Trouble with the Curve

Clint Eastwood is a man who has earned the right to do what he wants. Having starred in movies like Dirty Harry, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, his acting career in Hollywood spans more than 50 years and is replete with more iconic characters than most actors could ever hope to play.  He has also directed more than 30 feature films as well as several episodes of TV shows, and despite his recent oddball speech at the Republican National Convention he commands respect among his peers like virtually no one else.  After 2008’s Gran Torino Eastwood decided to trade his acting chops for a director’s chair, making movies like Invictus and J Edgar.  But recently, because Clint Eastwood does what Clint Eastwood wants, he took another turn in front of the camera for the baseball movie Trouble with the Curve. While the film is certainly not going to win awards for originality it is an enjoyable and well-told tale of family, friendship, and what happens when time simply passes one by.

Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who knows baseball backwards and forwards but couldn’t fix a broken relationship if he had instructions that were written in crayon. The ever-charming Amy Adams is daughter Mickey (named after the great Yankees switch hitter) is a workaholic lawyer (is there any other kind in Hollywood movies?) who can’t find time in her life for anything resembling a relationship, thus her interactions with dear ol’ dad are relegated to the occasional dinner at a local pub while checking text messages on her blackberry.  Gus is so old that his ancient art of baseball scouting has been all but replaced by soulless computers, and has long since given up trying to have a real relationship with Mickey. And then there’s Johnny (Justin Tiberlake, basically playing himself), the plucky upstart scout from the Red Sox who follows Gus around as they scour high school games for up-and-coming talent. Ticking off other boxes on the character checklist are Pete Klein (John Goodman), Gus’s old friend who has been with him in the baseball business through thick and thin, and Philip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), the young upstart Braves scout  who finds players based on spreadsheet data, not gut instinct.  Gus mouns the fact that the great game of baseball has changed, and young punks like Sanderson only see numbers and not real players.  Mickey is this close to making partner at her law firm, but might lose it all thanks to a conniving coworker who also wants the open spot. And Johnny just wants to be the best gosh-darned baseball scout he can be, and maybe score a date with Mickey while he’s at it.

So what’s Clint Eastwood doing in a by-the-numbers dramadey like this? Who cares! Trouble with the Curve is as predictable as they come, but Eastwood’s grizzled old man is second to none–particulary when paired with Adams’ pitch-perfect sweetness.  We’re not so much watching a movie as we are enjoying some solid performances from a few great actors. It’s fun to watch because Eastwood is so pitch-perfect for his role–who else could get a theater full of people to laugh with a line like “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” as he threatens a bar patron who won’t take no for an answer after striking out with Mickey.  Adams does her best to portray a stressed-out lawyer trying to reconnect with her dad, but she’s not fooling anyone: this is the same girl sang her way into audience hearts as the gleefully innocent Gisele in Disney’s gem Enchanted.  Timberlake…well, no one is ever going to watch him in a movie for his acting chops but he’s clearly enjoying the role and having fun playing the third wheel to Gus and Mickey.  There’s no surprises here, and no cheap deaths for the sake of baiting the Academy.  What you expect is what you get, and when you want two hours of solid if not-exactly-groundbreaking entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this movie.



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InvictusMJV already gave Invictus a mini-review in his Best of 2009/Pre Academy Awards Analysis, but having just watched I thought I’d give the movie a full treatment.  While Invictus doesn’t quite live up to the heights to which it aspires, it contains some genuinely inspired performances and a storyline that ranks among the best of what the greatest sports movies have to offer.  It is an engaging, if sometimes muddled, tale of a scrappy underdog rugby team pulling together to win the highest prize the sport has to offer:  the World Cup trophy.  Directed by the great Clint Eastwood, one of Hollywood’s most storied personalities, the film is as much about Rugby as it is about prejudice, hatred, and the healing of a nation–a task that few directors would be willing to tackle, and despite the movie’s flaws, Eastwood is to be commended for embarking on a project with such a massive, yet still deeply intimate, scope.

Immediately following his election as president of South Africa, Mandela, impeccably played by Morgan Freeman, one of the greatest actors of this or any generation, seeks out a way to unite the country in a way that has never been done before.  While apartheid has officially been abolished, his country still carries the deep scars that decades of government-sanctioned segregation have wreaked on the populace.  Knowing that legal changes cannot alter hearts and minds, Mandela engages in a political calculation of deeply human proportion:  he entreats François Pienaar (a muscled-up, heavily accented Matt Damon ), captain of the Springboks, the South African rugby team, to do nothing less than win the world cup.  What follows is predictable but engaging nonetheless:  The Springboks and their captain rise to the challenge, bond over tough training regimens and shared victories, face a series of ever-more-difficult rugby teams until finally reaching the championship match against the New Zealand Allblacks.  If you can guess the outcome, I’ll give you a hot cup of jack squat for predicting the most obvious of sports movie endings.

Invictus Rugby Francois Pienaar

"Soccer is gentleman's game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

But Invictus, despite being entirely about a rugby team, isn’t really a movie about sports.  Eastwood instead wisely keeps the focus on Mandela and the political ramifications of his election and the cabinet-level implications of his personal interest in the tournament. He also includes several scenes that could have easily ended up in a DVD “Extras” menu, such as Mandela’s security guards discussing protective procedures and rules of engagement.  A bold move to be sure, as the movie does tend to drag on and even lose focus from time to time.  But Eastwood isn’t catering to a Michael Bay audience here.  He knows that the social ramifications of Mandela’s election, which affect every individual in South Africa even up to staff of the president, are the true soul of Invictus.  One of the most poignant scenes, which certainly would have been shed were the film in the hands of a lesser director, takes place not on the rugby field or presidential office, but inside Mandela’s actual cell when Pienaar and his team tour the prison.  And by adding these layers to the movie, Eastwood creates a tapestry that is far richer than just a story about a rugby team.

