Film review – True Grit (2010)

24 January 2011
True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

In the version of the Wild West that is depicted in this 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, human life is cheap and more often than not it is used as a commodity. When the smart, assertive and independent 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams up on a manhunt with Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), neither speak about justice in the legal sense. Hunting down the man who murdered her father is a personal act of revenge for Mattie while for Rooster it’s a commercial transaction. The pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is tracking the same murderer, does seem motivated by a desire to see justice properly handed down but he’s out of his jurisdiction. True Grit is a classic chase story with a trio of characters who under normal situations would not choose each other for travel companions. In a moment of frustration Rooster sums up their attitudes towards each other best when he declares them to be “a foolish old man … a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop”.

Usually when directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen make a film that belongs to a distinct genre the results are very reflexive and stylised. In particular, Coen Brothers films that adhere to popular Classical Hollywood genres; such as film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo), gangster (Miller’s Crossing) and screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty); are both affectionate homages and subversively self-aware. What makes True Grit such a unique Coen Brothers film is how conventional it is in the way it conforms so closely to a traditional western. True Grit falls at the less noble end of the western tradition, since it is vengeance rather than justice that is the motivation for order being restored through violence. The characters and situations are represented as they are with no overt political commentary. Casual brutal treatment of Native Americans is the norm and the difference between an outlaw and a lawman is often little more than a badge.

True Grit: Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

However, there is nothing wrong at all about the Coen Brothers going old school especially when the results are this strong. True Grit is a compelling and engaging story that is told effectively and confidently.  The use of browns, oranges and dirty whites in the costumes and sets give the film the appearance of an old black-and-white film that has been tinted with a brown wash. The use of early morning light at the start of the film and then the emphasis on dusk and night shots towards the end create a wonderful sense of passing time, for both the film’s narrative and Rooster, who represents a dying breed.

Portis’s novel has been adapted before in the 1969 film directed by Henry Hathaway, which is probably most notably known for being the film that won John Wayne his Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster. Despite that award, it was not a great performance by Wayne who was a far better actor when under the direction of John Ford in classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this 2010 version Jeff Bridges is much more adapt at portraying the mixture of comedic absurdity, menace and ruthlessness that makes Rooster such an intriguing character. He’s a drunk and a windbag but also quick to act and unafraid to use violence as soon as he sees it is necessary.

True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Matt Damon is infinitely better than Glen Campbell when he played LaBoeuf, with Damon’s version of the character being far more of a well meaning but frequently irritating buffoon. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is especially strong in the 2010 film and a lot less masculinised in appearance than Kim Darby was in the 1969 version. While Darby did give a great performance, having her looking so overtly boyish did undermine the idea that Mattie could be tough, independent and intelligent while also being a young girl. In fact, the only things really missing from the Coen’s version of True Grit are a young Dennis Hopper and a young Robert Duvall in key supporting roles. Otherwise, this 2010 adaptation is the superior film.

With the exception of the strange arrival of a doctor who appears resembling a bear mounted on horseback, True Grit is one of the Coen Brothers’s least Coenesque films. Nevertheless, it maintains their command of film style and storytelling. After the intricacies of A Serious Man, Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men there is something very pleasing with this straightforward and generically respectful film of revenge and strange allegiances in the American Old West.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – TRON: Legacy (2010)

16 December 2010

TRON: LegacyJust like Lucifer betraying God his creator, a personified computer program named Clu has overthrown his creator, the human programmer (know as a user) Kevin Flynn. While Kevin was striving to create a perfect Utopian virtual world, Clu only sees perfection in totalitarian rule where anomalies, however glorious they may be, are to be digitally cleansed. Prophetically the original 1982 film TRON was about the need for pieces of computer software to fight for their freedom in order to remain unique rather than being homogenised and absorbed into the giant monopolistic Master Control Program. This 2010 sequel is more ambitiously about absent fathers, rebellious offspring and the dangers of trying to create paradise. Yet, for a film that seems to have so much in it, TRON: Legacy feels strangely empty.

The film starts promisingly with a flashback to Kevin telling his son Sam about his adventures inside the grid (not exactly a virtual reality world but a physical representation of the digital world found inside computers). The scene establishes the father/son bond, recaps the essential information from the original film and efficiently provides the required new back-story information. It’s a clever and effective piece of exposition. The problem is that additional moments of exposition then continually infiltrate the rest of the film, constantly dragging the narrative to a halt. TRON: Legacy is a stunningly designed film but the visuals often simply exist as backdrops for the characters to reminisce in front of.

TRON: Legacy - Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde)

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde)

The combination of computer animation, back-lit drawn animation and live action in the original TRON is by today’s standards simplistic but it still looks impressive and more importantly every visual element was designed to either drive the story, flesh out a concept or provide engaging spectacle. In TRON: Legacy there are some terrific moments that boldly stand out and just like The Wizard of Oz switching from black-and-white to colour, TRON: Legacy cleverly switches from 2D to 3D to indicate the adult Sam’s entry into the glorious world of the grid when he goes looking for his father. However, it is a world that all too often becomes subservient to the film’s plodding exposition. Furthermore, while there was an internal logic to the way the computer world functioned in the 1982 film, in TRON: Legacy it is an unrestrained fantasy world. So instead, this new film focuses on presenting novel ways in which everyday activities and items are represented digitally, making it the electronic equivalent of The Jetsons.

