Gran Torino, Defiance, Hotel for Dogs, Confessions of a Shopaholic

Gran Torino, Defiance, Hotel for Dogs, Confessions of a Shopaholic

Gran Torino
Rating:

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch, William Hill, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, Choua Kue, Scott Eastwood. Written by Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk.



Typical Clint Eastwood sensibilities infuse the director´s Gran Torino, a somewhat simplistic film content to tell its own isolated story rather than reaching for something greater. And it tells it well: this story of an elderly widower coming to terms with the influx of Asian immigrants in his suburban neighborhood is often more compelling than it ought to be. Eastwood, in his first acting appearance since 2004´s Million Dollar Baby, is as fun to watch here as he´s ever been.

Clint stars as crotchety war veteran Walt Kowalski, a retired widower who spends his days sitting on the porch with his dog and growling at the neighborhood kids to “get off my lawn.” His own kids, spoiled businessman Mitch (Brian Haley) and wife Karen (Geraldine Hughes), who´ve raised even more spoiled grandchildren, ignore Walt unless it´s his birthday, when they bring gifts of a phone with big, easy-to-see buttons and a brochure for a retirement home.

Next door lives a large family of Hmong immigrants, including two young siblings, shy Thao (Bee Vang) and spunky Sue (Ahney Her), who tries to break through Walt´s gruff barrier and won´t take no for an answer. The local gang tries to initiate Thao into their ranks by having him steal Walt´s pristine 1972 Gran Torino; that doesn´t go too well, with Thao finding himself staring at the barrel of Walt´s rifle. But instead of animosity between the neighbors, Sue and her family insist Thao pays off his debt by doing work for Walt, who is forced to take on the kid, and teach him to become a man in the process. Walt´s prejudice is eventually broken down, as he finds himself getting to know his Hmong neighbors, and enjoying it.

My only problem with Gran Torino is with the ending – which works, no question – but feels a bit too pat, everything wrapped up as neatly as possible. Some ambiguity would have been appreciated, though that isn´t (usually) Eastwood´s style.

Two years after Eastwood was mostly ignored at awards time with a pair of excellent films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he has been largely ignored again with another pair of excellent films, Changeling and Torino – for my money, each better than any of the 2008 Best Picture Oscar nominees. Payback, perhaps, for the less-deserving Million Dollar Baby taking the Best Pic award in 2004. An inconsistent (but mostly good) director throughout much of his career, Eastwood, nearing 80, has become the best working US director during the past five years.

As an actor, Eastwood is as iconic an image as they come, and Gran Torino may well be his swan song. Everything we love about that icon is on full, loving display: this is Harry Callahan in suburbia, and he´s a joy to watch.

Clint also wrote, and (quite wonderfully) croons the titular song, with Jamie Cullum, over the closing credits.

***


 

Defiance
Rating:

Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, George MacKay, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, Jodhi May, Kate Fahy, Iddo Goldberg, Iben Hjejle, Martin Hancock, Ravil Isyanov, Jacek Koman. Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick, from the book by Nechama Tec.

Harrowing and initially fascinating, Edward Zwick´s Defiance eventually devolves into the routine over its second half – much like the director´s two previous films, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. Still, that doesn´t outweigh the all the good that´s on showcase here, a compelling portrait of a community of Jews struggling to survive as a guerrilla partisan group in Belorussian forests in 1941.

Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, who along with brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and young Aron (George MacKay), takes to the forest after the rest of their family has been slaughtered in Eastern Poland (now Belarus). The four brothers soon meet other Jews taking refuge in the forests, and unite with them despite concerns of being able to care for too many others. Tuvia returns to the village to take revenge on those responsible for killing his family, but soon after he returns, and the group of outcasts increases, he realizes his responsibility is to protect and care for his people, rather than, as other partisan groups and resistance fighters in the area, attack German forces.

As their numbers continue to grow, Tuvia takes charge of the ‘Bielski Partisans,´ causing some conflict with brother Zus, who has different ideas about how things should be run. Eventually, Zus and others leave the group to fight alongside Russian resistance fighters in the area, and have to deal with their passive anti-Semitism.

Defiance tells a true story, or as true as Hollywood can make it, and over some closing captions we learn that 1200 members of the Bielski Partisans survived the war by living in the forests for years, and that Zus and Tuvia emigrated to the US and started a trucking business in New York City, and that they never sought recognition for their actions.

This is fascinating material, and a story that needs to be told. The first half of Defiance, as the partisan group struggles to adjust to their new lives, and weighs their moral options, does justice to the story. A second half, complete with a telegraphed climax that feels ripped from your standard action/war movie, does not. The film also ends on a rather strange note, with years of war yet to come.

Thick Polish/Russian accents are employed throughout, mostly effectively, though Schreiber occasionally stands out. Still, they´re much less distracting than the complete lack of accents in Valkyrie.

