Author Archives: Vman

About Vman

"When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" - Bob Dylan "They're selling postcards of the hanging" - Bob Dylan "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me" - Jay-z "All we are saying, is give peace a chance" - John Lennon "Life's a bitch and then you die, that's why we get high, cuz you never know when you gotta go" - Nas " I want to be as free as the spirits of those who left I'm talking Malcom, Coltrane, my man Yusef " - Common " Come senators, congressmen Please heed the call Don't stand in the doorway Don't block up the hall For he that gets hurt Will be he who has stalled There's a battle outside And it is ragin' It'll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin'." - Bob Dylan

Exclusive Preview: DNA TEST FEST

Fan Death Incarnate

“I don’t really give a fuck about half of the shit that…Pitchfork talks about. I don’t care about the shit’s that’s on BYT(noted pornography website Brightest Young Things) and I don’t go party.”

This humble manifesto of sorts was uttered by one Sean Gray. For those familiar with the bespectacled, outspoken, suitably profane prince of College Park’s WMUC radio, Gray’s views regarding the current status of the DC music scene should come as little to no surprise. Whereas an average fan devoid of any particular ambition would relegate such feelings to Internet message boards and Zaireeka listening parties, Gray and his partner Christopher Berry decided to do something about it, to create their very own odd niche of the independent music world where one is just as likely to undergo the sonic assault of Drunkdriver as be pleased by the avant acoustics of Kurt Vile.

To Gray and Berry, the variety of the talent at their imprint, Fan Death Records is by design rather than a contradiction. Gray offered almost a guiding creed of their business: “Because the Internet is so vast, there is a lot of bands that kind of get shuffled over. They don’t really get attention paid to them. My thought was that if I group these bands together that wouldn’t normally be grouped. My hope and Chris’s hope in this is that somebody will walk away who was originally there to see…True Womahood, they end up seeing Screen Vinyl Image or…Pygymy Shrews, and they’re like ‘that was awesome I’m glad that I saw them’…All I care about is…when people leave that venue on the 24th and the 25th, they say “I’m really glad this happened.” Berry added, “We both have that attitude where…we will take a chance on a record.”

The two nearly finish each other’s sentences and one detects little to no disagreement amongst them. In fact, the story of their first meeting has a romantic tinge to it. Berry, already having ordered a record from Gray’s first venture, Hit-Dat Records, only encountered Gray in person upon joining the University of Maryland and hearing of “a cool kid with a walker” and a “Devo t-shirt.” Thus, began their fruitful partnership. They manage essentially all aspects of the business together from marketing to accounting to even packaging and shipping the Vinyl records themselves. Fan Death becomes them.

Their transformation from die hard “record collectors” to mini moguls might seem new fangled and endemic of an Internet age where tools such as Myspace and Blogs have rapidly drained control from the coffers of musical conglomerate into the hands of tech literate consumers. Yet, Berry and Gray argue that Fan Death is really nothing new at all. Berry was dismissive, saying, “Well people did it before us.” Gray simply placed Fan Death into the long lineage of independent labels: “It happened 20 years ago… in the 60s, it happened in the 70s. It’s going to continue happening. The Internet is just another tool…To me it hasn’t revolutionized really anything.”

Still, there is a vast difference between the approach of a bloated, rich major label and the lithe Fan Death. Though Fan Death wishes to release “as many records as possible,” Berry describes their more enlightened aspirations: “We aren’t just in it to make a shitload of money and chill…Everything that we put out we really care about.” Qualifying Berry’s statements, Gray states, “There’s nothing wrong with selling records. We just want to make enough money to be able to keep putting out records.I know and Chris knows that we’re going to have to have regular jobs. We’re not going to be the next Matador records.” The duo is literally invested in the success of their label as virtually each release carries with it the risk of not having “rent money.”

So what to make of two punks who are the first to both readily acknowledge that the entire idea of using their pocketbooks and passion to help guide your listening habits is “really fucking pretentious” and are still just as “aggressive” in producing and pushing their favorite LPs? The answer is simple and can be gleaned simply by attending both nights of DNA TEST FEST at the Velvet Lounge in Washington D.C. on April 24th and 25th. You might love it, hate it or want to fight Berry and Gray. All that matters is that you escape the Drunkdriver set with limbs intact and Smirinoff Ice unspilt.