Reprising his role as Kevin Flynn, Jeff Bridges now plays the character as a techno-age Timothy Leary type figure who channels both The Dude from The Big Lebowski and the sort of quasi-spiritualism that plagued the Matrix sequels. Bridges also plays Clu, the rebellious computer program created in Flynn’s image and made to appear younger with distractingly artificial CGI technology that just isn’t up to speed. The adult Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund, takes centre stage as the film’s protagonist but he’s more of a generic action hero rather than a scruffy but loveable computer wizz like Kevin was in the original film. In TRON Kevin’s proficiency at programming meant that he became physically adept once inside the computer world while Sam in this new film is introduced almost immediately as an action hero in the outside world who is already capable of stunt motorbike riding and base-jumping.

TRON: Legacy - Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges)

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges)

TRON: Legacy does not deserve to be written off as empty spectacle but it really does miss the magic of the original film. In many ways it retreads the original TRON by possessing roughly the same narrative progression with a number of keys scenes being more elaborate versions of scenes from the original film. Feature film debut director Joseph Kosinski cannot be faulted for making TRON: Legacy as an updated homage to the original film and every element does have a suitably futuristic/retro feel to it. The music score by Daft Punk is in particular extremely impressive and frequently drives the film forward in the absence of plot development. However, the combination of high expectations, convoluted storytelling, heavy doses of exposition, faux spirituality with the occasional genuinely spectacular action sequence makes the experience of seeing TRON: Legacy not unlike seeing The Matrix Reloaded for the first time. It is bigger and more expansive than the original film but it ultimately becomes lost in its own attempts at mythmaking to result in a very disappointing film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy on the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony and winners

9 March 2010

The Hurt Locker

There were very few surprises this year at the Oscars and I was able to correctly predict 12 out of the 20 awards. Although Avatar is still my preferred film of all the films nominated it is very hard to begrudge The Hurt Locker cleaning up, including winning the Best Motion Picture and Best Director awards. Those two awards finally recognise director Kathryn Bigelow’s incredible talent as a filmmaker, not to mention making her the first Oscar-winning female director.

I felt that the rest of the awards all seemed mostly deserved or justified with the exception of The Young Victoria winning Best Costume Design and Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for The Blind Side. However, in both cases the acceptance speeches won me over and I stopped grumbling. Despite her bizarrely ungracious attitude, Best Costume Design award winner Sandy Powell expressed my frustrations that period films like The Young Victoria usually win such awards while smaller films that are not about “dead monarchs or glittery musicals” get overlooked.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

I’ve never had anything against Sandra Bullock (despite disliking so many of her films) but I really didn’t want her to win Best Actress mainly because I reacted so badly to The Blind Side. However, Bullock’s acceptance speech was generous, heartfelt, humble and funny so I think she earned herself a lot of credibility in that moment. I do believe that newcomers Carey Mulligan in An Education and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious were nevertheless more deserving but they’ll have lots more shots at the award in the future.

As for the actual ceremony, there was a sincere and moving tribute to the late John Hughes, there was a pretty good attempt and demonstrating what sound editing and sound mixing actually are and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin provided more laughs  as hosts than It’s Complicated did in its entirety. It was actually a really enjoyable ceremony and the only dud aspect was that there was no time for a clip montage of cinematography nominees or for each nominated  Best Original Song to be played but there was apparently time for an interpretative dance routine to each piece of music nominated for Best Musical Score.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

On a final note, how great was it to see Jeff Bridges win Best Actor for Crazy Heart and then do that speech where he sounded like he was going to suddenly transform into The Dude in front of our eyes?

There’s a full list of all the winners on the official Oscars website.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Crazy Heart (2009)

18 February 2010
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Former country music star Bad Blake is a character who is living the sort of life that is so often sung about in his chosen music genre. He’s 57, doing third-rate gigs, smoking too much, drinking too much and basically all washed up. While his former protégée Tommy Sweet has vastly overtaken him professionally Bad barely keeps it together by rehashing old songs from his back catalogue to his small, aging but still devoted fans scattered around country USA. Crazy Heart initially evokes Bruce Beresford’s 1983 Tender Mercies due to the strong similarities between the settings and the films’ leading characters but it is a superior film.

Jeff Bridges gives the performance of his career as Bad. It’s a part that Bridges has been building up to for years while playing various down-and-out heroes and indeed Bad Blake is not too dissimilar to the jazz pianist character he played in the The Fabulous Baker Boys. Such a character could easily be dislikeable but Bridges gives him a cranky charm and sweet sadness. He is frazzled, lives like a slob and very grumpy but the shine in Bridge’s eyes and the cracks in his voice make us love him.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

The entire cast of Crazy Heart is excellent including Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet and Robert Duvall as Bad’s old friend Wayne. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a young divorcee who comes into Bad’s life, and it is wonderful to see a strong female character that is allowed to be both emotional and resilient. The development of Bad and Jean’s relationship is one of the many aspects of Crazy Heart that feels incredibly sincere and genuine. Rather than adhering to the sort of classical Hollywood narrative structure that we are accustomed to seeing in such films, Crazy Heart adopts an authenticity that raises it above what could have been a generic tale of redemption.

Then there are the sensational songs, many of which are performed by Bridges and Farrell, written for the film by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. The music performed in Crazy Heart actually becomes more engaging and sophisticated during the course of the film as the characters move from performing songs that are reliable old favourites to trying out more emotive and complex material. You don’t need to be a country music fan to enjoy Crazy Heart but there is a good chance you will become one afterwards thanks to this gracefully restrained and sweet drama.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Tideland (2005)

7 August 2006

Maverick director Terry Gilliam’s frequent run-ins with Hollywood are well documented, with the battle over the release of his masterpiece Brazil being the stuff of legend. But since Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha it began to appear that maybe Gilliam is his own worst enemy and that maybe he needs the ruthless studio system to keep him in check. Admittedly his recent studio film The Brothers Grimm was a highly flawed and forgettable film, although it did not quite deserve the critical savaging it received. However it does not even come near the depths that his independently produced Tideland descends to.

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