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Jan 3, 2009

Fletch's Film Review: Gran Torino

I'm in my early 30s. My parents are approximately 35 years older than me, placing them just a few years younger than Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski. They saw Gran Torino a few days before me and, being lovers of Eastwood, vastly enjoyed Clint's last hurray as a Harry Callahan-like badass (I have to assume it's his last at age 78, but one never knows). Within a few frames of the film, I could see exactly what it is that they (and countless others in their demographic, not to mention most folks with common sense) would love about Kowalski: yeah, he's a bitter old prick, but the man's got principles. He's done hard manual labor his whole life and earned every penny he made, and has immense pride not only for himself but for his surroundings as well, be they his prized Gran Torino, the neighborhood he no longer recognizes, or even the church he has little interest in attending (and he'll be damned if his punk grandchildren are gonna disrespect it or him). He takes nothing from anyone, takes nothing for granted, and you better damn well do the same.

So, you can imagine the heavy heart that it gives me to say this: Gran Torino is not a very good film. Now, that's not to say that it's not an enjoyable film. It's a goddamned insensitive laugh riot that rivals Borat and outdoes Archie Bunker in its equal opportunity name-calling and uneasy situational comedy, and as loathe as we may be to admit it, we're a bloodthirsty society and love seeing a righteous Clint kick ass, sins be damned. Since we know it's good guy Clint Eastwood starring, we know from the start that Walt isn't a hateful bigot, just an ignorant one set in his ways and used to an America that no longer exists - and he has no time or intention to learn about the Hmong immigrants that have "infested" his neighborhood. Many a laugh is garnered from Walt's insensitivity; he has no problem calling a roomful of neighbors "slants" or "gooks," and quite possibly derives more pleasure from their discomfort with him. After all, icy cold Walt would rather have them all just pack up ship and move back to wherever the hell they came from than bother learning anything about them.

But as sure as death and taxes, so are we assured that the Grinch's heart will grow 3x by the end of the day, and that all that is just and right with the world will be as God intended. Along the way, we'll be subjected to, amongst other things: spotty acting from Eastwood's otherwise likable junior cast mates (specifically Ahney Her and Bee Vang as a sister-brother pair that get to know Walt the most over the course of the film), a bevy of bad sitcom-level writing, paper-thin characters (only Walt and Vang's Thao have qualities that go beyond the surface), and a few clues that perhaps lead us to believe that maybe Eastwood had just a bit too much to do with the production. Really Clint - singing a theme song over the end credits?

Fletch's Film Rating:

"You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you."

Random unrelated thoughts:

* It took me months of viewing the trailer and 100 minutes into the movie before I realized what so many others also noticed whilst watching Gran Torino: it's essentially a modern day Karate Kid, only with the (racial) roles reversed. There's Clint, playing his best Miyagi, teaching a teenage boy how to become a man by having him do house and yard work, all with the unspoken promised prize of a classic car for which young Daniel-san, er, Thao can use to woo women. Likewise, there's Thao (and his wiser older sister) teaching the teacher the ways of his people and culture and to be more social in his later years. The only thing missing was the All-Valley Tournament, Billy Zabka and the "Get him a bodybag, yeah!" guy.

* A month or so ago, I more or less had some problems with troublemaker Charlie Kauffman and the waves of subtext that rolled through his Synecdoche, New York. Well, if ever there were an Opposites Film Festival, surely Synecdoche and Gran Torino could be paired. Sure, Eastwood as a director has never been all that deep, but even Mystic River had that creepy King Lear-or-whatever-the-hell-it-was layer that reared its ugly head at the end of that fine film. Gran Torino? As deep as a kiddie pool - I've seen after-school specials that were more subtle. Since I seem to be complaining about both sides of the fence...well, I am. I guess I prefer a happy medium. I feel too dumb walking out of a Kauffman or Lynch puzzler; on the other hand, I feel like Eastwood's directorial efforts, well-made as some may be, are intended for folks that think Saved by the Bell is a deep show.

