‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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‘The Mule’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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The fact that Clint Eastwood is still directing films at his age is nothing short of amazing.  When he is acting and directing them, it is even more impressive.  “The Mule” marks the first time he has directed and acted at the same time since 2008’s “Gran Torino,” so it’s been a while. He does not disappoint as the usual Eastwood touches are here.  He is a simple yet powerful filmmaker and actor.  He is not going to do a lot with the camera, but he trusts his actors, the writer, and he gives everyone them the space they need to tell the story.  It is what he has always done as a director.  He’s not a flashy filmmaker and he doesn’t need to be since he knows what works.

Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a 90-year old horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois who is seeing the world changing rapidly thanks to the Internet. The film starts out in 2005 and he is winning awards at conventions and making friends left and right.  However, he has forgotten about his family in the process.  He is not on good terms with them and they feel neglected.  Early on in the film, they show him missing out on his daughter’s wedding.  His real-life daughter (Alison Eastwood) is in the film, which is a nice touch.

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With the internet growing, Earl has now fallen on hard times.  When he shows up to visit his granddaughter at a brunch for her upcoming wedding, he notices his family has not forgiven him for putting work over family. He wants to make it up to them by pitching in for Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) upcoming wedding.  Someone approaches him at the brunch and informs him that all he has to do is drive and he can make a lot of money.  Driving is something he is very good at as he has driven in forty-one states and has never been pulled over or ever had a ticket.

Little does Earl know he will be driving for the cartel and carrying around some cocaine. Since he is such a good driver, and 90-years old, it seems like the perfect way for him to make some easy money and get back in the good graces of his family. At first, he only takes on one job and believes it will be enough to hold him over.  Before long, he is their top driver and highly thought of by the cartel.   However, two DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña are trying to take down the cartel, and Earl may go down with them as well.

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There is nothing here which is incredibly moving, profound, or earth shattering. The jokes about cell phone usage are a little overdone.  It is still very entertaining, however, and a very easy movie to watch. The film also features stellar performances from Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife, Richard Herd, Andy Garcia, and Clifton Collins Jr. Eastwood is the one leading the charge here, and he always plays it with his usual Eastwood calm, cool, and collected persona even when things get a little hairy.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it.

At 116 minutes, “The Mule” breezes by with humor, suspense, and tension.  At this rate, we don’t know how many more times Eastwood will be in front of the camera, and he is a Hollywood icon, so it’s always a treat.  I don’t see any upcoming films for him as a director/actor, and he is someone who should be cherished.  He still has it and will never lose it. I hope he lives forever and keeps making movies.  This is the kind of movie where you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride Eastwood and company take you on for almost two hours.  It’s not great, but it’s still quite good.

* * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “The Mule” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.

Audio Info: The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French.

Video Info:  The film comes to you in 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.

Special Features:

The Making of The Mule: Nobody Runs Forever (10:59): Clint Eastwood talks about how it was different from other projects he had done in the past.  It was inspired by true events as well. The screenwriter of “Gran Torino” wrote this film, which makes total sense.  Eastwood gives great details about how he approached the character. Many of the main cast members chime in with their thoughts on the film and working with Eastwood.  They also go into detail on how Eastwood was big on getting all of the little things right in this movie.

Toby Keith “Don’t Let the Old Man In” Music Video (02:54)

An Especially Frigid 18 Mile Pablove Run

Griffith Park welcome sign

After recovering both physically and, to a certain extent, emotionally last Saturday with the 12-mile run, we Pablove Foundation runners were now tasked with running a full 18 miles inside and outside of Griffith Park in Burbank. This run took place on the one-year anniversary of a historical event. That’s right, the Women’s March of 2017, a worldwide protest done to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights. This march was celebrated with another today which brought out thousands of people to Downtown Los Angeles alone, and hopefully this same number of people will show up to the polls this year to make much needed changes in government.

Oh yeah, Donald Trump has now been inhabiting the White House for a full year, and that’s even though it feels like he has been there for much longer. To celebrate, he and the Republican controlled congress and senate shut down the government. Trump is certainly running the United States like he does his businesses, straight into the ground.

