Friday, 11 February 2011

True Grit

Mattie Ross is a 14 year old seeking vengeance on Tom Chainey, the man who killed her father before making off with his horses and gold. While collecting his body, she inquires about hiring a US Marshal to track down Chainey, and chooses to hire Rooster Cogburn, a bad-tempered old drunk with one good eye and a penchant for taking the law into his own hands, delivering justice with the barrel of his gun. As they head out, they are joined by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger also tracking Chainey and his men. Can the three of them stay together long enough to bring justice to Chainey? Or will Chainey be able to evade capture once again?

True Grit is an institution of cinephiles everywhere. It earned John Wayne, the Duke, his one and only Oscar win for Best Actor, and proudly takes its place amongst the great Westerns in cinema history. So, fast forward 42 years, and here we find Charles Portis’ novel taking to the big screen once again. But why? Why choose to readapt this classic story and timeless motion picture? Is it even a remake? Could it be a ‘reimagining’ perhaps? Or is it a case of the Coen brothers finally relenting, making the genre piece that fans have been begging them to for years and choosing an already famous story to do it with?

The Coen brothers have carved out a niche for themselves; they’ve created their own genre. Intricate plotlines, interesting visuals, unique characters, snappy and witty dialogue, dark themes; there are all standard from a Coen brothers film. You’d think their way of making films would fit the Western genre perfectly, yet they’ve never gone all out with it. They teased a Western with No Country for Old Men, but finally they’ve added their unique skew on filmmaking to an out-and-out Western. I’m happy to report it’s a perfect fit, a match made in heaven truly. Portis’ novel True Grit already provides the unique characters and the dark themes, the setting and the genre provide the interesting visuals, and the Coens have created a script full of the dialogue you’d expect from them: A sly mix of deathly serious and darkly funny, with the occasional full-blown laugh thrown in for good measure.

This brings me onto the performances, which are strong and consistent throughout. Jeff Bridges has a lot to thank the Coens for; they created his most memorable character in ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski and now they’ve brought him in to try and recreate an iconic role forever associated with ‘The Duke’. Bridges is pretty well aware of the shoes he’s stepping into, and so ends up underplaying it throughout, but it still works, the character is too strong to disappear into the background, and thus Bridges steals focus and attention every time he’s on screen. However, he is equalled by Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross. As the Coen brothers readapted the novel, they made sure they did something which wasn’t done in the original adaptation: The focus stayed on Mattie. The story is told from her perspective, narrating as an adult, and as such, Steinfeld is given a hefty responsibility with most of the dialogue and a more forceful version of the character than before. She lives up to it though, and surprises with just how much presence she has. Matt Damon is good, but outshone, as the brash and arrogant LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef, of course), but he certainly very easily erases the memory of Glen Campbell from the ’69 version. Josh Brolin is OK as Chainey, but just isn’t as memorable or commanding as his opposite numbers.

As for the direction, it’s standard Coen brothers. What more can I say? You know what you’re getting. And with it being a Western, they give you the huge, panoramic landscapes of the frontier which defined the genre, but they put their own twist on it. While they give you the sweeping panoramas, it doesn’t fill you with hope and wonder, instead it’s all pretty dark tonally and fills you with... I want to say fear? Maybe not, but it’s the opposite of hope... Despair? It’s not a Western as you know it – It’s a Coen brothers Western.

Overall, it’s really terrific, it really is. It’s probably one of the more approachable Coen brothers films for an outsider who either isn’t aware of their work or isn’t a big fan of their work, it’s nowhere near as heavy a watch as A Serious Man or Barton Fink or even No Country for Old Men. For the fans though, it’s brilliant, just what you’d expect with a fantastic return of the Dude, this time doing the Duke as good as the man himself. The Coens have reimagined a classic, and made it... Well, a classic. In a perfect world, all films would be made by the Coen brothers, and they’d all be as good as this.

Rating: *****

Friday, 4 February 2011

Rabbit Hole

Eight months after the tragic car accident that killed their young son, Becca and Howie Corbett are struggling to cope with the tragedy. Whereas Howie is open about his grief and buries himself in memories of his son, Becca represses her grief and feels the need to systematically remove memories of Danny from their house. As they both seek to redefine their positions within their relationship, both of them start to make decisions which could potentially change things forever...

It’s odd: For 10 months of the year, you get a decidedly standard collection of releases with maybe one or two standouts, but then, come January and February, you get inundated with a plethora of films all stamped ‘For Your Consideration’, all held back for awards season so that they all get lost amongst one another and they’ll all be judged evenly. Or at least that’s the plan. So here’s Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. So has it rightly been held back for release until now? Ehhh...

My gripe with this is that the story has been done before, and never has a main character in a story like this been such an unidentifiable, disingenuous, argumentative, thoroughly unlikeable cow. Nicole Kidman plays the grieving mother Becca who grieves by starting arguments with everyone around her and attempting to move on with her life by clearing out memories of her dead son. Surely the whole idea of the story is to try and identify with the character and to share her grief? Since Becca seemingly refuses to grieve openly, it makes it really hard to attach yourself either to her or the story, and thus the entire premise of the film is lost.

That’s not to discredit the performance of Kidman, she plays the annoyingly dissociative bint to a tee. She’s probably done exactly what was asked of her and good for her. Aaron Eckhart is great in this, playing a grieving a father they way you’d expect him to be played – Wanting for his deceased son, clutching onto memories of him, gathering support from the people around here. Dianne Wiest deserves a mention here too, playing Becca’s mother, as she plays the mother confused by her daughter’s reaction well. It’s also nice to see Sandra Oh pop up as well in a key role playing off of the main cast, much as she did in Sideways.

