Clint Eastwood in Gran TorinoGRAN TORINO

As much as I love Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Bronco Billy, I'll admit that I've never been a huge Clint Eastwood fan. (Don't remember Bronco Billy? The 12-year-old in me will never forget it.) Gran Torino, however, is something truly special, a simple - though not simple-minded - and straightforward melodrama that succeeds as both a heartfelt meditation on aging and an exhilarating crowd-pleaser, and Clint is so thrillingly, spectacularly Clint in his latest directorial offering that it's likely his performance won't just please fans, but ensnare a batch of new ones. After catching the movie in Chicagoland during the holidays, I saw it again this past weekend both for the sheer enjoyment of the experience and to see if Gran Torino is really as good as I remembered. It is. (I also wanted to hear lines I originally missed through our raucous audience laughter, but no luck - the cackles were just as loud this time around. Maybe on a third viewing.)

Great as it is, though, the movie isn't perfect, and its flaws are easily identifiable (if mostly insignificant) ones. Gran Torino finds Eastwood playing Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, a fierce, mean-spirited bigot who becomes the unintentional savior to the Hmong neighbors in his Michigan suburb, and for a while it seems that the role may too well-tailored to its star. Nick Schenk's screenplay, while biting and frequently hysterical, is filled with the sorts of declarative lines that make obvious what was already more than apparent - after Walt's steely will begins to soften, Eastwood is actually forced to growl into the mirror, "You have more in common with these gooks than you do your own family!" - and its narrative arc will be familiar to anyone with even a passing awareness of the Dirty Harry series. (Violence, retaliation, repeat.) And, admittedly, it takes a while to adjust to the cheerfully eager non-acting of the Asian actors - principally Bee Vang and Ashney Her - cast in major supporting roles. Some bloggers have posited that Eastwood deliberately cast nonprofessionals opposite himself to make his own presence loom larger in comparison, and during several crucial scenes here, it's a tough theory to argue against.

Tough, but not impossible, because regardless of whom he's performing with, Eastwood is majestically present in Gran Torino. His direction of the piece is expectedly assured and effective - he can infuse even basic one-shots of a whirling fan or a freezer's ascent up a staircase with threat and danger - but as an actor, he might be more alert, polished, and inventive here than ever before on-screen. Looking almost impossibly fit for a man in his late 70s, Eastwood is a subtle yet fall-down-funny comedian in the movie's opening hour, scoring with perfectly cadenced spite and shockingly off-color, and unapologetic, racial epithets. (Shrewd entertainer that he is, Eastwood - who's supremely good at making himself the butt of his own jokes - ensures that you laugh rather than wince at Walt's remarks.)

But after the story takes its inevitable, tragic turn, the performer's natural stoicism reveals itself, instead, to be a defense against deep emotionalism, and both Eastwood and the film itself begin to radiate an almost mythic grandeur; the movie turns out to be not just about Walt, but about all of the reflexively violent, Walt-like characters Eastwood ever played. Gran Torino is an extraordinarily entertaining movie that morphs into an extraordinarily moving one, and if, as Eastwood has suggested, Walt Kowalski winds up being his final starring role on-screen, it would be nearly impossible to ask for a more fitting and inspiring cinematic epitaph.


Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman in The UnbornTHE UNBORN

It's January, and I want to enter the new movie year with as positive an outlook as I can muster. So I've decided not to be upset and angry that the shape-shifting nemesis in writer/director David S. Goyer's The Unborn is the spirit of a young Jewish twin murdered during the Holocaust; ill-conceived or not, it's entirely possible that this was merely Goyer's way of investing the movie with a bit of history for its PG-13 demographic. (Josef Mengele, after all, did indeed perform monstrous experiments on twins.) I've also decided to let slide the moment when the film's heroines speak with an elderly Holocaust survivor (Jane Alexander, incredibly), notice the numerical prisoner-I.D. on her wrist, and share a quizzical look that implies, "I don't know what it means, either ... but who knew she was into tats?" And I'm doing my best to block out the scene that finds Alexander urging the girls to do battle with the unfriendly ghost by saying, "It is up to you to finish what began at Auschwitz," even though that's a really poor choice of phrasing.

Unfortunately, there's still the rest of the film to contend with. Like a lot of low-grade, instantly disposable modern scare flicks, The Unborn actually starts out pretty well, with a surprisingly gripping prologue involving a trek through the woods, a dog in a mask, and an Eddie Munster doppelgänger with colored contacts. (It's creepier than it sounds.) It isn't long, though, before your nervous chuckles turn into outright laughter at the movie. The Unborn's inanely convoluted storyline is ridiculous enough: Why does the evil spirit, who can assume any form, keep possessing the body of an eight-year-old kid when he could do so much more damage (and, you know, drive) in the body of an adult? But the goofily portentous dialogue runs the plot a close second for unintentional hilarity, and amongst a cast that features Gary Oldman, Idris Elba, James Remar, and Carla Cugino, lead Odette Yustman appears almost pathologically dim-witted; her deliberate, vacant-eyed turns toward the camera suggest a runway show viewed in slow-motion. As for Meagan Good, she might be the most irritating Sassy Black Friend in the history of cinematic Sassy Black Friends. (Along with offering a primer on World War II torture techniques, Goyer should've considered educating the actress on the correct pronunciation of "Alzheimer's.") It should be noted that Good also co-starred in the first new movie I saw in 2008, the your-cell-phone-is-trying-to-kill-you classic One Missed Call. I'm beginning to think she's responsible for the annual end to my positive outlook.


Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway in Bride WarsBRIDE WARS

Kate Hudson is one of the producers of the slapstick-through-tears comedy Bride Wars, and the most interesting thing about the movie - perhaps the only interesting thing about the movie - is how determinedly she appears to be hiding from her own star vehicle. For much of the film, the performer's features are lost beneath an unflattering blond 'do with long tresses and thick bangs, and her eyeliner is so heavy that it looks as though she hasn't slept in weeks; it's like a raccoon showed up at a Halloween party dressed as Kate Hudson imitating Cousin Itt. Her makeover here is odd, but in the end, understandable, as she should want to hide from Bride Wars. So should viewers expecting a frothy good time when what we're given instead is a labored and rather grim exercise in nuptial-fueled hysteria.

You know the hook, right? Hudson's and Anne Hathaway's BFFs discover that their June weddings at the Plaza are accidentally booked for the exact same time and day, and spend the rest of the movie attempting to sabotage one another's plans for the perfect ceremony. One could compose an entire thesis paper on the senselessness of the plot; there appear to be about a dozen painless ways around the women's dilemma, some of them even vocalized by their wedding planner (a nicely tart Candice Bergen) and their vanilla-pudding hubbies-to-be (Chris Howey and Steve Pratt, but don't ask me who plays whose fiancé). Bride Wars' inherent stupidity, though, wouldn't much matter if the film were actually funny, or even a little insightful. But beyond the generic bitchiness and tired revenge tactics (an embarrassing home video, blue dye in Hudson's salon rinse), director Gary Winick's movie seems hell-bent on presenting its leads as nattering buffoons who don't deserve their Special Day, and so the finale's requisite Happily Ever After and equally requisite "One year later ... " tag feel both unearned and deeply cynical. These selfish, back-stabbing, hateful characters end up getting everything they ever wanted, and Bride Wars is unwilling (or unable) to recognize the depressing irony in that; it's the perfect training film for impressionable teen girls who dream of growing up and making some poor schmuck's life a living hell.

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