Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are"

A fervent wave of nostalgia overcame me each time the trailer for “Where the Wild Things Are” interrupted a T.V. show. Half a glance at the quadruple human-size fluffy monster in the sand with a freckled boy in a wolf suit awoke memories of mom reading with her spooky voice while I anticipated the cross-hatched forest beasts. The chanting chorus of a favorite Arcade Fire song made me feel at ease in my recognition, I was an educated white person born in the seventies that identified with a larger group of artsy young professionals, we could all celebrate Max’s originality (i.e. our own), a quality under-appreciated by the outside world. Max was our mascot in 2009.
In a career not unlike Michel Gondry’s, Spike Jonze has been known for directing Charlie Kaufman scripts (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” ) and many indie rock videos (Pavement, Bjork, the Beastie Boys). “Where the Wild Things Are” champions the winning aspects of Jonze’s previous work; the endless paradigms of Kauffman and the precise editing a music video here represent the chaos and beauty found only in a child’s imagination. Unfortunately, the book that represents so many of our American childhoods, was only 36 pages long, and contained but ten whole sentences, whereas Jonze’s film version is over an hour and half, demanding a thicker plot.
Jonze enlisted friend and celebrated author Dave Eggers for screenwriting help but the result feels forced. While vast landscapes of forests and deserts are interchanged under expert lighting on magnificent CGI muppets, the dialogue grows tiresome. A touching parallel between the monsters and Max’s family unit is not over-stated, but runs stale as another game of hand-held camera following Max running through the forest ensues. In this way the unnecessary plot lays flat on a series of beautiful images that need no justification. The debuting young actor (Max Records) is honest in his response to his new community, and especially real in his reactions to his mother and sister. For this reason, the opening scenes before Max’s descent into monster- land are the most poignant and interesting, further enhanced by Catherine Keener who plays a working single mom.
Thus you may ask whether or not this is a children’s movie. The countless mudslinging in the monster scenes of “Where the Wild Things Are” may interest a child more than an adult, but the intricate exposé of Max’s problems might fatigue a child before the monsters appear. While the book was written for the pre-literate, this is a film of generational nostalgia complete with the indie-rock score of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O. a spokeswoman for many new alternative parents .
“Where the Wild Things Are” is certainly Spike Jonze’s most ambitious film to date, and his visual interpretation of a perfect children’s book adds new landscapes and realism to our faded memories. However, the specificity of Max’s familial fantasies and the sheer length of Max’s foray into his unique utopia/hell leaves the viewer believing once again the book is indeed better than the movie, and perhaps in this instance, the trailer is still better.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Thirst" by Park Chan-Wook

With all the teen-vampire fanaticism, the foreign art-film take on Dracula might pass you by. However, the Swedish Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In,” and the Korean Park Chan-Wook’s “Thirst” are original romances where bloodlust is anything but skin deep. Park is best known for his vengeance triology, (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Old Boy”, and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”). In these films, characters who are subjected to violence become heroes when they retaliate with elaborate murder schemes. One suffers through gore in his films’ first half, but the conclusive proof of justice is in fact more blood and pain. Eventually, the carnage becomes more delicious than disgusting, for it is all shed in the name of fairness.

The plot of “Thirst” is primarily shaped by Emil Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867). However, Park sets the naturalist French novel in modern day South Korea, and uses vampirism as a metaphor for the novel’s tragic, addictive love affair. Perhaps Park’s most inventive touch was to rewrite Zola’s Laurent, a gambler who can no longer afford the brothel, as a moral priest (Priest Sang-hyien is played by Kang-ho Sang, who also played the lead in Park’s 2002 breakthrough film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”) The film openly references Robert Bresson’s 1951 classic “Diary of a Country Priest” as Sang-hyien explains his struggle to suppress sexual desire in a voice-over while vigorously writing in a journal. The priest punishes himself by whacking his penis with a wooden stick when it becomes erect. When this does not suffice, he participates in a dangerous medical study in South Africa. There, ignorant doctors infect Sang-hyien with the vampire virus through a blood transfusion. When he returns to Korea, his sexual desire for Tae-joo (Ok-viri Kim), the wife of his sickly childhood friend, marries a new obscene desire for human blood.