-Vman

Fan Death Records

DNA TEST FEST

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Album Review (EP): Blood Bank – Bon Iver

In the indie world of today, it is all too easy to rapidly win the hearts and minds of the NPR faithful and then lose them just as quickly. Considering that For Emma, Forever Ago was actually recorded during a cabin sabbatical in 2007, doubts that Vernon —now with Mike Noyce and Sean Carey — might prove unable to expand upon his heartfelt, folk masterpiece were entirely justified. His latest EP under the band name Bon Iver, Blood Bank — though unfairly burdened with far more pressure than the four rewarding tracks contained are meant to bear – is a gorgeous, lush effort which mines Vernon’s rich past while still developing the sound and the meaning of Emma even further.

Judging by his music, Vernon cares little about appeasing critics or fans hungrily awaiting miracles from the Wisconsin man with the body of a lumberjack and the soul of a transcendentalist poet. The songs arise naturally and openly from Vernon. “Blood Bank” begins with a gentle, building phrase on strings which quickly gives way to Vernon’s falsetto cooing and distorted, quickly strummed chords. Most notable about the song are the changes in tempo as Vernon goes from triumphant to philosophical in his story of fresh love. Stanzas about that initial rush of flirtation, “Well I met you at the blood ban/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/Matched any of the names we knew on the tags” play like the opening scenes of an indie movie, quirky but charming. To deliver the chorus, Vernon halts his arrangements and delivers the chorus: “And I said I know it well.” The line is simple but doused in enough emotion and yearning that it works exactly as well as the refrains in Emma.

The most experimental songs on the album are closing tracks “Babys” and “Woods.” The former is notable for being driven by a constantly repeating melodic phrase on piano rather than Vernon’s trusted steel string guitar. The lyrics, however, are vintage — spare and filled with ambiguity: “Summer comes to multiply/But I, I’m the carnival of peace.” It is a deliberate allusion to and rejection of the season largely responsible for shaping Vernon, winter. This peace is short lived, ended by the dark statement “But my woman and I, my woman and I know what we’re for.”

Though Vernon had flirted with autotune in Emma during “The Wolves (Act I and II),” he takes the device to heretofore unseen lengths. “Woods” consists layer upon layer of Vernon’s vocals, each at a different pitch and distorted to a different degree until there is a ascendant, harmonizing chorus with digitally inflected tenor and bass. Kanye West used the program to distance himself from his emotions — trusting only a robotic imitation of himself to deliver what he felt, knowing his limited, expressive rapping voice could not carry the emotions. Vernon’s motivations are far more mysterious. It is apparent he can sing and sing well, endowed with an angelic falsetto, just short of a castrati. Whatever the reasons may be, one must marvel at how Vernon casts off expectations and brings to light the beauty and the darkness he discovered in those woods.

RATING:

-Vman

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Album Review: Noble Beast – Andrew Bird

“Let’s get out of here/past the atmosphere” implores singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist Andrew Bird in “Oh No,” the opening track of his latest effort, Noble Beast. Listening to his rich soundscapes — immaculately constructed down to the last note — Bird’s simple lyric begins to take on increasingly added significance.

Noble Beast is by no means a revolutionary, atmosphere abandoning effort. Bird strays only moderately from the standard pop structures he has gradually adopted ever since ably crossing over from the world of classical music. Yet, his instrumental acuity is such that even tunes eerily similar to his previous work yield a bounty of new discoveries.

The violin introducing “Oh No” sounds extraordinarily familiar in a way, as if sprung from the confines of some old 45 but also gorgeously original with its tone of measured romanticism. The melody, which Bird extracted from the utterance of a small child seems just right, almost as if Bird put into song everything the little boy felt when he cried “oh no.”

In fact, each of Bird’s arrangements is an adventure in and of itself as evidenced by one of Beast’s standouts, “Anonanimal.” Though seemingly titled by Flight of the Conchords, it assuredly swings through a variety of moods created by the clash and combination of Bird’s swelling violin, up tempo guitar picking and lyrical dalliances with consonance and rapidly morphing meters. Ultimately, Bird coos and his violin weeps, making one feel a great deal for whatever an “anonanimal” is.