Anyway, this morning at Griffith Park proved to be super chilly to where my teeth were chattering like never before. Seriously, I started to feel like I was back in Denver, Colorado during an infinitely frigid Thanksgiving weekend, and the temperature there dropped far below zero. I couldn’t wait to start running as a result. As thankful as I was for the temperature being lower, let alone the fact winter-like weather actually making itself known in Southern California, this felt like an especially frigid Saturday morning designed to fuck with us more than usual.

EXC FORREST LAWN MEMORIAL PARK IN CALIFORNIA.  HERE WE SEE A NEWLY DUG GRAV

This run had us running on Forest Lawn Drive, a very treacherous stretch of road which forces us to run in single file at times due to a blind curve which is just daring us to run past it. I again have to point out how Forest Lawn Drive goes right past the cemetery and mortuary of the same name. If this doesn’t put the fear of God into you, what will?

The 15 17 To Paris movie poster

If you are reading this, then you know I wasn’t hit by a car and my body is not in a terribly mangled state, and I made the turn onto Olive and ran past Warner Brothers Studios where posters of Clint Eastwood’s next movie as a director, “The 15:17 to Paris” were plastered on the buildings for all to see. And this being awards season, there were posters for “Dunkirk” and “Wonder Woman” on display as well to remind Oscar voters of how many critics called them the best movies of 2017. Here’s hoping both motion pictures garner a plethora of nominations.

At four and a half miles, we were to make a turnaround at the intersection of Verdugo and Sparks and go back the same way we came. Coach Kerry, who was driving along the route to make sure we were going in the correct direction, informed me the turnaround point was right across from the McDonald’s on Olive, but, of course, I ran right past it to where this run threatened to be much longer than it needed to be. Well, this had largely to do with me finding a safe and legal way to cross the street without getting hit by a car eager to run a red light. Running straight from the McDonald’s to the other side also had me running the risk of making a mandatory donation to the Burbank Police Department, and they already hate it when we run on the asphalt instead of the concrete sidewalks.

Pablove 18 mile volunteers

I would like to take the time to acknowledge two wonderful volunteers, Jasmine Kostraba and Dennis Herzig, fellow Pablove runners who took the time to make sure we had all the energy gels, bananas, electrolyte pills and orange slices we needed to cross the finish line. The both of them asked me why I ran past the turnaround point, and I responded, “You can’t say I’m not putting extra effort into this run!”

I have to say; those orange slices are quite heavenly on a run like this. I bite into one, and all of a sudden, I am reenergized to an astonishing extent. Give me that or a banana, and it’s almost like Popeye eating his spinach.

When it came to running back on Forest Lawn, I ran on the side which went with traffic instead of it against it as we are constantly advised to do. Coach Kerry, who drove up to me at one point, asked me why I was running on the other street, and I explained it was because advancing on the other had me fearing for my life as a particular blind corner made me feel like a moving target for someone eager to cling to the corner in order to stay at optimum speed.

Upon arriving back at Griffith Park, we ran from there to Los Feliz Boulevard where we ran uphill to another turnaround point. As much as I complain about the hills in Griffith Park, the one on Los Feliz is even harder to go up. I didn’t even make it to the turnaround sign when Dennis saw me and was quick to come up to me and say, “This hill is impossible, huh?” Yes, it is.

From there, I went down Los Feliz and back the same way I came. Dennis remarked at how I didn’t look tired at all, and this was quite the compliment. However, I found my energy dissipating rather quickly, and I started to cough a lot which didn’t help matters. I finally came to a stop as the voice inside my head kept telling me it was time to call it a day. This voice is one I constantly fight against as I am determined to complete each and every Pablove run, but this time I found myself surrendering to the inescapable fatigue consuming me.

Eventually, Coach Kerry drove by to see if I needed any water, food or energy gels to complete the run. But upon seeing my rather sullen state, he asked if I instead wanted to stop and take a ride back with him to the starting point, and I said yes. I apologized to him for not finishing, but he told me it’s okay, saying sometimes it’s best not to push it. What marathon training constantly reminds of is to listen to my body and what it is telling me. As defeated as I felt for not finishing all 18 miles (I completed 15 to 16 in the end), I think my decision to cut this run short was the right move.

