Monday, January 12, 2009

Gran Torino

Your humble blogger has been laid up since Saturday afternoon with some sort of intestinal ailment. Having gone 36 hours with nothing but chicken noodle soup and tea, I ventured to the movie theater. I justified this by the fact that I feel better sitting down than laying down and it was unseasonably warm in the Bay Area today. I don't have air conditioning so in my weakened condition, I needed cooler temperatures to recuperate.

I saw Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. There was a surprisingly large number of people in the audience for mid-day Monday. I noticed they had some Senior Monday special and there were a number of Clint's contemporaries in the audience.

Gran Torino was a fun film. It plays off of Eastwood's tough guy image while acknowledging his advancing years. As the film opens, Walt Kowalski is at the funeral of his recently departed wife. His two sons and his grandchildren are in attendance but that doesn't add much comfort because Kowalski doesn't seem to like them and the feeling is reciprocated.

As Kowalski become situated in his life as a widower, he becomes drawn into the family drama playing out next door. A Hmong family has moved in and Walt doesn't like it. This is probably a good point to mention that Walt is a racist and has a lot of guns including the carbine he used in Korea. As only Eastwood can portray, Walt is an irascible but lovable racist. He'll judge a man fairly once he gets to know him but until then, he'll call him a wop or a zipperhead. In that regard, Eastwood seems to be channeling Dirty Harry or Gunny Highway from Heartbreak Ridge.

The drama next door involves the two Hmong teenagers - sister Sue and brother Thao (aka Toad to Kowalski). Their father is dead and Thao is coming under pressure to join his cousin in the gang. Sue is more bookish but she is a little smart ass which is what Walt responds to. Thao's gang initiation is to steal Walt's prized, cherry 1972 Gran Torino. Walt built the car himself when he worked on the assembly line at Ford. Thao is not much of thief (actually, he's suffering from a serious case of lack of self-esteem) and Walt gets the jump on him with the aforementioned carbine. Thao runs like hell and Walt doesn't recognize the kid next door...probably because they all look alike to him.

This bungled car boost sets off a deepening friendship between Thao, Sue and Walt. Walt assumes the father figure role to Thao (which he never did to his own sons) and Sue educates Walt on the Hmong traditions. High on the list for Walt is eating their home cooking and drinking their Tsingtao beer. Walt breaks up a fight between Thao and his cousin's gang (again with the help of his trusty carbine) and also intercedes when Sue is being accosted by some black guys walking down the street (this time with a pistol he keeps in his Ford pickup).

Everything seems to be going well. Thao is gaining some self-confidence (he even start dating the delectable Miss Yum Yum) and Walt lands him a job on a construction site. The problem is that Thao's cousin won't let the guy be. They bust his tools and put a cigarette out on his face. Walt knows how handle that kind of crap but his actions set off of cascade of tragedy.

Some people say the ending is a surprise. I saw it coming and think it was telegraphed. I won't go into the details but regardless of what ending you are expecting, the joy of this film is in the journey and not the final payoff.

With that said, I wonder how a guy like Kowalski survived the 60's and 70's calling everyone a gook or a spook. What did his dearly departed wife think of his racist rants and gun collection?

There was one scene that stood out for me. Sue is walking with a white guy that looks like Vanilla Ice and acts like Ali G. They get confronted by three black guys. For some reason, they don't react kindly to the white guy saying "It's all good bro." Then they comment about the Sue's anatomy and some mutual activities they would like to engage in. Sue literally complains about their objectification of women (Asian women in particularly). That doesn't dissuade from their task at hand which seems to be to kick white boy's ass and have Sue pull a three car train. Fortunately, Walt rolls up in his pickup and the first thing he says is "What are you spooks doing?" Soon after, Walt pulls his pistol, the three men back down and voila! it's the start of a beautiful friendship between Sue and Walt.

I also read that with one exception, all the Hmong characters were played by Hmong people recruited from Michigan and Fresno and they were first-time actors. I think it showed to be honest. Sue was a annoyingly pedantic and Thao's performance was uneven although he was gamer. Given their novice status, I think Bee Vang (Thao) and Ahney Her (Sue) turned in strong performances.


I missed the midnight screening of Legend of Drunken Master due to my illness. Even if I was healthy, I would have missed the screening. Based on the Red Vic calendar, I interpreted the showtime to be midnight on Sunday, January 11. In other words, one minute past 11:59 PM, Saturday, January 10. Based on this post, I believe the screening was really at midnight on Monday, January 12 (i.e. 20 hours ago). Typically, midnight screenings are listed as 11:45 PM or 11:59 PM so as to avoid confusion. I submit that the Red Vic was incorrect in stating the film screened on January 11 so I guess it worked out well that I was sick. I would have been peeved to go out there on Saturday night to find out I was 24 hours too early.

I still question whether people will go out to midnight screenings on a worknight.


The Josef von Sternberg retrospective starts on Thursday at PFA.

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