The Week in Film by Robert Mann – Week Starting 27/2/09

Gran Torino ****½

Snubbed not only by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but all the movie awards bodies, Gran Torino is a film that has not merely exceeded but totally obliterated expectations, winning rave reviews all round and achieving a stellar haul at the US box office where it has even outperformed virtually all the films that received Oscar nominations. Following up last year’s The Bucket List, this is a film that has also been wrongfully overlooked by the Academy (and the rest) but has been quite rightfully appreciated by moviegoers. Gran Torino is apparently to be the last film featuring Clint Eastwood as an actor and is this indeed true it certainly looks to be one hell of a swan song and a fantastic end to an incredible career.

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a disgruntled Korean War veteran who has just lost the love of his life. A grumpy, tough-minded, unhappy old man, his own kids want nothing to do with him, and he doesn’t much get along with his neighbours either. This isn’t helped by the fact that the neighbourhood is inhabited by more Asians than Americans, and despite the changes that have taken place in the world and his local community, he still holds on to his old prejudices. He tries to live his life irrespective of all that is taking place around him but he finds himself dragged into the lives of his neighbours when Thao (Bee Vang), a young Hmong teenager who lives next door, tries to steal his prize possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, under pressure from a local gang. Following his failure, Thao and his family are harassed by the gang and Walt steps in, becoming a local hero in the process. To regain the family’s honour after his attempted theft, Thao is forced to work for Walt. Despite his initial reluctance, Walt agrees and takes Thao under his wing, in the hopes of reforming him. Soon, an unlikely friendship between the two develops, and Walt gets close to Thao’s family, including his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and he begins to view his neighbours and his local community in a whole new light. As Walt learns to enjoy life once more and begins to adapt to a changing world, however, he soon finds himself taking steps to protect Thao and his family from the gang that is terrorizing the neighbourhood.

It really is quite criminal that Gran Torino failed to receive a single nomination at any of the movie awards. This is Clint Eastwood on top form, both in front of and behind the camera, and those who overlooked it should be ashamed of themselves. Clint Eastwood delivers one of his finest performances in a very long time, channeling his old Dirty Harry persona into a pitch perfect portrayal of a man who is alone in the world while everything changes around him. The sheer amount of emotion put into the performance makes for an entirely believable portrayal of a character who we can’t help but sympathise and empathise with, even when he is being prejudiced. His character is one that could and probably does exist in the real world and it is a truly moving, yet also very entertaining portrayal. Eastwood’s direction is just as excellent, with him making a film that is more than just the average slow-burning drama. This is a film that, with the help of an excellent script, entertains as much as it moves, thanks to some subtle, smart and witty humour. Rather than outlandish situations, the film’s humour comes directly from the heart, with the dialogue and the way it is spoken being the main source of the film’s lighter side. The humour never detracts from the more serious stuff, though, with the issues being presented in a convincing and thoughtful manner, and the film never failing to be moving when it needs to be. It also has a lot to say about the changing face of race relations and the clashing of cultures in an increasingly multicultural society, and everything it says rings true. It isn’t just Clint Eastwood who shines though, as the acting is excellent all round. Most of the Asian cast members aren’t even real actors, but they deliver great performances nonetheless, with them in fact adding to the authenticity of the film. While it is unlikely that many of them will be seen in films again it is hard to deny the power of their performances. Overall, Gran Torino is an outstanding film. Just as with the recently released Slumdog Millionaire it shows that great cinema doesn’t require a big budget or lots of spectacle, it just takes a gripping and engaging storyline, sharp direction and good acting. It is extremely easy to see why this film struck a chord with American moviegoers but extremely difficult to understand why it didn’t garner even a single awards nomination. If you were impressed with the film’s that actually got nominated, just wait until you see this film – you haven’t seen anything yet.


The International ***½

Postponed from its original release date last August, The International is a film that stands to either gain or lose from the decision to do so. It is also one of a number of films in cinemas at the moment that are likely to see their attendance affected by the current economic crisis. Its central theme of a corrupt bank that is financing war and terrorism could strike a sour note with many viewers due to the fact that it is banks that are largely responsible for the economic recessions that the country is currently experiencing, even though the film’s bank bosses are represented as corrupt and evil individuals who finance the murder of innocents, in contrast to real-life bank bosses who are really just greedy and incompetent. However, the trailer for this film also shows another side that could win it favour with moviegoers, in that Clive Owen’s character apparently gets to kick the asses of the corrupt bank bosses, something that many people probably wish would happen to the real-life bankers responsible for the recession. As such, there could be a certain appeal for moviegoers who are sick and tired of the greed of selfishness of real world bankers.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent investigating the illicit activities of the International Bank of Business and Credit, an organisation that is believed to be involved in a number of criminal activities, ranging from money laundering for organised crime to providing military regimes with weapons. For some time he has been working with Manhattan assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) in an effort to bring the IBBC, under the leadership of Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), to justice, but every time they have a lead, their contact either is killed or disappears. Desperate to prove what the bank is up to, Salinger uncovers a major arms deal that is about to go down, and despite pressure from their superiors to put an end to the investigation, he and Whitman head all over the globe following every lead that they can find, but the bank seems to be one step ahead of them at all times, leading Salinger to realize that there is only one way that such an influential organization can ever be brought down. Thus, he sets out on his own, outside the system, in a bid to bring the organization to justice once and for all.