Whether or not I get my maintenance runs done during the week, I do need to more cardio exercises. Being a marathon veteran, it’s far too easy to get confident about my training. Regardless of how many marathons I have completed, I still need to keep up exercising during the week as I can see what happens when I don’t get my maintenance runs done.

Coach Kerry also asked if I might consider doing the half-marathon instead. With the LA Marathon, participants do have the option of doing this as opposed to running the full thing. This option is now very tempting as I constantly finish these training runs behind everyone else. Kerry told me to think it over and assured me I have done terrific work this training season. I would still like to do the full, but I really have to give the half some consideration. Speaking of which, if I do the half, do I still get a medal?

Moons Over My Hammy

My legs were incredibly sore, but I managed to my haul my tired body over to Denny’s for the Moons Over My Hammy sandwich. Despite the high number of calories, I think I earned this meal. The rest of the day had me resting as my body ached all over. Once again, staying in bed can feel irresistible even when you have work to do.

My goal before next week’s recovery run, which should be 10 or 12 miles, is to get my maintenance runs done, and to do more cardio exercises throughout the week. We are still a few weeks away from the big day, but I cannot and will not leave anything to chance.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: We still have a way to go to reach our fundraising goal of $1,500 for The Pablove Foundation. To date, I have raised $639. There’s still plenty of time to make a tax-deductible donation, but sooner you make one, the better.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE ON MY PABLOVE PAGE.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE.

Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino Look Back at ‘Dirty Harry’

Dirty Harry poster

Of all the movies Edgar Wright selected for The Wright Stuff II Film Festival at New Beverly Cinema, “Dirty Harry” is the one he has watched the most. Wright screened a nice print of the 1971 classic along with another movie called “The Super Cops,” and joining him to talk about it was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

They started off riffing on trivia about how the original title for “Dirty Harry” was “Dead Right,” and how it was first going to star Frank Sinatra who later pulled out when the 44-magnum ended up injuring his wrist. It also turned out the late Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” was the first choice to direct the movie (Don Siegel eventually took the job). Tarantino and Wright also talked about how actor Albert Popwell played a different black stereotype in each “Dirty Harry” film except for “The Dead Pool,” and they both wished he played the mayor in that one.

For Wright, what he loved about “Dirty Harry” was the grittiness of its main character and the atmosphere of San Francisco. On the DVD for “Hot Fuzz,” Wright did a location tour where the film was made, and he even checked out the deli where Eastwood was filmed eating a hot dog when the bank robbery took place. As for the film’s score by Lalo Schifrin, he declared it his all-time favorite saying it marked the birth of “acid jazz.”

But much of the treasure trove of information came from Tarantino who said he first saw “Dirty Harry” when he was five or six years old, and he described it as a “political lightning rod” upon its release. Apparently, it got a lot of crap thrown at it by liberal critics who didn’t want a police fascist solution as well as from right wingers who got freaked out by Scorpio and the ills of society.

The way Tarantino viewed it, however, “Dirty Harry” does have a solid agenda. When Andy Robinson played Charles “Scorpio” Davis, there had never been a villain like him before in movies and, the term serial killer had not really been coined yet. The agenda was for there to be new laws for new crimes, and “Dirty Harry” was screaming for those new laws. Scorpio was not your average villain, and that he got such a kick out of his crimes was easy to see. There was no cure in store for such a psychotic character like this one.

Both Tarantino and Wright agreed “Dirty Harry” really holds up after 40 years. Much of this is due to its sequels treating the iconic character more as a superhero than a regular human being.  With “Magnum Force,” Tarantino felt it was made more for critics of the first movie than its audience as it preached against its predecessor and the character itself by having Harry go after those taking the law into their own hands. This was the same deal with the other sequels, but “Sudden Impact” is the lone exception. Wright remarked at how, along with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “Dirty Harry” has one of cinema’s most perfect endings which was eventually ruined by sequels.

