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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: Gran Torino



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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted June 07 2009 - 02:22 PM


Gran Torino

Directed By: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch

Studio: Warner

Year: 2008

Rated: R

Film Length: 116 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.4:1

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Release Date: June 9, 2009

The Film

Gran Torino stars Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who stubbornly stays alone in his home in a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood. Walt is surly, casually racist, not all that fond of his family consisting of two sons with wives and children, and less than interested in his neighbors. He keeps his interactions with them limited to making sure they stay off of his lawn and hurling invectives at them for not maintaining their own property. Aside from occasional half-hearted attempts by his family to communicate, Walt's only human contacts amount to his barber (Lynch), the people he sees at his local bar, and his local Priest (Carley), who check's in repeatedly in an attempt to honor Walter's late wife's dying request that he get him to come to confession. When Walter's ethnic Hmong teenage neighbor, Thao (Vang) is pressured by his gang-banging cousin Spider (Moua) to steal Walt's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino, he fails miserably, nearly getting his head blown off by a rifle-toting Walter. When Thao's sister insists that he make-up for the attempted theft by working for Walter, an uneasy and unlikely bond begins to form between Walt and his neighbors.

Director/Star Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino was one of the first films to take advantage of the Michigan tax breaks for film production offered in 2008. Beyond that, the film is so perfectly suited to the Detroit area locations in which it was shot that it is hard to believe it was not written as a result of the tax breaks being passed. The honest to goodness run-down metro-Detroit neighborhoods feel almost like a character in the film reflecting aspects of its main character's personality just as assuredly as the Gran Torino for which the film was titled.

While Eastwood had reportedly sworn off acting after Million Dollar Baby, it is not hard to see how he managed to coax himself out of retirement for this role. There are many actors (such as Adam Baldwin on the TV series Chuck) who make their living off of narrow eyed expressions coupled with growling exhalations of breath that seem to communicate disgust bordering on active violence, but they are all standing in the shadow of Eastwood who employs the expression multiple times as Kowalski evoking both laughter and anxiety in the viewer. Kowalski is a man that the world has passed by, but who does not give a fig about it. Even his racist terms he uses are frequently 50 years behind the times. This combination of intractable and irredeemable makes him an intriguing mix of comic and tragic.

The character of Walter Kowalski not only plays to Eastwood's strengths as an actor with a history of creating memorable clench-jawed reticent loners, but also works effectively in conjunction with audience expectations based on that history. Without getting too spoilery, the events that play out in the final reel carry substantially more weight and suspense due to their evocation of Dirty Harry and various western anti-heroes.

While Eastwood frequently casts fresh faces in his films, he goes full-stop in this case, casting first time film actors in several key roles and eschewing big-name co-stars in favor of talented character actors such as Christopher Carley, John Carroll Lynch, and Brian Haley. Of the first-time actors, the two biggest risks are clearly Bee Vang as Thao and Ahney Her as his sister, Sue. Vang gives an impressively assured performance as a teenager who is anything but, well..., impressively assured. He exceeds his grasp only in one scene where he is supposed to be playing hysterically angry near the film's climax. Her starts a bit shaky with some stiff line readings, but quickly hits her stride, suggesting the possibility that much of the film was shot in sequence, or at least that her early scenes were among the first ones shot.

Technically, the film has all of the hallmarks of Eastwood's regular collaborators such as cinematographer Tom Stern, production designer James Murakami, and editor's Joel Cox and Gary Roach filtered through Eastwood's own tasteful sensibilities. The image is desaturated through either filtering or digital manipulation to achieve the desired grey-skied bleak atmosphere. The interiors match seamlessly with the location exteriors, and the sound design seems simple at first listen, but is subtly layered for dramatic effect in various environments. Restraint is the general rule, although symbolism gets a bit overwrought when one character is shown lying dead in an overtly Christ-like pose.

The end result is a character study of a compelling if unlikeable man that seamlessly blends low-key character-based comedy with suspense and pathos for an efficient and effectively engrossing film. Eastwood's central performance and assured direction balance the film's seemingly disparate elements into a pointed and convincing whole.

