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"Gran Torino"

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Written by Nick Schenk.
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang and Ahney Her.
Release Year:  2008
Review Date:  12/17/08

Folks--

People who know me know that I embrace racism in all forms because, quite simply, it isn't going anywhere and to talk about a life where our new president rides down a magical trail and sprinkles fairy dust on racists and makes it great for everyone to love black people and for all black people to suddenly face no racism is an out-and-out fucking lie.  "Gran Torino", then, embraces the fact that somewhere, there is a 78-year-old white guy who calls Asians "gouks" TO THEIR FACE, along with any of the following (all used during the film):  japs, slant-eyes, zipperheads, dogeaters, and chinks.

True, that 78-year-old white guy is played by 78-year-old white guy Clint Eastwood...but, still, he is playing an out-and-out racist.

During my free screening tonight (the film opens in select places before the end of the year, but then wide on January 9th), many people were laughing at Walt Kawalski's racist, profanity-laden diatribes on his next-door neighbors in modern-day Michigan; I'm sure this was a mix of the uncomfortable, the truly funny sequences, and any time where uncertainty just leads people to try and laugh off moments of displeasure, real or imagined.  In "Gran Torino", Walt--who is at the funeral of his recently-deceased wife when the film opens--navigates life simply, by fixing things during the day time (having finished a long career working for Ford...talk about timely filmmaking), drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon out of cans on his front porch at night, and waxing his 1972 Ford Gran Torino on weekends in his garage.  The car, and Walt's dog, are his only prized possessions following tours of duty overseas and his Ford career...his two sons never won Walt's attention (one even had the nerve to go into sales for a FOREIGN automaker, sealing his fate), and with his wife gone, Walt spends his days waiting mainly to die.

Circumstances change when a Hmong family--one of many that live on Walt's street now--becomes a steady part of Walt's life, thanks to the attempted theft of his Gran Torino by a teenage outcast named Thao (Bee Vang), who has gotten involved in gang life thanks to an unruly cousin.  After swearing off everything that isn't white, Walt is forced to open up (just a smidge) if he's going to make it in his new/old neighborhood.

"Gran Torino" shines thanks to the first acting work Eastwood has done since "Million Dollar Baby" four years ago.  And, naturally, he gets mucho mileage out of looking, and sounding, like a total old-guy badass.  This is legit thanks to how his character is written...but, I'm sure some of that is knowing that this character is played by an actor we recognize as a tough guy.  And, even though he might look 75 or 80, he sounds like he is 120.  Easy.  Eastwood gets so much out of angry grunts whenever he sees people or situations he doesn't like, you almost want him to make a comedy where all he does is growl in all of his scenes.  It's hilarious!  But, I like that the Walt character doesn't go from spit-in-your-face racist to loving patron saint...no, his development is to slide just a tad into acceptable, and just as you think he might slip, he will call Thao a zipperhead, putting him back squarely into the role of old racist white guy.

What was truly interesting to me was to watch the Hmong families react to Walt as the racist that he is, in a way that felt very familiar to me because I do this whenever I talk to/hear about old racist white people...sometimes, totally because it's all they have ever known, old racist white people say things that they've said so many times they probably don't even get how racist it is.  Look, some old people say "colored" as nothing more than a story descriptor.  They might even like black people and call them colored, and I've been sitting next to old white people when they say it!  In "Gran Torino", Walt will call an Asian person a slant-eye to their face and they look at him with this look that says, "stupid old white guy!" and not "Dear Lord! What did you just call me?" and I'm sure it is one of the best subtleties of the whole film.  Just this one thing bumps everything up a notch.

Of course, the film is already right up there in terms of notches.  Eastwood is 75% of the film.  The rest is the good-enough collection of first-time performers and non-actors who are subjected to Walt's anger in various forms.  The script is great in "Gran Torino", but as mentioned a second ago, the magic is in its subtlety...Walt and Thao's grandmother have a running thing where they just look at each other and you know they hate each other; hilarious.  Walt and his barber exchange profanity-laden gestures as Walt pays for his trim...hilarious.  Walt and Thao's sister end a moment that appears to show Walt turning for the better with Walt saying to her "Okay, dragon lady...get me a beer!"...hilarious.  But, then, the drama is good as well, and we get at least four scenes where Walt is staring somebody down and you just completely buy that this old guy could whoop your ass.

"Gran Torino" is very difficult to categorize, so I'll go with this:  it is strangely populist entertainment in what appears to be an indie film body, complete with a sparse budget, sparse soundtrack, many rookie performers and an out-of-the-box approach.  In a year that is one of the weakest on record, "Gran Torino" has a legit shot at getting Clint another Oscar nomination (maybe Picture, maybe Actor), because I didn't think it had a single glaring flaw.

Rating:  Opening Weekend

 

Comments?  Drop me a line at justin@bellviewmovies.com.

 

Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too bad...man, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/bellviewmovies.com except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09