Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gran Torino

I'm just gonna throw it out there. Gran Torino is the best movie of the 2008 season. It's better than Slumdog, better than the Dark Knight or Ironman, better than Benjamin Button, and it's a damn sight better than Milk, The Reader, or Frost/Nixon. Gran Torino is a film that tells a story that takes the viewer through the whole spectrum of human emotion, and that's rare.

Clint Eastwood stars, directs, and produces the film. That right there should assure you of it's quality, as the two of the previous films he did that for, 1992's Unforgiven, and 2004's Million Dollar Baby, took both best director and best picture. I've been very impressed with the transition Eastwood has made in his career, coming all the way from the "idiot of the plains" in Rawhide, to esteemed actor, and now to one of the best directors and producers in the business.

Eastwood performs as Walt Kowalski. An aging Korean War veteran who spent most of his life working in the Ford assembly plants in Detroit. Mr. Kowalski is a hard, prejudiced, and politically incorrect man. He still lives in the mindset of the 1950s, with good and the bad that brings. He's a hard worker, and he has high expectations of himself and those around him. He's also very judgemental, and over the course of the film uses racial epithets with casual ease. Eastwood's acting is amazing here. A little snort here, a scowl there, and even before he opens his mouth, you have a full understanding of how set in his ways this man is.

The acting is great beyond Eastwood too. The film used a large number of Hmong actors with little or no previous experience. Bee Vang and Ahney Her play Thao and Sue Vang Lor, respectively. Thao is a young Hmong boy who has to deal with the gangs that roam the neighborhood, and Sue is a sassy lippy girl who assimilated into American culture with much more ease than the rest of her extensive family. Both of them do a great job at their roles.

Christopher Casey acts as Father Janovich, Mr. Kowalski's Catholic priest, who promised Walt's wife to look after him after she passed on. Janovich is devout, intelligent, and very naive. He spends most of the film serving as the concience for Walt, despite Walt's wishes.

Gran Torino begins in mourning. Walt Kowalski's wife has passed away, and he stand's beside his wife's casket, watching his family shuffle into the pews of the church for the funeral service. They disgust him. One grandson is dressed in a Roy Williams Detroit Lions jersey, his granddaughter is dressed in a far more revealing outfit than a girl her age should wear, and his other grandson is so irreverent it's sickening. Father Janovich delivers a weak eulogy, and the wake, back at Mr. Kowalski's house in Highland Park, is marred by his spoiled family.

As Mr. Kowalski goes out for a chew with his dog, Daisy, he notices yet another Hmong family moving into the neighborhood. This one right next door. Thao and Sue are part of this family. The Hmong are the indigenous hill people of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. They supported the US in the Vietnam War, but when America lost interest, they were slaughtered by Vietnamese forces. Many Hmong became refugees and sought asylum in the US. Most settled in the northern mid west, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Walt just sees them as another bunch of Gooks.

Thao is a shy, introspective kid, who is often picked on by mexican and african gangs. His cousin, "Spider", leads a Hmong gang, that protects him, and pushes him to join. His rite of initiation is to steal a 1972 Gran Torino fastback, a car owned, and built, by one Walter Kowalski. Thao breaks into Walt's garage in the night, waking up the old man. Walt immediately goes to his old army footlocker, and pulls out an M-1 Garand and rushes to defend his property. Walt catches Thao, and was inches away from turning the kid's head into a fine mist, but a coughing fit give Thao enough of a distraction to make his escape.

The next night, the gang is displeased with Thao's failure, and come to Thao's house to take him for another try. This does not make his older sister Sue very happy. There's a tussle, and the whole Hmong clan pretty much winds up out in the yard yelling and shoving. The altercation soon crosses property lines as Thao try to run, and a gang member tackles him, only to look up into the muzzle of Kowalski's M-1. "Get off my lawn..." Walt growls. The gang members relent, and the Hmong are amazed at Mr. Kowalski. They're so thankful for Walt saving Thao from the gang, that they leave gifts for him, ranging from flower bouquets, to whole chickens. Walt is flabbergasted at their affection, as he just wanted to be left alone.

