The Graduate, Gran Torino,
and a few more films

Gosford Park (2001)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

In the 1930s, numerous rich people gather at a castle for a weekend of fancy festivities, accompanied by a flock of footmen and cooks and servers and maids. Written by Julian Fellowes in the spirit of Agatha Christie, much snoot is amusingly snooted, and then there's a murder.

It's an hour and twenty minutes before the killing, though, full of intricate politics between the guests and members of the staff.

#301  [archive]
JUNE 15, 2024

Which is fun for a while, but I was past ready for the murder, primarily due to Ryan Phillippe, who insufferably plays an insufferable valet. Also, one of the rich guys insists on singing and tinkling the piano, which could be snipped and the film would lose nothing.

Other than that, Gosford Park is a premium slice of class truce, and things get better when Stephen Fry arrives, as the bumbling inspector sent to investigate the murder of a man almost everyone wanted dead, including me.

Directed by Robert Altman, and featuring every famous British actor and actress who was alive in 2001, plus Bob Balaban.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Graduate (1967)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young man fresh from college and adrift in this world. He has a degree, but no notion what to do with his life, so when Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) — the most attractive of all his parents' friends — offers an affair, they begin regular rendezvouses at a local hotel. 

As you probably know because you've probably seen it (and even if you haven't, everyone knows the plot), things get more complicated when Benjamin falls for Mrs Robinson's daughter (Katharine Ross).

This is a quietly counterculture film. Made in the heart of the 1960s, it's hippie-free and features no protests, but everything going on in Benjamin's immature head is about resisting what's expecting of him, and finding his own way. Then comes a would-be fairy tale finish, that's actually a drop off the cliff to complete cynicism.

The Graduate is a classic, everyone agrees, and I agree with everyone. I've seen it several times, and always found it excellent, but it's been 30+ years and I was afraid it might not have aged well?

No worries, it's still very good, plus on tonight's viewing I finally noticed that everyone in the movie is kinda dumb, except Mrs Robinson. She's the only character who knows what she wants and takes it. Everyone else is lost in the American maze of getting ahead and/or doing what we're told.

Surprisingly, my only complaint is about all the Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack. It's surprising because I love Simon & Garfunkel. The music is great and fits the film, but some of the same songs play more than once, which seems weird — song, then a scene, then the same song again?

Written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, directed by Mike Nichols.

And I'd forgotten that some of the film is set in Berkeley. About fifteen seconds of it was actually filmed there. Look, it's Moe's Books, where I bought my copy of Treasure of the Sierra Madre!

Verdict: BIG YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Grammar Revolution (2014)
Streaming free at YouTube

This is a documentary about grammar, full of teachers and writers and grammarians talking about good grammar and the written and unwritten rules of the English language.

The film has an all-star team of experts, maybe too many. 32 interviewees are listed in the closing credits. Most only get to say a few sentences at a time, and they we're on to the next expert. But none of them said anything stupid or anything I'd disagree with. There be grammar wisdom here.

My favorite among them is newspaper columnist Richard Lederer, just because he's by far the most animated on screen, his hands wandering and his mouth adding sound effects (pttth!) as he makes his points. For me, the kick of writing is trying to get that kind of enthusiasm onto the paper or screen.

The coolest thing I learned here is "code-switching," a term new to me. That's when your talk one way around your friends, but structure your sentences differently when talking to your boss, your priest, a police officer, etc.

The most obvious example is switching from Ebonics to 'standard English', but it's something everyone needs to be able to do. People who've never learned how to code-switch are at a disadvantage in life, because dumb or smart, people think you're dumb if you're talking wrong for your audience.

Everyone in the film agrees that grammar isn't taught well in public schools, which made me try to remember what grammar I was taught, but I came up blank. I still don't know the rules or even the terms of grammar used in this movie. Barely know the difference between grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. All I know, usually but instinctively, is when something's wrong with a sentence.

As Lederer says, "Good writing and communication is throwing up the fewest barriers to the reader," but I'd try to avoid the term "throwing up" unless I could parlay it into a joke. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Gran Torino (2008)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

"There's nothing anyone can do that won't disappoint the old man. It's inevitable."

