Friday, January 16, 2009

Film Review #187: The Wackness
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby

You might remember Robert De Niro as the drill instructor in Men of Honor, bellowing that line, willing Cuba Gooding, Jr. to his feet, “Stand up, Navy diver!”

George Tilman, Jr., hasn’t directed a film since 2000, when his Men of Honor portrayed the struggles of Carl Brashear, the first African American to successfully enter the ranks of deep sea Navy divers. So there’s plenty of anticipation now that his new film is about to open in wide release this Friday. That film is another biopic, Notorious, which relates the saga of Christopher Wallace – better known as The Notorious B.I.G. – and promises to vividly reanimate some aspects of the mid-90s Hip-Hop era. Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a rapper feud in 1997 at the age of 24, but in the summer of 1994 he was just exploding onto the New York City music scene and by that September had released his debut album, Ready to Die.

As a companion to Tilman’s Notorious, there’s a weird little movie just out on DVD January 6th that offers its own view of that sweltering New York City summer and the pervasive reach of B.I.G.’s music and Hip-Hop culture in general. The Wackness, writer-director Jonathan Levine’s second feature, opened theatrically last July to mixed reviews. Tellingly, the soundtrack CD release preceded the film in June - a classic compilation of tracks from B.I.G. himself plus Method Man (who has a minor part as a Jamaican drug dealer in the film), Faith Evans, Craig Mack, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, KRS-One, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, R. Kelly, Biz Markie and Wu-Tang Clan. The soundtrack CD leaves out the juke-box version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” that figures as background in one bar scene of the film, but that may be just as well.

Such star power as The Wackness has derives from Ben Kingsley – not in his trademark shaved head but with flowing locks – as Dr. Jeffrey Squires, a private psychiatrist who barters therapy sessions for the product that marijuana dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) sells out of the shave-ice freezer cart he amiably pushes around Manhattan. Squires has a weekend house on Fire Island too, which figures prominently in Luke’s education as the summer of ’94 progresses.

The film spans the months between Luke’s high school graduation and his departure for his “safety school” – the college application seniors fall back on when their first and second choice schools don’t come through. Over these heat-soaked several months, Luke and Squires become friends of sorts, rambling around night-time Manhattan, getting stoned together, talking about life – this runs to Squires’ urgent advise to live in the moment – getting arrested at one point, and looking for girls. (Ben Kinsley making out with a blond dread-locked Mary-Kate Olsen in a bar’s phone booth is one of the creepier May-December screen duos within memory).

Both their lives undergo quiet but seismic shifts. In a scary economic climate reminiscent of today’s, Luke’s father losses his investments and the family’s eviction from the upper West Side rudely catapults them across the river to bunk in with Luke’s New Jersey grandmother. Shapiro and his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) mutually decide to divorce after an excruciating get-away weekend. Then there is Squires’ step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the lovely, self-possessed girl who never noticed Luke all through high school and now has the summer on her hands. This starts hopefully enough – she’s gentle with his inexperience – but you needn’t be world-weary to soon know how it ends. He watches her run through the Fire Island surf, practices how he’ll inflect “I love you” over and over and, when he tells her, she retorts, “Grow up.”

It’s Ben Kingsley’s best line here when Squires, understanding that sting, tells Luke afterward, “How lucky she would have been.”

Modest as teen-age heroes go, Luke has the makings of a genuinely nice man. The Wackness is best appreciated as a modest film. Not the tell-all Hip-Hop movie, it still catches how open the moment was - and how varied the audience - for this music’s arrival. Quirkily but not brilliantly shot, it illustrates how a certain dark tone and its high contrasts might lead a filmmaker a few steps more into graphic novel land. Not in the running for any performance awards, The Wackness still presents in Peck and Thirlby two young actors whose work will be worth following the next time out.

This review appeared in the January 15, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing current releases as well as DVDs both new and enduring. This review was the 100th edition of “Make it Snappy,” which began running in 2006.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Film Review #186: Gran Torino
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley

It’s not what you expect after the trailer, which ran all through the holidays at Carousel Mall Regal Cinemas and on TV too, promising “vintage” Clint Eastwood, with him cocking his thumb Dirty Harry-style and, later, ordering gangbangers off his lawn with an M-1 rifle. No, at the end of Gran Torino, I found myself thinking that this sometimes violent movie is about the ways men still find to be tender with each another. And just then, as if answering my girly thoughts, the credits roll and with them the soft jazz title song by Eastwood’s son Kyle, who did the score, that starts out, “So tenderly the story ….”

Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, which he also directed, is retired autoworker Walt Kowalski, still living in his “old neighborhood” of Highland Park in 2008, where Henry Ford established his flagship Model-T factory almost exactly a century ago. Nearly engulfed by the larger Detroit, Highland Park was once the fastest growing city in the US, with the best schools and the highest average income. Now – after a slide that really started in the 1940s, accelerated with Ford’s relocation in the late 1950s and Detroit’s 1967 race riots – it’s the most impoverished city in North America. And by 1972, the year Kowalski rolled his prized green Gran Torino off the assembly line, Highland Park’s prosperity was well in decline.

