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Film(s) Recommendations

13 July, 2009

In a household overwhelmingly female, I’ve clocked lots of hours watching so-called chic flicks.  Most of the time I either fall asleep (much to my daughters’ frustration) or get up and see if I can clean up the kitchen yet again (much to my wife’s bemusement).  I do try, honest, to watch these films but, as in the case recently with 27 Dresses, I have to punch out. Enough is enough!

So, in the first instance, I tend to watch foreign films (i.e. non-English language films) like those I recommend in this blog.

When the estrogen levels really get too much, however, I go for –well, how else can I put it– guy films.  The Great Escape, Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare are at the top of the list.

During a recent re-calibration or adjustment (in other words when none of the females in my life were at home for a couple of days) I watched two remarkable films — and they are this month’s recommendations.

First, is Clint Eastwood’s latest production and direction, Gran Torino (2008).

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Eastwood stars in this film as a recently widowered elderly guy (named Walt Kowalski) living in a Detroit community — a community starting to look as run down as Walt.  Walt is a disgruntled, gruff and angry Korean war vetran. Walt is an ex-auto worker.  Walt’s sons and their children are total pains — what with their self-centredness and superficiality.  Walt doesn’t have a whole lot of time for his late wife’s Catholic faith and for the Catholic priest who tries to comfort Walt.

Walt is also racist, which is a particular problem given that his next door neighbours are immigrants from Vietnam/Cambodia/Thailand (they are Hmong people).

For complex reasons, young Thao (played by Bee Vang) from next door attempts to steal Kowalski’s 1972 Gran Torino — his pride and joy but hugely symbolic in this film.  Thao’s attempt to steal from Walt ain’t a smart move — for not only is Walt a grumbling, growling, beer drinking, ex-auto worker but he’s a decorated war veteran who still has his guns!

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But just as things look predictable and even cliched (racist meets young immigrant) the story takes a variety of twists and turns.  Walt reluctantly (with lots of Eastwood grumbles, scowls, swearing and sheer “Dirty Harry” looks) ends up befriending his next door neighbours.  His developing relationship with Thao has touches of a ‘father-son’ relationship, but nothing so shmaltzy or sentimental as to make you sick!

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He’s won over by their strong family and by Thao and, especially, his sister (excellent acting by Ahney Her).

Ahney Her

Ahney Her

Much to his pained consternation he says to himself, “I’m more at home with these people than I am with my own family…”

I will not give the story’s final twist and turn away.  First, because I don’t want to ruin it for you.  Second, because at just the point you think this film is Eastwood cliche the story takes a hugely unexpected twist.

To nudge you along, the final twist carries with it something I’ve noticed in a number of Eastwood films (especially Unforgiven which came out in 1992 and the more recent Million Dollar Baby 2004).  There is a kind of hope for atonement or forgiveness.  This isn’t necessarily atonement or forgiveness in the Christian sense — in fact the Christian meaning of both is juxtaposed with Catholicism in Gran Torino).  Some viewers might say I’m making this up, but I am not so sure I am imagining this.

Walt is deeply marked by his war experiences.  He carries pain: both for what he did as a soldier and for what, as he says, “he wasn’t ordered to do”.  The Catholic priest who visits Walt and, in the end, does befriend Walt actually sees this.  It is this sense of inarticulate desire for atonement or some sort of forgivenss combined with Walt’s sense of dogged “well, damn it all, doing what’s right…” that brings about some of the story’s twists.  Watch the final scene and notice Eastwood’s body position or body language.

Eastwood is an icon, there’s no doubt.  Don’t blast me here, but there’s something intrinsically important to Eastwood’s beer drinking, swearing, ‘taking down the bad guys’ along with his endearing gruff charm towards Thao’s family.  But it is especially this intricately paradoxical portrayal of serious falleness that somewhat longs for atonement or forgiveness which is a feature of this film worth your study.

Even my wife liked this film.

The second film is Taken (2008) staring Liam Neeson.

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Neeson plays a former CIA spy (Bryan Mills), whose special skills were helpful “to prevent bad things from happening”.  He worked for a special CIA unit that did, well, all sorts of not so nice things to really not so nice people.  The downside for Mills is that his commitment to his job cost him his marriage and his relationship with his only child, his daughter, Kim (well played by Maggie Grace).  Yet Mills, upon retirement, manages to arrange his life so he can live close to his former wife and daughter so he can see his daughter, especially on her birthdays.

Things get real complicated when Kim, just having turned 18, goes off with a friend to Paris.  Mills is very concerned; and just as you’re unsettled by his paternal obsessiveness and paranoia, well, you just know he’s going to be proven justified.

The story is about a father-daughter relationship — at least at its most simple level.  It is also a chilling story about human traffiking, particularly the abduction of young women to be sold into sex slavery.  In this respect the film is gritty and not “nice” viewing.  Then again, there is absolutely nothing at all nice about human trafficking and the evil of those who perpetrate this trade.

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As you probably guess, Kim is abducted while in Paris with another young girl. (Just at this point there are strong warnings to young women travelling by themselves who happen to ‘encounter’ charming young men who speak with romantic French accents!).

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But just before she’s abducted Kim manages to ‘phone her father and hysterically cries for her father’s rescuing.  And, my goodness, this is precisely what Mills undertakes.  Single-handedly, drawing upon all his skills and trade craft, he shoots, blows up and tortures his way through French/Albanian/Middle-Eastern sex traffikers.

And you know what?  What Mills does is exactly what any right minded father would want to do if his daughter was abducted!  This is what is both compelling and yet disturbing about the film.  In the face of such wickedness and evil — compounded by police compliance — this father’s violent actions to rescue his daughter grabbed me.  I found the whole viewing experience unsettling and conscience provoking.

I’m not and never have been a pacifist, for reasons both theological/philosophical and emotional.  At the same time, I was troubled by how easily and emotionally I was sucked into justifying such violence (including torture).  In this particular sense I found the film’s conclusion less than artful.  It was a “whew, I’m glad it all worked out” kind of ending.  Yet I think the writers (French writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) did us a disservice in as much as they let both Mills and the viewer off the moral hook.  I should have been pressed a bit more — even though I still would want to do what Mills did if my daughter was abducted and I had the skills to rescue her. And this is the moral tension — a tension often found in life but a tension that really has to be addressed lest we all end up justifying our actions on the basis of our emotions or pragmatism.  A society cannot endure such even in the face of the appalling and damnable human sex traffiking.

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