A bit late to the party, I'll admit, I recently watched Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. Not his best work, and I'm not surprised it received no Oscar nods for any major awards, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't moved by it or that I didn't enjoy it.
In it, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a surly old Korean vet who is nice to no one, especially himself. This portrait of a mean old bastard is a bit caricatured, but... I enjoyed the caricature. Almost cartoonish in its depiction of Kowalski, Eastwood's growl is ever present, and seemed to be enhanced in post- I mean that's some serious growl ADR going on here... On the other hand, the Hmong actors in this film- well non-actors really- present a serious misstep in the film.
The acting was- to put it generously- not believable. That's not to see the actors lacked charm. I liked them one and all. But the brother and sister (Thao and Sue) who are Kowalski's foils were profoundly unconvincing, and next to an actor as complete as Eastwood, it's hard for the juxtaposition not to be awkward. Yet, in the end, I could not help feeling ennobled by Kowalski's sacrifice, moved deeply by the fatherly sentiments he feels towards these two kids who are not his kids, but are much more so than his own flesh and blood.
These warm, tingly emotions reminded me of the last film I watched that had a similar effect on me. This film also had an elderly protagonist save the day through his sacrificial actions: Captain Abu Raed, a gem of a film that happened to be scored by Austin Wintory, the whiz kid composer who also wrote the majority the music in my short, MISSING PIECES.
Abu Raed is Amin Matalqa's first feature film, but the story is so finely told, you wouldn't know it.
Like Gran Torino, Captain Abu Raed employs a lot of non actors in the young, underprivileged section. But unlike the situation in Torino, Matalqa knows how to work with his kids, and coax brilliant performances out of them. Much of it has to do with casting- finding the kids who's life experiences give them the emotional depth to necessary to project that gravity onscreen. But it also has to do with a unique directorial talent and skill: working with first time actors. This skill requires a combination finding ways to poke and prod in the right ways, communicate in way that someone who doesn't have the language of acting will understand it. It's not surprising to me then, that Clint Eastwood at a loss... He's been spoiled by the Sean Penn's of the world...
In any case, perhaps watching the trailers will give you a sense of the parallels between the two films:
As a postscript, when I asked Amin if he noticed any similarities between his film and Gran Torino, he confessed that he hadn't seen it, then adding: "But a lot of people tell me it's like a harsher version of Captain Abu Raed..."