03 January 2009
  changeling and gran torino

subtitled: clint eastwood is neat.

i think part of the reason it was so hard watching clint eastwood slowly pass away in gran torino was the fact that you look at this guy and you're like someday he really will die. and then where will we be? someday when eastwood stops making films, it will be a tremendous loss. first of all, the guy does everything. this year he directed AND wrote the score to changeling and directed, starred in and even sang the title song for gran torino. but second of all, and more importantly, everything he does is done well. he could conceivably be considered for oscar nominations for any of these five cinematic efforts.

it's perhaps interesting that eastwood would make these particular films in the same year, as i see both of them as sort of clever engagements with two popular and often cliched film genres. Changeling, for example, begins as a sort of quotidian kidnapped child saga, that immediately threatens to come across as a derivative silence of the lambs rip off. But Eastwood manages to rework the boundaries of this often told story, and instead what he creates is not only a compelling thriller but also an intelligent critique of state power. similarly, gran torino (and this should be obvious to anyone whose even seen the trailer) immediately presents itself as a return to eastwood as dirty harry bad-ass shoot-em-up. but anyone anticipating this will probably not be disappointed by the ways in which eastwood cleverly rewrites these older stories for the contemporary moment.

unlike two years ago when his letters from iwo jima was clearly a much better film than flags of our fathers, i find myself going back and forth as to whether i liked gran torino or changeling more. on the one hand, angelina jolie gives one of the best female performances of the year in changeling. it is particularly satisfying to watch her grow as a woman, to learn to stop acceding to her subordinate role and begin fighting for herself. on the other hand, though, clint eastwood certainly gives one of the finest male performances of the year as the star of gran torino. he too embodies a character that experiences tremendous growth in the course of the film, and it is in some ways satisfying to watch this as well (although less so, for obvious reasons to those who have seen the movie). in short, the acting is largely pretty impressive in both films (even among the hmong cast of gran torino, almost all of whom had never acted in a film before), so it is difficult to privilege one cast over the other.

however, i think it's equally difficult to determine which film is better in regards to either directing or writing. eastwood takes notable risks with his direction of both films, yielding interesting rewards in both cases. i especially love the way that he really captures the scene just in the ways he sets his films. after watching changeling, you feel like you have a really good sense of what it must have been like to live in 1920s-era los angeles. and i love the way almost the entirety of gran torino takes place in just a few spaces on this sparse and dilapidated street. he really captures the poverty, insecurity and fear that must be felt by a person living in this sort of situation. in regards to these films' writing, i also think both films were surprising and entertaining, while equally eloquent and intelligent, offering sage insights on race and religion (gran torino) and gender and power (changeling). in short, i think i'm going to have to call it a draw for now and reserve more definitive judgment for a later day.

still, i think it's relevant to note that although both films have received pretty solid if not ecstatic critical support, gran torino seems to have been met much more kindly than changeling was. and, considering both of these are pretty fine films in my estimation, this response seems to be more than a coincidence. it is obious to me that this is just one more example of the ways in which movies about and starring women are always approached much more harshly than those about and starring men. it seems that every year women have fewer and fewer starring opportunities in hollywood, and after this year, i don't think this is a trend that will be ending any time soon. in any case, i don't expect that angelina jolie will be making any more changelings or a mighty hearts any time soon. but i do anticipate lara croft tomb raider 3.
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