Monday, January 12, 2009

Gran Torino ***1/2

My first official review!

Note: I like and will use the 4-star system. If you like the 5-star or the grading system, screw you. The 4-star system is easy, instantly comprehendable and comparable. I grew up on it, and am familiar with it. No stars is the worst rating, then 1/2 a star, then *, etc. It goes up by half a star until ****, which is the highest rating.

Gran Torino
***1/2 out of ****

Ladies and gentlemen, witness the triumphant return to the screen of Clint Eastwood. Gran Torino is proof that a senior citizen can still make a great leading man. Although no senior citizen, or any American for that matter is quite like Eastwood. At 78 years old, he's still in amazing physical shape and clearly has a brain much more alert than most people at any age. Throughout his early career, Eastwood was America's most famous screen cowboy, and was the supreme badass of cinema. Then, as he got older, his films got more sentimental, shown in Mystic River, the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, and this year's Changeling. Gran Torino marks his return to being a badass.
Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and widower who is outwardly racist, estranged from his two grown sons, and more than a little pissed off at the way the world works today, especially the teenagers of his grandchildrens' generation. The sheer volume of explitives and racial remarks that come out of his mouth could be used to make a dictionary on all things crude. The highlights of crudeness come from his dialogues with his barber, who he is supposedly best friends with but the viewer has a hard time telling who hates who more. He keeps many things from his past, including a large collection of tools, a bunch of old guns and rifles from the war, and a mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino, his prize possession, giving the film its title. He is never seen driving it, but frequently seen washing and admiring it. That car is what starts the action of the movie.
Walt's next-door neighbors are a large Hmong family who recently lost their father. The two teenagers are Sue and Thao, each played brilliantly by newcomers Ahney Her and Bee Vang, respectively. These kids break traditional customs by the girl being the dominant one in the household, speaking her mind whenever she sees fit and the boy very shy and quiet and frequently seen doing household chores normally reserved for the girls. Their cousin, nicknamed Spider, is the head of a gang and is trying to recruit Thao. He agrees to an initiation test, to steal Walt's beloved car. But Thao is caught in the act and is later forced to work for Walt to pay off his shame. The next night, the gang tries to get Thao to try to steal the car again, and when he refuses, trouble ensues, causing Walt to pull out his old rifle and threaten the gang. After that, he quickly befriends Sue and the rest of the neighborhood, made up predominantly of Hmong people, think of him as a hero.
From there, the plot gets rather formulaic, with the racist old man coming to respect and befriend the young Hmong people and their families. But, like the best formula films, it makes you forget that it is in fact formulaic and continues to surprise you. From the trailer and professional critics' reviews, one would expect a heartfelt drama with some violence sprinkled in. What they won't show is that the film is so damn funny, it's almost a comedy. The violence definitely plays a part in the importance of the film, as it is all there for a reason, to teach Walt about the difference between life and death.
His conversations with his late wife's priest are some of the film's most poignant, as he tries to get Walt to go to confession, and the two come to respect each other despite their vast differences about the workings of the universe. The film opens with the priest talking at Walt's wife's funeral, talking about how death is bittersweet, and Walt is clearly unhappy with the sermon. The final scenes, which I will not give away, reflect back on this sermon as what happens can only truly be described as bittersweet.
Gran Torino is the type of film that's not really made anymore: a brutally honest film about people in the real world, that they aren't always polite to their neighbors and things don't always happen the way common sense says they should. Further, it showcases senior citizens and Chinese people in major roles, which few other Hollywood films will do, and proves that they can hold their own agaist the younger, dumber films. (I'm happy to say this film surpassed both Bride Wars and The Unborn at the box office its nationwide opening weekend.) Eastwood and the story are so good, that the viewers are actually willing to overlook the film's flaws, such as its formulaic plot and the cheesy song playing over the end credits, sung by Eastwood himself. No joke! Eastwood is a fantastic director and actor, but I don't think anyone would encourage him to go on the radio.
I strongly recommend this film, just prepare for the crude language and brutal violence- the film earned its R rating.

You can watch the trailer here:

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