The sex scenes between Ok-viri Kim and Kang-ho Sang are reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg and Catherine Breillat, exploring passion from both perspectives with animalistic flare. The sniffing, sucking, licking, and biting, is as audible as visual; in a particularly sensuous moment Sang-hyien gives two long strokes of the tongue to Tae-joo’s clean pale arm pit. The film is reliant on their chemistry, as their addiction to blood and to each other spawns the jealousy and torment that become their ultimate downfall. Kang-ho Sang’s striking good looks make him the seductive vampire, while his awkwardness and inconsistent righteousness, demonstrate his character’s contradiction. As in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Park transgresses gender roles to make the female lead a physical force with which to be reckoned. In fact, Tae-joo’s intermingles her desire for blood and her desire for revenge on her in-laws. Ok-viri Kim as Tae-joo shows timing and character development, first shy and needy, as a vampire she is bold and selfish with hunger. Blue costumes and white powder aid her transformation into a shining ravenous imp.

The violence of “Thirst” is not as startling or as realistic as Park’s best films, and the CGI that normally ties scenes together, at times appears too animated (when Tae-joo and Sang-hyien bounce from rooftop to rooftop one remembers early Nintendo.) Yet the characters’ complexity and strength, and the modernization of the 19th century storyline, render “Thirst” a fascinating chapter in the recent Global North vampire frenzy. Park Chan-Wook couples the actors’ intensity with self-awareness, directing a film that is as tragic and true as it is humorous.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"The Silence of Lorna"

"The Silence of Lorna"

The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, first won international attention in 1996 with "La promesse", a film that dealt with Belgium’s clandestine immigration and which showcased the acting debut of the then 15-year-old, Jérémie Renier. Five films later, the Dardenne brothers are still exposing the misfortunes of immigrants and the extremely talented Jérémie Renier—now 28. However, as the title indicates, this film is Lorna’s story, a young Albanian immigrant, expertly played by Arta Dubroshi. Lorna immigrates to open a snack bar in Belgium with her boyfriend. However, her financial/citizenship path is paved by an international crook that arranges marriages for foreigners. Junkies are ideal for citizenship marriages, as they accept a small amount of cash in exchange for a ring, and usually die of an overdose within a year. Claudy (Renier) complicates the plan when he sincerely cares for Lorna and attempts to come clean. Lorna’s boss wants to force his overdose, and Lorna feels utterly responsible for Claudy’s life.
The inverse of Hollywood production, the Dardennes’ superb realism is captured with a single camera, natural lighting, and brilliantly honest performances. Dubroshi’s restrained expressions and blank stares convey Lorna’s internal conflict in the film’s first half. Eventually, Dubroshi exhibits Lorna’s conundrum with self-utterances and a fearful demeanor. "Le silence de Lorna" follows a social-realist tradition that comments on the unjust world; frequent shots of money affirm its unwavering importance, and Lorna’s final situation is the outcome of a long struggle to succeed in Western Europe.

"Hump Day"

Hump Day

It might surprise viewers to know that the writer/director of "Humpday" is a woman. Lynn Sheldon’s independent feature is almost exclusively about men, and the awkward line where homosexuality and homosociality meet. Ben (Mark Duplass) is a newly wed happily contemplating the prospect of children when his wilder college buddy, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), shows up at his door. Soon after, Andrew finds a party of non-conformist artists and invites Ben along. Late in the night, after untucking his shirt and bong toking, Ben agrees to participate with Andrew in a home-video porn festival, Humpfest, claiming it is part of a larger statement of artistic integrity, straight men having gay sex.
What begins as intoxicated party babble, begins to take shape as a possible venture. The men question the project’s symbolic value; for Andrew it will mean the completion of a project, for Ben it will prove he is larger than his current lifestyle's suburban values. Still both men refuse to directly confront what their desire to participate in Humpfest might suggest about their sexuality. Lynn Sheldon teases the question, and makes every glance between the men questionable. This ambiguity troubles traditional audience expectations of male friendship, and satirizes the typical buddy flic. Nevertheless, the film is wrought with the purest cinema comedy, straight men pretending not to be…or perhaps, the reverse.



