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Cinema Signal: Go! Strong appeal for all audiences

The Hmong of Southeast Asia
by Sandra Millett
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)

"Gran Torino"

From a perch of cinematic wisdom and advanced age, grandmaster Clint Eastwood stars himself in a message-character piece on racism. Playing a Korean War vet basting in the juices of bigotry and racial superiority, handyman Walt Kowalski is an acerbic, sarcastic curmudgeon who sits out on his porch and bemoans the racial changes in his neighborhood.

With a full tank of curse words intended to put any non-caucasian in his place and to assert his own 1st class status as a true American, we first find him in church giving the evil eye to those who have shown up for his wife's funeral services. Angry from the time he gets up in the morning, the only thing worse, to him, than these fools and hippocrits who have come to pay their respects are those who haven't. When a reason to scoff at others is needed, this man's arsenal is well stocked.

He doesn't much care for his sons and their families, either, but in this he's got reason. Their conversation leans toward convincing him to move to an elder-care institution (so they can sell his house for their personal profit); and the teenage granddaughter, true to her greedy little genes, making no bones about his leaving his precious, mint 1972 Gran Torino to her when he, you know... dies?

But, he mostly ignores the glaring insensitivities and goes on grousing, coughing up blood, smoking like a bad cylinder, and trying to survive his exposure to next door Asian neighbors, a Hmong family. When a crew of Hmong gangbangers attempts to force Tao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), the family's 17-year old boy, to join them, Fong (Doua Moua), their leader, hardly gives a damn about the fight spilling over onto Walt's lawn. Until, that is, he and his team of bullies are staring down the barrel of the old-timer's M-16.

From then on, however demeaning his verbal insults and standoffish ways, the Hmongs honor Walt with trains of flowers and food. But the gang isn't done with Tao, and they obligate him to pull off a crime as an initiation, which the boy tries to do by stealing, in the middle of the night, Walt's prize, the Gran Torino. Awakening to strange sounds emanating from his garage, vigilant Walt doesn't so much prevent the loss of this symbol of his days on the Ford assembly line as much as re-direct the would-be thief to reconsider his priorities.

Now, the Lors are really indebted to Walt and, though the parade of flowers and food restarts, Tao's mother isn't satisfied until her son repays Walt with a week of work--a transformational period for man and boy. Tao's older sister Sue (Ahney Her), a feisty teenager, is also the beneficiary of Walt's meritorious deeds and is smart enough to see beneath Walt's aggressive-defensive surface.

Walt, without diminishing his normal fusillade of scurrilous racial epithets, takes Tao under his wing, teaching him about his tools, channeling him toward a vocation, and mentoring him in the ways to be a man. To Walt, who insists on calling his recruit Toad, this means cursing and talking tough with one's contemporaries. In an especially funny set piece, Walt takes Tao to see his barber (John Carroll Lynch), a very old friend with whom he's been trading jabs for years--the uglier and more verbally crippling, the better. Tao picks up on it and uses the lesson to land a job in construction. Walt, it turns out, is more than just a bitter old coot.

Get it now! (Click on item link)
  • Manning the Wheel: The meaning of manhood as revealed in American car cultture.
  • Gran Torino: More Than a Car: Visit Detroit and the Windward Dream Cruise, an Annual Vintage car event where buffs describe the unique bond between men and vhicles.
    The Soundtrack

  • The Hmong cast is as real as director Eastwood could make it, having assembled most of them from open casting calls in major Hmong communities. But, it's apparent that the Hmongs are acting for the first time, and not necessarily gifted for it. Vang (Tao) is especially awkward in a performance too big and too shaky to be entirely saved in the editing. Ahney Her is better, but clearly on new ground as well. She maintains admirable consistency, however, as she makes Sue a key emotional catalyst in the drama. Similarly, Christopher Carley as baby-faced Father Janovich holds a steady front against Walt's invective and lack of faith.

    This is a little character film that, for all its faults (it's not Eastwood's best work, either--his timing is off now and then), contains surprises. One occurs in the finale, but the enriching little gems occur throughout with some hilarious grouch humor once you get to at least like the guy. And, in the end, Eastwood shows us that even a person who hangs onto racial prejudices isn't as inhuman as those in our midst who are truly evil. Which makes it a tragicomedy featuring Eastwood at times competing--perhaps for the first time--with... Woody Allen? If that's possible, or likely. But see it. Don't be too critical. It will make your day.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  

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    Site rating: 10

                                                               ~~ Allen S. 
    Well written
    This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
    Site rating: 9

    I am looking forward to seeing the movie since I am a huge Clint Eastwood fan. The review was quite well written. I will probably visit this site again in the future.

                                                               ~~ Allan 
    Well written
    This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
    I've seen the movie and: I agree with the review
    Site rating: 7

    You nailed it. A fine movie, and a fine review of such, flaws in the film noted. You get a cookie, good reviewer.

                                                               ~~ Drew 

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