Also featured is Bird’s recent experimentation — assisted by collaborator Martin Dosh — with unconventional percussive rhythms. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” begins with a spare digital-inflected beat seemingly offered by Thom Yorke before the addition of a full drum kit propels the insistent rhythm to the forefront.

Similarly, Bird’s guitar playing has matured to the point that his fingerpicking even propels selected songs such as “Natural Disaster” rather than merely providing the pleasant rhythmic background. One could easily assume it was Paul McCartney who composed the guitar line, fresh off of writing “Blackbird.”

More pop revivalist than mere formalist, Bird mainly employs spaced, unconventional timbres to avoid structural monotony. Whether it’s the violin plucking, the whistling or the glockenspiel playing, Bird never quite stops refracting his melodies through various mediums. After all, “Tenuousness” is essentially the repetition of the same melodic phrase, first by guitar then eventually by violin, bass and Bird’s ethereal whistle.

Lyrically, Bird sticks to his long held conviction that words exist to serve the melody and not the other way around. It is the sound and rhythmic quality of each syllable which seduces Bird rather than the literal meaning of the words themselves. Stanzas such as “Under the elders/the older get younger/the younger get over/over the elders/and under the elders/pretend that you’re older now” from the peak of the album, “Souverian” sound equal parts nonsensical and wonderfully poetic.

Fortunately, Bird is as witty as he is melodically perceptive. In “The Privateers,” Bird issues the most elegant rebuttal of product pitchmen in recent memory, singing “Don’t sell me anything/Your onetime offer so uncalled for…” with all the appropriate emotional inflections.

The only pseudo-fault of Beast is that it cannot compare to Bird’s much darker masterpiece, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Granted, the musicianship is better than ever but Beast simply lacks the emotional punch of Bird singing “You’re what happens when two substances collide/ And by all accounts you really should have died” on Eggs. It is easy to point to that line alone and understand the album as a treatise on life and the various difficulties involved in its creation and conclusion. No such thesis is provided for Beast other than vague allusions to invented creatures and animals.

By now it is well established that Bird is a meticulous artisan of sound. It appears, however, that amidst all his perfectionism he has lost sight of the big picture. Even the highlight of the album,”Souverian” is left stranded without any songs kindred in spirit to support its masterful atmospheres. Still, Noble Beast is worth hearing for those small pleasures alone. We are never quite sure what it all adds up to but to quote one of Bird’s previous albums: “Oh! the Grandeur.”

RATING:

-Vman

Noble Beast is a reconciling of the tenderness and openness of The Mysterious Production of Eggs with the edginess of Armchair Apocrypha (Armchair Apocrypha and …Eggs being his previous two albums). It’s not so much of a balancing act because the darkness that preoccupied Armchair Apocrypha is mostly gone. Both in lyrical and tonal measurements, Noble Beast is a much more cheerful record.

The deluxe edition (Noble Beast and an album of instrumentals, Useless Creatures) packaging is excellent.

– R.H.

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Review: Notorious

20th Century Fox

Courtesy: Fox Searchlight

The Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious is, predictably enough, a family affair in numerous ways. Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace was involved extensively, even anointing Jamal Woolard as her son in an open casting call. Furthermore, her grandson, CJ Wallace, plays the young incarnation of his father apparently blissfully ignorant of the implications his performance entailed. While it is perfectly acceptable that Mrs.Wallce, a woman who by all accounts was the most positive voice in Biggie’s tumultuous life, be involved in her son’s biopic, it places an artistic chokehold on the material. Watching the film, one is forced to look around in incredulity, wondering if anybody else in the theatre was buying the glossy depictions of Saint Smalls and his madonna of a mother. Aside from that of Mrs. Wallace, the other prominent meddling that can be detected in the film comes directly from the diamond studded hand of Sean ‘Puffy/P.Diddy/Diddy’ Combs. Derek Luke plays Combs as Biggie’s guardian angel, a helpful and selfless model of benevolence who was only too happy to turn Biggie’s life around and take him to the promise land while asking relatively little in return. Naturally, there is little hint of the shameless profiteering Combs clearly engaged in as he built his empire off of the life but mostly the death of Biggie. Lil Kim even gets recast as simply a wounded soul madly in love. One begins to wonder how the sweetheart on the screen ended up a convicted felon and noted crazy person.