Much of the buzz surrounding "Moon" was due to the director’s famous rock-star dad, David Bowie. Indeed, it seems the apple does not fall far from the tree when it comes to pop mythologizing the outer-space: Bowie, aka Ziggy Stardust, starred as “the man who fell to earth” in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film and his son’s debut continues where his father’s space lore left off—late 70s/early 80s sci-fi is responsible for the film’s tone and look. In fact, Moon’s spacecraft could easily be a replica of Alien’s Nostromo. Furthermore, the space scenes are done exclusively with models, dismissing today’s “realism” to recall a time before CGI.
A script that draws on themes found in 2001 and Solyaris further enhances this nostalgic return to a bygone era of sci-fi. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell whose dualism lies in more than his role’s true-to-life first name. A lone technician who sends masses of a fuel source from the moon to earth, his sole conversation mate is his computer, Gerti (Kevin Spacey), who responds to Sam’s need for human interaction with dead-pan comic relief. When a crash occurs, and Sam Bell recovers to be awoken by his doppelganger, a competition ensues; who will be the real Sam Bell, Sam or Sam? Sam Rockwell’s performance seems incredibly human, especially when his character(s) struggles with the concept of not being so. The film retains some optimism where it might have spiraled into dystopia and is likewise an auspicious debut for its director, Duncan Jones.

Funny People

Funny People

Judd Apatow’s third feature aspires to be deeper than his usual comedy fare. In his previous films, the 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked-up, immature men (virgin) (pothead) prove to be adults, when becoming capable of long-term romantic relationships (i.e. marriage and kids). Funny People follows a similar tract except this time the long-term relationship is a friendship/mentorship between male comedians. The drama quotient is a fear of death underscoring a plethora of dick jokes. A rich and famous film star, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), hits bottom when diagnosed with a rare and deadly disease. Hoping to put new blood into his career, he hires a young struggling comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) to write jokes. This offers Ira opportunities he’d only dreamed of: sharing a bill with James Taylor, flying in a private jet. The payoff is Ira must keep George Simmons from being alone, which means accompanying him to the doctor’s office, and sitting by his bed side to talk him to sleep, a heady feat for the boy-come-man.
Rogan and Sandler share a particular brand of goofball humor that compliments their on-screen chemistry. Unfortunately, an unnecessary romantic subplot detracts from the film’s comedy and/or the profound statements about comedy the film almost makes. When Simmons is ill he refinds his lost true love Laura (Leslie Mann), who is now married with children. Their tryst proffers many problems for the married mom, and after several days of struggle (and nearly an hour of screen time) she decides that her marriage is more important than true love and dumps Simmons to keep her husband, a cheating Australian trader. The audience sympathizes with Ira as he steers George away from ruining the “happy” family. In this way, Apatow demonstrates his family values yet again. Funny People is not as hilarious as Apatow’s previous features, but when the film is the most interesting, it scrapes off the surface of celebrity status and the joke-writing industry.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The French Academy Awards, the Césars

French Cinema in 2008, at the César awards.

My expectations for the 2008 César awards were high. If the French made better films, dressed better and spoke a better language, then surely their Academy Awards would be superior. What’s more I was suffering from cinema depression; a week earlier I had watched the Oscars; grimacing at Hugh Jackman’s song and dance numbers and feigning surprise when "Slumdog Millionaire" slam-dunked a year of mediocre Hollywood. I needed cinema affirmation.
Initially, I thought my expectations were met when 2008 president of the César Awards, Charlotte Gainsbourg, pencil-thin in black glitter with a luscious pout and long disheveled bangs, introduced the ceremony with all the style and elegance of her model mom and rock-star dad. However as soon as the epitome of chic left the stage her foil appeared, Antoine de Caunes, comedian and TV personality, speaking in a high-pitched Muppet voice—you know the French love Jerry Lewis! Unfortunately, though I had survived the Hugh Jackman and Béyoncé butchering of the musical into a Oscar medley the week before, I now found myself watching a budget-cut French version of the same routine; de Caunes cockled “Singin’ in the Rain” with his strangled-chicken voice, while gleefully splashing in puddles of stage-rain.
Why sing a song from an American musical in English at a French film award ceremony? France prides itself on inventing film, n’est-ce pas? Perhaps the answer could be found in the camera constantly panning the American stars Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn. In fact, as soon as de Caunes took his raincoat off and yelled in English “the musical is back!” he informed the audience that The Sean Penn was present. The audience then applauded even more than they had for his wet chicken song when de Caunes interrupted in English again to say “Yooo air so fucking grrrate man!” Yes, Hollywood and its Oscars were never far away from the César award ceremony, and as Gertrude Stein once said, “An award ceremony is an award ceremony is an award ceremony…”
And is Hollywood far enough away from contemporary French film? French cinema in 2008 was dominated by gender types: the gangster film ("Public Enemy no. 1" and "the Death Instinct") and the fragile female sanity ("Sassarine"). That is to say, the year’s most celebrated films did not break any formal rules and primarily repeated clichés established across the pond. In fact the most original French film of 2008, came from a director of yester-year. Founding New-Wave left-bank director, Agnès Varda, made "Les plages de Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès") to celebrate her life, loves, and career at 80 years of age.

