Thursday, July 21, 2011

#143: True Grit (2010)


True Grit
Directed and written by Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
Released December 22, 2010

The brothers Coen have made their masterpiece of the "Western" film genre.

That masterpiece was No Country for Old Men.

Not to say that the Coen's "remake" of True Grit (their interpretation is supposedly based far more on the novel than on the film that earned John Wayne his first Oscar) isn't a good film; on the contrary, it is quite good. It's full of great performances and beautifully shot by director of photography Roger Deakins, whom I've lauded in these "pages" before as the shooter of such gorgeous and varied films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Big Lebowski, Jarhead, Sid and Nancy and more.

I am absolutely NOT panning True Grit. For lovers of Westerns, I definitely recommend it as a unique and nuanced take on the genre. I have no loyalty to the John Wayne version since I've never seen it, but the Coen's take is darkly humorous and even touching, especially in its final 15 minutes.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are great. The real scene stealing comes from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who shows confidence beyond her years as Mattie Ross, a young girl seeking justice for the murder of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney, played by an underused Josh Brolin. One of my biggest problems with the film is that once Brolin's character finally appears, he's too buffoonish and cartoonish to create any sort of dangerous or ominous vibe. He's basically Wile E. Coyote with a funny voice.

(Speaking of funny voices, this entire film plays out like the Affected Voice Olympics.)

Chaney is part of a larger gang, lead by the underrated -- and almost unrecognizable -- Barry Pepper. I hate to say it, especially as a big Brolin fan, but the movie would have been served better by making Pepper the sole heavy. Brolin's Chaney is so comical and inept that he deflates the proceedings when he finally does appear.

I guess it's just far too easy for me these days to feel conflicted about a Coen Brothers movie. I put the men who have made some of my favorite films (Fargo, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski) on a pedestal and I think it's a bit unfair of me to keep expecting a new all-time favorite every time they come out of the gates.

But, then again, isn't it okay to not always be wowed by the people you consider your favorites? I have no love lost for Wilco, but I have to be honest when I say their last couple of albums have been patchy. Sometimes your kid draws something that you don't feel like putting up on your refrigerator. It's okay.

For more on True Grit:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- The high-def trailer at YouTube.

Friday, June 17, 2011

#142: Super 8

Super 8
Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
Released June 10, 2011

(Maybe I'm back. Maybe this is an anomaly. I don't know yet. Let's just pretend I haven't been gone for 2 years, shall we?)

Despite the flaws, despite the plot holes and occasional leaps in logic, despite ALL THE GODDAMN LENS FLARES, J.J. Abrams has made one hell of an entertaining, fun summer blockbuster with Super 8.

Believe me when I say I'm not an Abrams fanboy in the least. As a storyteller, he is constantly coming up short and leaving far more questions than answers. Some people find that charming; I do not. Let's just say I'm thrilled I didn't invest 6 years of my life watching Lost only to be given that odd, sometimes awful final season. Don't even get me started on some of the ridiculous leaps he gets away with in Star Trek (really, Kirk gets stranded on a random planet and runs into Future Spock literally within the first minute he arrives, and then Scotty a few minutes after that?), a film I really enjoyed. DESPITE ALL THE FUCKING LENS FLARES.

As a writer, all I have to say is: dude wrote Armageddon. Good god. And Regarding Henry. And Gone Fishin'!

Quite frankly, I'm not sure where the guy would be if he hadn't made one incredibly important friend early on in his career. Super 8 is a fairly obvious love letter to that friend, Steven Spielberg, who just so happened to be the film's producer.

Super 8 is Abrams' first fully original film (he previously directed the aforementioned Star Trek reboot and one of the Mission Impossible sequels), but he gets a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- of help by throwing together elements of The Thing, Alien and Spielberg's own Jaws, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hey, if you're gonna make a summer action/sci-fi blockbuster, these are all classic and successful predecessors.

Abrams exhibits one incredibly important trait to make a movie of this type to work: knowing how to pace your movie. He does a fantastic job here balancing action and exposition. Going too far in either direction can easily make your movie boring, and it's an art knowing how to keep your audience on the edge of their collective seat while keeping them from checking their watch or their iPhone. In the theater I was in, people were absolutely invested in the movie. When one of the movies many jarring scares happened, people were shooting back in their seats or kicking their legs in the air and laughing afterwards, embarrassed to finally be in a theater experiencing what a movie is supposed to make you experience.

Part of that audience investment comes in the nostalgia inherent in the setting. By bringing the story back to 1979 (a news broadcast mentions the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island), he takes the majority of his audience back their childhood. Remember not having a cell phone? Remember riding a bicycle, or being able to sneak around at night with your friends? The other part of the investment comes with having a great cast, and Super 8 has a handful of fairly extraordinary child actors without whom the film just would not work.

Look, I know I'm rusty at this blogging thing and it has literally been years since I've "reviewed" a movie. The only thing I really want to articulate is that Super 8 is a blast. I know there are plot holes and inconsistencies. I know that in many ways it's derivative (it's an homage, people, how can it not be derivative in some ways?).

I also know that if I were 12 years old and my parents took me to see this movie, it would have sparked my imagination in the same way that E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark did so many years ago. It's not going to win Best Picture, but Super 8 might be the best Summer movie we've had in a long time. Stop being cynical and old, suspend a little disbelief, and try to have a good time.

Just try to pay no mind to ALL THOSE STUPID LENS FLARES.

For more on Super 8:
- Movie information at IMDB.
- The trailer can be found here.