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New releases: Gran Torino, etc. 

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood has stated that Gran Torino might mark his final appearance as an actor (he plans to keep directing), and if he sticks to his guns, it’s an appropriate way to end a magnificent career. In that respect, it brings to mind John Wayne’s swan song, the elegiac Western The Shootist (directed, incidentally, by Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel), as both movies deal with aging men – the actors as well as the characters they’re portraying – whose lifelong dalliances with violence finally lead to both an understanding and acceptance of sorts. It’s not necessary to be familiar with Eastwood’s career arc to enjoy Gran Torino, but it does amplify the appreciation for the manner in which the topic of violence is approached. From the glorified gun battles in the Dirty Harry franchise to the ruminations about the impact of taking a man’s life in Unforgiven, Eastwood has clearly given much thought to the subject, and he takes another step with this latest picture. To describe how he has continued to modify his beliefs would spoil the film’s ending, but suffice to say that his character, Walt Kowalski, is no stranger to killing. A Korean War vet, the recently widowed Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood in which he’s clearly in the minority. Surrounded by Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, he’s an unrepentant racist, although he doesn’t have much use for his own kind, either: Caring little for his two grown sons and their families, he instead prefers the company of his faithful dog and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. But his shell of indifference begins to crack once he comes into reluctant contact with the two Hmong kids who live next door, teenage siblings Thao and Sue (appealing newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her). Lazily dismissed in some camps as merely a simplistic riff on racism, Gran Torino is far more complicated than that, not only in its aforementioned exploration of violence but also in its affecting look at a rigid individual who slowly comes to realize that the world has moved on without him.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road reunites Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and they’re both exceptional in this adaptation of Richard Yates’ highly acclaimed novel. Whether the film itself will satisfy moviegoers expecting to see the pair again in the throes of starry-eyed passion is another matter altogether, since romance is kept at a minimum in this appropriately edgy drama. Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, has made another American beauty, this one a powerful examination of a young couple trying desperately to deal with the plasticity of 1950s suburbia. Set in mid-1950s Connecticut, the story (adapted by Justin Haythe) concerns itself with Frank and April Wheeler, who view themselves as being different from everyone else who lives in their pristine neighborhood – even their realtor (Kathy Bates) describes them as “special.” But time spent toiling away within the boundaries of the so-called American dream quickly takes its toll, with April (formerly an aspiring actress) bored with being a common housewife and mother and Frank tired of being just one more working stiff in a gray flannel suit. In an effort to revitalize their dreams as well as salvage their devotion to each other, April suggests to Frank that they move to Paris and start a new life. Flush with excitement, the couple start to make plans, only to find that old routines – no matter how detested – die hard.

Defiance

The landmark 1970s TV miniseries Holocaust and the 2002 theatrical release The Grey Zone both touched upon the topic, but Edward Zwick’s Defiance might be the first celluloid outing to focus exclusively on the efforts of Jews to violently oppose their Nazi oppressors during World War II. Certainly, it’s an overdue entry in the long history of Hollywood Holocaust flicks, but it’s a shame that such an intriguing story didn’t receive a more distinguished rendering. Adapted by Zwick and co-scripter Clayton Frohman from Nechama Tec’s fact-based novel Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, this centers on three siblings who battle the German threat from within the Belarus Forest. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), is hardly a natural born leader but always manages to keep things in perspective. Middle son Zus (Liev Schreiber) is far more tempestuous, eventually breaking from his brother to fight alongside the Soviet Red Army. And youngest lad Asael (Jamie Bell) is initially a naÏve greenhorn but quickly gets his initiation under fire. The Bielskis soon earn a reputation for their guerilla tactics that keep the Nazis off balance, and before long, scores of other Jews join them in their forest sanctuary. But as their numbers grow, so does the risk of exposure, and Tuvia realizes it’s up to him to lead these people to safety. Zwick’s epics (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) have never lacked for propulsive power, but Defiance is the first to constantly stumble over itself even as it tries to get its tale in gear. Still, Craig and Schreiber make for interesting contrasts in masculinity, and it’s at least commendable that somebody finally got around to paying tribute to these woodland warriors.

Last Chance Harvey

Last Chance Harvey is the sort of insipid romantic comedy that, had it starred a pair of 20somethings or 30somethings, would be instantly dismissed by one and all. But because it stars two seasoned performers – Oscar winners, both – it will be championed in some quarters as a sweet look at how older folks can actually – are you ready? – enjoy many of the same things as the young’uns. It’s a patronizing sop to an underserved movie demographic that doubtless was largely responsible for turning the equally torturous The Bucket List into a box office hit at this time last year. The 71-year-old Dustin Hoffman stars as Harvey Shine, while 49-year-old Emma Thompson plays Kate Walker. He’s an American arriving in London for the marriage of his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban); cut from the same cloth as the salesmen from Glengarry Glen Ross, he’s a self-absorbed loser who rubs practically everyone the wrong way. She’s a Brit whose single status worries her busybody mom (Eileen Atkins) and lands her on blind dates with insensitive doofuses.

Bedtime Stories

A winning formula for a successful family film gets reconfigured employing the lowest common denominator, and the result is a dismal effort that will fail with all but the most undemanding of children. As for their parents, it’s hard to imagine any of them warming up to a picture in which Adam Sandler, as lowly handyman Skeeter Bronson, bonds with his niece and nephew by telling them that he’ll always be around “like the stink on feet.” Certainly, there’s an unpleasant odor emanating from just about every scene in this slapdash comedy, in which the aforementioned Skeeter learns that portions of the bedtime stories he spins to his sister’s (Courteney Cox) kids have a magical way of coming true. He hopes that these fantasy yarns will somehow allow him to ascend to the position of hotel manager, but for now, the tall tales result in him getting bombarded by a shower of gumballs and kicked in the shins by an angry dwarf. The tragedy of Bedtime Stories is that several noteworthy performers find themselves whoring their talents simply to play second banana to a somnambular Sandler. Guy Pearce, with two best-of-the-year titles to his credit (L.A. Confidential and Memento), sneers relentlessly as the piece’s prissy villain. Lucy Lawless, a cult figure thanks to her years on Xena: Warrior Princess, is wasted as Pearce’s right-hand woman. Keri Russell, looking like a rising star after Waitress, goes limp as Skeeter’s colorless love interest.

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