if this is the last film he ever acts in, that would be a true shame. I'd hate to see him end his acting career with a whimper rather than a roar. Gran Torino falls short of the standard Eastwood has set for himself and us over the years, and that's a shame.

Seven Pounds

So you might have already guessed from the mysterious trailer and the general lack of information regarding what the new Will Smith film is actually about that there's a big secret about this film that the studio doesn't want put out into the world prior to opening day. Well, I'm going to spoil the film's biggest secret right here, right now: Seven Pounds is actually a pretty good movie. Does it continue Smith's stretch of films in which he plays extraordinary (although not always heroic) people? You bet. Does the films reek like Sex Panther of Oscar bait? Hells yes. But does that mean it's a bad movie? No. In fact, Seven Pounds features what might be Smith's finest acting work to date, and I think his trust that Italian director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) has opened up the actor to a new type of self-reflective performing that we just won't ever see in works like Hancock or I Am Legend, two films that had their fans (including me with the latter), but were essentially retreads of acting tricks Smith has been using since Bad Boys.

The first thing you notice about Seven Pounds is its structure: it's extremely non-linear and would appear to begin at the end. Specifically we see Smith's Ben Thomas call 911 to report his own suicide. I'll admit, I was intrigued. What immediately follows this rather blunt opening segment are flashes of Ben's world. We have no idea what comes before or after what, but the intention is to give us puzzle pieces to store away until all of the pieces have been handed to us. If for no other reason, I like Seven Pounds because it is not a film you can watch passively. Your brain must be turned on and firing on all synapses. We see Ben watching or meeting with people who appear not to know him very well, but he's helping them in some way. We see him conferring with his friend and attorney, Dan (Barry Pepper), about something the lawyer is clearly not happy with, but he follows his friend's wishes to the letter. We see Ben in happier times with a woman who appears to be his wife; she is also conspicuously absent from other sequences. We see him at two different jobs: one apparently as an engineer working on a better version of the Space Shuttle; the other as an IRS agent. We see him avoid calls from his concerned brother (the great Michael Ealy), while going out of his way not to miss contact with these apparent strangers. A telephone exchange between Ben and a blind man (Woody Harrelson) working for a company that sells and ships meat is fantastically brutal, but we sense the conversation is a test.

Sometimes it's ultra clear what Ben is up to. He sees a young boy in the hospital suffering from leukemia; soon after, Thomas is donating matching bone marrow for a transplant and he's doing so without anesthetic. His suffering (physically or emotionally) seems to be an essential component to whatever it is Ben is up to. But most of what he does just adds to his mystique. Why is he messing with a kindly blind man? And why is he befriending a lovely dying woman (Rosario Dawson) with a heart defect? Why won't he talk to his brother? Why is he living in a dive motel when he clearly has the money to live somewhere better? And for the most part, these small questions kept me interested and engaged in Seven Pounds.

It goes without saying that Rosario Dawson is one of the world's great beauties. She's so naturally lovely, in fact, that I'd almost be tempted to say that she's wrong for the role of Emily Posa, because even with no makeup and meant to look about as sick as a person can look, she still looks stunning. But she, like this movie, pulled me in, won me over, and convinced me that she was critical as the film's tattered and torn heart. The interactions between Ben and Emily are my favorite scenes in the movie. What begins as her being audited by Ben in his capacity as an IRS agent (a scenario I never quite bought, by the way) turns into a quiet, desperate kind of love that seems doomed before it ever becomes hopeful.

And then there's Smith's performance. He wears a look on his face for most of the film that conveys several different emotions at once: fear, desperation, guilt, but with an underlying sense of serenity. We never really get a sense that by performing these good deeds — seven in total, some of which we only hear about but never see — that Ben will somehow be free of his pain, and that's a tough sell. In most films, any good deed is met with reward for the do-gooder, but we don't get that sense from Seven Pounds, and this may be tough for some audience members to accept. Smith is very strong here as the tortured Ben, who we always get the sense is deconstructing his life. His relationship with Emily is part of this, but the feelings he develops for her are unexpected if not unwanted.