* A couple of casting choices I need to call out: first, a big round of applause for giving a largish, if unimportant role to venerable character actor John Carroll Lynch (Fargo). Secondly, how many directors get to cast their 22-year old sons in films, as wiggers no less, then get to call them a "pusscake" for all the world to hear. Welcome to Hollywood, Scott Eastwood.

16 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: Gran Torino"

Nick said...

Hm... sad to hear it's only decent at best. After all the 'super amazing wow' reviews I've read and the cool looking trailer (that I've only seen once), I had some pretty high hopes for it.

I'll still check it out if and when it ever decides to come my way, though.

Anonymous said...

Fletch, I wouldn't say myself that it isn't a very good film, but I would be hard-pressed to deny that it isn't as good as it was on repeated viewing. You begin to see that it's a major deceit, reliant on what you rightly assert is guilty humor. And yes like you describe in that most interesting lead-in, the Eastwood character has many clones, and later say, the film is surface-deep. Eastwood gives a solid performance, but offers nothing new, and at the end of the day some os us hate ourselves for laughing our asses off.

Terrific piece here, and pleased I have finally gotten over to this popular site.

Fletch said...

Nick - like I said, it's certainly enjoyable, but I don't understand it making anyone's top 10 lists or being talked about as an awards contender, outside of perhaps Clint as a lead actor, but even then it's mostly a one or two note role. I think we all (collectively) just love to love Clint so much that we're more than willing to neglect what I feel are obvious weaknesses in the film.

Sam - thanks for the comment and for stopping by. Yeah, it felt like what I was being told was important (respect your elders, have some respect for the church even if it holds no appeal to you, help little old ladies with groceries, killing is bad), but that as a whole, the idioms were all so obvious it was as though we were being lectured by the 27-year old priest the entire time. Nothing new at all, but no, I have no problem with guilt-laced humor, either.

A little seperate from all that...much is made of Eastwood's efficient directorial style, how we hates multiple takes and all that. I'm a big supporter of that philosophy, and like I said, the cast was appealing, but I think it fails miserably with amatuer actors. I had a hunch and looked it up - yup, his two featured co-stars have no other listings on their IMDb resume. Likewise, I recall thinking that the doctor he goes to see was a pretty crappy actress...yup, one other project (and what looks like a bit part at that). This has to be the worst-acted, best-reviewed film of the year...

Nick said...

I guess that just goes to show you that (like you said), awards people and film snobs/uber-critics just like to kiss Clint's ass no matter how good or bad his films are.

Personally, I think the guy is overrated (but I did enjoy Changeling, and I did have some hopes for Gran Torino).

Joe Baker said...

Fletch, right here with ya on this one. I love Clint's recent films (hell Changeling will probably end up on my favs of the year list) but this was one just feels... awkward. There's a quasi-kick in seeing Eastwood play Walter Matheau as Grumpy Old Man #3, but that wears out before long. And that ending. Horrible. Where "Mystic River" earns its denouement shaded in moral complexity, this one just sort of limps across.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Harry Calhoun, and while I deeply appreciate the "badass" designation, I think you meant "Harry Callahan" from the Dirty Harry movies. But thanks for the compliment anyway. At least in the world of poetry, I do like to think I'm a badass. :-)

Nick said...

haha... yeah... I've never seen a Dirty Harry movie, but I was like "Isn't it Harry Callahan?"

Fletch said...

Awwwwwww, crap. That's what happens when you write a review at 1:30 in the morning...

Thanks for the correction, guys.

Patricia Perry said...

Fletch- You pretty much confirmed every suspicion I had about this from watching the trailer. I don't think I'll be seeing it. I'm not a big Eastwood fan, myself. My brother refers to "Gran Torino" as "Old Codger with a Gun," and thinks it should spawn a whole new, "Dirty Harry"-style series of "Old Codger with a Gun" flicks.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Fletch - This movie made my top 10.

