Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: True Grit

Coens. Bridges. Damon. Western. Since Joel and Ethan Coen announced that their next project would be a new adaptation of the 1968 novel and 1969 movie True Grit, the buzz has been on. Not only were the Coens tackling another Western and re-teaming with Jeff Bridges for the first time since 1998, but they were taking on an iconic film in a genre unlike what they've done before and promising to be more true to the initial novel. I have a feeling that they thought they could bring a new interpretation to the material, and that their version could be more authentic. They were right on both accounts, and they can genuinely claim one of the best movies of the past year.
In the past two months, I have both read the novel and watched the 1969 John Wayne film in preparation for watching this film. The novel is very interesting, as it is written from the perspective of 14-year-old Mattie Ross - kind of a Western To Kill A Mockingbird, with a less sympathetic heroine. The 1969 film followed most of the plot of the book, but the characters changed slightly. The entire film was lighter and less weighty than the novel, and some of the characters were drastically different (ie. Glen Campbell's Texas Ranger LaBoeuf). The film dragged in the beginning, and although early performances from Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall bring much-needed boosts to the pace of the film, it does not fully work. I suspect that were Wayne's performance not so iconic that the film might have been mainly forgotten by now. The Coens were not remaking the 1969 film, but using the text to derive a new identity for True Grit, which is what they have succeeded in doing. The Coens' vision is darker, bleaker, and more well-paced than the original, and they have repositioned Mattie as the central character of the story. I believe that their vision should become the definitive True Grit.
As always, the individual contributions both on and off camera are key to the success of the film. Of particular note onscreen are Jeff Bridges as embattled U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hallee Steinfeld. Bridges is as good as he's been, and except for Crazy Heart, is at his breezy boozy best. He drives the film, and his version of Rooster is as iconic as was Wayne's. Steinfeld holds her own, and she brings across a combination of seriousness, naivete, and worldliness that captures the essence of the character of Ross. Matt Damon is solid as Ranger LaBoeuf, and Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper have memorable, if brief, villainous roles in the film. Within the crew, the costuming stands out, as well as Roger Deakins' cinematography. Deakins is long overdue for awards recognition, but this film may break that streak.
Of course, the question I always have with a new Coen movie is how it fits into their canon of now fifteen films. True Grit contains many themes that are common to their films: an insecure protagonist/narrator, a mysterious character who leads the protagonist into unknown territory, a journey that includes self-discovery through pain, a deliberately chosen and styled temporal setting, and a scene of stark and sudden violence. At the same time, it is thoroughly unlike any of their other films - though all of their films are quite unique. It is a welcome addition to the Coen canon, and appears to be the last for a little while; for the first time since 2005, the Coens have no announced project in the queue.
Another interesting discussion is how this film contributes to the Western film genre. There are a few films that are added to the genre each year, though many of those in the past two decades have been films that have fused Western elements with other genres (particularly sci-fi). The Coens' True Grit is arguably one of the better westerns in recent memory, and it proves that there is still some life left in the motifs, images, and themes of the Frontier. There's still something fascinating about watching a world of saloons, rifles, horses, hangings, corn dodgers, gunfights, and rattlers, and I'm glad that Jeff Bridges and the Coens have contributed again to that genre. True Grit is a faithful revisioning of an iconic novel and film, an intense character study, and a great addition to the Coens' filmography and the Western genre.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mini-Reviews: Megamind, HP7, Tangled

In the past month, I've seen three movies in theatre and haven't been able to blog about any of them. I don't know that any of them need a full review, so here are some quick thoughts on those movies.

Megamind was a surprisingly entertaining take on the whole superhero/supervillain motif. The film turned things around by featuring the villain, and there was a surprising amount of character development in Megamind. The plot was also not entirely predictable, which kept me interested as a viewer. Throw in Will Ferrell cutting loose, a little David Cross as the henchman, and Tina Fey as the fearless reporter, along with a liberal use of classic rock songs, and you've got a movie that can be enjoyed repeatedly, much like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 was an accurate representation of the book. It's one of the better HP movies (still not as good as Azkaban), and it paces the story well. I speed-read the book after watching it, and I agree with most of the editorial decisions that were made to bring the film to life (except for that weird scene after Ron returns). I'm interested to see what they do with the final instalment, which will have to feature more expositional material, but still should be very epic.

Tangled was also surprisingly entertaining, especially for someone like me who is predisposed to cynicism toward anything Disney. Sure, there were the "morals" at the end of the story, and the typical fairy tale setups, but the film took the story of Rapunzel in a different and interesting direction. There were some sweet moments, a few hilarious lines, some breathtaking scenes, and even a catchy song or two to pass the time, and I actually found myself enjoying most of the movie. Maybe that was mostly because of Zachary Levi as the voice of Flynn Rider - and the dude can sing! It's nowhere near the worst Disney princess movie, and I'll probably be okay watching it with my daughters someday.

So, out of the three, all were not only bearable but entertaining, and eminently rewatchable. But now I get to the real movies: True Grit and The Fighter.

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