"Les Plages d'Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès")

Les Plages d’Agnès

"Les Plages d’Agnès" won the César for best documentary, though the film defies categorization. While Varda revisits nearly all of her films in the 110-minute feature with clips and commentary, she also reflects on her life’s pleasures, sorrows, dreams and fantasies. Several times she makes old photographs new on film by finding actors to play herself as a child and as a young woman. She then interacts and poses with them in New Wave style—never shying away from showing the director directing, or revealing the camera to the camera. This approach is not a jarring demystification of cinema as it was in the 60s. In this autobiographical film that traces the mind of Varda, the mise-en-abyme welcomes the audience and then holds them deep inside a rich imagination. In this way, "Les Plages d’Agnès" liberates cinema from common formulas and paradigms, and offers Varda the ultimate expression. Mortality is especially present in several of the film’s most poignant moments; while Varda throws single red roses at photographs she took in the 50s of great actors from the National Theater, she sobs that although the photographs give others happiness, they bring her a sense of sorrow because these great actors once young and beautiful are now dead and gone. The death of her late husband, Jacques Demy, from AIDS is a returning source of sadness in the film, and the viewer feels the stark loneliness of turning 80 alone. However, "Les Plages d’Agnès" spirals and circles through reality and art, past work and celebrity encounters, never dwelling on death or its proximity. Agnès Varda, the wise fairy, guides us through a self-portrait of her creativity, celebrating the joy of life and its pains in equal measure.

"Versailles" by Pierre Schöeller


Though Varda speaks of her sejours in Cuba and China shortly after their revolutions in "Les Plages" (see review above), she hardly mentions the Algerian War in which France was directly involved during one of her most celebrated periods (1954-1962). In general, directors in the French cinema of 2008 were political, but less than recent years ("Caché" (2005), "Les Indigènes" (2006), "L’ennemi intime" (2008). This year directors allowed viewers to make associations without forcing an ideology. "Versailles", Pierre Schöeller’s first film, did discuss poverty in France, but primarily received attention due to the surprise death of its starring protagonist, Guillame Depardieu. (Guillame, son of Gérard, had a motorcycle crash in October and could not recover due to drug and alcohol abuse.) In fact, French reviews discussed Depardieu’s performance, which won a César nomination and the film’s subtle cinematography, but did not contemplate the film’s social commentary.
The first half of the narrative of "Versailles" centers on the destitute taking shelter in the woods surrounding the palace of Louis XIV. Homeless Nina (Judith Chemla) wanders aimlessly through the Versailles forest with her young son (Max Baissette de Malglaive) when she finds Damien (Depardieu) dressed poor but Calvin Kleinish—in all black with greasy hair—who welcomes the mom to his shack to shack up. However, when Damien awakes from post-coital slumber he finds Nina has left him alone with her excessively cute pre-verbal son. After the boy’s adorableness wears Damien down, he figuratively becomes the boy’s father and decides to leave the squatter camping lifestyle for a prodigal return. It is thereby revealed that Damien had upper middle-class beginnings and opportunities and the homeless romp was a rebellious angst phase.
Although other homeless campers are featured in the film’s first half, Damien’s middle-class roots prompt a larger question: Is squatting simply a way to challenge the capitalist system? Or is it in fact endemic in a society with a 10% unemployment rate? When Nina abandons her son, she easily finds a respectable job caring for the elderly, suggesting that homelessness and unemployment are a choice—at least for the young attractive white French characters that represent the homeless in "Versailles". Schöeller enforces this understanding of poverty as rebelliousness by casting Guillame Depardieu, who was rumored to have a temper and drug problems long before his death. The actor has the intimating presence of his father, with a much slighter frame, and his anger and frustration at parenting the foundling and at his own parents’ bourgeois lifestyle, demonstrate the predictable but believable acting style characteristic of the Depardieu family. It is the sublime cinematography of nature in the first half of the film that is more interesting than the acting or the storyline. The Versailles grounds offer cinematographer Julien Hirsh plenty of opportunities to boast his understanding of natural light, also demonstrated in Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" (2006).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Mesrine films by Jean-François Richet

"L'instinct de mort" ("The Death Instinct" and "L'ennemi public no.1" ("Public Ennemy Number 1")

