Gran Torino

I’m still scratching my head as to why two friends recommended I see this film. They just raved about it. It sure isn’t my cup of tea. Starring Clint Eastwood, who also directed and produced it, Gran Torino shows Walt Kowalski, a tough curmudgeon whose wife has died who’s just a pain in the neck to his two sons and grandkids and neighbors. The person he’s closest with, and he isn’t that close to, is his barber, with whom he trades insults and profanity. There’s young, out-of-step priest who tries to connect with Walt, but the grouch has no patience for this cookie-cutter stereotype.

Next door to Walt live a family of Hmong refugees, whose lives Walt is forced to become involved with. A gang of about 5 Hmong guys terrorize the neighborhood. Walt’s teenage neighbor Thao is a bit wimpy and thus a target for his cousin’s gang. The gang forces Thao to try to steal Walt’s classic 1970s Gran Torino, but Thao is caught. When Walt sees the extent of how Thao gets pushed around by the thugs, the teaches the boy how to “man up.” All this moves to a showdown between Walt and the gang.

I felt all the actors overdid it. There wasn’t one subtle role. Too bad Toshio Mifune’s not around to teach how to be tough and subtle. The only natural performance came from Ahney Her who played Thao’s sister.

Replete with stereotypes and clichés, I couldn’t buy what I was seeing. Except for the end, Walt is in a foul mood about everything. Everything. I’ve seen this sort of grump in bad movies but never in real life.

There’s a good message about sacrifice and breaking through one’s racism, but since few are as biased as Walt, most audience members will just see themselves as better than the hero rather than in the same moral boat. I don’t need that. The Two of Us is a much better movie about racism. Yojimbo is a better film for action and defeating a gang.

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Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Pamplona

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I was lucky to get to see Pamplona starring Stacy Keach at the Goodman Theater. Set in a hotel room in Spain, Pamplona shows Ernest Hemingway struggle with writer’s block as the tries to write an article on bullfighting for Life magazine. As he struggles, Hemingway looks back on his life – all four of his marriages, his conflicts with his father and mother, his writing career and his love and respect for bullfighters and their sport.

Throughout the play, vintage photos are projected on the hotel walls placing the set in history. Pamplona is staged in Goodman’s smaller theater, which resembles Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater so every seat provides a good view in an intimate setting.

Keach brings Hemingway to life and is wonderful in this show. You have to be a powerful performer to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. Kudos to Keach.

I enjoyed learning more about this writer and was pleased with the surprising ending. Just masterful. The play was one of the best of this year’s season.

The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

If you’d like Gilda’s hair

Here’s what you do if you want Rita Hayworth’s hair style from Gilda. I’m searching for my pin curl clips and will give it a try.

Part One of pin curl tutorial

Part Two of pin curl tutorial

Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Another part of the story that nagged me was the unlikelihood that Mundson would meet and also marry Gilda, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. Really? She was stunning, but not the only fish in the sea. The odds of being in the same room, let alone her agreeing to marry him were astronomical. But the film had style and moved along so I forgive the filmmakers.

Another coincidence that nagged me was the unlikelihood of Mundson meeting and marrying Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. The film needed a line like Bogart’s “Of all the gin joints . . . ” from Casablanca.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.