The Hmong clan sends Thao to work for Mr. Kowalski as penance for his attempt at stealing the car. At first, Walt is dismissive, but as he watches the boy work, he begins to appreciate the situation the the kid is in. He begins to work with Thao and Sue to help them improve their lives. Acting as a mentor to Thao, and a friend to Sue, Walt begins to realize how much he has in common with them. He softens to them internally, while externally he remains as grizzled and profane as ever. As events unfold however, he comes to a dark realization. Thao and Sue will never have a real chance at a peaceful life as long as the gangs still have their hold on the neighborhood.

The movie is kind of like the muscle car it's named for. It's sleek and somewhat unadorned. The film is all skill and no budget. There are no real amazing special effects, but the editing is some of the best I've ever seen. There isn't a big name pop soundtrack, but the score is suited perfectly to the film. It's kind of bare-bones. Like an old Gran Torino you see on a used car lot. Kind of a spectre, but the power is there.

Speaking of spectres, it feels as if the ghosts of Eastwood's previous roles are haunting this film. Walt Kowalski's character could easily be Harry Callahan in retirement, or if the film were set in an earlier time, it could be the last ride of The Man With No Name. With the feel of the character, and the powerful ending of the film, I could easily see this as being Eastwood's swan song as an actor. It almost felt like his way of saying goodbye to that part of his life. I hope he remains as a director though.

You will laugh during this film. You will be filled with righteous fury. You will be at peace. You will be proud. You will feel sorrow. This film will move you. It will stir every emotion. This movie is as good as I could ask for.

Gran Torino is 116 minutes long. It as awarded a 72 on Metacritic. I was very impressed. This film went beyond my already high expectations of it. I'm going to give it a 10/10.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Drink of the Moment: Harvey Wallbanger

This is a drink for when you want to just cut out, and get blasted in a hurry. Perfect for trying to forget the Steelers winning the Super Bowl. It tastes good, goes down easy, and is easy to mix.

The drink first cropped up in California in the 1950s, and spread across the nation when it became the featured cocktail of TWA. I guess it works well for curing a fear of flying too. In the words of Modern Drunkard Magazine, this cocktail says that...

You, or someone a lot like you, will inspire Alcoholics Anonymous to abandon the twelve-step program in favor of indiscriminate Tasing.

Sounds about right.

To make this drink, you will need Vodka, Orange Juice, and Galliano. Take 1.5 ounces of Vodka and 3 ounces orange juice, pour both into a Highball glass on the rocks. Stir the mixture, then float half an ounce of Galliano. Then garnish with a cherry or an orange slice. Take a sip, and picture yourself trying to convince everyone that there's something on the wing.
The drink is surprisingly potent. The story behind the name is that supposedly at the party where this drink was invented, a guest named Harvey had a few, then spent the next day banging his head against the wall cursing the drink. I could see that happening easily. The main variation that I know of is called the Hillary Wallbanger, and it substitutes the Vodka in favor of white wine. It's a lot weaker, but if you don't want to kill yourself, it's a good option. See you at the bar.

Super Bowl... *sigh*

I hate the Steelers. Let's just get that out of the way now. We won't get into the reasons for that, but it's just the way it is. As such, I really hated the outcome of Super Bowl XLIII.

I'm no Cardinals fan either, but I can root for Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin. I desperately wanted the Steelers to lose, and I guess, by extension, the Cardinals to win. The Cardinals defense had done a pretty good job up until the final drive by the Steelers, so I had allowed myself to think that the phenomenal catch and run by Fitzgerald might have been enough to put those "don-ton yinsers" in their place. Alas, it was not to be. The defense sat in zone coverage and allowed the Steelers to cut a path down the field, leading to the Santonio Holmes TD. Then the Cardinals took the field again, and did a good job of working down the field, up until Kurt Warner's fumble. I was pissed, and took out my frustration on Guitar Hero III.

Both teams played fairly well, though the clusterfuck of penalties was a little disconcerting. There was a marked difference between the Cardinals of the first half, and the Cards of the second half. One thing that really irked me was James Harrison's punching a down Cardinals player in the back of the head. That got shelved right next to Joey Porter's blasting a crippled Todd Heap on the stack of things that make me hate the Steelers. There's a line between being a hard nosed, tough player, and being a dirty player. Harrison crossed that line. I've seen too many Steelers cross that line.

