Gran Torino

Ealasaid/ January 12, 2009/ Movie Reviews and Features

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Rated: R for language throughout, and some violence.
Parental Notes: This is not a film aimed at children. Mature teens may enjoy it, but youngsters should stay home. The violence is not glorified and excessive, but it’s not comfortably cartoonish either.

Coming Up In Film
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* January 15-21, Berlin and Beyond Film Festival. See for details.
* January 16-17, Midnight Movie Madness: “Army of Darkness.” Midnight screenings at Camera 7 (Friday) and Camera 12 (Saturday). See for details.
* January 21, The New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Puccini’s “La Rondine” broadcast in local theaters. See for details.
* January 23-February 1, Noir City Film Festival. This year’s theme is newspaper noir. See for details.
* January 24, The New York metropolitan Opera’s production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” broadcast live in local theaters. See for details.
* January 25 (11am) & 28 (7pm) Italy’s Grand Opera’s production of “Norma” at Camera 7. See for details.
* February 8 (11am) & 11 (7pm) at Camera 7. “Hansel und Gretel” (Humperdinck, 3 acts), recorded at the Glyndebourne Festival, England. See for details.
* February 22 (11am) & 25 (7pm) at Camera 7. “Romeo et Juliette” (Gounod, 5 acts), recorded the Salzburg Festival, Austria. See for details.
* February 25 – March 8, 19th Cinequest Film Festival. Annual festival in San Jose showcases maverick filmmaking. Tickets on sale January 28th. See for details.

“Gran Torino” is a character study. Every character but the central one is painted in broad strokes — some so broad that they cease to be people and devolve into stereotypes. But the central character is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the rest of the movie for not being as well-crafted as he is.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a cranky old bastard. The film opens with him standing next to his wife’s casket at her funeral and growling quietly as he watches his sons and their families enter the church and take their seats. One of his grandsons is in a Detroit Lions jersey. His teenage granddaughter is wearing an outfit which shows off her bellybutton ring. Walt disapproves, and it shows. One of his sons notes that it’s impossible to please him — he disapproves of just about everything.
And he does. He disapproves of the Hmong families moving into his Detroit neighborhood — especially the single mother, two kids, and grandparents who have moved in next door. He disapproves of the young parish priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who seems determined to befriend him and bring him into the fold. About the only things Walt doesn’t disapprove of are his beloved dog Daisy, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and the beautifully-kept 1972 Gran Torino in his garage.
He becomes more involved with his new neighbors when he breaks up a fight that has spilled from their front yard into his. Quiet, studious Tao (Bee Vang), is under pressure to join the gang his cousin Spider (Doua Moua) leads. He keeps refusing, even when they try to drag him off. Walt doesn’t like people on his lawn, and expresses his disapproval with his rifle. Spider and company leave before he has to shoot any of them, and Tao is left alone for the time being.
This makes Walt a hero to the Hmong community in his neighborhood, and he winds up getting to know Tao and his sister, Sue (Ahney Her), almost in spite of himself. He takes Tao under his wing, acting as a father figure to the teen and trying to “man him up.” He tries to teach him how men talk, which in Walt’s world involves a lot of casual swearing, racist epithets, and grousing about life in general. It’d be easy to call Walt a racist, but the truth is more that he wants to keep everyone at a distance. Calling his neighbors “gooks” and “chinks,” his long-time barber a “dago,” and the local black bullies “spooks” is an easy way to do it. He’s an equal-opportunity misanthropist.
Eastwood’s direction is solid — especially considering that nearly all the Hmong actors in the film had never acted before. His acting, however, is phenomenal, and it’s almost unfair to the untrained, inexperienced actors who have to share the screen with him. Eastwood is a powerhouse, and Walt is such an engaging character that the other characters look extra flimsy in comparison.
The film takes a long time to build up and eventually tumbles onto the rails of a rather conventional ending which is too heavy on symbolism and Making Its Point to fit well with the light touch of the preceding hour and a half. It is, however, a better ending than many others that could have come out of the same beginning.
“Gran Torino” is a solid film containing a breathtaking performance, and as such is a must-see for fans of the actor’s craft. It’s not an action movie, though some of its previews give that impression. It’s more of a meditation on the ties that bind people together, and the ability of even the old to change and grow.

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