Day 7: Gran Torino (2008)

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Welcome back for Day 7, the final day of our week of Clint Eastwood movie spotlights! To close things out, let’s talk about another modern success for Eastwood: Gran Torino (2008).

I feel a bit like a broken record this week, but I can’t help myself– these movies have all been great, and Gran Torino is yet another example of Eastwood bringing his A game.

Torino is the story of a prejudiced, angry Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), who despises the changes overtaking his small, Michigan neighborhood. His wife has just passed away, and it seems Walt can’t find solace in anything anymore– he can’t relate to his 2 grown sons, disdains the youthful priest who attempts to keep an eye on him, and is in a state of constant grumble regarding his new Hmong neighbors. Eventually, he forms something of a begrudging attachment to one of the young Hmong women, Sue, after she repeatedly demonstrates to him that A. She isn’t put off by his grumpy, curmudgeonly ways, and B. He might actually have more in common with traditional Hmong culture and his new neighbors than he does with his own spoiled family. It’s an eye-opening revelation for Walt, to say the least, and these factors (as well as his undeniable desire for companionship) cause him to go easy on Sue’s brother, Thao, when he tries to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino. Racially-motivated gang violence is a looming problem in the neighborhood, and Thao is unfortunately on the cusp of being pulled in by forces outside of his control. Even Sue says of the neighborhood that “the girls go to college, and the boys go to jail.”

Not willing to let Thao waste his potential and throw his life away with the gangs, Walt begins to take the boy under his wing. He teaches him how to fix things, spends time mentoring him, and even helps Thao gain the confidence to ask out a girl he likes. It’s incredibly heartwarming to see Eastwood open himself up to caring about someone again (even if he remains a bit of a craggy old so-and-so). In fact, the journey from Closed-Off Grump to Secretly Tenderhearted Father Figure seems to be one of the defining features of post-2000 Clint Eastwood films…and I love it.

Ultimately, Walt finds himself with a difficult decision to make. The neighborhood gang violence reaches a fever pitch when it becomes obvious that Thao has chosen Walt’s friendship over theirs, and Sue is brutally raped and beaten. Walt promises Thao that Sue will be avenged; what form, however, will that justice take?

Gran Torino is a complex, richly layered movie, with A+ acting from everyone involved. At times funny, and at times horrifying, the writing and directing really make you feel for these characters. As the credits roll, you hear Clint Eastwood’s gravelly voice whispering the words to the original music behind him, and you know this is a film that will stay with you for a long, long time.

Thank you so much for being a part of this special Clint Eastwood Spotlight Series! We hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you. Be sure to join us again later this month for another Actor/Actress spotlight–who will be next?!

KelleyDay 7: Gran Torino (2008)

Day 6: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Kelley 2017, Actor Spotlights, Reviews Leave a Comment

Welcome back for Day 6 of the Clint Eastwood Spotlight Series, where we’ll be talking about one of the actor/director’s biggest modern triumphs: Million Dollar Baby (2004).

First of all, this is an amazing movie. It’s the kind that elicits a physical reaction at the core of your being, like the chambers of your heart might legitimately be torn asunder. Think I’m being dramatic? Watch the movie. You’ll see.

As far as plot goes, Baby seems relatively straight-forward on the surface. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is an aging, emotionally hardened boxing trainer who is going through a painful estrangement from his daughter, Katie. We never find out why the two are estranged, but Frankie’s priest, Father Horvak, offers up this comment on the situation:

“Frankie, I’ve seen you at Mass almost every day for 23 years. The only person who comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something.”

This small insight, as well as the fact that all Eastwood’s letters to Katie return to him unopened, are the only semblances of light that are ever shed on Frankie’s separation from his daughter. Yet, oddly enough, it almost doesn’t matter that we don’t know what’s going on there, because Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) soon walks into Frankie’s life, and eventually his heart.

Maggie hails from southwest “Missoura” (among the hills, according to Morgan Freeman’s character, situated “somewhere between nowhere and goodbye”), and somehow manages to be both exceptionally tough and extremely adorable. She is hopeful, hard-working, and all she wants out of life is to become a boxer–she says it’s the only thing she’s ever felt good doing. Her family is trashy and classless at best, and she knows that if she can’t chase down her boxing dream, she will be limited to scraping plates in the trailer park with them for the rest of her days. Frankie doesn’t want to train her as one of his fighters–he never trains women–but eventually, her work ethic and stubborn willpower successfully wear him down. He agrees to take her on.

As the film progresses, we see that both Frankie and Maggie are filling the lonely void in each other’s lives. Neither has realized just how much they needed the other, but as time and training go by, Maggie becomes like a daughter to him. She slowly but surely rises to the top of her boxing class under his tutelage, even though he is initially hesitant to arrange any big fights for her. Finally, after much wheedling and insistence from Maggie that she’s ready, Frankie sets up a match against a top-ranked UK opponent. Right before the fight, he gifts her with a beautiful, green silk robe, embroidered with the Gaelic words “Mo Cuishle” on the back. She asks him what it means, and he gruffly/shyly tells her he doesn’t know. Emboldened by the gesture, as well as some tough-love feedback from Frankie in the middle of the fight, Maggie goes on to win by K.O. that night. She becomes a scrappy, crowd favorite, grinning from ear to ear as chants of “Mo Cuishle! Mo Cuishle!” fill the arena.