They also talked about Siegel who had already been around for a long time before he directed “Dirty Harry.” Siegel was a B-movie genre director from the 1950’s and a Hollywood craftsman who eventually became an auteur. For the most part, Harry Callahan represented the quintessential character of his films; the cop who takes the law into his own hands. Even after directing the 1971 classic, Siegel would continue to have a long and healthy career in films, eventually reuniting with Eastwood on “Escape from Alcatraz.”

Tarantino also described “Dirty Harry” as the single most ripped off and imitated action movie of the 1970’s. He even gave a list of every single movie which stole from it: “McQ,” “Newman’s Law,” “Nightstick,” and everything from Cannon Films. The similar thing about the ripoffs was they lost all the political subtext which made “Dirty Harry” such a strong film. It became all about going after some big drug dealer or crime syndicate, and there was nothing political about that. When it came to 1970’s movies, the only others which were stolen from as much were the ones starring Bruce Lee.

“Dirty Harry” apparently also boasts the first homosexual date in cinema history as seen through Scorpio’s scope rifle. Tarantino said it was the first instance of unforced male sexuality in movies, and he still remembers the audience laughing at this scene when he first saw it. Back then he thought the audience wanted this couple killed, pointing out how they were not as enlightened as we are today, and that they were culpable for their “sinister intentions.”

Hearing these two great filmmakers talk about this Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood classic made for one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent at New Beverly Cinema. A new generation of audiences will look at “Dirty Harry” differently and may see it as tame compared to plethora of serial killer movies we see today. With the popularity of “The Silence of the Lambs” and the “Saw” movies among others, serial killers have long been the norm in American cinema, so the accomplishments of the 1971 classic threaten to seem diluted as a result.

Thanks to Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, we are reminded of “Dirty Harry’s” place in cinematic history and how it opened doors not just for Eastwood, who made the transition from westerns to other films, but for so many other movies as well for better and for worse.

John Carpenter Looks Back at ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Escape From LA’

John Carpenter Escape From New York photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” continued with the exploits of Snake Plissken in the double feature of “Escape From New York” and “Escape from LA” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. These films featured some of the collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who first worked together on “Elvis.” They quickly became great friends and went on to work together on several other films including these two and “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The emcee warned us that the print of “Escape From New York” was pretty faded as it was an original print and the only one American Cinematheque could get their hands on. This was being generous as it looked like it had been slaughtered by countless film projectors, and the color was faded to where everything looked pink. It is astonishing it didn’t break apart in the projector. Still, the fans still enjoyed watching the film, one which they have seen hundreds of times before. They laughed when “1997 NOW” came up and when Lee Van Cleef speaks into this enormous cell phone no one would have today, let alone in 1997.

After “Escape From New York” ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was greeted with another thunderous standing ovation. Carpenter quickly acknowledged the crowd by saying, “Thank you for coming out to see the movie tonight, but I got to tell you this is the worst fucking print. My fucking God! There’s no color in it!” The audience laughed loudly as they were in complete agreement.

Escape from New York poster

The discussion started off with a question about the genesis of the project. Carpenter talked about writing the script back in the early 1970’s when there was a great sense of cynicism in America about our President and in response to the hostage crisis in Iran. He also admitted he was inspired by two of his favorite movies back then, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Those two movies involved men driven to the brink emotionally and who took it upon themselves to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them. Like those characters, Snake Plissken gets the job done, and this brought a lot of satisfaction to audiences as nobody in the real world seemed to be accomplishing anything.

Carpenter said he initially wanted Clint Eastwood to play Snake Plissken. For one reason or another, it did not work out. He also said he had shopped this screenplay around to several studios which rejected it outright, but fortunately he had a multiple picture deal with Avco Embassy which had produced “The Fog.” Ironically, they wanted Charles Bronson for the title role. Somehow, everything came together when Russell got cast as Snake Plissken, and he portrayed the character as an asexual human being who cares about nothing more than staying alive. In the process, he created one of the most memorable anti-heroes ever seen in a movie.

