Into the Cracks

NOW ON DVD

A movie seems to take on a new life when it reappears on DVD. It gets re-reviewed, though only briefly, in little rectangular boxes in newspapers and entertainment magazines. Even the noisiest of action films becomes more intimate on our TV or computer monitor, and the sound level is gratifyingly obedient to the fingertips. On DVD the movie takes on some of the characteristics of a book, being now shelvable, perusable, skimmable.

Since many of last year’s Oscar contenders will be out on DVD by the time you read this, and since many fell through the cracks of the Alleva/Cooper schedules during the unholy Christmas movie blitz, I submit the following minicritiques.

Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood’s putative farewell (as actor, not director), and a semiworthy one. This story of Walt Kowalski, a grizzled widower, war veteran and bigot, who first resents the Hmong immigrants in his formerly all-white neighborhood but, almost against his will, becomes their protector, is a potent one, filled with rough humor and authentic pathos. But, in order to make Walt’s growing attachment believable, the script caricatures his relationship with his own family: all the children and grandchildren are smarmy, callous fakes. Furthermore, the neighborhood itself is not clearly presented. How much of it is populated by immigrants? How much white flight has taken place? At first, the block seems entirely Asian, but, when the plot needs it, a Caucasian neighbor magically appears across the street. Still, Walt’s tentative, oddly brave exploration of a culture strange to him is dramatized with freshness and a sort of goofy, offhand comedy. When Walt is temporarily abandoned by his hostess to the stifled mockery of some teenaged girls, the scene seems spontaneous, even improvised, in a way that Eastwood the director has never attempted before. Reviewers have remarked that Walt might be Dirty Harry in retirement. But has anyone noted that Eastwood’s performance is not so much a farewell to Harry as a satirical kiss-off to the tough guy image? The actor’s chesty growl and slit-eyed stare have never been used to such funny effect.

Frost/Nixon: As David Denby pointed out in the New Yorker (December 12, 2008), director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (working from his own stage play) probably overrated the political importance of the famous interviews. But the real triumph of this endlessly entertaining movie is in its depiction of two media stars (a U.S. president is always, willy-nilly, a media star nowadays), each struggling to shape the Nixon Image according to his own agenda. The image may be sculpted, lighted, positioned, repositioned step-by-step by publicists, technicians, and assistants, but when the cameras are turned on some marvelous, malefic magic takes over and defies the efforts of control freaks. The fallen president and the British showman had their duel of wills and wiles, yet neither could be sure of the result until the whole thing was on tape. The movie thrives on this uncertainty. After The Da Vinci Code—a project that seemed to undermine every atom of Howard’s considerable talent—the director here redeems himself with staging and camerawork that fill every inch of the screen with juicy detail. Morgan’s dialogue nips and occasionally slashes. Michael Sheen gives us a hungry but not conscienceless Frost, and Frank Langella’s Tony Award-winning Nixon—made more subtle for, but not stifled by, the camera—is still a delicious slice of ham, worthy of another Richard, Shakespeare’s hunchbacked king.

Milk: The story of the gay activist and his eventual martyrdom makes for an engaging chronicle, but it is scarcely a drama. After Harvey Milk comes out of the closet and starts working on behalf of his fellow homosexuals by becoming a supervisor in San Francisco, his own psychological conflict is over. The rest is tactics, strategy, and debate within the gay community. Much of this, through the humor of the writing and the fluidity of the direction of Gus Van Sant, holds one’s attention agreeably. But you could probably learn as much, or more, about the events and their meanings from the excellent 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. I suspect more drama would have been generated if the script had focused on the contrasting lives of Milk and his assassin-to-be, Dan White (well played by Josh Brolin), one man growing by freeing himself from fear, the other shriveled by being enslaved by the expectations of others. The writer and the director may have felt a dual biography would have required too much sympathy for the wretched White and detracted from the tribute to Milk, so the film comes across as something perilously close to hagiography. That said, Sean Penn, who somehow transformed every feature of his body and voice, deserves all the encomia and awards heaped on him.

Slumdog Millionaire: “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man...” Oh, don’t be so glib, Erasmus! This Danny Boyle film may be a masterpiece only for those afflicted with attention deficit disorder, yet it has the virtues of its defect: it’s exhilarating. Characterizations are perfunctory. Plot logic? Pardon me while I dust myself off after rolling around on the floor laughing. In fact, the basic device of the plot thumbs its nose at logic. Use of the locales? Insights into India’s peculiar problems? Just compare Slumdog with Fernando Meirelles’s City of God and you’ll see the difference between opportunistic political persiflage and great political art. Yet this movie was actually cheated of one Oscar nomination: Anil Kapoor’s performance as a quiz-show host, a media Mephistopheles, coruscated with suave, chummy cruelty. Aside from Kapoor, was there anything in this shallow but unstinting entertainment as memorable as the music video featured under the closing credits?

Let the Right One In: It was never in Oscar competition, but you’re cheating yourself if you don’t see this-the best vampire movie since F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. We’ve all seen movies in which a bullied child finds an older, stronger chum who offers shelter, protection, and instruction. Think The Karate Kid. In this Swedish movie directed by Tomas Alfredson from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the protector of a bullied, isolated boy is a vampire girl. The punishment for bullying is violent death. But here’s the catch: even if the boy weren’t bullied, death would be meted out anyway, because the pathetic-horrible girl can’t live without blood. The imperative here isn’t the demand for justice, compassion, or vengeance; it’s strictly biological: one species preys on another, and the rescue of the boy from bullies is strictly a byproduct of that preying. There is something about northern light that distills horror, and Alfredson’s use of it here turns what is essentially a small boy’s discovery that he has a destiny (and maybe, ultimately, a doom) into an unforgettable nightmare.

As for The Wrestler and Benjamin Button, well, I have some DVD catching up of my own to do.

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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