Gran Torino

(2008) ** R
116 min. Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Cory Hardrict, Bee Vang, Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Brian Haley.

/content/films/3298/2.jpgWhat I learned from Gran Torino: never underestimate Clint Eastwood. Even working with a script that makes Afterschool Specials look like Ibsen, Eastwood is getting all kinds of love from critics groups, awards bodies and audiences. But with so much quality product making its way into theaters, don’t be suckered into seeing Gran Torino. No matter how loyal you may have remained to Clint, this one will set eyes rolling and keep them rolling all the way to the closing title tune sung partly by Eastwood himself ("Engine hums and bitter dreams grow/Heart locked in a Gran Torino/It beats a lonely river/All night long..."). Eastwood's off-kilter but healthy sense of humor has never seemed more at odds with the material than it does in this awards-time Important Film, but one assumes the director didn’t mean the picture as a straight comedy despite its mostly laughable characters, situations and dialogue.

Eastwood stars as Korean War vet Walt Kowalski , a spitting, grunting, grimacing old racist a-hole who raised a-hole sons who gave him a-hole grandkids. Freshly widowed, Walt is seen by his kids as a pain-in-the-ass (“Dad’s still living in the ‘50s…There’s nothing anybody can do that won’t disappoint the old man") and by his grandkids as a creepy, mouth-breathing coot. In a blighted 'hood that's gradually been inhabited by immigrants, Walt has a catalog of slurs ever ready for his neighbors (at least eight, and though they're not endorsed, they're compounded with what seems like perverse enjoyment). His inability to love his neighbor is emphasized by the constant presence of the young Catholic parish priest (Christopher Carley) who buried Walt's wife. Having pledged to her that he'd get Walt to submit to confession, Father Janovich hounds Walt, but the old man remains staunchly “unforgiven." Sez the priest: “You know a lot more about death than you do living.”

All of this is established with a stunning lack of subtlety (perhaps, at least with the family, the intention was to show Walt's subjective projection?), but matters get even worse when Kowalski grudgingly takes an interest in a Hmong teenager who lives next door and protects him from thug life. Bullied into a gang initiation involving stealing Walt's well-preserved 1972 Gran Torino, Thao (Bee Vang) botches the mission when Walt catches him in the act. Before you can say "Miss Maudie" (or, for that matter, "Miss Daisy"), Walt and Thao are trading life lessons as Walt grudgingly accepts Thao's restitution doing chores. Of course, toxic gang culture remains right around the corner, threatening to ruin everything. The lone rider against a gang of no-good varmints of course echoes with Eastwood's Western accomplishments, but everything in Gran Torino is painfully ham-handed, like this pre-showdown exchange with the local preacher.

Father Janovich: Go in peace.
Walt: Oh, I am at peace.
Father Janovich: Jesus Christ.

Of course there will be blood. Here's a guy still compelled to brandish his gigantic Army rifle, the better for a trailer-ready "Get off my lawn!" (there's hope yet for Schwarzenegger, in his twilight years, to get off his own septugenarian catch phrases).

Warrior-for-life Walt hasn't lost his manly edge: someone crosses him, they'll regret it, goddamn it; he's an old dog reenacting what he was taught even as he ruefully understands that no one wins in war. It's a part of Eastwood's screen mythos: an ambivalence about violence in its necessity, its misuse, and its power to eat away at the soul. Still, aren't we meant to relish each threat by Walt, including his goofy predilection to point and shoot with his fingers whenever the rifle isn't handy? Though the melodramatic climax is musty as drama, at least it's conceptually interesting (in what it pointedly lacks) as the potential bookend to Eastwood's acting career.

/content/films/3298/3.jpgAs counterpoint to Walt's undying masculine strength, Thao (called "Toad" by Walt) is mocked as girly by the gang, a notion Walt seconds by suggesting he can "man him up a little bit." This includes teaching him to be handy around the house and to shoot the shit, man-style, as demonstrated by Walt and his barber buddy (John Carroll Lynch) slinging ball-busting insults at each other. (Thao's sister also indirectly pegs her bookish brother as going against the grain of ghetto gender roles, when she points out, "The girls go to college, and the boys go to jail.")

It’s the demented Eastwood version of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, complete with predictable plot trajectory, profanity, violence and bizarre jokes. Even at his worst, Eastwood compels interest with his comfortingly familiar brand of acting, but amateurish performances from Vang and Ahney Her as Thao's sister Sue do the film no favors. Even if one accepts the proposition that Gran Torino is, more than awards bait, a meditation on America, it's not a terribly original one. Yes, times change, as much as old people resist. A symbolic old Gran Torino is more treasured by society than the symbolic old man who owns it. The white man is becoming a minority, a fact accompanied in some quarters by bitter racism. That the retired Walt worked at a Ford plant may give the film its most wistful resonance: not only does Walt treasure a bygone model but a bygone make. At least those falling for Gran Torino are buying American.

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 6/9/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner's Blu-ray of Gran Torino replicates the film's particular style, as designed by Eastwood and longtime DP Tom Stern. Muted colors and delicate lighting schemes contribute to the film's slightly dim and rusted vintage look. Detail is strong, with black level and contrast also in their proper places. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes sturdily render a story with little in the way of showy sound effects.

In bonu features, the BD kicks off with Blu-exclusive "The Eastwood Way" (19:17, HD). This nominal look at the director's laid-back process more clearly functions as a straight-forward making-of featurette, which is just fine. Participants include Eastwood, producers Robert Lorenz and Bill Gerber, writer Nick Schenk, editor Joel Cox, casting director Ellen Chenoweth, Christopher Carley, Ahney (Whitney) Her, Hmong consultant Paula Yang, Sonny Vue, Bee Vang, editor Gary Roach, Brooke Chia Thao, casting associate Geoffrey Miclat, costume designer Deborah Hopper, and Doua Moua. The featurette also includes glimpses of the audition tapes for Vang and Her.

"Manning the Wheel" (9:23, HD) takes "a look at the American car culture, specifically the Gran Torino, and what this car represents" to Walt and "generations of American men." Interviewees include Eastwood, Vang, Schenk, Lorenz, transportation coordinator Larry Stelling, Gerber, Petersen Automotive Museum curator Leslie Kendall, Miclat, Her, Moua, Vue, Carley, and Roach.

"Gran Torino: More Than a Car" (3:57, HD) mostly interviews car buffs at an annual vintage car event called the Woodward Dream Cruise. On hand to comment are Kendall and, at the Woodward Dream Cruise, Edward Jablonksi, Mark Zivkovich, George Calvet, Rex Beasaw, Mark Marison, Clive Brown, Timothy Gregory, and Phil DeMaggio.

On a second disc, Warner provides a Digital Copy for portable media playback.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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