Thursday, December 30, 2010

Into the West: The Coen Brothers Hardly Make a False Move with “True Grit”

My favorite Western is “Back to the Future Part III.” I realize not only is this blasphemous, but it also doesn’t make any sense. And that’s because to be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of Westerns. The components that make up a Western never really interested me. Was it a surprise that I was, at first, disappointed with Quentin Tarantino’s second Kill Bill movie, seeing as though it was more Western-influenced than the first part? Not really. Westerns to me, like their setting, seem ultimately dry and dull. I really only saw True Grit for two reasons: its Oscar buzz and because the Coen Brothers were behind it. I could care less that it’s a remake of the John Wayne classic. I haven’t seen it so it means nothing to me. But after seeing this updated “True Grit” I can say that I did find myself entertained, but not nearly as much as someone who would more fully appreciate this type of film.

“True Grit” makes a sort of strange turn for Joel and Ethan Cohen. They are known for their quirky flicks that are usually dark but have a strange sense of humor to them. They are true originals. Even if something like “No Country for Old Men” was based on a novel, they certainly put their own stamp on the material. That movie is sincerely a Coen Brothers movie, no question. Here in True Grit you’ll have to look a little harder. But they are certainly there. Here this time they not only working from a novel (by Charles Portis) but this is the second time this story is hitting the big screen. Jeff Bridges (a reason along to see this movie) steps into the Oscar-winning shoes of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a man hired by a fourteen year old girl named Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge her father’s death. Mattie’s father was killed by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and Mattie is hell-bend on revenge. Steinfeld certainly is a find. This is her feature film debut and you’d think she’d been in twenty other movies. After some disagreements, Mattie and Rooster set off to find Chaney in Indian territory. They are also joined by LaBoeuf (an equally good Matt Damon).

That’s pretty much all the story offers, as since this is a more traditional western, the plot is simply about vengeance. Of course the performances elevate this thing and the beauty camerawork by long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins is beautiful (although his work here isn't nearly as flasy or interesting as what he did with "The Assassination of Jesse James..."). There are lots of chases and guns shooting and lots of greasy, dirty bad guys here as well. And despite all the traditional aspects of the film, there are some genuine Coen touches. I’m not sure if in the original film LaBoeuf’s tongue gets nearly bitten off and Rooster yanks the bitten part out of his mouth, but here it seems overwhelmingly like a great, squeamish Coen Moment. The film doesn’t reach the level of intensity of “No Country for Old Men” and is not nearly as violence (this flick is PG-13) but there are some pretty violent things going on. Including witnessing three men getting hanged. One of which comically doesn’t get any last words.

The Coen Brothers are at it again and they certainly put their stamp on this True Grit remake. Fans of Westerns will be pleased and non-fans will find some things here to enjoy. I can’t say it’s converted me into a fan of this genre, although the film’s third act is pretty riveting, however you’d be hard pressed to find anything truly disappointing here in “True Grit.” GRADE: B

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stutter Island: “The King’s Speech” is Certainly a Crowning Achievement

“The King’s Speech” is one of the Oscar frontrunners for Best Picture. And I could see why – if this were the mid-90s. The problem is that the Academy rarely goes for the “British period piece” anymore. To some, myself included, it was a shock that Atonement was nominated a few years ago (it’s director was snubbed which showed a sign of weakness) and yet here we are in 2010 with “The King’s Speech” about the ascension of King George VI to the British throne. The problem is that to be a good king you must be able to address your people and if you can hardly get a sentence out of your mouth because of stammering, to be quite frank, you’ll look like a fool. This is the true story of the relationship between the popular monarch and his speech therapist Lionel Logue. It was a special relationship and it is simply the best part about “The King’s Speech” and that is due to the wonderful performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and their wonderful onscreen chemistry.

I’ll still put my money on “The Social Network” for Best Picture, but in “The King’s Speech” we have everything in place for a glorious Academy Award-baiting movie. We have a period setting, with glorious costume and production design. We have terrific performances from its cast and it’s simply a bonus to be telling a real life story. The film begins with Albert Frederick Arthur George (firth) having to give a speech. He stutters and stammers. Good thing his older brother Edward is the heir to the crown. His loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helen Bonham Carter) sets him up with several therapists, one of which makes him stuff marbles into his mouth. She finds the eccentric Mr. Logue (Rush) who insists that, although he’s treating a member of the Royal Family, they be on a first name basis and do the therapy on his own premises. They start a wonderful working relationship as Bertie (as Lionel calls him) begins to warm up to his therapist’s strange methods. He forces him to read aloud with music blasting into his ears from headphones, which makes a recording of his voice sound nearly flawless.

And of course there is all that stuff with Albert having to become the King of England once his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) decides he’d rather marry an American woman than take the throne. All of this stuff is played out in pretty standard fashion and staged well enough by director Tom Hooper. He employs plenty of use of short lenses and close-ups which really through the viewer off kilter. But it’s never extremely flashy and doesn’t exactly call attention to itself. This isn’t the elaborately staged “British period piece” that “Atonement” was. You won’t find any six minute long tracking shots in this film.