But look on the bright side. Everyone is undefeated today...

Sunday, February 1, 2009


I was browsing Youtube the other day, and I accidently discovered there is no god.

If there is a just and loving god in the heavens, this movie will be buried, and whoever came up with this idea will be fired. Out of a cannon. Into the sun.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fixing College Football: The Apartheid of the Mid Majors

Teams in Mid Major conferences have no realistic chance at winning the national title. Their only real hope is to be the top team in the mid majors for an extended stretch, then pray that a BCS conference decides to expand. Even then, there are limited opportunities, and the last time this occurred was when the Big East expanded in 2005. Three teams have moved up from the mid majors to be able to contend in the last 4 years. This is an unacceptable situation.

The other side of the coin, however, is that often times when a highly touted mid major team rips through their schedule and win a berth in a decent bowl game, they find themselves outclassed by BCS conference teams that placed 2 or 3 slots below them in the standings of their conference. It's a fact that the inability to be competitive has caused the Mid Majors to stagnate, creating a disparity that cannot be easily repaired. The Mid Majors are easier conferences, and one of my key tenants is the standardization of schedules.

The question becomes, how can I reconcile the disparity in scheduling with the unfair policy of locking the mid majors schools out. To that, I look at football, of a sort. The English Premier League utilizes a system of promotion and relegation to ensure that the top conferences always have the top teams. This is the solution. The champion of the Mid Major conference will be promoted to the BCS conference, and the last place team of the BCS conference will be demoted to the mid major conference. This way, any school is no more than a year away from being eligible for a national title.

Each BCS conference will be wedded to a Mid Major conference, those links will be unveiled as I unveil the new mid major conference configurations.

From the Vault: Casshern

I own a ridiculous amount of movies. Some are good, some are bad, some are classics, and some are cult films. In an effort to jump start a more regular blogging pattern, I'm going to pull one off the shelf at random every other Wednesday, and review it. We're going to kick this off with a Japanese import. The film is called Casshern.

What is it?: Casshern is the live action adaptation of the 1973 Japanese animated series Neo-Human Casshern. It was among the first films to use a green screen back lot almost exclusively.

Where did I get it?: From the discount bin at Hollywood Video.

Why?: I had watched a couple of Protomen Youtube Music Videos using the film. It looked amazing. The next day I went to rent a movie, and there it was. It was like fate.

What is it about?: Casshern chronicles a world at the end of a 50 year war that has devastated the planet. The Eastern Federation defeated the robotic armies of Europa, but the price was high. The environment was laid to waste, and because of this, disease and famine run rampant throughout the world. Most of the leaders of the Eastern Federation are dying slowly from a multitude of maladies related to the high levels of contamination.

But there is still hope. A brilliant scientist named Dr. Azuma has discovered Neo-Cells. Found only in a certain ethnic group, who are essentially pure breed humans, Neo-Cells can become any body part, transplanted without fear of rejection... stop me if you've heard this before. The military quickly backs Dr. Azuma with copious amounts of funding. Soon, Dr. Azuma's work is flourishing, whole banks of organs and limbs have been constructed, and the testing is preparing to move into the next phase.

However, tragedy strikes Dr. Azuma's life. His son, Tetsuya, had been serving in the military fighting against the terrorists in Zone Seven. A trap left by the enemy killed Tetsuya, and the military was bringing the body back home. At the same time, disaster strikes Dr. Azuma's work. Lightning crashes into the lab, causing the banks of organs and limbs to reconstitute themselves into sapient beings. The military cracks down almost immediately, killing most of them. But a few of these "Neo-Sapiens" escape into the wilderness. His son dead, and his work in shambles, Dr. Azuma gets a crazy idea. He takes his son's corpse, and dips it into the goo left behind by the escaped Neo-Sapiens. Tetsuya is reborn, and like Steve Austin, he's better, stronger, faster than he was before. However, his new found strength is tearing his body apart, and he's forced into a special suit of armor designed by his fiance's father.