Clint Eastwood directs, and stars as Walt Kowalski, the world's angriest white man. He's a mean old bastard, and the last Caucasian holdout in a neighborhood that's now mostly Hmong immigrants. 

Kowalski's wife has died, and the movie begins at her funeral. Whispering in the church, Eastwood's adult sons badmouth their father, while his granddaughter fiddles with her phone and pays no attention to the service, and a priest who looks about 17 delivers a painfully bland eulogy ("What is death? Is it the end, or is it the beginning? And what is life?")

Kowalski hates the funeral, hates the gathering at his house afterward, seems to hate everyone in his family, and he certainly hates his Hmong neighbors. He calls them 'gooks' and 'chinks' to their faces, continually refers to one of them as 'Toad' instead of his name, Thao. And of course, the neighbors are none too wild about Kowalski.

But one day he spots some Hmong-on-Hmong violence at the house next door, and comes out carrying his gun to break it up. After that, the neighbors love him, even feed him, and he slowly, grudgingly warms to them.

Kowalski gets into a long series of awkward, racially-tense situations, which are only awkward because racist comments are constantly coming from his wrinkly face. It's a little funny at first, gets funnier as it goes, and pretty soon it lands Gran Torino among the funniest movies I've ever seen. I laughed so hard it hurt, no exaggeration. 

Eastwood might be the only one who could make this material work. He delivers what's basically a parody of Clint Eastwood characters, like John Wayne parodied John Wayne in True Grit. Eastwood has made dozens of movies playing squinting, seething men a lot like Kowalski, but here he's over the top, older, crotchetier, angrier, and funnier. That's the key to why the movie works so well, and for anyone who hasn't seen other Eastwood movies, the laughs might not be there.

The movie gets going good, and you hope the story's not going to make a stupid misstep. It doesn't, and it builds to an unexpected ending that seems true to Kowalski.

After Million Dollar Baby, I could quibble about another Eastwood movie with another strong, smart female character who's punished for being strong and smart, but it serves the story and seems plausible, so I'll say nothing about that.

And Kowalski coming to the rescue of his Asian neighbors is White Savior 101, which I gotta guess led to complaints among the Hmong, but me and Eastwood both being old white dudes, what the hell, I'll forgive it.

The only real mistake here is a philosophical one, presumably because Eastwood has the ordinary conservative's mindset about racism. In a few scenes, Kowalski and a white friend throw playful insults at each other ('guinea' and 'mick' and 'Polack', etc), and in one scene Kowalski even tries to teach 'Toad' to use such slurs as comradery.

But c'mon, rascally racial wisecracks between white guys simply ain't the equivalent of a white man calling Asians 'slopes', blacks 'spooks', and Mexicans 'beaners'. The Irish, Italians, and Polish face next-to-no discrimination in America; Asians, blacks, and Mexicans face it perpetually. Sorry, Eastwood and all the Republicans, but that's the movie's political point — it's all the same, so lighten up and take a joke — and it's bullshit.

But after that I gotta say again that despite it all, Eastwood makes this flick screamingly funny, it builds to a strong, emotional finish, and it's a damned fine movie.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Grand Central Murder (1942)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

'Rocky' Custer is a private eye who finds himself under suspicion after an actress is murdered in Grand Central Station, with the culprit sprinting off into the shadowy catacombs under the tracks.

The film is a busy, fast-paced, satisfying whodunit with a lot of eccentric characters and a crackerjack script, featuring tough dames, dastardly hoods, and a cop who's constantly drinking another bottle of soda.

It unfolds almost like a screwball comedy, and there's even some clever camerawork. It's a dandy old movie that moves faster than a locomotive.

