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Old men say the darndest things. Though sometimes those things are racial slurs so vulgar that they can’t be printed here. In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a foul-mouthed, grumpy bigot. Walt’s an asshole, no other way to put it. He’s angry because his wife just died, his family is a bunch of annoying ingrates, and he can’t accept that he’s one of the few non-minorities living in his neighborhood. The only good thing in his life is an old school Gran Torino, a car that is the envy of all who see it.
Though it appears that Walt is simply going to shrivel up and die a bitter, lonely death, when push comes to shove he begins to protect the Hmong family next door from a local gang targeting the children, daughter Sue (Ahney Her) and son Thao (Bee Vang). As a Korean War veteran, Walt’s racial views spew forth with each breath — and require a trip to Urban Dictionary to understand — but perhaps he can find redemption. If it turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
But even as Walt begins to see that race isn’t such a divider, the doggedly insistent Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) doesn’t seem to have the same luck getting Walt to embrace his religious side. While this storyline ultimately allows for conversations about Walt’s beliefs and motivations and a higher power, it feels like a heavy-handed attempt to cram larger concepts into the film, which Eastwood also directed.
However, it’s not just Walt who needs saving halfway through the film — it’s the film itself. The first hour is rife with problems. For example, scene transitions are completely non-existent, so blinking can truly cause you to miss a day. And when you do realize that a transition has occurred, each scene is too narrowly dedicated to serving a specific purpose: this is the scene where we learn that Walt’s family is comprised of jerks; this is the scene where Walt rails against religion; this is the scene where we see why the Hmong family is being targeted by the gang. These two issues alone break any sort of flow and make the film limp along like a car with a flat tire.
The best thing about the film is Eastwood. Sure, he resorts to a lot of grunting and snarling and spitting to really capture that angry side of Walt, but Eastwood shows enough restraint to turn Walt’s ridiculously offensive lines into a strong performance. It would be easy to hide behind the insults and try to soften them, but Eastwood embraces them without even the slightest nod toward political correctness.
On their own, the rest of the cast would be weak; compared to Eastwood they are almost unwatchable. Many of the Hmong community members are first-time actors and it shows. As the spunky daughter, Her shows potential, but she lapses into scenes where she’s just reciting her lines without any inflection. Vang is the closest to a rising star in the film, doing a fine job opposite Eastwood, but without managing to control the emotional extremes without resorting to screaming.
The second half of Gran Torino contains an emotional connection, and it ends up saving the film. Whether it’s brief flashes of humor or heart-wrenching tragedy, emotions finally seep through the storytelling. However, even these peaks can quickly be destroyed by the following scene. In fact, the film ends on the ultimate of wrong notes: Eastwood’s attempt to sing the title song as the credits roll is more jarring than Pierce Brosnan’s squawking in Mamma Mia. Who would have thought it could get worse than that-
Compared to Eastwood’s last time behind the camera, The Changling, Gran Torino is a minor movie in size and scope. However, because it’s a smaller, simpler canvass, the mistakes can be more easily atoned for and ultimately Gran Torino finds what it’s looking for… a soul.
Some men get better looking with age — and for Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), that’s especially true.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an epic tale of love and time, not to mention the timing of love. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) infuses surreal touches to the script of a man born as an 80-year-old baby who gets younger with each passing day. Similar to Forrest Gump, Benjamin travels through life encountering a bevy of characters that are memorable yet fleeting. But through it all, there is one women, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who’s always there. That they are moving in opposite directions through time is just one of the challenges they face.
Director David Fincher has crafted an absolutely beautiful film. The story, the sets, the cinematography, and perhaps most critically the makeup that transforms the characters is all fantastic. Pitt and Blanchett are marvelous. They work seamlessly against each other as they dance closer and closer. Bolstered by a supporting cast that includes a marvelous Tilda Swinton as one of Benjamin’s lovers, the film feel nothing like its 2 hours and 47 minutes run time. It’s worth every minute.