The Video

The 16:9 enhanced transfer letterboxed to the film's 2.4:1 aspect ratio accurately reproduces the film's intentionally de-saturated color palette. There were a few too many instances of video artifacts than I like to see in DVD presentations of modern films. Sporadic instances of aliasing and mpeg noise appear throughout the film's running time. Shadow detail is normally good, but in a few instances, horizontal banding appears across the screen spreading from bright areas in otherwise dark shots.

The Audio

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track accurately presents the appropriately restrained theatrical mix. The mix uses the surround and LFE channels sporadically but effectively to enhance scenes where immersive ambience makes sense. Dynamic range is impressive, allowing certain key effects such as gunshots to impact strongly when they appear.

The Extras

Two brief featurettes appear on the disc. They are both presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound.

Manning the Wheel (9:23) begins by talking about the significance of the car in the context of the film and then broadens to discuss what it calls "The American Man's Love Affair with Cars". Interview participants talk about cars they have owned, why they loved them, and what they meant to them. They also talk about their "dream cars". The featurette goes on to discuss how classic cars are acquired for movies in general and this film in particular.

On camera interview participants include actors Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Doua Moua, Sonny Vue, and Christopher Carley, Writer Nick Schenk, Producer Robert Lorenz, Transportation Coordinator Larry Stelling, Producer Bill Gerber, Curator at Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles Leslie Kendall, Casting Associate Geoffrey Miclat, and Editor Gary Roach.

Gran Torino: More Than a Car (3:57) focuses exclusively on the American car culture. Introductory and concluding statements from Leslie Kendall are framed by interviews with several participants in the annual Woodward Dream Cruise which is a parade of classic cars that progresses from Detroit to its northern suburbs along the Woodward Avenue thoroughfare. "Dream Cruisers" who offer their thoughts on the event and the personal significance of their cars are Edward Jablonski, Mark Zivkovich, George Calvet, Rec Beasaw, Mark Marison, Clive Brown, Timothy Gregory, and Phil DeMaggio.

Based on the contents of the featurettes, I could not help thinking that they should have flip-flopped the titles.

When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with the following promos presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless otherwise indicated below:
  • Warner Blu-Ray Promo (Dolby Digital 5.1 - 1:09)
  • Friday the 13th DVD/Blu-Ray Trailer (:33)
  • Terminator: Salvation Video Game Trailer(1:06)
  • Terminator: Salvation Theatrical Trailer(2:08)
  • Dirty Harry Ultimate Collecter's Edition DVD/Blu-Ray Trailer(1:48)
  • Anti-tobacco PSA lampooning how tobacco advertising makes smoking look cool (:33)

Packaging

The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with an insert explaining how the viewer can access a reduced price Windows Media digital copy of the film.

Summary

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is an interesting character study of a mean old cuss, as embodied by Eastwood, connecting with the world in unexpected ways late in his life. Elements of humor and pathos are blended convincingly thanks to a strong central performance by Eastwood. A number of less experienced actors also provide strong support under Eastwood's assured direction. The film is presented on DVD with a transfer marred by sporadic digital video artifacts and some distracting contrast banding in certain very dark scenes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix presents the low key but subtly effective sound mix with above average fidelity and dynamics. Extras consist of two featurettes centered around American male car culture.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 3 OFFLINE   Steve...O

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Posted June 07 2009 - 03:10 PM

Thanks, Ken for a well written and thoughtful review! Gran Torino is easily my favorite film of last year and one of my favorite dramas from any year. If this is indeed Mr. Eastwood's final on screen performance, he went out on a high note in my opinion.
Please help UCLA restore the Laurel & Hardy films: https://www.cinema.u...aurel-and-hardy

#3 of 3 OFFLINE   cineMANIAC

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Posted June 08 2009 - 12:26 AM

The marketing people behind this film did a terific job selling this as an action film - they certainly duped me! All in all a good film. Just don't sell it to me as something it's not.





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