In fact, Notorious bears little resemblance to Biggie’s masterpiece debut, Ready to Die or even to the lesser sequel, Life After Death. Rather it is kin to Born Again, the post humous collection of botched and brazenly cynical remixes and unreleased tracks created by Combs and Biggie’s estate to cash in one last time before Biggie lost his hold on the national consciousness. Granted, Notorious is not without its small successes. Woolard’s Biggie, if nothing else, is especially charming and winsome, qualities often overlooked when discussing the man. In addition, hee can certainly look like Biggie, an accomplishment not be dismissed. Angela Bassett brings appropriate gravitas and regal bearing as Voletta even if her theatrics square very rarely with the largely buoyant tone of the movie. There is even a modicum of style in director George Tillman’s camera work, even if the first act seemingly pilfered its visuals from Everybody Hates Chris.

As much as the talent involved tries, however, the calculated stench of the Hollywood biopic never quite washes off. Woolard is funny but he is severely lacking in gravitas. Although meant to be indelible, shots of Biggie on his throne,cane in hand and hat on head, end up almost comic as one sees not the king of the game but a chubby poseur out of his league. As much as Mrs. Wallace and everyone involved would like to ignore it, Biggie was, at times, a dark, dark motherfucker. Ready to Die is a nightmare of a record whose foreboding atmosphere of doom is only matched by its penchant for brilliant fatalist musings. If Notorious had followed the grand, tragic arc set forth in that classic then it might have achieved a Shakespearean heft equal to that of its protagonist. What should be transcendent tragedy is molded by Tillman Jr. into a pandering, inept and ultimately incomplete portrait. Shots of Biggie doing bad things like selling crack to a pregnant woman or exploding in anger seems requisite rather than revelatory. The crackhead even goes on to miraculously have a productive life and a fine son leaving one to wonder if Saint Smalls was kind and magnanimous enough to supply her with magical crack. When that final, fated bullet ends the life of Christopher Wallace one is left  happy and hopeful, confident that Biggie, joyous and well fed in heaven, is delivering the voiceover with a smile and a warm heart. Well, fuck that shit.

Allow me to quote a great poet who deserves better:

“When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell

Cause Im a piece of shit, it aint hard to fuckin tell
It dont make sense, goin to heaven wit the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white, I like black tims and black hoodies
God will probably have me on some real strict shit
No sleepin all day, no gettin my dick licked
Hangin with the goodie-goodies loungin in paradise
Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice

All my life I been considered as the worst”

-Vman

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Review: Synecdoche, New York

