Gran Torino

Old grizzled Clint Eastwood plays Shirty Harry in a film about redemption, ageing, learning to live with others, sacrifice but most of all about the myth of Clint himself.

The skimpy plot concerns a grumpy Korean war veteran whose neighbourhood has gone to the dogs, evidence of which he sees in his immigrant neighbours, who are Hmong people. A view reinforced when the young son tries to steal his 1972 Gran Torino and underlined later on when he sets about “teaching the youngster a lesson”, which of course teaches him a few things he didn’t know.

Like Unforgiven the tensions comes from the question “when is Clint going to strap the guns back on”? But being a film about an old man the outcome is less certain than it was in the 1992 western.

You could describe the Dirty Harry films as the driest of dry comedies – “make my day” and all that – and Gran Torino certainly knows it’s in the comedy arena, has to be if a film about a 70-something dude putting the fear of god into local tearaway mobsters is going to be believed.

Basically, it’s great to watch old Clint reheating some of young Clint’s moves and raising a quizzical eyebrow towards the audience – a “some shred of life in the old fuck, hey?” look on his face. And one suspects that all this stuff has been added by Clint’s production team, or at its behest, to the original story by Dave Johannson. Certainly the sequence leading up to the big showdown – Clint has a bubble bath, smoking a cigarette in the bath, then heads off for a haircut and a straight razor shave, all very Fistful.

What’s noticeable about the film is how much fun this stuff is but how clanking the film is otherwise – dialogue, acting, the seeming necessity to insert gallons of exposition where little is necessary. None of the relationships feels that believable either.

It survives, really, on Clint and the myth of Clint. Even the 1972 Gran Torino after which the film is named, is clearly the sort of car Harry Callahan would have driven.

Gran Torino – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2009

Tropa de Elite aka Elite Squad

Anyone who’s read a lot of film reviews will be familiar with the “redeeming features” style of reviewing. “Worth a look to see De Niro on fire”, “Ken Adam’s set designs lend it a style the script is struggling to equal”, and so on.

Sometimes people pop round to my house to borrow a dvd and, as we whisk through a shimmering stack of them, I give it loads of “redeeming feature” bullshit – “you know the director of Consequences of Love, he made this one”, “Buster Keaton’s last film before he got booted out of his own production company” etc etc.

When all the borrowing party wants to know is – is it any good? The answer, almost inevitably once the “redeeming features” phrases have been trotted out, is no.

And so we turn to Tropa de Elite, aka Elite Squad, a Brazilian cops’n’thugs thriller set in the favelas of Rio. It’s got the good looks of Amores Perros (that bleached, cross-processed film) and the edgy camera and favela vibe of City Of God. Nothing wrong with either of those.

What it hasn’t got is any real idea what style of cops’n’thugs film it wants to be, nor does it have convincing character pegs on which to hang its story.

It is, you could say, the story of two cops – the tough captain losing his nut because his wife’s about to have a kid, and the rookie who learns the hard way that he’s no longer like normal kids. He can’t hang out and smoke weed any more. In his night-school class they’re studying Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – a crucial text for anyone who want to give their “the state’s out to get us” paranoia some philosophical bottom – but for him it isn’t an unpicking of the rotten order, it’s a personal affront.

Neither person feels real enough to care for, though both are undoubtedly interesting, or should be. And the reason they’re not real is because the director José Padilha seems more interested in making his characters hurtle through too many scenarios from other films – apart from a Goodfellas narrator and a Mean Streets vibe, I counted Donnie Brasco (cop discovers the bad guys aren’t that bad), Training Day (rookie appalled but charmed by evil superiors), a bit of In the Line of Fire (the story is being nudged forwards by the arrival in Rio of Pope John Paul II in 1997) and Full Metal Jacket (tough training makes the man, forges the team). It only really works in FMJ mode and that’s because Full Metal Jacket and other films like it (Tigerland springs to mind) deliver foolproof structure, plus tension, plus ample space and encouragement for character.

In short, the film is largely form- and character-free and no amount of fine-looking Brazilian student women, wonderful lighting, swooshing camerawork, atmospheric sound, brilliant locations, wonderful bit-part players, urgent gun fights, all utterly convincing, and mood, mood, mood by the bucket can make it a good film. Which is a pity.

Tons of redeeming features but what can you do?

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Elite Squad – at Amazon

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Batman: The Dark Knight


Not having enjoyed the first Nolan/Bale Batman film (yes, he was traumatised by bats. I get it!) I wasn’t looking forward to the second.

But, having been told how great it was, how awesome Heath Ledger was, how dark it all was, I was prepared to put prejudice to one side and settle back to watch it with an open mind.

And I hated it. But no one else seems to feel this way. Why?

My own lack of soul to one side, it’s possibly something to do with the death of Ledger, a good actor who generally did more than was necessary in whatever role he took on, was happy to subsume himself to the character, unlike almost all “stars”. As the Joker, though, Ledger wasn’t really acting, he was channelling two famous previous players of the Joker – Cesar Romero (the giggle) from the 1960s TV version, and Jack Nicholson (the shoulders) from Tim Burton’s 1989 film – blending them and then replaying them at toxic volume. It was good, it was fun, it was clever but it was a stunt.

As for the “dark” aspect of the film, the guy in the bat suit is famously a nutjob, always has been, always will be. Christopher Nolan in no way made him darker. In fact such was the post-production fiddling with the film – to amp up Ledger – and the original misfire of an idea to include two villains that the Bat Man actually barely gets a look-in.

This is probably not the place to launch into an argument against Christian Bale’s acting talents, particularly when he’s being serious.

So we’ve got a jokey Joker, a film that’s really no darker than Tim Burton’s films, a disastrous dramatic weakening with the decision to introduce two villains (they’re meant to be powerful characters, they don’t need to hold each other’s hand).

Also, Christopher Nolan may be many things, but he’s not a good action director – after an hour of his incoherent editing – a beat too slow here, a beat too fast there – and his frequent dialling of the frenzy up to 11, I got bored. In fact there’s something really wrong with the editing of this throughout – I exclude the opening heist sequences which are gorgeous and seem to set the tone for an entirely different movie.

Then there’s what has been called the film’s psychological depth, its arthouse elements. I refer readers to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Ebony and Ivory, Nolan and screenwriters appear to be saying little more than “there is good and bad in everyone”.

None of the characters, apart from the Joker, has any existence you can imagine outside the film. They’ve got no depth – look at Maggie Gyllenhaal, look at Gary Oldman, look at Michael Caine, all dropped in as if to say “hey, this is a film you know, with a budget and everything” but they’re not actually doing much more than just being there.

Also, where is the sex – sexual frisson is everything if Bruce Wayne is meant to have lost his girlfriend to the Two Faced Eckhart (whose eyeball never seems to dry out, even though he’s got no eyelid).

And what the hell is Bale saying? That weird growl is very off-putting.

I’ve had a look round to see if anyone else hated it. David Denby of The New Yorker was the only one I could find. He called it “grim and incoherent”.

Agreed. Though grim isn’t a bad thing. Sadly, it looks like there’s more to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Dark Knight – at Amazon

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