Maggie soars higher and higher in the rankings, until she finally accepts a match with Billie “The Blue Bear” (a German ex-prostitute with a nasty reputation for dirty fighting) for the WBA women’s welterweight championship title. It starts to look like Maggie might actually win, but then things take an unexpected turn. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to go much further and risk spoilers…but suffice it to say that that sound you’re hearing is the sound of hearts across America cracking in two. Oh, and here is a picture of my face when Frankie finally tells Maggie what “Mo Cuishle” means:

Million Dollar Baby took home four Oscars that year: Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Actress (Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Freeman, whom I didn’t talk about much in this review, but he is excellent as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris). It’s easy to see why, because everyone who was a part of this film clearly poured their heart and soul into its production. Having a close relationship with my own dad, this story and the incredible father-daughter chemistry between Eastwood and Swank really speaks to me. I’m pretty sure I experienced every possible human emotion while watching Baby, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Tomorrow, join me again for the final day of our Clint Eastwood Spotlight Series! I’ll be discussing Gran Torino (2008), so be sure to come on back as we wrap things up.

KelleyDay 6: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Day 5: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Kelley 2017, Actor Spotlights, Reviews Leave a Comment

Welcome back for Day 5 of our Spotlight Series on the films of Clint Eastwood! Today we’re going to be talking about a movie that is different than any we’ve discussed so far this week–heck, it’s different than most other films he made in the entirety of his decades-long career. Grab the tissues and get ready to experience a lot of feelings, because we’re diving into the 1995 romantic drama (adapted from the novel of the same name), The Bridges of Madison County.

Bridges is another film directed by Eastwood, co-starring everyone’s favorite feminine powerhouse, Meryl Streep. The pair have pretty incredible chemistry, and several scenes are downright steamy. A far cry from the “where’d my glasses go?” humor of a charmingly middle-aged Alec Baldwin/Diane Keaton movie, this gem pits two legit movie titans, no longer in the dewy bloom of youth, together against the world. Streep is 46, Eastwood is 65, but both are still incredibly sexy. I don’t fully know how to describe it, but there just…aren’t a lot of movies like this. Hollywood doesn’t tell a ton of nuanced love stories about people over the age of 35, and when those movies DO come along, it’s as if they can’t stop themselves from pointing out how out of touch the couple is with whatever youth culture is popular at the time. Either that, or it’s a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and you know damn well someone’s going to die in a mudslide or be diagnosed with melanoma. Bridges, however, wastes no time on maudlin deathbed soliloquies, or cheap “come help me figure out my iPad!” jokes (or, you know, the 90s equivalent). What separates this movie from others that people will be tempted to lump it with, is just how serious the film is. There are brief snatches of joy and tender comedy interspersed throughout, but mostly, the word I’d use to describe it is aching. It’s a gorgeous story about two real people who fall into real love. It’s not a tawdry affair between two bored, unhappy souls; it’s two people meeting, expecting nothing, but sensing down in their bones that they’ve met the person they should have been with, had circumstances been different.

The story takes place predominantly on a farm in rural Iowa, where Francesca (Streep), an Italian war bride, lives with her husband and two young children. She is content with the simple life she leads, and while her marriage is not one of joyful camaraderie and earth-shaking passion, her husband is a kind, well-meaning man. Then, when he takes the kids away to the State Fair for a few days, Francesca happens upon photographer Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). Robert is in town on assignment from National Geographic, planning to shoot a series on some beautiful, historic bridges in the area. Without intending anything scandalous, the two get to know one another, and over the course of a few days they fall deeply in love. I know, I know. Four days isn’t enough time, blah blah blah. But there’s just something about these two characters, these two actors, that makes you believe it. They each know they’ve found a life’s companion in the other, but Francesca already has a family that she can’t justify leaving. Robert wants to run away together and seize happiness for themselves, but Francesca believes that she has to prioritize the life she already has–that it’s too late to start again.

I love this movie. The ONLY reason I deducted half a star in my rating is that there’s kind of a stupid framing device running throughout, which rears its head every time you think you’ve forgotten about it. Basically, at the beginning of the movie, Francesca has died and her two adult children are summoned to the Iowa farmhouse to hear the reading of the will, as well as her final wishes for her remains. They’ve lived their lives knowing nothing of their mother’s infidelity, so it’s quite a shock to them when they learn, not only of its existence, but that she wants to have her ashes scattered over one of the famed, covered bridges in Madison County. Two guesses why. All of the interactions we see between Francesca and Robert are taking place in flashback– they’re memories recorded in diaries by Francesca, and serve as a way of explaining her wishes for cremation to her two surviving children. Which brings me to the annoying part of this framing device: Francesca’s son, Michael. I mean, I get that his disbelief and outrage are the catalyst for the story (every time he learns a new piece of information, he’s all like “Whaaaaaaaat?! How could she feel this way/do this thing?!”, and the sister has to placate him with inane comments like “Calm down, let’s just hear a little bit more!”), but it gets extremely tiresome. I think certain parts of the device work–the items Robert leaves to Francesca in his own will, and the fact that they don’t die in each other’s arms, but instead pass on separately, of natural causes, many years apart– but mostly, the kids just make me want to punch them.

That aside, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and seek this movie out. Yes, it’s a romantic drama, and yes, you might need a few Kleenex to sustain you. But this is a beautiful, extremely well-crafted movie, and if the man in your life won’t watch it with you…WATCH IT WITH YOURSELF. As Richard Corliss from TIME Magazine puts it: “Madison County is Eastwood’s gift to women: to Francesca, to all the girls he’s loved before– and to Streep, who alchmizes literary mawkishness into intelligent movie passion.”

Tomorrow, join me again as I delve into the film that won Eastwood his second Oscar for Best Director: Million Dollar Baby (2004). This one’s a doozy, so don’t miss it!

KelleyDay 5: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)