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.