“I saw Gran Torino last night,” says HE reader Andrew. “It’s clunky and heavy-handed at times, but very effective. Eastwood the actor has never been better in a moving and often hilarious performance. This kind of reminds me of the Million Dollar Baby syndrome. Like Flags of Our Fathers, the hyped Changeling underwhelmed me. But like Baby, the out-of-nowhere Gran Torino completely works.”
Gran Torino is having its first big L.A. press screening next Monday night (12.1). Those of us on the other coast, per custom, will have to wait.
In the view of Variety‘s John Anderson, Darnell Martin‘s Cadillac Records (TriStar, 12.5) “approaches the blues with the enthusiasm of an overcaffeinated brass band, [but] nonetheless makes some kind of music, mostly because she mines a righteous, mythic sensibility out of the story of Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters and the birth of the Chicago blues.
“Jeffrey Wright‘s Waters is unforgettable, Eamonn Walker gives an unnerving performance as rival bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and Beyonce Knowles‘ Etta James should put bottoms in seats.
“The second feature this year to focus on the same musicians, Cadillac Records takes a far broader approach than Jerry Zaks‘ Who Do You Love, which concentrated more on the conflicted character of Chess than on the artists he hired, promoted, profited from and, some say, exploited.
“In Cadillac Records, Adrien Brody cuts an appropriately oily figure as the man who founded Chess Records in 1956, while Wright delivers a performance of eloquent, simmering dignity as Waters — the first Chess star, one of the great vocalists in American music and the dramatic engine of Martin’s film.
“As a racial parable that couldn’t be timelier. Chess Records was a mixed marriage — the owner was a Polish immigrant, his artists were African-American, and much of the America they inhabited was hostile to any such arrangement. This all comes to a head after Chess signs Chuck Berry (a dryly funny Mos Def), whose hybridized pop sound had some promoters thinking he was a white country singer.
“Berry is the guy who puts Chess over the top; as someone says, they’re not sure what he’s playing, but it’s not the blues. But it sells, and it bridges the racial divide: In a scene duplicated in Who Do You Love, the velvet ropes separating whites and blacks at a Berry concert are toppled by the audience.
“That Martin later has Knowles reprise the entire racial psychology of America through James and her seemingly insoluble identity problems, by contrast, is overkill; Knowles gives a soulful portrayal, but her part of the movie seems to exist in another dimension entirely.
“The music — most of it performed by the actors themselves — has a real richness to it, if not quite the muscle of the Chess records themselves. Recording sessions are shot like live concerts; the club gigs feel sweaty and smoky. And Def’s Berry performances succeed in capturing what it felt like when the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
L.A. Times guy Geoff Bouncher wrote yesterday that original director-writer Michael Crichton “had worked recently on a script for a remake (and, at one point, Quentin Tarantino was approached to direct) but the author’s death in November may mark the end of the reboot effort.” Why? We all fall sooner or later, but art (or hugely enjoyable cheap-thrills entertainment) is eternal.
My second wanna-see is Darren Aronofsky‘s Robocop re-do. Breck Eisner’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon might work if it’s cheesy enough. (That means a guy in a rubber creature suit — no CG enhancements!) The new When World Collide will be ruined, I predict, by the hand of the demonic Stephen Sommers , who’s set to direct. Guillermo del Toro ‘s Frankenstein may work, but how many times can we sit for this Mary Shelley story? The rest hold no interest.
Shame enough that MCN’s Gurus of Gold haven’t supported Steven Soderbergh‘s Che as one of their Best Picture favorites, but it is absolutely infamous that not one of them voted for it, even as a ninth or tenth-place choice. History will not judge them charitably, much less kindly.
The reportedly awful Defiance gets a #7 ranking from Sean Smith and #9 rankings from Kris Tapley and Anne Thompson, and Che, which is so much more than that Ed Zwick film that comparisons are a waste of breath and brain cells, is blanked by these three? This is unconscionable. I know what I know.
N.Y. Post critic Lou Lumenick, incidentally, has given a #9 ranking to Valkyrie. A faith vote based on admiration for director Brian Singer, or has he seen it?
Brad Pitt‘s Benjamin Button performance is passivity incarnate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He simply chooses (or was told) to become the watcher — a nice fellow who delights in absorption of all things, a sponge man. But his best performance of the year, hands down, was in Burn After Reading. He wasn’t Hamlet in that Coen Bros. film, but Pitt’s every line and gesture was a kick. His gym instructor was stupidly, radiantly alive, and brimming with presence.
Gus Van Sant “also picked the right time to tell this story. He picked the last eight years of Harvey Milk’s life.” — At The Movies‘ Ben Lyons speaking about Milk. Quote supplied EFilmCritic’s Eric Childress. “As opposed to what?,” Childress asks. “His grade school years?”
A commanding majority of Rotten Tomatoes critics have today reminded themselves that Baz Luhrman, the director of Australia, is more or less certifiable (in a creative, go-for-broke sense of the term) as well as recognized the fact that Australia itself is a work of overwhelming psychedelic cinematic kitsch.
Many of them clearly emerged from their Australia screenings “drained and weakened,” as Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek puts it, “as if suffering from a gradual poisoning at the hands of a mad scientist.” Or, as I put it on 11.20, as if “injected with Baz serum.”
It is marked, as the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips puts it, by “constant visual redirection, strenuous comic relief, a synthetically preordained, romance, on the verge of morphing into a singing-cowboy musical. With Zeros.”
N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis calls it “a pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package…a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.”
Marshall Fine calls it “sprawling, silly, overlong and bizarrely bogus-looking. All of that scenery — and Luhrmann is dicking around on sound stages with green screens. Plot and character are both drawn in the broadest strokes; a subtle moment would die of loneliness.”
New York‘s David Edelstein says it’s “blessed with dialogue that defies parody. In one scene, the transplanted Englishwoman (Nicole Kidman) gazes moist-eyed on the rough-and-ready cattleman (Hugh Jackman) as he caresses an edgy stallion, and you know her line will be a clever variation on ‘You really have a gift with horses.’ Instead, she says, ‘You really have a gift with horses.’ It’s like that all the way through.”
I especially love this Edelstein riff on Kidman’s facial work: “I’ve always admired her gumption in working so hard to overcome a certain temperamental tightness — but that tightness has now spread to her skin. In one scene, she haltingly sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to an orphaned half-caste; but watching that big immovable forehead, I thought of another bit from The Wizard of Oz: ‘Oiiil caaan.’