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A Night at the Movies: "Gran Torino"

By admin Published: January 17, 2009


I have some rather large gaps in my recent moviegoing, especially considering that the Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 22. So I am hoping to do at least a little catching up this weekend. I started tonight with "Gran Torino," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. ...

While Eastwood is 78 years old, he has been a busy guy lately, with two movies released in 2008, with Angelina Jolie, which Eastwood directed but did not act in, and "Gran Torino," which saw Eastwood back on the big screen even though there had been talk that he was done with acting after "Million Dollar Baby" four years ago. (The talk came via "In the Valley of Elah," which was reportedly offered to Eastwood, but instead starred Tommy Lee Jones.) That was a good movie to go out on, and a better movie overall than "Gran Torino." But there's a solid Eastwood performance carrying "Gran Torino," one that plays on the audience's expectations about Eastwood in the way it presents his character, cranky old auto-factory worker Walt Kowalski.

As the movie begins, Kowalski's wife has died. She appears to have been one of those women who make up for a lot of their husband's shortcomings -- that the man can be outrageous and irritable because the wife is there to smooth things over. But now Walt's wife is gone, and no one is around to calm him down, to cut him off before he says something too awful, and to give people -- especially family -- a reason to put with Walt. But the death of Walt's wife is not the only change in his life. His old neighborhood has changed around him; Southeast Asian families, mainly of Hmong descent, have moved in, bringing with them their customs, their food -- and a visual reminder of the animosity Walt has had toward Asians since fighting in the Korean War.

Walt doesn't want to let go of the past -- including the 1972 Gran Torino he helped build and still cherishes -- but the present is getting a grip on him, and the two can't coexist. But he is drawn into the lives of one family, and through them into the Hmong community, and into conflict with a local gang. As the conflict grows, you will probably think you know where the movie is going; at least I did. And I was wrong. But the movie is often about something other than what it appears to be, with ideas about race and identity and guilt, and what it means to be an American.

Eastwood has spent a lot of screen time on questions of identity and perception, and that has included some of his best work. "Gran Torino" isn't quite up to, say, "Flags of Our Fathers" or "Million Dollar Baby." (There are times when you know far too well where "Gran Torino" is going. Eastwood likes to take his time telling a story, slowing the pace a bit too much in spots here. And I have a huge reservation about the ending, which I can't get into without spoiling it.) Still, while this is second-tier Eastwood, his top tier is so remarkable that even the second tier isn't bad. And I always like watching him onscreen, and this gave me another chance to do that.

Greatly admired as a director but never quite given his due as an actor, Eastwood is in excellent form throughout "Gran Torino." Again, I wouldn't rank it among Eastwood's best performances -- not with "Million Dollar Baby" or "Unforgiven," certainly. But there are a lot of good moves in it. Walt's an angry guy, but his anger at times seems comical because we're seeing in him some of the exaggerated anger of Eastwood's Harry Callahan; Walt's handy but not too bright, and as the movie heads toward its climax, Walt is forced to face mistakes he has made long ago, and ones he has made very recently.

On a side note, these were the trailers with "Gran Torino": "State of Play" (based on a terrific British miniseries, but looking as if it has been retooled as an action movie), "The Soloist," "The International," "Watchmen" and "He's Just Not That Into You."

And the multiplex was quite crowded, with sizable numbers coming for "Hotel for Dogs" and "Notorious." "Gran Torino," an early-evening showing, was packed although it was not that large a theater.

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