If there were any other actor in the role of Ben, Seven Pounds would easily pass as a small art-house film, and the stakes might not seem too high. As much as Smith adds a great deal to the proceedings, his very presence in this story undercuts many of the smaller, quiet moments the film has to offer. I wouldn't go so far as to say Smith is miscast in this work, because his performance might be the best of his career, but it is WILL SMITH, a name that carries a great deal of glossy baggage, ego and gravitas (translation: the man is desperate to win an Oscar). I did like this film overall. It perhaps sacrifices emotional depth in an effort to keep its big mystery alive. As a result, there's a cold distance that undercuts the intimacy required to make this film truly great. I admire Smith for taking a chance like Seven Pounds (I wouldn't go so far as to call the film a "risk"), but I don't see the film connecting with people, at least not Smith's typical fan base. Come to think of it, this may be the best thing about the movie.

Yes Man

Let me be clear right up front. I will always, always be grateful to director Peyton Reed for making Bring It On, one of the finest cheerleader tease films in recent memory. Reed also made the very funny Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston work The Break Up, but really, it's Bring It On that solidifies him as a filmmaker of quality and integrity. Ahem. So when I say that his latest work, the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man doesn't live up the high standards that Reed set for himself with his 2000 masterpiece, you understand what I'm saying. But even ignoring that comparison (and how could you, really?), Yes Man is largely a disappointment.

I won't lie and say I didn't laugh, because I did a few times. Carrey throws every silly voice, weird body contortion and goofy face he possesses into this performance as bank loan officer Carl Allen, who decides his passionless life is wrecking his friendships and sending his life spiraling toward a very dark and unhappy place. Since his divorce three years earlier, he has avoided as many forms of human contact as he can, even with his best friends. When he is dragged to a motivational speech delivered with hilarious flair by Terence Stamp, playing a positivity guru who believes his followers should say 'Yes' to every opportunity that comes their way, Carl takes this to heart and begins literally answering every request from anyone and everyone in the affirmative. If this is beginning to sound like a one-joke premise, you've noticed early on the film's deepest problem.

Despite a few missteps, saying yes to everything seems to work out pretty well for our hero. He meets a sweet, eccentric Allison (Zooey Deschanel), who falls for Carl's passion for life. He doesn't bother to tell her about his recently acquired philosophy of life, and of course, this comes back to haunt him when things start to get serious between the two. In fact, it's this little plot element that typifies the problems I had with this movie. Carl tells everyone about his "say yes" way of life except Allison. Why? Because if he did, the story couldn't move forward, and it sets up the inevitable conflict between them toward the end of the movie. The entire film is designed this way. Characters are introduced for the sole purpose of moving the story forward and not because they are particularly interesting or worth getting to know in any way.

Here's an example. Carl has a neighbor named Tillie, an older woman played by the great Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, who has a bit of a libido. Prior to adopting his new 'Yes' philosophy, Carl easily rejects her advances without too much trouble. Guess what happens later in the film? It's bad enough that this great actress is reduced to the worst kind of cliché, but the character literally serves one purpose that is telescoped from the opening minutes of the story. The same can be said for the character of Carl's nerdy boss Norman (played by New Zealand actor Rhys Darby from "Flight of the Conchords"), whose awkward attempts at palling around with Carl are rejected initially. But once the transformation happens, hilarity ensues. The entire film is this mild form of torture, with every comic moment, conflict and plot turn so obviously predictable that it actually hurt my brain.

I know what you're thinking: It's a Jim Carrey movie; what the hell do you expect? The sad answer is: Not much. With his comedies, Carrey has been coasting, building up a head of steam so he can try something out of the ordinary (The Number 23, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Majestic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). As you can see, most of these non-traditional efforts were not successful or even very good (Eternal Sunshine being the standout exception), and so Carrey gets pigeon holed into works like Yes Man. He knows he can be funny in these sort of vehicles, but that doesn't make them any less of a struggle to sit through. I don't mean to imply that this film is as torturous as Fun With Dick and Jane; it's certainly not. And while I did laugh a few times at Yes Man, I just didn't find the experience of watching it all that fulfilling. If you are someone who doesn't mind shutting down your brain to watch a film, you could do worse, I suppose, but don't make it a habit.

The Tale of Despereaux

I realized something after watching this animated fare about a cute, big-eared mouse: sometimes being sweet and amusing is enough to carry the day. Tale of Despereaux is hardly groundbreaking in either its animation style or its simple story about a rebellious little mouse named Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) who refuses to behave in the cowering, fearful way that mice have been behaving forever. He's not afraid of cats or mousetraps or humans, and he's even willing to strike up friendships in the rat community, which would rather eat his tiny self than talk to him. The impressive line-up of voice talent and a solid script from Gary Ross (writer and director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from the book by Kate DiCamillo) make Despereaux a film that kept a smile on my face and made a spot on my otherwise cold heart warm up just a little.

From directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen, the film actually features three curious stories, all vying for our attention. Despereaux's story is the most interesting as it takes him away from the safe haven of his home and his parents (William H. Macy and Francis Conroy). He meets a locked-away human princess (Emma Watson), who is in a type of mourning for her mother, who died in a tragic soup-related accident inadvertently caused by another one of our heroes, a rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a gentle soul who falls in with a bad crowd but only wants to be forgiven by the princess for the accident. The third player in this bizarre fairy tale is Miggery Sow (Tracy Ullman), the princess' clumsy servant/maid, who has slightly psychopathic thoughts about being the princess herself after getting rid of the beautiful maiden. It all sounds a bit strange, but in actuality it all comes together rather nicely and with a great deal of humor.

Other familiar voices include Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Lloyd, so there's no shortage of fun derived from listening to all these great actors tune up their radio voices. The film's messages of being an individual, of not being afraid to apologize, and of being respectful of those attempting to apologize are handled without a heavy hand. The scenes with the grotesque maid acting slightly crazy and potentially dangerous toward the princess might be a little unnerving for young children, but I think those truly cool kids with slightly twisted minds will get a kick out of it. Despereaux is far from great, either as an animated work or as a family film, but there's enough fun stuff here to keep kids and adults entertained for around 90 minutes, so if you've already seen Bolt a dozen times and have worn out your Wall-E DVD at home, you might to take the kids to see it over the holidays.

 
GB store
GB store

Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

Blogroll

ACRE
An Angry White Guy
Antena
AREA Chicago
ArchitectureChicago Plus
Arts Engagement Exchange
The Art Letter
Art or Idiocy?
Art Slant Chicago
Art Talk Chicago
Bad at Sports
Bite and Smile
Brian Dickie of COT
Bridgeport International
Carrie Secrist Gallery
Chainsaw Calligraphy
Chicago Art Blog
Chicago Art Department
Chicago Art Examiner
Chicago Art Journal
Chicago Artists Resource
Chicago Art Map
Chicago Art Review
Chicago Classical Music
Chicago Comedy Examiner
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Daily Views
Chicago Film Examiner
Chicago Film Archives
Chicago Gallery News
Chicago Uncommon
Collaboraction
Contemporary Art Space
Co-op Image Group
Co-Prosperity Sphere
Chicago Urban Art Society
Creative Control
Defibrillator
Devening Projects
Digressions
DIY Film
ebersmoore
The Exhibition Agency
The Flatiron Project
F newsmagazine
The Gallery Crawl...
Galerie F
The Gaudy God
Happy Dog Gallery
HollywoodChicago
Homeroom Chicago
I, Homunculus
Hyde Park Artcenter Blog
InCUBATE
Joyce Owens: Artist on Art
J-Pointe
Julius Caesar
Kasia Kay Gallery
Kavi Gupta Gallery
Rob Kozlowski
Lookingglass Theatre Blog
Lumpen Blog
Marquee
Mess Hall
N'DIGO
Neoteric Art
NewcityArt
NewcityFilm
NewcityStage
Not If But When
Noun and Verb
On Film
On the Make
Onstage
Peanut Gallery
Peregrine Program
Performink
The Poor Choices Show
Pop Up Art Loop
The Post Family
The Recycled Film
Reversible Eye
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Roots & Culture Gallery
SAIC Blog
The Seen
Sharkforum
Sisterman Vintage
Site of Big Shoulders
Sixty Inches From Center
Soleil's To-Do's
Sometimes Store
Steppenwolf.blog
Stop Go Stop
Storefront Rebellion
TOC Blog
Theater for the Future
Theatre in Chicago
The Franklin
The Mission
The Theater Loop
Thomas Robertello Gallery
threewalls
Time Tells Tony Wight Gallery
Uncommon Photographers
The Unscene Chicago
The Visualist
Vocalo
Western Exhibitions
What's Going On?
What to Wear During an Orange Alert?
You, Me, Them, Everybody
Zg Gallery

GB store

 

Events


A/C on Flickr

Join the A/C Flickr Pool.



About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Nancy Bishop, nancy@gapersblock.com
A/C staff inbox: ac@gapersblock.com

Archives

 

A/C Flickr Pool
 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15