What the film has most going is in its performances. Colin Firth, who was also amazing in last year’s “A Single Man” is great here as well. He might as well clear off space on his mantle right now. There’s no competition. Rush is exceptional as well and the two actors play off each other exquisitely. Rush almost steals the film and any scene without him makes you complete aware that something’s just missing. Carter is good too in the role of “the supportive wife” but she’s not exactly relevatory. And Michael Gambon shows up as the dying King.

“The King’s Speech” is a good movie, but it’s not a movie I personally loved. Sure it has the pedigree and all the factors of a traditional Oscar flick, but it doesn’t really transcend anything. Sure it makes you feel good, but in that regard I think “The Fighter” did that much better. I can recommend “The King’s Speech” if you want to see what all the Oscar fuss is about or if you’re a speech pathology student. I smell a field trip! GRADE: B

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I’m a Dancer! “Black Swan” is an Unnerving and Strange Ballerina Fright Fest

How is it that I have seen two Showgirls-like films within nearly weeks of each other? Is 2010 the year of honoring one of the most rewarding and entertaining cult films of all time? Maybe part of its 15th anniversary celebration? We got the splashy musical form of Showgirls around Thanksgiving with the Cher-tastic “Burlesque” and now we have the ballerina horror flick version known as “Black Swan.” Ok ok ok, I’m really only joking around “Black Swan” is a serious film with great awards potential and Burlesque and Showgirls probably don’t deserve to be mentioned with it, but come on, I can’t be the only one who spotted some strangely suspicious similarities: “Attack it! Attack it!” equals “Thrust it! Thrust it!” and the story about the rival between two lesbianonic female dance rivals seem a little obvious to me. But I digress. What’s important here is that “Black Swan” is a great film and a particularly strange yet interesting one. It’s a movie that practically demands to be seen more than once because there’s really so much going on I can’t imagine I was able to take it all in one sitting.

Let me get something out the way first. “Black Swan” is a horror film. There I said it. Don’t believe me? When you watch the movie I’m pretty sure you’ll either jump (I did) make some kind of audible sound of disgust (I did) or want to hind your eyes (I almost did). There are frightening images here. Of course this isn’t the time of horror film where a crazy guy in a mask stalks large breasted coeds, but it relies on disturbing images and delving deep into the subconscious of its emotionally and psychologically damaged heroine. In a way it reminded me a lot of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" and even some of David Cronenberg's early movies. The film stars the wonderfully engaging Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a dancer in a New York City ballet company. Like most professional dancers, she's obsessed with it. The company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has announced they will be doing “Swan Lake” but a version in which the main star will have to act out two parts the White Swan (innocence/virginal) and the Black Swan (cunning/sexual). He replaces the “aging” ballerina star played by Winona Ryder and the ballet-obsessed Nina fights for the role which she gets. Enter her main rival Lily (Mila Kunis).

The film’s script (written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin) then focuses mainly on Nina’s obsession with dance, her attempts to find the “darker half” of her personality, and how this new girl Lily begins to warp her mind. As the virginal (it’s assumed by not made clear) Nina, part of her psychology involves being able to “let loose” in order to fit the Black Swan role. Thomas even gives her an assignment to help her out: he tells her to go home and touch herself. This brings us one of the film’s most disturbing and frightening scenes when Nina begins to enjoy herself under the covers, turns around and begins humping her bed and when she looks over she sees her mother sleeping in the chair next to her bed. What a nightmare! And that’s because Nina has yet another horror in her life: her obsessed mother Erica played by Barbara Hershey. Erica is a former dancer as well and she keeps a close eye on Nina. She’s one of those wacky stage mothers who never found success herself and would rather enjoy success through her own daughter.

Since this is a Darren Aronofsky film there are plenty of disturbing things going on here. As rehearsals for “Swan Lake” progress Nina becomes more and more psychologically unstable. She has weird dreams and visions, of which she’s not sure what is real. She seems to be scratching at her back which becomes more and more damaged as the film progresses and her skin sort of begins to become “bird-like.” Perhaps Nina’s only way to play the role of the Black Swan is to actually become one in her own mind. Aronofsky is great a great director. He’s great at makes horror films where one wouldn’t normally find one (i.e. Requiem for a Dream) and he’s great at giving us character studies about people who are obsessed with their careers (i.e. The Wrestler). Here he combines the two in a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Look at the way he uses the wonderful texture of his 16mm film stock to get at the nitty gritty of the ballerina world. A happy film about dancers would be much more glossy and shiny; here we’re given the opposite. This is a dark and almost ugly film. Look at the way his camera follows Nina so closely when she’s walking to work and from work or even in her dance routines; sometimes you expect Portman to hit the cameraman in the head.