Van Heflin, Virginia Grey, Sam Levene, and Millard Mitchell star. "Gowns by Shoup." 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Current issues with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on home video —Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Of course, the actors who improvised The Blair Witch Project got financially screwed.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Grand Illusion (1937)
Grand Tour (1992)
Grandma (2015)
Grandma's Boy (1922)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Now accepting movie recommendations,
starting with the letter 'H'.
Just add a comment, below.
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. I like Gosford Park, but think it pales next to Altman's 70s work. It's a good double feature with Renoir's Rules of the Game, in my top 20 or so favorite films. Very similar setting, class issues, etc. Altman in the 2000s is simply no match for Renoir in the 1930s.

    I love The Graduate, with some reservations (rich white kid is lost and confused? Gee, that's rough!) but... Mrs. Robinson? All time #1 eternal cinema crush. Good God Almighty! And William Daniels and Murray Hamilton are always fantastic (check out the former in Frank Perry's Ladybug Ladybug)

    I'm surprised you liked Gran Torino that much! I don't know if it's more complex than its makers think it is, or less, but I find it incredibly enjoyable and ultimately very moving. Walt's genuinely chivalrous anger after Sue is beaten by the gang is both thrilling and tragic (and justified) and the reading of the will and Toad's driving the car away at the end is so melancholic and beautiful.

    That it's set in Detroit is pretty important, I think, always a culturally complex place, one which continues to change. Lotta dumb films use Detroit as a "ruin porn" setting, but this flick at least attempts to understand the people and generations behind those decrepit facades.

    1. And Mrs. Robinson utters one of the saddest lines I've ever heard in a film:

      What was your major?

      Benjamin, why are you asking me all these questions?

      Because I'm interested, Mrs. Robinson. Now what was your major subject at college?


      Art? But I thought you... I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years then.

      Kind of.

      "Kind of." - Hey Zeus, that says it all

    2. Yeah, Gran Torino is really something special. No doubt that the ending is strong and dramatic and meaningful, but some folks don't seem to acknowledge that it's largely a comedy. My cat hid from me, because I was laughing so loud.

      Also, it's the best movie ever with product placement in the title. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle gets bumped to second place, followed by a bunch of shit I've never seen, like Mac and Me and The Lego Move and Barbie and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

      I've always liked William Daniels, and Murray Hamilton has been growing on me since seeing him in The Fugitive.

      How come I've never even heard of Ladybug Ladybug? Nuclear fright is a genre that hollers loudly at me. On the list it goes, and if my retirement comes through I might be into the L's by late summer.

      Oh yeah, especially in the context of what's come before, that scene in The Graduate slices like daggers. Everybody's good in that flick, but Anne Bancroft and Buck Henry own the joint.

    3. My favorite Buck Henry performance is Milos Forman's amazing Taking Off (also features the great Lynn Carlin).

      Scene starting at 33:30 to 36:00 below is classic:


      He's also wickedly great in To Die For, which is a good film but on rewatching it lately it seemed a little broad and on the nose compared to something similar like Payne's Election.

    4. Agreed Gran Torino is funny as heck. I especially like the scene where the three black gentlemen accost Sue and her "wigger" boyfriend - who is distinctly singled out and humiliated by both the hoods and then Grandpa Torino - which is hilarious because that kid was played by Eastwood's own son! It's a loaded scene, probably the most racist in the film, but Eastwood's withering, dismissive aside to that kid never fails to crack me up.

      Way to go, old man!

      Shut up, pussey! What's with all this "bro" shit anyway? These guys don't wanna be your "bro" and I don't blame 'em. Now get your paddy ass down the road...

      Imagine growing up with Eastwood as your pop? Haha!

    5. Taking Off -- added.
      To Die For -- saw it and remember it fondly, but that might be because I saw it with my wife. Already on the list for a rewatch.

      Buck is a fine actor, but like Ned Glass or John Wayne he always plays the same character. I'm more impressed by Buck the writer.

    6. I think he says "ofay ass" not "paddy," but I'm too lazy to check. Didn't know that was the next generation, but yeah, gotta wonder what it's like growing up with Dirty Harry as yer pop.

      It's one of the scenes designed to show that Kowalski is an equal opportunity asshole, hates everyone, so the racial slurs are OK, but of course ofay or paddy from a white guy ain't nothing.