The Neo-Sapiens that escaped fight their way through the unforgiving wilderness, and find an abandoned castle. This castle was one of Europa's automated robot production facilities. With the robotic armies of Europa at their command, they swear vengeance upon the Eastern Federation. In one of their early attacks, they blast into the facility where Tetsuya is being kept. As Tetsuya fights them off, he realizes that he's the only one who can fight against these superhumans. As he begins to take the fight to the Neo-Sapians, he gets closer and closer to the ugly truth about Neo-Cells.

Why would you like it?: If you're a fan of action films, this is amazingly over the top. It really does a good job of capturing the action style of Japanese action animation. It looks fantastic. The artists had a field day with this one. They managed to make it look modern and filthy at the same time, which flies in the face of the typical "the future will be painted white" that gets put forward too often. The soundtrack is pretty sweet, including a theme song performed by Utada Hikaru.

Why it might not be for you: It's all in Japanese, with no dubbing. The story isn't as deep as it seems. Although that might simply be due to things being lost in translation, as I've heard that the subtitles are a butchery of the script. The ending is kind of baffling, too.

What the critics think: They don't. Casshern didn't see a mainstream American release, so it didn't get a metareview.

What I think: Casshern is a niche film. Japanophiles, action fanatics, and especially Japanophile action fanatics, will love this film. A more mainstream audience probably won't find this near as enjoyable. But I think it fills its niche well. I give it a 6/10.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fixing College Football: The Pac 10

For those of you who have been following my grand scheme, you know that the Pac 10 is, in my opinion, the model for conference configuration. A true round robin every season and every team has a hated rival.

The University of Southern California
The University of California (Los Angeles)
The University of California
Stanford University
The University of Oregon
Oregon State University
The University of Washington
Washington State University
The University of Arizona
Arizona State University

And I have a New Commander in Chief

Congratulations, President Barack Hussein Obama! May your term be prosperous and successful.

But your work has just begun. Ultimately, the measure of a president is what he does during his term. Few people really remember what the president has done in the election campaign. I, for one, reserve judgement of Mr. Obama until November of 2012.

However, I think the inauguration ceremony was a good start. Obama's speech was extremely well written and delivered. It tied in very well to more famous documents, such as the Preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independance, while still putting to rest concerns of the present. I find myself constantly impressed by Obama's oratory skills. The oath of office got fumbled though... But no one's perfect.

John Williams' composition, performed by some of the greatest instrumentalists in the world was just spectacular. Aretha Franklin delivered a powerful rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee". I wonder what the band is thinking when she stretches one word into a 45 second improv. Gah! There she goes again! The poem by Elizabeth Alexander was a little to disjointed for my tastes, but for those who like that sort of thing, it was a good choice. Two girls in New York made complete asses out of themselves during the National Anthem. Obama's children looked incredibly bored and restless, and Michelle had her hands full keeping them in line. Most importantly, Craig Robinson, the esteemed and honorable head basketball coach of Oregon State University, was right next to them, sporting the orange. You can't buy that kind of publicity! Let's see you do that Phil Knight! Reverend Warren's invocation was a little long and bland, while Reverend Lowery's benediction was too long, too hoaky, and quite frankly, offensive. I wish that it had ended on a better note.

One thing that I don't like however, is the assumption by the media that the country somehow changed overnight when Obama was elected. I heard it said that "This couldn't have happened yesterday." I disagree. The country hasn't changed simply because Obama has been elected. Obama got elected not because he was a good cadidate. I think America has been in a state where a black candidate could be elected for at least ten or fifteen years, the problem is that the black candidates who wanted the mantle were tools. Colon Powell would have been elected in a heartbeat, however, he declined to run. Al Sharpton, who did run, didn't have a chance of being elected. With candidates like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, America didn't refuse to elect a black candidate, they refused to elect a bad candidate. There is a difference, and it's one that too many people fail to recognize. If anything, that failure simply perpetuates the notion that skin color actually matters. It doesn't. Obama's successes and failures will be his own, as the 44th president, not the black president.