‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ is Michael Moore’s Angriest and Most Vital Documentary to Date

Fahrenheit 119 teaser poster

It’s bad enough Donald Trump is still living in the White House, so making a movie about the damage he is doing is pointless, right? Well, Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9,” you may be surprised to learn, is not just about Trump. In fact, we only see Trump on screen for 20 minutes at the most here. Instead, Moore is far keener to explore the state of America and how it led to the former host of “The Apprentice” to being elected to the highest office in the country. It has been almost two years, but even Moore still asks the question many of us asked on election night, “How the fuck did this happen?” What results is Moore’s angriest documentary yet, and one of the most vital he has ever made.

Like Dinesh D’Souza’s propaganda colostomy bag “Death of a Nation,” Moore takes us back to the months and days leading up to the election as we see George Clooney declaring Donald Trump will never be President, and media pundits laughing at the thought of it ever becoming a reality. Like many, I assumed Hillary had the election in the bag, but Moore knew better than anyone Trump would end up in the White House, and he takes us right back to the night of November 8, 2016 which started out with hope and euphoria, and ended with utter devastation as a certain victory proved to be anything but certain, and the man who captured the Presidency did not look all that excited about his win. Moore is in a perfect position to tell us “I told you so” in this documentary, but I appreciated the fact he did not.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” is of course a play on the title of another Michael Moore documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it also refers to the date of November 11, 2016 in which the Electoral College, a political body which truly needs to be abolished, certified Trump’s victory after bringing in their ballots to Congress in containers which Moore loving describes as “baby coffins.” The fact Hillary steamrolled Trump in the popular election by almost 3 million votes did not matter as the Electoral College had the final say, and the world just had to live with it.

Moore does spend some time on Trump, reminding us of the unhealthy and troubling attraction he has to his daughter Ivanka, of how he walked in on Miss America contestants while they were naked, and of how he gleefully plays the media for suckers. There’s a montage of a press conference he arrived very late to, and we watch as the media outlets continue their coverage while endlessly waiting for him to appear. As tempting as it is to call Trump stupid, he is very smart in the ways of manipulation, and those at major networks (Les Moonves in particular) revel in the amount of money they are making off of his campaign.

But soon afterwards, Moore switches gears as he knows much of the information he is presenting us is nothing new, and we have certainly become attuned to Trump committing his crimes in plain sight. So instead, Moore focuses on the state of our union leading up to his shocking victory, and he makes us realize how we should have seen this coming as his political campaign was not as unique as we believed.

One of Moore’s big targets is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder whose actions in part led to the poisoning of Flint’s water supply and its residents developing high levels of lead, the kind of mineral which never leaves the body. What I did not realize about Snyder beforehand was how he had no political experience before taking office, and he was best known back then as one of the richest men in America. Moore ponders if Trump looked at what Snyder did, privatizing public services in order to make more money, and used this as one of many excuses to run for President. Looking at Snyder ends up reminding me and others of how Trump was never the first person to get elected despite having no political experience, and we are again made aware of how many Americans continue to vote against their own best interest.

Once again, Moore visits his hometown of Flint, Michigan to observe its still constant decay as it has long since become the town America has forgotten. Residents are eager to move, but no one will buy their homes. Medical professionals and social service workers alert Snyder and his cronies to the water poisoning situation, and they are silenced. Others complain about how high the water bill remains and of having to decide to pay it instead of getting food. Moore’s first documentary, “Roger & Me,” showed Flint at the beginning of its economic devastation, and it is devastating to see the city in an even worse condition now.

But while Moore has the Republicans in his sights, he is not about to leave Democrats off the firing line. Despite supporting the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he doesn’t hesitate to go after them, nor should he. President Obama gets it especially hard as his visit to Flint, Michigan resulting in filling his supporters with hope, and instead leaves them devastated to where they lose faith in the political system. Like Moore, I believe Barack Obama is the greatest American President of my lifetime so far, but the barbs Moore hurls at him here are justified as he attempts to drink a glass of Flint water and instead merely wets his lips with it.

Hillary gets some harsh criticisms thrown her way as well and for good reason. In reviewing her loss, we see the glaring mistakes her campaign made such as not visiting states like Wisconsin, and her ties to Wall Street were impossible to ignore. And yes, there were those damn emails which were brought up constantly. Despite many Americans getting sick of them being brought up, her political opponents never let the subject go.

But perhaps most damming is when Moore reveals how the Democratic National Committee, not Hillary, threw the election to ensure that Bernie Sanders would not get the party’s nomination. In an all-too-brief interview with Moore, Sanders admits the Democrats saw him as big threat to their platform, and had he clinched the nomination, he probably would have won the Presidency. As much as I wanted to believe the DNC would not stoop to such levels, the evidence presented here is impossible to deny. We even see a supporter from a certain state hold up a sign saying how Sanders won all the counties even though its delegates went on to favor Hillary.

But as bleak and angry as “Fahrenheit 11/9” is, there are moments of humor and hope. Moore limits the number of shenanigans this he performs time around, but we do see him trying to maker a citizen’s arrest of Rick Snyder and later spraying his mansion with water from Flint, Michigan. He even pulls an Erin Brockovich on one Snyder’s advisors by inviting him to drink a glass of Flint water, and the man’s reaction is not a big surprise. One of the biggest laughs comes when Moore accuses Gwen Stefani of being the reason why Trump decided to run for President as Trump discovered she was getting paid more for being a judge on “The Voice” than he was for being the host of “The Apprentice.” Granted, this is probably not altogether true, but considering how thin-skinned Trump is, it makes a hilarious amount of sense.

However, Moore makes us see there is still hope for America as we are shown images of its citizens marching against gun violence and in support of underpaid teachers as they are doing what he wants all of us to do, make our voices heard and to do something about our anger. We see people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez running for political office out of a need to make things better for Americans and make things like health care available for all. Susan Sarandon remarked recently how the election of Trump has inspired many people of color and different faiths to run for office. I initially rolled my eyes after hearing this, but after watching “Fahrenheit 11/9,” I believe she has a point.

We also see Moore with survivors of the Parkland, Florida shooting including David Hogg whose activism has become an inspiration to many horrified by the number of school shootings in the United States which continue to occur with frightening regularity. As teenagers, we become quick to see through the hypocrisy of adults and are much more tuned in to issues many politicians will not even acknowledge. Hogg has taken things further with his fellow classmates as we watch them have an effect on the realm of politics and encouraging others to help bring about a much-needed weapons ban.

I came out “Fahrenheit 11/9” shaken and saddened as, like Moore, I wonder if the democracy Americans continue to fight for ever really existed in the first place. Many of the assertions he makes may not stand up to scrutiny, and the documentary at times seems a bit unfocused, but his point of view remains as strong as ever. His critics will be quick to call this one liberally biased, but Moore shows no real bias here as he shows we are all complicit in America being where it is today, and that we will be even more complicit if we don’t get out the vote in November. After all these years, Moore is still passionate about fighting for America its citizens deserve, and he is not about leave it behind.

And yes, Moore does take the time to make comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler. Just keep this in mind: Like Trump and Snyder, Hitler had no political experience when he took office.

* * * * out of * * * *