Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 18

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GRAN TORINO It's not necessary to be familiar with Clint Eastwood's career arc to enjoy Gran Torino, but it does amplify the appreciation for the manner in which the topic of violence is approached. From the glorified gun battles in the Dirty Harry franchise to the ruminations about the impact of taking a man's life in Unforgiven, Eastwood has clearly given much thought to the subject. To describe how he has continued to modify his beliefs would spoil the film's ending, but suffice to say that his character, Walt Kowalski, is no stranger to killing. A Korean War vet, Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood in which he's clearly in the minority. Surrounded by Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, he's an unrepentant racist, although he doesn't have much use for his own kind, either: Caring little for his two grown sons and their families, he prefers the company of his faithful dog and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. But his shell of indifference begins to crack once he comes into reluctant contact with the two Hmong teens (appealing newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her) who live next door. Dismissed in some camps as merely a simplistic rift on racism, this is far more complicated than that, not only in its aforementioned exploration of violence but also in its affecting look at a rigid individual who comes to realize that the world has moved on without him. The picture does have its weak spots (for starters, Walt's family members are cartoonish in the extreme), but there's no quibbling over Eastwood's performance, which ranks as one of the finest of his career. If this marks his final acting turn (as he's hinted), he's managed to go out, appropriately enough, with a bang. ***

HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU / NEW IN TOWN With Valentine's Day just around the corner, it's no wonder that a couple of studios have opted to release what they believe will be perfect comfort cinema ideal for making couples cuddle up together in their auditorium seats. Yet given the sheer dreariness of the products at hand, they would have fared just as well luring lovebirds with, say, the latest installment in the Saw series. A romantic comedy (New in Town) and a romantic comedy-drama (He's Just Not That Into You) would seem like perfect V-Day fare to entice openhearted women and their agreeable mates, but to quote my girlfriend after she watched these duds alongside me, "These movies are where feminism goes to die." The long-on-the-shelf He's Just Not That Into You is the better of the two, simply by virtue of a couple of choice performances and a few minor twists in its multitentacled storyline. Otherwise, it's a muddled he-said-she-said yarn that, even in this supposedly enlightened age, manages to reduce most of its characters (male and female) to the most base stereotypes. Based on the bestseller by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, it centers on nine Baltimore residents all looking for love or sex or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, most of these characters are either self-centered dipshits (e.g. Justin Long's emotionless player, Bradley Cooper's philandering husband) or emotional retards (Ginnifer Goodwin's whiny nerd, Jennifer Aniston's marriage-manipulating girlfriend). Jennifer Connelly (as Cooper's patient wife) and Ben Affleck (as Aniston's devoted boyfriend) arguably fare best, though that probably has as much to do with their characters (more tolerable than the rest) as with their performances. New in Town, meanwhile, is absolute rubbish, the sort of inane rom-com drivel that Hollywood recycles on a regular basis. Basically a rip-off of every city-slicker-stuck-in-a-rural-town flick ever made (Baby Boom, Doc Hollywood, The Efficiency Expert, Sweet Home Alabama, and on and on and on), this stars Renee Zellweger as a high-powered Miami executive who's sent by her corporation to evaluate the situation at its Minnesota plant and get started on eliminating half of its work force. Naturally, this well-schooled, well-scrubbed, hot-weather gal has nothing but contempt for the friendly hayseeds dumb enough to live in such a barren land, but after spending a couple of nights with a shaggy union leader (Harry Connick Jr.) and spending half the movie being force-fed tapioca pudding by one of the local Jesus freaks (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), our girl has a change of heart and decides Red State principles are worth fighting for after all. In this age of rampant layoffs, it would seem the right time for a movie to present an inspirational, fairy-tale alternative to the real world, but New in Town is so imbecilic on so many levels that it deserves only derision. It's insulting toward small towns, large cities, Christians, nonbelievers, men, women, and – most of all – moviegoers of all stripes. He's Just Not That Into You: *1/2 / New in Town: *

MILK The China Syndrome, Wall Street and even Casablanca are examples of movies that happened to be in the right place at the right time – that is to say, life imitated art (or vice versa) as each picture's release neatly dovetailed with real-life incidents that in one way or another mirrored what was happening on-screen. Milk follows suit: Although it's set in the 1970s, it couldn't possibly be more relevant; for that, we have to blame those hideous anti-gay measures that recently passed in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona. Back in the '70s, Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) fought against similar hysteria: Tired of homosexuals such as himself being treated as second-class citizens, he found himself drawn to political office as a way in which to fight for equality. Eventually elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he continued to grow in stature and influence, a career ascendancy which did not sit well with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the board's most conservative member – and, as it turned out, its most trigger-happy. The Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk offered a flawless look at the career of this passionate progressive, so it's a testament to the richness of Gus Van Sant's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay that this fictionalized version feels authentic in its every movement. As Milk, Penn delivers the performance of his career, and he's backed by a superlative cast containing only one weak link: Diego Luna as Milk's insecure lover, Jack Lira (James Franco fares much better as Harvey's previous lover, Scott Smith). But this is a small misstep in an otherwise excellent production full of passion and purpose. ****

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