Perhaps it's because I'm from Michigan and went to school in Detroit. Maybe its because my mom was a factory worker (In fact, you can see her in the opening montage of Aspen Extreme). Maybe I'm a closet Eastwood freak. I'm going to go out on a limb and call this a good movie.

By all rights, it should have been a bad one. Eastwood and Lynch, if I understand things correctly, are the only two "real" actors in the movie, the script is weak, and Clint relied on a lot of family members, a Hmong crew, and a big Michigan movie-making discount coupon to get the thing done, but somehow, it works.

A lot of it is Eastwood the actor. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it is Eastwood the director, too. Maybe he's not the deepest of people behind the camera, but he milked everybody in the movie for all they were worth. It's much better than some films gaining considerable Oscar-buzz for taking the safe route. I'll be buying Gran Torino on DVD. I'll be forgetting Frost/Nixon.

Fletch said...

Pat - I would consider myself an Eastwood fan, and would definitely watch this again, as the entertainment value is certainly there, but it's certainly not his "best film" or anything like that. And tell your brother his idea is fandamntastic. I'm ready to watch every film in the "Old Codger With a Gun" series right now...

Paul - I too enjoyed Eastwood, but I gotta say, it sounds like either like the perfect storm of similarities between the film and your life, or that you've made a number of concessions for the film so that you can like it. I understand either scenario, but still don't think the film belongs in any sort of aggregated Top 10 lists.

And, in the end, I'll be forgetting Frost/Nixon, too - this is much more memorable...for that gawdawful song at the end if nothing else. ;)

Anil Usumezbas said...

"Gran Torino? As deep as a kiddie pool"

Haha! Spot on, once again Fletch. I also didn't care much for the film but my feelings are a little bit more extreme - I simply hated it. Absolutely nothing about it seems right to me.

I would choose Changeling over this one under any circumstances.

Would you also share my opinion if I told you I thought this year has been a shitty one in terms of fall and winter movies? (or just movies, in general)

Fletch said...

Anil - Changeling never appealed to me. The reports I heard were that it was two hours of Angie screaming "Give me back my son!" or something like that. Meh. I thought at the least Gran Torino had entertainment value despite its not being a great film. I'm sorry you hated it.

I would mostly agree with you about this year's crop of films. I don't think it's been wildly deep, but my top four (can't spoil just yet - the End of Year Spectacular is coming soon) rival my top four from last year, I'd think. It's just that, after them...I don't have much that I particularly looooved.

Still need to see The Wrestler and a handful of others, though.

My bigger gripe is that they dumped so many movies on or around Christmas...and had so few in the weeks before or after. Seven Pounds? Really?

Daniel said...

I have to hand it to you. I never notice those production details, like Eastwood's son starring in this.

So I loved this movie. I think it's one of the most important of the year by far, and should be seen by everyone. Doesn't mean I think it's the "best" by regular standards, but of course you might know that I judge my movies a little differently anyway (these would be off the charts on the "significance" scale).

I guess I fall in line with Paul on this one. The movie was born and bred here in Minnesota, and I see people like Walt and Thao all the time (literally, Bee Vang and other cast members live here - they just went to a casting call for this movie on a whim last summer).

In the meantime, Changeling has secured a spot on my 10 worst list.

Fletch said...

"I see people like Walt and Thao all the time (literally, Bee Vang and other cast members live here - they just went to a casting call for this movie on a whim last summer)."

I know we'll have to agree to disagree on the overall quality/significance of Gran Torino, Daniel, but I just had to say in response to the above quote: I know. That much was obvious.

In all seriousness, I think the poor acting hurt this movie more than anything else (even Clint's warbling). Hell, even the great John Carroll Lynch didn't come out unscathed...

Anonymous said...

Clint Eastwood used his outward crankiness to come across as tough and yet also heroic at the same time, well done i'd say