***


 

Hotel for Dogs
Rating:

Directed by Thor Freudenthal. Starring Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Don Cheadle, Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt, Troy Gentile, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon, Ajay Naidu, Eric Edelstein, Robinne Lee, Yvette Nicole Brown, Andre Ware, Jonathan Klein. Written by Jeff Lowell and Robert Schooley & Mark McCorkle, from the book by Lois Duncan.

 

Mostly goofy Nickelodeon fare, Thor Freudenthal´s Hotel for Dogs smartly gives its wonderful canine actors as much (or more) screen time as its often-flat human cast (Marley & Me should take a lesson). Along with all the silliness, there´s a surprising level of thoughtful undercurrent – owing (I presume) to Lois Duncan´s 1971 book – turning this into perfect kid´s fare. For adults, however, the reality of the situation is ultimately depressing.

Orphaned Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) try to survive city life with their evil wannabe rocker foster parents (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), under the watchful eyes of benevolent social services officer Bernie (Don Cheadle). They have a scrappy dog, Friday, whom they have to hide from their foster parents, eventually letting him stay at an abandoned hotel with two other canine pals. And then, well, the dogs keep on coming, and some kind kids from the local pet shop donate their time to help look after them. Eventually, they rescue more strays from the clutches of evil dogcatchers, and the titular Hotel for Dogs is founded, with Rube Goldberg-like devices created by Bruce so the mutts can entertain themselves.

But there´s a point in the film when things go south: the siblings are split up and sent to separate foster homes, the dogs sent back to the pound, where they will be put to death in 72 hours. What an incredibly grim scenario. Of course, a last-minute act will save the day and make everything right.  But we all know how things go down outside of movie fantasyland.

Roberts (Julia´s niece) is a fine young actress, though the rest of the young cast is impossibly bland. Kudrow and Dillon are mostly wasted as the airheaded foster parents. Cheadle lends the film some credibility, though Hotel for Dogs does little to return the favor.

The dogs, however, a motley crew of mutts in all shapes and sizes, completely save the film. Their Tom & Jerry-like antics easily outshine the human cast.

Aww, look at the sweet parallels between the orphaned kids and the stray dogs. Hotel for Dogs is perfect stuff for younger auds (the true dangers here are never explicit enough to become frightening), though parents and older children aren’t likely to get much out of it.

Cute montage over the closing credits features the cast & crew with their own pets.

***


 

Confessions of a Shopaholic
Rating:

Directed by P.J. Hogan. Starring Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack, John Goodman, John Lithgow, Kristin Scott Thomas, Fred Armisen, Leslie Bibb, Lynn Redgrave, Robert Stanton, Julie Hagerty, Nick Cornish, Wendie Malick, Clea Lewis.Written by Tracey Jackson and Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert, from the books by Sophie Kinsella.

With a better cast than you´d expect for this kind of material, including a feisty Isla Fisher in the lead, P.J. Hogan´s Confessions of a Shopaholic is about as good as one could reasonably expect. And unlike other films skewed to the same demographic, Sex and the City, The Women, and (shudder) Bride Wars, this one actually confronts materialism to a reasonable degree. Of course, given the current economic climate, does the movie do true justice to the effects of shopaholism? No, but I´ll be waiting for the film that does.

Fisher, in a role that should elevate her the level of semi-stardom enjoyed by Amy Adams (and you´ll forgive me if I cannot tell the two apart), stars as Rebecca Bloomwood, a woman who makes her latest purchase with $50 in cash and $70 split between three different credit cards. She´s just lost her job, has racked up an impossible level of debt over the years, and is currently being chased by a persistent collector, who she claims is an ex-boyfriend stalker to avoid embarrassment and have security drag him away. The depressing reality of this situation, that I´d like to see.

But no, this is Jerry Bruckheimer-produced fantasy. So Rebecca somehow gets a gig at a financial magazine, where she advises readers on consumer caution, all the while keeping an eye on her dream job at sister magazine Alette, a fashion rag run by a French-accented Kristen Scott Thomas. She romances Brit boss Luke (Hugh Dancy), struggles through some shopaholic support-group meetings, and visits her parents (John Goodman & Joan Cusack), who inform her that they´ve spent all their savings. Eventually, Rebecca makes a big splash with her financial column, but will her true shopaholic nature reveal itself and threaten her job? Oh, what irony.

The script in Shopaholic is set on autopilot, but the cast livens up the familiarity. While no one outside Fisher gets a chance to shine, Dancy is a reasonable enough romantic lead, Krysten Ritter is fun as Rebecca´s roommate and best friend, and it´s always nice to see Goodman and Cusack. Still, John Lithgow is completely wasted as the magazines´ owner, and Lynn Redgrave, who is credited as “Drunken Lady at Ball”, well…no comment.

Nothing new here, but a pleasant enough ride for the target audience. Others beware.


Jason Pirodsky

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Jason Pirodsky made his way to Prague via Miami and has stuck around, for better and worse, since 2004. A member of the Online Film Critics Society (www.ofcs.org), some of his favorite movies include O Lucky Man!, El Topo, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Hellzapoppin'. Follow him on Twitter for some (slightly) more concise reviews.

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