Geraldine Hughes

Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)

When Bruce Springsteen did his 9/11 response record, The Rising, he was in an odd position–given the gravity of his intent, he couldn’t misstep. He might get excused for it, but then the record would be (albeit well-meaning) propaganda. It wouldn’t be art.

Clint Eastwood’s in a similar situation with Gran Torino. He’s dealing with capital I issues here, a whole slew of them ranging from post-war psychological trauma (the film’s very much a companion piece to his two Iwo Jima films), the Church, minority relations, generational divides, gender… that Eastwood’s character is a vocal bigot probably doesn’t even make the top ten. Eastwood can’t make any mistakes or the film won’t work. It’ll be Crash.

He doesn’t make any mistakes.

Gran Torino is a throwback to older Eastwood films in a lot of ways, to his films of the 1970s more than those of the 1990s. The film doesn’t have a particularly large cast and the action takes place mostly in two houses. It reminded me a lot of Nobody’s Fool in the way that film was the perfect old Paul Newman picture, this one is the perfect old Clint Eastwood one. Eastwood’s front and center for almost the entire film, I don’t remember the last time his acting was so central to one of his films. But it isn’t his monologues, because he only has a couple and they’re short and he doesn’t say much in them, it’s Eastwood acting opposite a dog. It’s one of the most transformative performances I’ve ever seen from an icon, someone who wasn’t adopting a different accent or hairstyle, growing a beard or putting on a bunch of weight. It’s Clint Eastwood, right there on the screen, but he personifies Walt Kowalski immediately.

Otherwise, the film wouldn’t work. It doesn’t work if it’s about Eastwood making a statement. In the end, Gran Torino doesn’t have a big moral. It’s pro-melting pot in an understated way, if that position qualifies as a moral. The film’s incredibly quiet, with Eastwood’s Panavision frame constantly showcasing the everyday. Some wonderful things happen in Gran Torino–the loudest atrocities aren’t even the worst–and Eastwood doesn’t draw attention to any of them.

The film’s interesting in terms of its debuts. It’s writer Nick Schenk’s first feature. Co-stars Bee Vang and Abney Her haven’t been in anything else. Watching Hey in particular is fascinating, because she works so well with Eastwood. During the silences in their scenes together, the mind can almost step back and admire his work directing her. These are half-thoughts though, with the film seizing one again immediately. Vang’s scenes with Eastwood are entirely different (which is another one of the big issues Gran Torino covers) and Vang’s character’s development through the film is noteworthy. But even Christopher Carley, in–I guess–the fourth biggest role, hasn’t been in very much, and his scenes–as Eastwood’s indefatigable priest–are great.

In smaller roles, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes and John Carroll Lynch are all good.

Tom Stern’s photography is excellent–the sound from Bud Asman and company is particularly fantastic–and James J. Murakami’s production design is great. The film’s technical perfection. Eastwood gives son Kyle Eastwood (and Michael Stevens) scoring duties here and their contributions might be another reason it feels so different from his modern work.

Fifteen or twenty minutes into the film, it reminded me of Interiors–a flawless, but dispassionately (on my part) inevitable masterpiece. It isn’t. Through its humor and its delicateness, Gran Torino exhilarates.

Back to Eastwood not being able to make a false step… I’m pretty sure Gran Torino is the first Eastwood film to end with an original song penned by Eastwood (with Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens). He’s done original pieces of music before himself (and scores himself), but a song is something else. And it’s perfect.



Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Nick Schenk, based on a story by Dave Johannson and Schenk; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Eastwood, Robert Lorenz and Bill Gerber; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Walt Kowalski), Bee Vang (Thao Vang Lor), Ahney Her (Sue Lor), Christopher Carley (Father Janovich), Brian Haley (Mitch Kowalski), Geraldine Hughes (Karen Kowalski), Brian Howe (Steve Kowalski) and John Carroll Lynch (Barber Martin).

Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

I’m fairly sure there’s never been a film like Rocky Balboa before. The closest is probably Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Rocky Balboa is about its story and its characters, but it’s also about the audience’s pre-exisiting relationship not with the characters, but with Rocky movies as a piece of history. Stallone uses this relationship early and sparsely, to establish Balboa as something worth watching. Once he’s done, he moves on to more interesting things, but Balboa maintains a mystique about it. The idea of a movie character aging in a film’s absence is one infrequently dealt with and usually poorly (The Color of Money). As a concept, it ought to work. (Clint Eastwood once said he’d do a ‘Dirty Harry Goes Fishing’ sequel). But Rocky Balboa is the first time I can think of it’s worked and it works really, really well. It’s easily the best film of the series (which, minus the first one, isn’t hard).

The boxing aspect of Rocky Balboa comes in so late, it’s actually unimportant to what’s going on in the movie itself. If Rocky had been a bowling champion, it’d be the same degree. Well, maybe not bowling. Arm-wrestling maybe. (I can’t remember the name of Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie). He’s old and he’s alone and it’s about him working his way out of a long rut, trying to reform a family around himself. When the boxing finally does come along, it seems like it might not even–if it weren’t a Rocky movie–go anywhere.

Stallone directs Balboa quieter than I’ve seen anyone direct a modern film in a long time. It’s a loving, patient approach and it works beautifully. Only when it gets to the boxing match, shot to look like a televised bout (on DV), does the film lose that understated beauty. Watching it, I wondered if Stallone intended it to look different because it actually was so removed from the rest of the film. I also wondered if it’d look different on DVD, once everything had been digitized. During the boxing match Stallone stumbles a little, trying to find the right way to present the story in film. These stumbles are never annoying though, just visible.

The acting from the principles is great–Stallone’s very aware of what he can and can not do and he only gives himself the stuff he can do. Similarly, Burt Young’s got a bunch of great stuff to do too. Geraldine Hughes plays a grown-up version of a character from the first film and she’s fantastic. Antonio Tarver is fine as the adversary, with some too weak scenes but enough to be a problem. As Rocky Jr., Milo Ventimiglia acts a little bit too much with his styled hair, but Stallone does a lot of work in those scenes and carries him through. The other scenes Ventimiglia’s in, he needs to look like a men’s watch model and manages. The stuff between Stallone and Young is great, but familiar. The stuff between Stallone and Hughes is great and new and somehow more rewarding, because this relationship is what kick-starts Rocky Balboa‘s story.

Going in to Balboa, I wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting something decent or at least inoffensively watchable, but certainly not something great. It was a really nice and totally unbelievable surprise.



Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Clark Mathis; edited by Sean Albertson; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Charles Winkler, William Chartoff and David Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie), Geraldine Hughes (Marie), Milo Ventimiglia (Robert Balboa Jr.), Antonio Tarver (Mason “The Line” Dixon), James Francis Kelly III (Steps) and Tony Burton (Duke).

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