The International is a film that has shown a lot of potential through its marketing and publicity. The concept of a film where the villains are bankers is very timely considering that bankers are pretty much viewed as the bad guys in the current economic crisis, and whatever your view on the state of the economy at the moment, it is hard to deny that it is a very interesting idea for an action thriller. Sadly, however, the film fails to wholly live up to this potential. Also, it transpires that the trailer isn’t entirely representative of the film. Whereas viewers were promised an action packed thriller where Clive Owen kicks the asses of corrupt bankers, what the film actually delivers for the most part is a slow-paced thriller focusing on the investigation into the illicit activities of the bank. Much of this investigation seems rather mundane and fails to be nearly as interesting or engaging as it could be, and the film’s use of locations is also somewhat disappointing. While globe-trotting around the world, the film meanders from one location to the next, and fails to make the most of any of its settings, and this feels like a very wasted opportunity. However, while the film does have its shortcomings, it isn’t a bad film by any means. It is in the final third of the film that things really begin to liven up, and we finally get to see some action. While the film is mostly action deficient, and a few more action scenes would have been very welcome, what we do get is worth the wait. The climactic shootout in New York’s Guggenheim Art Gallery is easily the film’s most impressive sequence, being one of the best staged and most thrilling action sequences seen in any film for quite a while. This scene is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just a shame that there isn’t a bit more action like this and also that the part of the film where Clive Owen turns renegade agent and begins a personal war against the bank comes so late and last so short a time, and that it leads to a rather abrupt and not wholly satisfying conclusion. Most of the negative aspects can’t be leveled at the director. Tom Tykwer, whose previous credits include European fare such as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Run, Lola, Run, delivers a film that is technically excellent for the majority of the duration. Excellent cinematography combined with good editing make for a film that constantly looks good and polished, and while he fails to make full use of the locations at his disposable he does manage to deliver some quite spectacular scenic shots. Most faults with the film are more due to less than spectacular writing on the part of script writer Eric Singer who fails to make as engrossing a story out of the concept as could be done. The performances make up for any problems with the story, however, with the entire cast delivering to a high standard. Clive Owen is extremely believable and highly watchable in the lead role while Naomi Watts also delivers a strong performance, even though she is really underused. Meanwhile, the villains of the film are convincing and realistic and expertly portrayed thanks to strong performances from all, notably that of Ulrich Thomsen as the head guy at the bank. There is also a strong performance from Armin Muller-Stahl. All in all, The International is a watchable and fairly interesting thriller, just one that fails to fully capitalise on the true potential of its concept.


New in Town *

Going in to see New in Town it is desperately hard to feel any level of anticipation for the film. Its release shelved after being filmed several years ago, all the signs have been bad for this romcom, and a mediocre trailer has done nothing to change any preconceptions. However, you can’t always judge a film by its trailer and it is unfair to condemn a film without seeing it, so I gave it a fair chance. So, are the bad omens right on the mark or does the film manage to be one of the rare films that actually turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Regrettably, New in Town isn’t one of them, and what the trailer sells is exactly what you get.

Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) is a Miami businesswoman on the fast track to the top at the corporation where she works. To show the head of the company what she is capable of she takes on the assignment of overseeing the restructuring of a blue collar manufacturing plant. What she doesn’t realize is that the plant is in Minnesota. Going from the high life in Miami to the bitter cold, snow, and icy roads of small town Minnesota, she immediately fails to fit in and receives a frosty reception from the locals who view her as an outsider. She also clashes with the head of the local workers union, Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.). However, Lucy is a fighter and is determined to win at any cost. As she strives to carry out her assignment and thus advance her career, however, she finds herself getting to know the locals, particularly her overly friendly secretary Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and plant foreman Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. Simmons), and begins to develop a fondness for them and their community. She also develops a romantic relationship with Ted. However, when the plant decides that the plant is a lost cause and order her to shut it down, Lucy must decide what is more important to her – her career or her new found friends – and fight for what she really wants.