Sony Classics

Courtesy: Sony Classics


A review of this film would be more inconsequential than usual and mere folderol to the spectacle of it all. Therefore, it is much more prudent to jot down some thoughts had a fair bit ago upon experiencing the piece. After all, Charlie Kaufman himself said Synecdoche is constructed more like a dream than a rational, linear film. Caden Cotard(Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director heading headlong for death. This knowledge is conveyed to him through the various failures of his body. The blood in his stool, the pains in his body, the pus, the headaches, the insolvency are all harbingers, signaling that the road is ending and there is no detour. Yet, Caden still wants to find a way out the same as we all do, his conduit being theater. Having won a MacArthur genius grant for his interpretation of Death of a Salesman, he sets about creating meaning in the existential void by bringing all of life into the theater, a venue he can manage and mold to his liking. His wife having left him with his kid and quickly finding himself all alone in the world, Caden connects with the world by bringing it into his. Actors are cast, mammoth sets are built and much like the world itself, everything is begun with grand ambitions and hopes as larger than the titanic warehouse in which Caden creates his world. It is with this premise that the film leaves the pathetic trepidations of the masses behind and one begins to see Charlie Kaufman playing with the puzzle he has just created, attempting to solve it not for the audience but for his own pleasure. Eventually he puts the pieces together and finds that they form a picture of nothing. Caden sees his love rejected universally as his daughter and ex wife scorn him, his relationships end in chaos or awkward stalemates. While he was busy bringing his life onto the stage, he forgot to live it. No matter, life is theater isn’t it? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and no matter what Caden comes up with it is gone. The stage is ephemeral and as unforgiving as the world, the performances disappearing into vapor as quickly as they come. Still, Caden wants to learn a thing or two before his time runs out. The stage becomes a prism, refracting, reflecting and extracting his life mercilessly. It is all there, the bleak sadness of his rituals: cleaning up his ex wife’s apartment while she is away, falling in and out of love with the same woman, smart enough to see it yet too stupid to do anything about it. It all comes out but Caden needs much more. Every extra is a lead, it’s real life man. Like life, the experiment ages. Actors become weary, sets begin to decay and Kaufman creates it all with exactitude. Reappearing for brief instants almost subliminally, certain images and motifs began to seep into the film. There is a pattern to it all, sad as one finds to be once discovered. Caden does not know that he’s just a little person, however, and he begins to get stage directions seemingly from on high. Wandering through his shattered reality and the one he did not create Caden has no refuge but in melancholy and the slight comfort of another. That’s it isn’t it? The song goes “I’ll find a second little person who will look at me and say… I know you, you’re the one I’ve waited for. Let’s have some fun.” A cautionary odyssey after it all happens, Caden cannot win and neither can we. Therefore, the least we can do is get the little moments that Caden sacrifices right. Regrets, however, cannot be fixed. The full weight of this bears on Caden but before he can do much more about it or nothing at all, there is a final stage command, die. I’m just a little person and so are you. This film might seem big but it isn’t. In actuality, it’s made for the little people like you and me by a little person. Kaufman knew he could not succeed where Caden had failed yet he got on with it, as we all must. See it and weep if you can, then forget about it forever, no good in fighting time.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
– Vman

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Review: Milk

Focus Features

Courtesy: Focus Features


Perhaps the unsung hero in the praised to the heavens Gus Van Sant helmed Harvey Milk biopic Milk is director of cinematography Harris Savides. Bringing the same visual acumen he did to Zodiac, Savides seems to have undeniably mastered the palette of the 1970s. The images he and Gus Van Sant put on the screen are as, if not more stunning than the bravura performance by Sean Penn and co.

Case in point is the first sexual encounter between Harvey Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Naturally, the performances are perfectly tuned and calibrated. Franco calls upon a hitherto largely suppressed charm (think of the dour Harry Osborn in Spiderman 3) and glances knowingly at the considerably less attractive Penn, easily conveying that he just cannot help but be captivated by this funny looking Jew from long island. Meanwhile, Penn’s halting downward glances reveal that though Harvey was brazen enough to proposition Scott in the subway, he still retains a sweet, easily wounded core underneath that freedom fighter exterior. These performances, however, are stunning precisely because of the visual mastery of Savides and Van Sant. A handheld camera is placed within inches of the performers, providing startlingly intimate close ups as it lapses in and out of focus. The larger image appears beautifully worn with lighting dim and hazy enough to hint at the illicit nature of the activity.

Of course,  Milk does not just contain a flawless opening scene. Rather, the film picks up righteous steam as Harvey moves from Long Island to San Francisco to find a purpose. Eventually he discovers this to be politically crusading for gay rights and more specifically, representing Castro street, the center of the burgeoning homosexual scene. Harvey starts riots, boycotts anti gay businesses and generally causes hell. He runs repeatedly and loses just as often but refuses to stop being a nuisance to the man. His hard nosed head on charge into the establishment — gay and straight — forces homosexuals to demand more than just gay friendly leaders and challenges those leaders to deliver the rights they promised in exchange for gay votes. Eventually, Harvey becomes the first openly gay public official and begins fighting the good fight, mainly against Orange juice spokesman Anita Bryant and her campaign to ban gay teachers in California schools.