Guillame Depardieu died in the year he was nominated for the César for best actor (see above for review of "Versailles"). However, despite the tragic real-life drama, Depardieu could not win the César over Vincent Cassel’s performance as Jacques Mesrine in the most popular French films of 2008, "L’instinct de mort" ("Death instinct") and "L’ennemi public no.1" ("Public Enemy Number 1"). The two films together form a bio-pic of France’s most famous criminal, a bank robber at his peak in the 70s, who increased his fame by escaping twice from prison and interviewing with top-selling magazines such as “Paris Match.” The films are based on Mesrine’s autobiography but heavily adapted by screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri who also directed a violent ghetto (banlieue) tv series “La commune.” The film follows a gangster formula, complete with car chases, gunfights, and suitcases of cash, but also takes on the prison-escape genre.
Although both films primarily glorify Mesrine, there are also frequent allusions to the Algerian War that seek our attention. L’instinct de mort begins where Mesrine learns to kill, Algerian War. Mesrine as a soldier, follows orders to torture and kill supposed FLN members in a prison, but shows his gallant side when he kills a male Algerian instead of a female. When he returns from war, Mesrine is bored by his employment possibilities and enticed by the money and women of the gangster lifestyle. He begins killing for mob boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu), who incidently is part of the OAS (Organization of the Secret Army) and they shoot Arabs together while jeering racist insults. Near the end of the second film, "L’ennemi public no.1", Mesrine decides to kill a right-wing journalist who has contradicted him. With another prison escapee who is also a left-wing activist, Mesrine meets the journalist at a cave entrance, and then baits the journalist inside, by offering an interview. After verbally assaulting him, Mesrine straggles the journalist with a scarf saying, “You want to know what I learned in the Algerian War, I’ll teach you.”
The symbolism of the sequence is overt; the French killed many Algerians who were hiding in caves with bombs, and strangulation was a common torture technique. Thus the murder of the journalist completely subverts the racism against Arabs demonstrated in the first film, and ensures the audience’s forgiveness. If Mesrine kills Arabs by order or for money in part I, before the end of his life he does penance by torturing and assassinating a xenophobic nationalist mouthpiece. Mesrine does not suffer for the crimes he committed during the Algerian War, but takes vengeance on their interpretation in the years following Algeria’s liberation. The likes of this journalist and his politics, which recall the National Front, could easily be found in contemporary French media. This makes the brutal murder more engaging for the 2008 public, and doubles their respect for the hero.
Cassel executes Mesrine’s bow legged swagger and fast-paced Parisian slang with the bravado indicative of his character’s criminal career. Cassel was so dedicated to the role that he gained a true pot belly, which is exposed in several pretzel love scenes, for authenticity. This achievement garnered Cassel the César for best actor, and Jean-François Richet, the director in charge of the impersonation and all the action editing, a César for best director. However, though the Mesrine features were the most successful films at the French box office in 2008, they did not win the board’s selection for best picture. It was Mesrine’s alter-ego Séraphine (Yolande Moreau), an early 20th century maid come primitive artist, who walked the stage for best actress, and her film ("Séraphine") which stole the best film trophy from the bank robber. In this instance the César committee did yield to the Hollywood pressure of the action film, but transgressed the box office to award a lesser-known biographical film on a lesser-known artist.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Gomorra": The world is the Camorras

“Gomorra” opens with a surprise mafia shoot-down, at of all places, a tanning salon. Stocky men in panties lather themselves with oil, unsuspicious of the cancerous blue light, or the mafia brother behind them with a gun in his trunks. This opening sequence rolls before credits or even an establishing shot, and represents the film’s revisionist turn in cinema. For the gangster tan, like the gangster film, is a false image that has become a commodity. But just as the tans are revealed as artificial, the next two hours of “Gomorrah” prove Hollywood’s stylish rendition of mafia violence an utter lie with dire consequences. Now, at long last, Hollywood’s gangster film has a contender, for the distant Italian reality of mafia devastation in Naples has shown cinema its face. With no apologies, kindness, or glamour, “Gomorra” exposes how the omnipotent Camorra gang controls Naples and all of its layers, (tunnels, highways, and quarries) with five interrelated narratives of corruption.