Carpenter also talked about Lee Van Cleef, a favorite actor of his from Sergio Leone westerns, who played Police Commissioner Bob Hauk. Lee had seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making “Escape from New York.”

With a budget of only $5 million dollars, “Escape From New York” needed to be filmed as quickly as possible. Carpenter said the rule of low budget filmmaking was to shoot as little film as possible and to make it as long as you can. In fact, there is actually only one real shot of New York in the entire movie which features the Statue of Liberty, and it pans from there and dissolves into a set in Los Angeles. A lot of what you see of New York in the movie are actually models and matte paintings done by artists from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, among them James Cameron. Much of the movie was filmed in downtown St. Louis which had had a huge fire that destroyed several city blocks. The city let Carpenter and his crew film there in triple digit temperatures, and they even shut the power down for them when they filmed at night.

Escape from LA movie poster

When it came to making “Escape from LA,” Carpenter had a budget of around $50 million to work with. But while he and Russell had more time and money, Carpenter said he had the hardest time writing the screenplay for it because he felt that everything he was writing was “bullshit.” What got him to revisit Snake Plissken was that Russell was so keen on playing the character again, and they solved their script problem by moving the action to Los Angeles which was in a constant state of denial with all the earthquakes and natural disasters occurring there. They simply took the same scenario of the original movie and updated it to reflect the current state of the city while filming.

“Escape From New York” may have had only one real New York shot in the entire movie, but all of “Escape from LA” was filmed in Los Angeles. The sequel was shot over a period of one hundred and three nights, and Carpenter said he found filming at night to be very “soul draining” as it changes the way you see things and the darkness infects you in a very unhealthy way.

One audience member brought up how at one point it looked like Carpenter and Russell might do a third movie called, “Escape from Earth.” This never panned out because “Escape from LA” unfortunately bombed at the box office. There was also supposed to be a video game based on the movies, but the company involved with it ended up going back to the past by resurrecting Pac-Man. There was even talk of a television series which would act as a prequel to the movies and even an anime movie chronicling the further adventures of Snake Plissken, but neither of those projects became a reality. Despite the box office failure of “Escape from LA,” there are still many people out there who are intent on continuing the exploits of their favorite antihero.

These days, Carpenter said he is content to sit at home and watch the NBA Finals or play video games. He told the audience he had just finished playing “Ninja Gaiden 2” and would be moving on to “Metal Gear Solid 4” next. It doesn’t seem like he is in a big hurry to make another movie, but this could change if the studios pay him a lot of money. Carpenter feels the movie business keeps changing on him, and he does not appear to be as enthusiastic about making films as he once was.

Carpenter closed out the evening by saying he had to go meet with his drug dealer. Before he left, the moderator gave him a gift saying Carpenter had given so much to us that he wanted to give something back. This something was the “Escape from New York” board game which is, apparently, the most complicated board game ever.

After the discussion ended, he did take some time outside the theater to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans who still see him as a big inspiration. If you look at movies of recent years, you will see Carpenter’s influence over many of them both in their visuals and the music. To this day, he remains one of the important directors of the sci-fi and horror genre, and his cult following remains as strong as ever.

As the evening wore on, many came back inside to watch “Escape from LA.” The print was in much better condition, but this didn’t stop it from breaking down during the movie’s last seconds. For those who know how this sequel ends, it only seemed comically appropriate as Snake shut down… Well, you know.

Sully

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Tom Hanks has been the go to guy for playing American heroes and for good reason; he never plays characters as people gunning to become heroes at any given opportunity. Whether it is Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Forrest Gump or even Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own,” Hanks has long been the master of playing ordinary Americans who are just trying to get by in the rough and tumble real world the best way they know how. None of these characters set out for the adulation of others, but for a sense of purpose and justice in a world which at times seems devoid of it.

Now we can add Chesley Sullenberger to Hanks’ list of noble American characters with his excellent performance in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the airline pilot’s dramatic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. We all know this story of how the flight suffered dual engine failure shortly after takeoff due to a flock of Canadian geese flying straight at them, but Eastwood and Hanks dig deeper into what went on as Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are soon drilled by the National Transportation Safety Board as tests imply the left engine on the plane did not fail, meaning they still could have landed at LaGuardia Airport or one in New Jersey instead of on the water.