    7. Don't forget the other great film Eastwood made this century: Richard Jewell

    8. Added, but I don't trust Eastwood when there's a chance to advance his agenda, which in this case would be going against mainstream media. (I hate mainstream media too, but for better reasons.)

      Eastwood has made some crap in the 2000s. Million Dollar Baby comes to mind. Among those I haven't seen, his Iwo Jima double feature is of no interest to me, and I don't trust him with titles and topics like American Sniper or The Mule or J Edgar, plus the latter has DiCaprio so it's a non-starter.

      Then again, Gran Torino surprised me.

  2. Roger Ebert famously re-reviewed The Graduate 20 years later and eviscerated it (though he was mostly eviscerating himself). Interestingly he pointed out many of the same things you did.


    I came across the script some years ago, and that's not the kind of thing I'd normally read but Buck Henry was such a witty writer there were all these little gems in there. When setting the scene for Ben's graduation party, he describes the crowd as looking something like "children dressed like serious adults and serious adults dressed like children." Do you need more stage direction than that?

    1. Interesting Ebert review, or re-review. We're agreed about most everything, except his wildly incorrect assessment that The Graduate is a "lesser movie." Sure, everyone but Mrs Robinson is shallow and obedient and destined for a dull life, but that's the movie's entire point, ain't it? It's like complaining that Bull Durham has too much baseball.

      Ebert was one of the best-ever *writers* about the movies, and twenty or so years after he got it, he'd earned his Pulitzer Prize. I often disagreed with his assessments, though, and Siskel's opinions carried more sway with me.

      As for Buck Henry, priceless stage direction indeed. Get Smart proved his genius, too.

    2. I agree with you on this, but I think what Ebert is confronting indirectly is his own identification as a young man with Benjamin. ("Plastics" was also never good career advice.)

      I learned a great deal about writing from Ebert, and his column (I rarely watched the show) was for some people maybe the only place they read about art in a way that didn't intentionally talk down to them. Certain reviews he wrote are more vivid to me than his films, for instance his review of Volker Schlondorff's "The Legend of Rita," about a former RAF terrorist who hides out as an ordinary person in Communist East Germany until the Wall falls (which is, for her, a disaster):

      "Here she falls in love with a man. But can she marry a man who doesn't know who she really is? The movie isn't about love, unrequited or not. It's about believing in a cause after the cause abandons you."


      I wish I could write that effectively, and make a point that effortlessly.

    3. "Certain reviews he wrote are more vivid to me than THE films," that should read...

    4. I haven't read much Ebert since he died, but I should. Almost every time I chance across a review he wrote after the mid-1970s, I seem to gain an insight into something either film- or life-related.

      And you got me curious enough to read his review of The Legend of Rita, which got it added to my list. I'm always adding to the list, which it why it'll be July before I'm into the H's.

      I wonder whether Ebert's writing was effortless, though. I'm no Ebert, but the writing I'm proudest of, the stuff that reads easiest, usually has 40 rewrites behind it.

    5. I'm the same way about re-writes and the sweat behind "effortless" writing but he had to produce these so quickly. The Legend of Rita (the title is made up and bad: it's supposed to mean "legend" in the sense it's used in spycraft, where they call agents cover stories "legends"; the German title translates as "The Stillness After the (Gun)Shot" is kind of fascinating and one of a number of German films that intentionally view re-unification as not wholly good from the POV of their protagonists. It's based on the life of a real person, Inge Viett, who sued for violating her rights and won. Fascinating bit about German law: a lot of the RAF terrorists served their time in prison and were then given new identities, not wholly different than the new life portrayed in the movie. The idea being, I think, that it's easier for a "celebrity criminal" to not return to being a criminal if they're able to become a florist or garbageman.

    6. Seems like a smart idea. Any idea that gives criminals a chance at rehabilitation seems smart to me, and can't be considered in America.

      Two of my brothers were in prison, and it stuck with them forever. The question "Ever been convicted of a crime?" ought to be illegal to ask, after someone's served their sentence.


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