Though the tanning salon does not appear again, it remains an important symbol; for the film significantly treats body-conscious teens that are lured into the gang-life by its superficial trappings, (clothing, motorbikes, and cars). One is reminded of Truffaut’s “400 Coups” when Toto (who appears to be thirteen or fourteen) stares in the mirror during several long-takes, however this time the conclusion is less open, and more disturbing (eventually Toto decides the Camorra gang is a more important family than his own). If “Scarface,” the 1932 Hawks’ version or the De Palma production of 1983, fetishized the gangster life by violently destroying the American moral code, “Gomorra” now annihilates this perversion. Two teen boys who quote “Scarface” while playing guns, and believe that “the world is yours” sign might as well be placed on their block in Naples, die a gruesome death for their innocent belief in the Hollywood gangster and the guns and coke that added authentencity to their Tony Montana impersonations. (Evidently, De Palma gave permission for this use of “Scarface,” but I cannot find his reaction to “Gomorra.”)

The film is not only about teens; a large portion of the film, and a still larger portion of the book on which “Gomorra” is based, explain how haute couture is essentially a mob enterprise, and how the dumping of toxic waste is not regulated by the government but orchestrated underground by the Mafioso. The violence in “Gomorrah” is primarily aural, this is not to say that the images of death and gunfire do not equal that of any mob flick staple, but that the sound design is the most emphatic and terrifying to date. By the end of the film, the frequent gunfire and bloody web of narratives have frazzled and affronted the spectator. This makes the didactic series of statistics a welcome solidifying summary of what you have learned; the numbers are clear, the mob is bad and controls everything in Italy. But despite the fast heartbeat and loose editing, one is the wiser for viewing “Gormorra.” Matteo Garrone’s film translation of Robert Saviano’s book, is an overdue response to Hollywood’s vision of the Italian gangster, and an important film puzzle piece to the truth of global corruption, its sides snugly touching “Syriana” and “City of God.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Vintage Eastwood in “The Gran Torino”

Vintage Eastwood in “The Gran Torino”

“The Gran Torino” refers to a vintage ’72 car protected by a feeble garage and the gun power of its owner, Korean War vet Walt Kolwalkski, (Clint Eastwood.) Everyone longs for a chance to drive the mint condition Gran Torino, including Walt’s materialistic son and suburban nightmare family, his painfully shy teenage neighbor, and the violent gang of Hmong gangsters, who like Walt, tote guns. Just as everyone in the film yearns to cruise the prized vintage Ford, “Gran Torrino”’s target audience craves vintage Eastwood. Strumming memories of Dirty Harry, Eastwood as Walt delivers countless versions of “Make my day” (now the word “goon” is added) and squints with every bit of the same severity.

Although the dialogue in Nick Schenk’s first screenplay’s frequently proves amateur, the plot itself offers a modern if simplistic view of American society in 2008: Sr. citizen Walt, who embodies the racism of his generation, has outlived his wife and is the only white man left in his deteriorating, now Chinese, neighborhood. At long last Walt confronts his prejudice when he accidentally becomes friends with the Chinese family next door while protecting (by chance) their awkward teenage son (Thao played by Bee Vang) from Hmong gangsters. The choice of the Hmongs as the community in anguish reveals a Hollywood orientalism (the Hmong culture makes for an exotic contrast to Walt’s, and the audience’s, middle-American values.) However, the Hmong decision was primarily practical; the “n” word is still unacceptable, and even at 78, Eastwood can tower over the diminutive Hmongs.

In “Gran Torino” the elderly but fit Eastwood recaptures the allure of his past roles. Though Eastwood was 37 years younger when he developed the iconographic Harry Callahan under Don Siegal, and younger still when he built his tough cowboy appeal (“Rawhide”, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,”) in “Gran Torino” the cold call to justice is rejuvenated as a crotchety old man. If Eastwood’s lines and performance are predictable, they are doubly comic, for each time nostalgia is retrieved an element of spoof results. (In fact, today the Union Square audience roared at each of Walt’s threats and bigoted insults.)

David Schwartz in his interview complimented Eastwood by saying “Gran Torino” resembled classic Hollywood. Yes, there are many long shots of the neighborhood, the story holds a moral, and the characters (other than Walt) are flat types. However, the film is primarily a vehicle for Eastwood (and his public) to relive his acting-glory days. Eastwood has perfected the delivery and timing of the quiet, vengeful rebel and is further aided by a script tailor-made for him (according to Eastwood, screen-writer Schenk hunted down his agent.) “Gran Torino” does not rival any of Eastwood’s recent directorial gems, (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,” “Flags of our Fathers”) but it does make an interesting bookend for Eastwood's silent and angry persona.