Although by now Harvey has most assuredly been canonized as a gay saint, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black approach his story with a determined realism, balancing scenes of Harvey loudly pumping his fist and infecting a generation with his fervor with his domestic failures and rocky personal life. Above all though, credit is due to the supporting players in the film for grounding the story. Emile Hirsch plays Harveyrecruited gay activist Cleve Jones with both humor and a subterranean anger. When he tells Harvey he doesn’t do losing, the apathy of disaffected youth fully gives way to the fire started by Harvey.

Likewise, Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Harvey’s assassin, Dan White lends another, even more vital dimension to the film. Refusing to sentimentalize a universally reviled man, Brolin nevertheless explores the reasons for White’s egregious murders aside from the now infamous “twinkie defense” — arguing that an excess of fast food consumption caused the act — employed during his subsequent trial. An oft -stated armchair phycologist diagnosis would be that White was simply an extremely repressed homosexual, whose internalized homophobia caused him to lash out. Fortunately, Brolin does not settle with such an easy, convenient conclusion instead portraying White as the ultimate misfit, a lone working class conservative in gay, liberal San Francisco whose lack of political strength leaves him at the mercy of the world around him, a man who just wished to seize control for once in his life even if it was with a revolver.

Gus Van Sant is an oddity in American cinema,  a director who can delve as deftly deeply into the calculatedly mainstream (Good Will Hunting) as he can into the aesthetically experimental (Paranoid Park ). His presence and more importantly the mise en scene he perfects in the film are what elevate Milk above the innumerable perfectly acceptable biopics into the realm of American classics.

– Vman

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Review: Gran Torino

Courtesy Warner Brothers

Courtesy Warner Brothers


It is remarkable to consider the gifts of Clint Eastwood, a man with a near miraculous ability to tap into the ideological mainstream of American life while offering enough of a critique to justify it as art. Gran Torino is focused on the final days of a typical Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski. A veteran of the Korean war, Kowalski delivers profanity monologues on respectively the “gooks”, “zipper-heads” and “chinks” rife with squints, scowls and even growls in the iconic manner of Dirty Harry. One is left with the impression that all he wants out of life is for people to stay off his lawn, leaving him alone with his demons from the war and the grief resulting from his wife Dorothy’s death.

Nevertheless, the world refuses to leave him with his misery when a neighboring Hmong boy, Thao, attempts to steal his beloved Ford Gran Torino, a vintage muscle car Kowalski himself helped assemble during his time at Ford. Kowalski then deals with Thao’s family with a mix of paternal care and knee jerk racism. Noble acts such as saving Thao’s sister Sue from thugs harassing her on the street and providing Thao with a guiding male presence he never had are offset by crude evocations of stereotypes such as instructing the hmongs to stay away from his dog when he learns of an ongoing barbeque. Eventually, Walt cannot help but be thrust into the middle of the conflict involving a local Hmong gang and Thao that brings out the heart of his character.

It is all too easy and painfully reductionist to dismiss Walt as the archetypical American stoic Eastwood has made a career out of perfectly capturing on celluloid. In fact, it is precisely the well worn familiarity of the narrative that lends the film potency. Gran Torino is one of the few films to zestfully tap into the vein of the American soul in a time when citizens are increasingly devoid of national spirit.  Everything about the film is an espousal of every classical value. When Thao asks Walt what about the type of work he should do. Walt vouches for Thao and gets him a job in construction, deriding how his son works in sales. It is a casual remark but it appeals to the American ethos of a generation past, valuing the creation of something material (construction, building cars) rather than the shuffling of immaterial goods such as credit default swaps.

Furthermore, Walt fights not out of anger but a sense of steadfast moral determination for Thao to live in peace. A sentiment that harkens back to a time when America did not rush headlong into wars full of misplaced Jingoism. In the same way that Walt attempts to teach his spoiled grandchildren about modesty and manners, Eastwood seems to be firing a blast square into the heart of the current culture. Gran Torino demands much of the viewer. It requires one to not only begrudgingly accept racism and proud political incorrectness  but laugh at and even celebrate it. Yet, the film’s pleasures extend far beyond that. It captures one’s emotions and attention almost subliminally, through a series of exceedingly creative racial epithets and quick shots of Walt’s blood on his napkin only to deliver a searing indelible gut punch of an ending. Gran Torino ends as an ideal symbiosis of character, film and director.

– Vman

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