There’s nothing particularly stunning visually, so if you don’t mind, I’ll go back to having a go at the writing. There’s nothing wrong than taking a well-worn story like parents losing their child and putting a different spin on it, but you still need to retain the grief element or else it loses its human element. You get that with Eckhart’s grieving father, you get that with the grieving family, you even get that from the support group they go to. Quite possibly the most important person you need it from is the mother. When that goes missing, you take a huge leap of faith and risk stepping into the abyss. This one falls in, head first. Even Eckhart’s character Howie gets so bloody sick of her, he... I won’t ruin it, but he gets sick of her too. She’s just annoying and indifferent to a horrifying situation.

Overall, this wasn’t my cup of tea. Not for the subject matter, but for the way it was told. Call me a traditionalist, but I want to see parents grieving for their lost child rather than act like a callous bitch. Good for them for giving this a go, but it’s just completely missed its mark by my standards. It loses its ability to absorb the viewer by having such a dissociative lead character, and for me that’s just sloppy writing. Acting’s good enough, visually unspectacular, aurally unspectacular, writing bloody annoying. Other people may see this and argue, but hey, this is just my opinion, it’s not gospel. You want to tell me where I’m wrong then go ahead. Will I read it? Probably not. Will I care? Definitely not. I know what I like, and it isn’t this.

Rating: **

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Fighter

Micky Ward is a young boxer who’s trained by his half-brother Dicky, a former boxer himself but currently struggling with a crack cocaine addiction, and managed by his mother Alice, an overbearing matriarch who seems to favour Dicky over Micky. Micky’s career is in a slump, as he’s seen as a stepping stone for other fighters to further their career. But when he starts a relationship with a bartender called Charlene, he realises there may be more options in his career other than his family. Can he kickstart his career, or will the tension growing between his family and his new girlfriend ruin everything before they’ve begun?

Say what you will about the Academy, they’re a sucker for a good boxing movie. Rocky won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing as well as being nominated for 6 others. Raging Bull won Best Actor and Best Editing as well, picking up 6 more nominations on top of that. The Fighter has, inevitably, picked 6 nominations this year including Best Picture, Best Director and a few acting nominations. So will it be able to take its place amongst the great boxing movies? Going by the evidence on show, it’s almost certain that it will.

Though it may not win Best Picture or Best Director, it seems a shoe-in to walk away from the Kodak Theatre with Best Supporting Actor for Christian Bale at the very least. Bale is phenomenal in this, I’ve seen no other supporting actor who delivers such a strong performance, completely stealing focus from Mark Wahlberg, the leading actor. He delivers a raw, genuine performance as a man engulfed by a crack cocaine habit living off of his former glory (He once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, you know) and it’s hard to see anyone denying him the accolade he deserves for this. He mimics the actual Dicky perfectly, nailing the movements and mannerisms, as well as his distinct Bostonian accent.

Of course, The Fighter seems almost certain to walk away with Best Supporting Actress as well, with both supporting ladies picking up nominations. Amy Adams is great as Charlene, a brassy Boston bartender with a strong will and dominating attitude, completely going against type here. But, even this is outshone by Melissa Leo’s Alice, the dominating matriarch. Her and Bale are, without a doubt, are the main focuses of the film, they grab the attention of the audience in whatever scene they’re in. Melissa Leo plays what is essentially, to an outsider, the mother from hell – Unwilling to trust anyone outside the family, managing Micky’s career with the family’s financial interests at heart rather than progressing Micky’s career further and choosing the right opponents for him. There’s nothing wrong with Marky Mark’s turn as Micky Ward, the calm centre within a crazy family, but it’s just not strong enough to compete with Adams, Leo and Bale. He’s actually quite a good boxer in this, has a good style and pulls off his role of Micky pretty darn well.

Visually, it adopts a documentary style, and it suits it completely, looking somewhat similar to The Wrestler (Yes, I keep coming back to it, it’s one of my favourites, shut up) and giving the feeling of a true-to-life documentary, which is pretty much is, being a dramatised version of the events in the life of Micky Ward. The real Micky and Dicky even make an appearance over the credits, following the tradition of the real-life dramas we’ve seen this year, what with Aron Ralston appearing at the end of 127 Hours. The direction is top notch, and David O. Russell deserves recognition for that but he will, inevitably, be the forgotten man in this. The script is strong, and tells the story of the Ward family without any irony or ludicrousness, it stays with the emotion that the story delivers and deserves.

Overall, The Fighter is a really top class drama, but it’s not really about the boxing. It goes deep to the heart of the Boston family construct and deconstructs it, making it relatable and heartbreaking to watch at time, before becoming a joyous celebration at the end. The strong performances by Bale and Leo (and Adams) will involve you and keep you glued to the screen for the films’ two hour duration. It’s enjoyable, if tough to watch in places, but it’s really top draw stuff. This is why I love awards season, it’s an absolute bloody joy to watch so many great films all at once, even if the rest of the year is filled with crap. It would seem Christian Bale can do no wrong right now, behind the scenes tantrums aside. Maybe that’s why he was cast? A temperamental bastard playing a crack addicted ex-fighter, it fits, right?

Rating: ****1/2