“Black Swan” is truly a sight to behold. It has some grotesque and yet beautiful images. It features great performances and pretty mesmerizing direction. You feel like you’re begin guided by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing and doing this specially for a certain purpose. There are no unintentional shots in this film. “Black Swan” is a pretty bizarre backstage flick and it may leave you scratching your head. But don’t scratch too hard or Barbara Hershey use her scissors on you… GRADE: A

Punch-Drunk Glove: “The Fighter” is a Knock Out

Do I know anything about boxing? No. Do I like watching boxing? No. Did I love the movie “The Fighter?” Absolutely yes. It’s funny when a filmmaker can make you interesting in a subject you don’t care much about. But perhaps that’s because “The Fighter” isn’t so much about boxing but rather a young man trying to make something of himself without letting his borderline crazy family getting in his way. “The Fighter” tells the true story of Massachusetts welterweight boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward and him trying to deal with his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky Eklund who was a fighter himself. Mark Wahlberg plays Ward and he is great. However the real standout here is Christina Bale giving one of his best and most impressive performances as Eklund. I’d be shocked if I didn’t hear his name called out on Oscar night.

I think most of the success of “The Fighter” can be attributed to most of the story revolving around Ward’s strange interactions with his family. His mother played here by the wonderful Melissa Leo was his manager. She is the epitome of Massachusetts white trash and seems like she could be a cousin of Mona Lisa Vito from “My Cousin Vinny.” She has nine children, her sons Mickey and Dicky and seven daughters who seems function as her own female entourage. The sisters are always together and almost always shouting over each other. Sometimes they’re just there in the scene as Mickey interacts with his mother and brother and his new girlfriend Charlene played superbly by Amy Adams. I give the film credit (specifically director David O. Russell and the film’s three screenwriters) for spending so much time with this people. They are funny but the film is a drama but the movie finds a perfect balance of with its humor without ever going over-the-top.

What is it about boxing movies that always make such great movies? I’m not quite a fan of the joyous underdog story “Rocky” mostly because I saw it’s countless imitators first and I didn’t really enjoy Martin Scorsese’s gritty boxing tale “Raging Bull” again for the same reasons, but something about “The Fighter” just simply works as great dramatic filmmaking. You care about Mickey because of what he has to deal with and you find yourself caring about a guy who’s this close to completely throwing his life away because he’s hooked on crack. That’s why it’s not really just a film about boxing., much in the same way the success of “Million Dollar Baby” hinged on the fact that it was much more than just a boxing movie. This film spends a surprising amount of time on Dicky’s storyline and his character has a fully satisfying story arc which makes it simply a standout in a movie that’s already great to begin with. Russell stages great fight scenes, especially at the film’s end, that I almost wanted to stand up and cheer. Sure we’ve all seen it before but it just works.

“The Fighter” is just simply an all-around great movie. There seems to be something about film set in and around Boston that just work in movies, whether it’s “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and now “The Fighter.” It features terrific performances, great characters to care about and superb direction. Hands down “The Fighter” is simply a winner. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Screen Actors Guild Award nomination predictions


The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town

possible: Black Swan

Jeff Bridges — True Grit
Robert Duvall — Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg — The Social Network
Colin Firth — The King’s Speech
James Franco — 127 Hours

Possible: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Annette Bening — The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman — Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence — Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman — Black Swan
Michelle Williams — Blue Valentine

Possible: Lesley Manville, Another Year

Christian Bale — The Fighter
Andrew Garfield — The Social Network
Jeremy Renner — The Town
Mark Ruffalo — The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush — The King’s Speech

Possible: Michael Douglas, Wall Street Money Never Sleeps

Amy Adams — The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter — The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo — The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld — True Grit
Jacki Weaver — Animal Kingdom

Possible: Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globe Nomination Predictions

Best Picture – Drama
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
The Town
Black Swan

Best Picture – Musical/Comedy
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
Love & Other Drugs
How Do You Know

Best Actor – Drama
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Leonardo DiCaprio – Inception

Best Actor - Musical/Comedy
Johnny Depp – Alice in Wonderland
Jake Gyllenhal – Love & Other Drugs
Paul Rudd – How Do You Know
Will Ferrell – The Other Guys
Jim Carrey – I Love You Philip Morris

Best Actress – Drama
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Hillary Swank - Conviction
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

Best Actress – Musical/Comedy
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Julianne Moore – The Kids Are All Right
Anne Hathaway – Love & Other Drugs
Julia Roberts – Eat, Pray, Love
Cher - Burlesque

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network

Best Supporting Actress
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Hailee Stanfield – True Grit
Mila Kunis – Black Swan

Best Director
David Fincher – The Social Network
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech

Best Screenplay
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
The Kids Are All Right
True Grit

Best Score
The Social Network
Alice in Wonderland
127 Hours
The King’s Speech

Best Original Song
“Bound to You” from “Burlesque”
“You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from “Burlesque”
“Me and Tennessee” from “Country Strong”
“I See the Light” from “Tangled”
“We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3”

Best Animated Film
Toy Story 3
How to Train Your Dragon
Despicable Me
The Illusionist