Sullenberger was quickly hailed a national hero for successfully landing the plane and saving all the lives aboard it, but this movie shows him more troubled by what he did than proud. He becomes plagued with nightmares and PTSD over how the flight could have ended in a catastrophic way. Also, with him and Skiles being thrown into instant stardom for their actions, Sullenberger ends up feeling isolated from everyone around him as people are eager to hug him or shake his hand in congratulating him for what he accomplished.

What I especially liked about “Sully” is how it shows the damaging effect sudden fame can have on an individual. While some might be super excited about appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” or being interviewed by Katie Couric (who plays herself in this movie), Sullenberger finds him retreating from all the media attention as he never asked for it. While he constantly reaches out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), they are separated by thousands of miles as she resides on the other side of the country. Even as they talk on the phone, the space between them feels quite profound and loneliness soon becomes his best friend.

Hanks’ performance as Sullenberger reminds us of why we look to him to play those people we see as American heroes; they are people not quick to jump into the spotlight and appear unsure as to what to do once they are thrust into it. Hanks never sets out to impersonate Sullenberger, but instead seeks to capture his state of mind following this unforgettable incident. The Oscar winning actor does excellent work in showing how Sullenberger is beset by tremendous self-doubt as he is forced to wonder if he made the right decision in light of all the computer generated evidence presented to him.

Hanks is also supported by a strong supporting cast of actors whom can never be expected to let him or Eastwood down at any second. Eckhart is the definition of strong support as his character of First Officer Jeff Skiles stands by Sullenberger every step of the way. There’s also Laura Linney who plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who does her best to support her husband over the phone any chance she gets. While in some ways Linney has a thankless role to play here, she justifies Lorraine’s presence in the film as the character is the support Sully needs through the most trying of times.

One of the key things Eastwood gets across here as a director is how the human element has to take precedence of the technological one as not everything can be solved or reasoned out completely by computers. This is especially interesting as Eastwood is best known for directing movies which deal heavily in human nature and its ever-growing complexity, but this time he has some nifty tools to work with. Eastwood got to shoot much of “Sully” with IMAX cameras, and seeing this movie on the nearest IMAX screen is a must.

The plane crash sequence is masterfully directed as we see pilots and flight attendants at their most professional during a moment of crisis. While we all know how things will turn out here, it is still a pulse pounding scene as we are with everyone on this plane from when they take off to when they land on the Hudson. The sound of the engines dying down and of silence in midair is unnerving, and it’s not every day you see a commercial jet land in the water.

Eastwood also makes us remember how the human element plays as big part in movies as do visual effects. He has not set out to give us a biopic on Sullenberger, and that’s even though there are moments sprinkled throughout which show his beginnings as a pilot and other significant experiences which molded him into the pilot he became. Instead, he is far more interested in the impact this one miraculous moment can have on a person’s life and of the obstacles it places in front of them.

Thank goodness Eastwood did not put the term “based on a true story” at the beginning of “Sully.” We all know this happened. Does Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki play loose with the facts? Sure, but most movies like this do. The NTSB has objected to the way they have been portrayed here, and they do come across as overly villainous at times. But in terms of the story’s dramatic arc, it makes sense why they were portrayed as such here. To his credit, Sullenberger requested that the names of the real-life NTSB investigators, which were featured in the original draft, be changed as he felt it would be unfair to associate them with the changes in the story. Whatever the case, “Sully” is still a very compelling and gripping motion picture to sit through.

Some still question whether Chesley Sullenberger deserves to be called a hero as they believe he still could have landed at an airport. Others I know personally have accused him of using his pulpit to trash professional pilots for no good reason. But neither Eastwood or Hanks made this movie to deify Sullenberger as to do so would seriously cheapen the story for no good reason. They simply show us an ordinary man who was forced to make a quick decision in order to save the lives of many, and he was not out to call himself more heroic than others for his actions.

