It’s awards season, and that means as a Screen Actors Guild member, I have a few weeks to see as many of the nominated films as I can before voting for the SAG Awards. I’ve seen a few movies in the past week that I highly recommend: “Gran Torino,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “The Visitor.”
Though not in the running for a SAG Award, “Gran Torino” is a must-see. Who could have known that the guy who played Dirty Harry decades ago would end up making such sensitive movies as “Million-Dollar Baby,” and now this. Eastwood does an entertaining job as Walt Kowalski, an intolerant, bigoted curmudgeon who slings both well-known and creative epithets left and right, and owns a mint 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Kowalski is the minority in a Michigan neighborhood filled with immigrants, but he gradually softens toward a young Asian (Hmong) brother and sister next door and takes the boy under his wing. A former auto worker and decorated Korean War veteran, Kowalski steps in Dirty Harry-style when the youngsters are harrassed by their gangster cousin. Full of tenderness and humor, the film also turns intensely dramatic, as any Eastwood fan would expect.
“Frost/Nixon” could have been boring since we know the story, but it was completely engaging. Frank Langella was incredible as the only president ever to resign over a scandal that could have ended in impeachment. In the film, Richard Nixon refers to the interviews with British talk show host David Frost (played with urgency by Michael Sheen) as a duel, and the drama unfolds on multiple levels as Frost is banking his whole career and savings on a news interview for which he seems entirely out of his league. Since the end of the Bush presidency is coming in a week and Obama did not commit to investigating any possible improprieties during that administration, this movie is very timely and much more than a mere glimpse of history. Ron Howard, who directed such popcorn movies as “Splash” and “Cocoon,” has gone even deeper than “A Beautiful Mind” with this one.
Look for “The Visitor” on DVD. Ubiquitous and talented character actor Richard Jenkins, who also played the gym manager in “Burn After Reading” (a quirky, fun movie with hilarious work by John Malkovich, George Clooney and Brad Pitt), is a lonely, unhappy, rather lifeless college professor from Connecticut who goes to his NY apartment for a conference in the city to find an illegal immigrant couple, a Syrian musician and a Senegalese jewelry-maker, living there. When Jenkins’ character finds they have nowhere to go, he invites them to stay. The Syrian man teaches him the drum and, over time, helps him find his rhythm in life. The beat kicks up a notch when the Syrian man is arrested and detained, and the professor takes a leave of absence to immerse himself in his new friends’ plight. It’s not important that the film doesn’t present both sides of the immigration issue, because it’s about emotional connection of the best sort, unexpected and life-affirming.