Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last Stands

Admittedly I'm a hard person to offend -- or, before prompting gales of laughter from those who know me, let me say, more accurately, that I'm rarely worked up by the things that others get worked up about. In the case of Walt, the racial-epithet spouting senior citizen and hero of Gran Torino, which I finally saw on DVD, I didn't find the depiction of the character offensive. Artless, definitely. As a director, Clint Eastwood has never been the kind of filmmaker who explores and conveys complexity, at least not the kind that's reflective of the real world. Like his numerous other credits, Gran Torino is rooted firmly in Eastwoodland: it's an exploration -- as well as, ultimately, a subversion -- of a screen persona spanning five decades, the contradictions of onscreen violent machismo with the stylings of an offscreen jazz pianist, and intriguing within that paradigm. It doesn't have the depth, balance or resonance of Unforgiven, still in my opinion his best film, thanks largely to a remarkable screenplay by David Webb Peoples. A director who never changes a word and rarely asks for more than one take had better have a script that's polished like a diamond, and Nick Schenk's Gran Torino is rudimentary at best and crude at worst. Yet Schenk clearly understands his main character, that Walt's prejudices are cultural, generational, and, while not excusable, at least equal-opportunity. (His family and friends feel the brunt of his frustrations.) It might have been nice to have Walt called on his crap by his Hmong neighbors, or to clarify the point (as I think I'm understanding it) that they have a dignity and sense of peace that this restless codger envies. 

As an actor, Eastwood fares better. He creates Walt out of a pair of hard-to-reconcile elements -- the reality-based angry white man and a fantasy-projection gun-toting savior. While the latter still makes me uneasy (especially in light of the 88-year-old anti-Semite who killed an African-American guard at the Holocaust Museum earlier this week), the movie's climax is halfway redeemable and, on its own quiet terms, astonishing. In his review, Fernando Croce, quoting Andrew Sarris on Chaplin, posited: "For an artist, to envision his own death means to envision the death of the entire world." Gran Torino may not quite be, as some have speculated, Eastwood's swan song; yet, within its own rough edges, it hits some unexpected grace notes.
First things first about Valkyrie: it's not that bad. Stretches of it are actually pretty good -- and would be hard not to be, as directed by Bryan Singer, one of the purest living American filmmakers in the business, as assured behind the camera as Clint Eastwood is clumsy. Singer has a nicely offhanded way with most of his actors, notably Thomas Kretschmann in the pivotal role of the Reserve Army commander caught in the middle of the coup to kill Hitler.  And his sense of pacing is as keen as ever, particularly in the second half of Valkyrie, as the complex plot is finally hatched and the consequences come to roost.  

This whirligig of activity almost distracts from the gaping hole at what should be the heart of the film -- the jarringly miscast All-American playing the very-German mastermind of the scheme, Col. von Stauffenberg. Much was made of this upon the picture's release, as the entertainment media, long-time accomplices of Tom Cruise in the perpetuation of his stardom, have lately turned on the actor as he's started losing his luster and, possibly, his mind. To be sure, Goldenboy's willingness to play an eye-patched, one-armed Nazi is the kind of foolhardy invitation of ridicule that Eastwood has always been too smart (and safe) to take. Cruise, also one of our most self-aware performers, may have been drawn to the role on the same level of hubristic physical deformity as he was to Cameron Crowe's ludicrous Vanilla Sky. (My face! My beautiful face!) Yet even recently, Cruise has proven himself to be an capable actor (Collateral, Tropic Thunder); and while film critics seem eager to join in whiffing the smell of blood, I think he may have a Sinatra-like comeback in him yet. What he needs is an Oliver Stone to rouse his passions, another Born on the Fourth of July. The internal tug-of-war Tom Cruise seems to be experiencing, between resculpting his carefully crafted persona and destroying it, is fascinating to watch unfold. Unlike Frank or Clint, though, he doesn't have the life-experience to calibrate his personal nuances into a role. It's unclear, beyond an apparent belief in aliens, exactly what those nuances might be. He should take piano lessons or cobble shoes -- acquire a hobby, learn a trade. Now well into middle-age, the baggage Cruise carries is still the wrong kind.


Hokahey said...

An enjoyable post.

I agree that Unforgiven is Eastwood's best. In regards to Gran Torino, you are honest yet still kinder than I would be. I don't think it hits any "grace notes."

As for Cruise, I have faith in him. Yes, he needs a good director. He can be a passionate, sincere actor - which I think he displayed in War of the Worlds. I believe he convincingly portrays a father's desperation to save his daughter from horror.

Craig said...

Thanks for responding. Yeah, I may be too kind to "Gran Torino." But when I heard Eastwood warbling that song over the closing image, I couldn't help but smile.

Hokahey said...

Oh, that song. No comment. Actually, I think the man is well-intended, I just firmly believe he needed a better writer for this one.