But also, “Sully” shows how an entire life can too often be boiled down, often unfairly so, to a single moment which renders all other accomplishments moot. In today’s media and technology saturated culture, people are never defined too broadly anymore but instead by specific actions more than anything else. The Buddha once said the merit of a whole life can be undone in a single moment. This could have been the fate Sullenberger would have been forced to accept, but he rose to the occasion and saved many lives in the process. As this movie shows, he was never out to be a hero. He was simply a human being doing his job.

And if nothing else, the movie shows Americans, especially those in New York, rising to the occasion and helping the passengers get to the shore safely. However which way you want to look at the story of US Airways Flight 1549, it did provide us with a happy ending we desperately wanted to have.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

 

American Sniper

American Sniper poster

I came into Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” the same way I came into Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary ‘America: Imagine the World Without Her;” wondering if it was even remotely possible to review this movie in an objective fashion. With its look at the Iraq War, many on either side of the political spectrum have been arguing on whether this biopic of Chris Kyle, who is said to be the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, is pro-war or anti-war. In the end, many are going to end up bringing their own emotional baggage to this movie whether they intend to or not.

The way I see it, Eastwood is not the slightest bit interested in making a case about whether or not we should have been at war with Iraq to begin with. Like Kathryn Bigelow did with “The Hurt Locker,” Eastwood just accepts the fact that, like it or not, we were in Iraq and he is far more interested in what this war did to the soldiers in the long run. While I wished Eastwood dug deeper into the subject matter here, “American Sniper” is the most compelling movie he has directed since “Gran Torino.”

Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle, and he more than deserved the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. Cooper disappears completely into this role which required him to lift some seriously heavy weights to appear the least bit believable as Kyle, and he fearlessly shows us the moral weight he carries after killing so many people for better and/or for worse. Cooper’s face shows the toll of what Kyle has been through to where the actor doesn’t have to tell us what Kyle is experiencing psychologically. The moments where he may be forced to shoot a child weigh hardest on us because you see that his choices on how to resolve this situation are severely limited.

While Eastwood’s portrayal of soldiers under fire in Iraq might pale in comparison to what Bigelow pulled off in “The Hurt Locker” or the brutality of basic training Stanley Kubrick made us witness in “Full Metal Jacket,” he still captures the feel and atmosphere American soldiers got caught up in while on foreign soil. Although we may think we would have reacted to similar situations differently, it’s hard to convince ourselves of this after watching “American Sniper.” I don’t know about you all, but I have never served in the military and have no idea how I would and should react if I ended up in a war situation like this. Moreover, I shudder to think what I would have done under the same circumstances Chris had to face.

Sienna Miller plays Kyle’s wife, Taya, and she ends up being stuck at home while her husband keeps going off on several tour of duties. Now in some ways Miller has a thankless role as she has little to do but wait at home and hope her husband survives the war. However, her character provides a center in Chris’ life which he eventually realizes is more valuable than anything else he has in his life. So is Miller wasted in this movie? I don’t think so unless you really want to complain about how she doesn’t have a lot to do.

I have to applaud Eastwood and Cooper for bringing attention to how many soldiers still deal with severe cases of PTSD which has left them unable to fully function in civilian life. While I wish they dug a little deeper into this issue, the fact that any movie these days is dealing with it feels like a miracle. It’s a huge issue which many who have sent many brave souls to the battlefield never take the time to fully understand, and we see this in all the cuts in programs designed to benefit veterans.

Much has been said about the kind of person Chris Kyle was, and I can’t really attest to that because I don’t have much knowledge about the man other than what I have read and seen so far. What I can say is he served as a sniper in the Iraq War, came out of it with psychological issues which needed to be addressed and eventually came around to help those who suffered as he did. His death at such a young age was tragic however which way you look at it. Regardless of how you feel about Kyle, Eastwood’s “American Sniper” pays tribute to what American soldiers had to endure during the Iraq War. At the very least, the movie serves as a reminder of why we need to thank those soldiers for defending our freedoms regardless of whether or not we agreed with the war they fought it.

Here’s hoping those soldiers still dealing with mental health issues get the attention they deserve because they do not deserve to be left out in the cold.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.