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GRAN TORINO
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  June 9, 2009

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have f—ked with?

THAT’S ME.”

Film ****

Are we ready to proclaim Clint Eastwood an all-time great American director?  He’s been praised, acclaimed, showered with Oscars and other various awards, not to mention always highly respected in the industry for a reputation for bringing movies in on time and under budget.  But is it time to seriously consider his place among the giants?

It certainly seems for me the older he grows, the less wrong he can possibly do.  His career as a director in the 90s had very few missteps.  In the new millennium, I don’t think I could name one.  Last year alone, he proved his artistic formidability not once, but twice…as a director for hire, he made The Changeling into possibly the darkest and most affecting movie in his filmography.

Then, with Gran Torino, he took a step back, focusing more on character, less on style, and returning for an increasingly rare turn in front of the camera as well (he says it will be his last).  One used period and costume, one used what could be any poor class neighborhood in America.  One was peppered with respected stars, one had a cast of largely unknowns.  Yet both had the Eastwood touch, which is attention to story and character, and using the tools of film to bring out the best in them.

Clint plays Walt Kowalski in a defining piece of acting for the legendary star.  Walt is an aging Korean War veteran who now, after the death of his wife, lives alone in an old house in a poorer neighborhood.  His grown kids seem embarrassed by their father, possibly because of his blatant use of racial slurs and other politically incorrect attitudes and utterances.  Walt is a man feeling increasingly isolated, particularly since, as a white man, he’s more or less the minority in his neighborhood these days.

Living next door is a family of Hmong immigrants…far too many for one house, the gruff Walt decides.  Their paths inevitably cross when the young Thao (Vang) is forced by a local Asian gang to try and steal Walt’s prize mint condition 1972 Gran Torino. 

The family, mostly fronted by young sister Sue (Her), insist that the boy pay back a work debt to Walt to bring honor back to the family.  Walt has no desire for the boy’s help, but finds interesting ways to put him to good use.  But there is trouble brewing.

The pretty Sue is harassed by gang members, forcing Walt into an uncharacteristic act of heroism, albeit one he pulls off in a style consistent with what we know him to be.  It doesn’t take long for the hot headed gang members to realize they have a new enemy.  And Walt may be decades past his prime, but his anger and resilience make him a more capable foe than the gang kids understand.

All of this brings Walt closer to the large Hmong family next door, their culture, and what they bring to America.  It’s not an easy transition for Walt, who still seems haunted by the fact that as a younger man, he was forced to kill people who looked like them on the field of battle.

The film is straightforward, yet subtly contains some masterful camerawork and movement.  It reminded me of Kurosawa, who could tell a story on film like no other and in such a way, you never have to look past the greatness of the story to admire the style and artistry if you choose not to.  For those that do, there are plenty of treasures.  Eastwood has become more and more like that, aging like fine wine into something more complex and inspiring than even his vintage youth ever delivered.

It’s only a shame that Oscar lacked the fortitude to recognize his incredible acting.  How he didn’t win the statuette is alone beyond me, but not even getting nominated?  Seems like every year the Academy opts in at least one category to reward political correctness over all other considerations.  It would have been an Oscar moment for the decades had Clint earned his first acting prize for his last film role…and it would have been indisputably deserved as well.  Some have said that Walt is merely a natural extension of Dirty Harry…I think it takes a remarkable lack of vision to claim that.  After all, Dirty Harry would NEVER have come up with the final resolution that Walt decides upon.

Gran Torino is simply an artist in top form behind and in front of the camera.  It deserves to be remembered not only amongst Clint Eastwood’s most indelible performances, but as one of his superb directing achievements as well.

Video ***1/2

Again, it serves a purpose to compare both of Eastwood’s films from last year and how they differ technically.  While The Changeling used the rich colors and tones of a period piece while conveying a dark story, Gran Torino shows the director opting for a more gritty, realistic approach.  The Michigan locations add authenticity, but all are heightened by a sense of grayness in the outdoor settings and low light interiors.  There’s not much pretty to look at here, apart from the classic car and the lovely Sue.  This Blu-ray delivers the goods even in the darkness, ringing out with clarity and crispness, and only a touch of deliberate grain here and there.  The colors don’t pop, but they aren’t meant to. 

Audio ***1/2

Much of the film is driven by dialogue, but there are moments that really open up and do service to the TrueHD soundtrack.  A big party, a gang fight, a neighborhood drive-by…these are all effective moments that open up the front and rear channels and add bits of explosive dynamic range to the mix.  In fact, some ambient barking dogs in the rear speakers actually had my own puppy sniffing around curiously and anxiously!

Features **

Exclusive to Blu-ray are two nice extras:  “The Eastwood Way” is a solid making-of documentary featuring interviews with Clint, his cast and crew.  And BD LIVE will get you more exclusive content direct from the web to you internet-capable player.

The only other extras are a look at American car culture and a visit to an annual Detroit auto event.

Summary:

I will answer the questions I started with…I do in fact think Clint Eastwood has earned a place among the elite great American filmmakers.  His ever expanding body of work shows an artist’s instinctual understanding of story, character, and how best to use the technical materials of the medium to make more out of the material than out of himself.  Gran Torino is a shining example of why he remains a national treasure, both as actor and as director.

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