Now, under the stars and stripes on his front porch, Kowalski polishes his car, fertilizes his tiny front yard, drinks his Pabst, nurses a growing dislike for his two sons and their ditzy off-spring, and glares at the Hmong family that moves in next door on the day of his wife Dorothy’s funeral. The names he relentlessly and casually calls them and others, including his Italian barber, his apple-cheeked young pastor and his Irish construction foreman buddy, would make your eyes water. A little while later, after Kowalski’s rescued her from punks, the Hmong family’s stalwart teen-aged daughter Sue (Ahney Her) answers his demand to know what they’re doing there.

“It’s the Vietnam thing,” she says matter-of-factly. “We fought on your side, so when the Americans quit, we had to come here.”

“You’re alright,” Kowalski tells her after that, as if she’s passed some test. In his basement there’s a trunk where he keeps his Silver Star and other Korean War memorabilia, and on the trunk’s inside lid, a decal of the modern US Calvary’s motto, “Live the legend.”

There’s been so much attention on this maybe being Eastwood’s last acting role and how much it summarizes his career that the motto works just as well as wry comment on being Clint Eastwood. At least since Unforgiven (1992), when his retired gunslinger tells his wannabe fan he can’t remember his exploits because he was drunk most of the time, Eastwood has been revising that legend. By 2003, Mystic River’s trio of wives was such a collective rebuke to macho violence that a friend mused to me that Eastwood was apologizing for his younger films. Now, Eastwood offers an intriguing echo of the Old West in modern urban ruins – not with the heavy-handed panoramas some filmmakers might use, of abandoned factories and apartment buildings and vacant lots going back to woods that Detroit’s becoming known for – but in a single recurring city block that Thao takes home. Brush grows up through the chain link fence along the broken sidewalk and tufts of grass split the pavement here. On this a desolate stretch of today’s urban frontier his cousin’s gang repeatedly waylays him.

On its surface, Gran Torino is what the PR says: about how Kowalski grudgingly becomes the protector of the fatherless Hmong family next door. The trigger for this is Sue’s younger brother Thao (Bee Vang), a shy teen whose volatile cousin tries to bully him into joining an Asian gang. Eastwood doesn’t traffic much in fancy effects like flashbacks, but later on we learn what Kowalski is taken back to under the swinging light in his dark garage, hearing the faintest military drumbeat, when he catches Thao trying to steal the Gran Torino, and how close he comes a second time to shooting a boy in the face who was trying to surrender.

There are half a dozen other cliff-hangers like this. But Gran Torino’s hidden treasure is something else, a dance of intrepid and tender approach through hostile territory that occurs between characters willing to learn and enter each other’s world.

One of those is his young priest (a fine Christopher Carley), who mistakenly assumes that wearing a collar automatically grants him the familiarity of speaking to Kowalski on a first name basis. Father Janovich persists through several withering rounds of correction on this and an array of other generational discourtesies until – seemingly much less chubby and apple-cheeked – he finally earns a soft, “Call me Walt.” Gran Torino in fact is book-ended by the priest’s sermons at two funerals, the first full of certainty and the second a sharing of how much he’s figured out he doesn’t know.

But this exchange of learning plays out most richly between Kowalski and the two Hmong teens, in contrast to is own grandchildren. By painstaking inches, Kowalski allows Sue and Thao to teach him how to behave, what would insult their mother or their shaman, how to accept things ranging from neighborly barbeque to help moving a freezer to simple thanks.

As the quintessential second-generation American-born go-between, Sue is adept at explaining her people to Walt, sometimes in comically dead-pan terms (“Hmong girls tend to do better than the boys. The girls go to college and the boys go to prison.”). These comments shade on the one hand into gentle mockery (“I told you we don’t like to eat dog. We eat cats.”) and on the other reveal a canny survivor’s understanding of what really makes Walt tick. Sue’s got his number once she figures out that the quickest way to gain his agreement is to tag any suggestion with the phrase, “It would be an insult not to.”

Eastwood makes room for Kowalski to spend a perhaps inordinate amount of time on-screen getting Thao ready for that job the boy wants so he can go to school. There are more of these clean, short, often understated scenes between two reticent men about their tools and tool belts – think of it as detail work, maybe – than any straight action film depending on forward momentum really requires. Some of this provides the film’s unexpected lighter moments. There is a wonderful scene where – under cover of “manning Thao up” – they rehearse “how real men talk” with Kowalski’s barber so that Thao can pass that test with a construction boss. (He does pass too, trading expletive-laden horror stories about head gaskets, trannies and thieving car mechanics.) But when Thao admits he could use the loan of a roofing hammer after the gang steals his tools and Kowalski says, “Good. Go ahead and get it from my workshop,” that “Good” tells us they’ve gotten over some larger hurdle than whether the older man trusts Thao with the run of his workshop. A good Estwing roofing hammer costs almost fifty bucks these days. This and similar scenes methodically get us ready for the startling depth of Thao’s outburst near the end of the film, when Kowalski locks him in the cellar to keep him safe.

And Kowalski is thinking about what lesson he’s teaching Sue and Thao in the end too, in grown-up ways Dirty Harry never dreamed.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the 1/8/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing current releases as well as DVDs both new and enduring. Gran Torino opened in Syracuse on January 9th. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at