That Morgan Freeman did not win Best Actor at the Academy Awards is probably a tragedy, though having not seen Crazy Heart I can’t make that claim with all certainty. But his performance as Nelson Mandela was absolutely stunning.  The way he inhabited every bit of Mandela’s character was mesmerizing:  his gait, his speech and vocal patterns, his interactions with friends and colleagues…it is the stuff of acting legend.  Stanislavski himself would be hard pressed to find a greater master of method acting.

As a certified octogenarian, Clint Eastwood has officially retired from acting in order to focus on contributing as much as he can to the world through his directoral skills for as long as he is physically able.  I have no doubt he was keenly aware that the inconsistent pacing and occasional meandering would keep Invictus from achieving greatness.  But the result is a film that, while not as commercially viable as some other sports films, does an excellent job of showing what it takes to shed the chains of hatred and embrace a brighter, glorious future.


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Gran Torino

Having recently viewed Avatar in 3-D, twice, it’s kind of strange to watch a movie like Gran Torino.  While the former was a glorious cacophony of sight and sound, the latter is brilliantly simple and yet in many ways, far more powerful.  Avatar represents the pinnacle of modern special effects and sensory experience (notice I did not say sensory overload.  That distinction would belong to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen).  Gran Torino, meanwhile, represents what might be considered the pinnacle of sheer characterization–the most basic elements of storytelling stripped bare of all fanciful special effects, visual trickeries, or even music.  It is a brilliantly simple story with wonderfully complex characters at its center, and its message carries a weight that goes far beyond the feel-good save-the-day tales that are so popular in Hollywood and literature.

Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of a man named Walt Kowalsky who has lost much:  his wife is dead, he hardly knows his children, he hates his neighbors, and his lone companion is a faithful canine named Daisy.  Meanwhile, the neighborhood he has lived in for decades is changing:  Hmong families are moving in to the surrounding houses, and the threat of gang violence begins to rear its ugly head too.  Kowalsky, played by Eastwood, is a grizzled veteran of the Korean War who is one of the grumpiest old men to ever be portrayed on the silver screen.  And while he clings bitterly to the defining moments of his life from the War that have haunted him for decades, he slowly realizes that the world around him is changing and indeed has already changed.  And there’s not much he can do about it.

Gran Torino Kowalsky Tao

Kowalsky showing the neighbor boy how to be a man--by getting a job as a construction worker.

Kowalsky is no hero–he does not pretend to be one now, nor does he claim to have been one during the War.  But he ends up doing what might be considered a heroic deed when he saves one of the youths who live next door from being roughed up by a local gang.  Mind you, his motivation isn’t to save the youth, but to brandish his sense of military power as if it were a sword–to prove to the gang and to himself that he isn’t afraid of anybody, least of all the weak-minded foolish gang members who thrive on the sort of cowardly violence that is so prevalent in their circles.  But his act is interpreted as heroism by the locals, who befriend him against his own will:  they bring him food and he is invited to a gathering at the house next door where he even learns to appreciate a bit of their cooking and possibly even their culture.

At this point, Gran Torino might seem like a dressed-up after school special on racism.  But it’s the gritty realism showcased in the film that gives it a weight far beyond any NEA-endorsed treatise on being nice to others.  Kowalsky is mean, with a vocabulary dripping with some of the filthiest epithets I have heard onscreen in a long time.  Eastwood cuts no corners in depicting the violence of the local gangs, and the bitter mindset of Kowalsky and his friends.  And it’s this sense of reality that draws the viewer in and makes Kowalsky’s story all the more believable.  When he eventually befriends a boy next door and takes him under his wing, despite the fact that the boy tried to steal his precious Ford Gran Torino, their relationship is entirely believable simply because it doesn’t really work.  Not at first, anyway, and not for a long time.  But when it does, it eventually leads up to one of the most powerful and emotional climaxes I have seen in recent memory.  Yes the film does have a message about racism, but I can’t think of a more powerful way to preach it.

Gran Torino Porch

By far the most convincing "Get off my porch" ever spoken by an old man.

Eastwood has had a long and storied career–he has made dozens of films as an actor, and during the past fifteen years he has left his mark on cinema as a director to be reckoned with.  And though some of his films have been too overtly political for my taste (the ending of Million Dollar Baby reeked of typical Hollywood-style proselytizing), it’s clear that he wants to leave his mark on the world in a way that matters.  He has said that Gran Torino was his final acting role, after which he will presumably continue to direct until someone pries the camera from his cold, dead hands.  It’s ironic that a man in his seventies would be so prolific, with films of such quality, but I hope he is able to continue his work for a long time yet.

As a side note, I also appreciate the film’s treatment of Christians.  Kowalsky is not a churchgoing man, but the persistent priest at the church his wife went to eventually does break through to his heart–if only just a little bit.  But the priest and the Church are not mocked or disrespected as so often happens in movies.  The priest is young, energetic, and woefully inexperienced at dealing with men like Kowalsky.  But he and his profession are not treated as a joke, and the priest comes out as almost as much of a hero as Kowalsky.  That’s a rare thing for Hollywood, and one aspect of this movie I highly respect.


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