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Friday, January 09, 2009

Gran Torino

So here we are, in a new year and with the hope of fresh and entertaining movies on the way to enchant us while tidal waves of bad news continue to pound us down just about everywhere we step outside the theater doors. Let’s face it, 2007 was a wretched year, with hateful political rhetoric, stupid politicians, crooked stockbrokers, sleazy bankers, and, sadly, everybody with a hand in our pockets (and not in the good way). And just to make it hurt all the more, what did we get to distract us in the cinema but pure ca-ca.

I went to a birthday party today and inevitably several people asked me whether I made a list of my “best” and “worst” movies of the last year, and I admitted that I generally tended to lick an ungrounded wire while holding the other end in an open socket after writing about many of the movies I see just to help me forget about what I’d been forced to experience since so much of the stuff is not anything anybody would want to remember. When I came home, I looked back at the 120+ films I’ve written about in 2007 and tried to scrounge out a ‘Top Ten’ list and I ended up with only six I thought were actually worth a second or third look, movies I’d actually pay to own:

Iron Man
The Dark Knight
The Secret Life of Bees
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The really sad thing about this is that Iron Man came out in May, Wall•E in June, and The Dark Knight in July, with Changeling and The Secret Life of Bees released in October and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button finishing out the year in December. Basically this means that for seven months of the year the cineplexes were no more than glorified corrals ~ full of horse crap! Okay, so there were other movies out there that were actually good, but they either didn’t play here or they weren’t exactly the type of pictures that the unwashed masses (and if you are reading this, you’re probably one of those; I'm sorry, Pumpkins, but it’s true) flock to in droves. You know the kind of movies I’m talking about: Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Duchess, Encounters at the End of the World, In Bruges. These were all terrific movies, but how many of them did you see? Uh, huh. I thought not.

This is not what we need to begin the Age of Obama. I know January is traditionally a dumping ground when the studios get rid of all the stuff they produced as vanity projects for their stars or the real dogs they simply made to use as tax losses, but not everything has to be something you’d want to drop off at the pool with the kids, if you get my drift, turds like The Unborn or Bride Wars. Fortunately, we should all fall to our knees and say a little prayer of thanks to God, Buddha, Allah, or whoever you’d like for keeping Clint Eastwood around for as long as he has because this guy just gets better with every picture he makes. Clint ages better than most wines. Even when he turns vinegary, he is still palatable.

At 78, Eastwood astounds with his insights into the human psyche as director and star of
Gran Torino, a fascinating twist on his long-time persona as Dirty Harry Callahan in his old age. Granted, he doesn’t actually play the iconic character by name but “Harry” is there, under the surface, even if his name is Walt Kowalski. Walt is a widower, living, or, more accurately, existing, without joy in the home he shared with his wife for nearly fifty years, who has just passed away as the film begins.

Much to his chagrin, the demographics of the neighborhood around Walt have rapidly changed in the past couple of years, but it never really becomes all that irritable until a Hmong family moves directly into the house next door. This is when Walt starts channeling my father and spewing every racial epithet he can muster to make sure we know he is a complete a-hole. Of course, we also can pretty much guess that this walnut-hard nut case is bound to crack and before the end credits roll you can bet Walt will be a new man. We can only hope. That never happened with my father. There was only one part of him that softened in his old age and the doctor gave him little blue pills to fix that problem, not that anyone cared.

The journey of a thousand insults leads to a gun, but, ironically, it is Eastwood who is packing heat
in an attempt to protect his neighbor, Thao Vang Lor (debuting 17-year-old Bee Vang) from being dragged by a mob of hoodlums off his own front lawn and into a car as part of a gang initiation (instead of Eastwood just kicking Hmong ass for the sake of doing it, like you might expect). While this seems like a simple matter of doing what’s right in the moment as far as Walt is concerned, he doesn’t expect the reaction of the Lor family and the surrounding Hmong neighbors. By the next morning his front porch is covered in flowers and offerings of food. You know, if I thought just waving a gun at someone and threatening them was enough to get all this booty, I’d have been willing to pistol whip Bea Arthur for a plate of Rice Krispie Treats long ago. Hell, for a Whopper with Cheese I might have even taken out Betty White.

So begins a transformative tale of a closed off man who has nothing but emptiness in his heart for his own adult sons Mitch (Brian Haley; The Departed) and Steve (Brian Howe; Evan Almighty), but who finds he can suddenly feel for a whole new family whose culture he is just beginning to learn. Ahney Her, as Thao’s older sister, Sue, makes a tremendous debut as the proud and brave high school girl who is determined to bring both Kowalski and the chronically shy Thao out of their shells and get them more involved in life. Spunky Sue is instrumental in putting a smile on Walt’s face for the first time in years, a fact that is as much a surprise to her as him.

And as for the Gran Torino of the title? It’s there, Walt’s prized possession, which he has maintained since buying it new in 1972. It becomes a focal point of the gang’s plan of initiation ~ steal the car and you’re in. It is also something Walt’s spoiled rotten granddaughter Ashley (Dreama Walker; tv’s “Gossip Girl”) has an eye on for herself and makes less than subtle attempts at letting her grandfather know that she hopes when he kicks the bucket she hopes the car goes to her. And then there is Thao, who quietly admires the car and out of respect to Walt, keeps the automobile washed and polished on a regular basis. Who’d have thought a vehicle would be so significant? Not since “My Mother the Car” have I been so moved by anything with sparkplugs and a head gasket. Well, until Suri Cruise was made operable, that is.

Another challenge Kowalski faces is coming to terms with his own spirituality, which isn’t just an
ethereal process but a very solid one, in the form of one extremely determined Catholic priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley; Lions for Lambs). Father Janovich is a recent graduate of the seminary who tended to Walt’s wife during her final days, and he promised her that he would do what he could to look after her husband once she was gone. For Janovich, this means more than making sure Walt is eating well and sleeping at night. No, the young Padre is as determined as a Pit Bull with a baby in its mouth. He just won’t let go no matter how much Walt begs.

Eastwood is simply perfect from beginning to end. He encapsulates the frustration and bitterness of the Korean War veteran with a heart full of painful memories and nowhere to release them. Having carried these horrors for more than fifty years has twisted him, gnarled him into the man he is at the beginning of
Gran Torino, and it is only when he lets the Lor family in does he have an opportunity to finally loosen these knots and let his heart slowly become free.

Newcomers Ahney Her and Bee Vang are so incredibly talented. It is awful to admit that because
of their ethnicity they will no doubt have limited opportunities in the American film industry. They both deserve a chance at real stardom. Ignoring their race entirely, each gives a spot-on performance that is heartbreaking and joyful all in one.

Gran Torino is a heck of a ride into the New Year. With Eastwood’s hauntingly beautiful score (he does the music too!), you’ll enjoy a touching tale that might even leave a tear in Dirty Harry’s eye, it’s just that moving. Go, go, go! Who knows how long before another good one comes our way?

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