One of the saddest things about New in Town is that there are some genuinely talented people involved in it. It really is a shame to see people like Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr. and J.K. Simmons associated on any level with such a (more than) mediocre cinematic entity. Here, these very talented and usually very reliable actors are completely wasted, with their characters being reduced to little more than stereotypical caricatures in what is little more than a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. The majority of the acting on show is pretty horrendous, with the stereotypical representations of small town America being almost insulting to those whom they are supposed to portray. This isn’t wholly the fault of the actors though, but rather the director and script writers who fail to provide them with any decent material to work with. The storyline and humour are tired and predictable, most of the gags are cringe-worthy and completely unfunny (although alarmingly some people at the screening I attended seemed to find it hilarious – there’s clearly no accounting for taste, or, in this case, lack of it), and the ending is so obvious that it may as well be revealed right at the start of the film. The plot is extremely unconvincing, failing to be engaging, interesting or entertaining, and it doesn’t flow very well, with many things seeming to be completely skimmed over, yet the film still managing to be a drag to sit through. Also, while there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with a romcom being quite predictable, the film fails to do anything remotely original or clever to make it seem fresh, different or even enjoyable. Overall, New in Town is a complete waste of time that is not worth the price of admission. Where it aims to be romcom it is more none-rom and none-com, and it fails to be funny or even particularly romantic. Unless you are an extremely undemanding viewer, give this film a miss.


The Unborn *

One of a number of horror movies released so far this year that have proven surprisingly successful at the US box office, The Unborn is quite possibly the one that had the most going for it. An intriguing concept based on an ancient Hebrew legend. One of the co-writers of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as writer and director. Gary Oldman playing an exorcist type role. All this certainly sounds like a very promising combination. However, the bigger the promise the bigger the disappointment if the film is a failure, and word from its US release has been less than encouraging, and with good cause.

Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman) is a normal teenager who is being plagued by merciless dreams, visions of strange looking dogs, and an evil child with bright blue eyes. After being hit with a mirror by her neighbor’s son, Casey’s eyes begin to change color and she learns that she had a twin brother who died in the womb. Casey begins to suspect that the spirit haunting her is the soul of her dead twin, being possessed by a Dybbuk, an entity from an ancient legend that is apparently a spirit that has been prevented from getting into Heaven and is now trying to reenter the world of the living by being born once again. Casey meets a woman named Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander), who explains that what is happening to her is part of a curse that began years ago in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Sofi refers Casey to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman), who can perform a Jewish exorcism to remove the Dybbuk that is haunting her. However, the spirit is determined to make its way back into the real world and it will stop at nothing to get what it wants.

To call this film a disappointment would be a huge understatement. The Unborn was one of the few examples of a horror movie that actually showed real promise, but despite everything it had going for it, it just ends up being the latest badly made and barely watchable horror flick, with nothing to distinguish from the countless other poor excuses for film that the horror genre is packed full of. For starters, there isn’t an ounce of originality. Shamelessly ripping off numerous other, much better, horror movies (The Omen and The Exorcist to name just two), the film ticks off virtually every cliché that you have come to expect from the genre. Eerie music. Check. Spooky rumblings. Check. Jump scares. Check. Creepy crawlies. Check. Creepy children. Check. Old curse. Check. Rotating heads. Check. Unsettling mood and atmosphere. Sadly absent. Such a lack of originality might not matter too much if it was executed with a sense of flair, but writer/director David S. Goyer does nothing of the sort. The film is desperately short on scares, with even the most basic attempts to make the audience jump out of their seats failing miserably. Quite crucially, the film is also extremely dull and uninteresting. It really is hard to see how a man who was co-writer on the recent Batman movies could fail to make anything out of an interesting concept like the one for this film, but somehow he has managed it. He doesn’t even provide us with some decent visual effects to at least make it appealing to the eyes. The acting is also dire with Odette Yustman only appearing to be in the film to provide eye candy rather than to provide a convincing performance and even Gary Oldman disappoints, being criminally underused and not even delivering that good a performance himself. The poor performances may be as much due to the by-the-numbers script that gives its actors nothing of note to do, though, than any fault of the actors themselves. After making you sit through nearly an hour and a half of (way below) mediocrity the film doesn’t even provide a decent pay-off with the ending being an unsatisfying anti-climax that is both tired and predictable and leaves things wide open for the inevitable sequel. Here’s hoping that the studio sees fit to pass on it, because a sequel to The Unborn would be a truly horrifying thought.


Reviews by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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