True Grit (2010)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.

Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction.  The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused.  The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency.  Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.

‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time.  It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance.  If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”.  Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity.  In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc.  The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.

Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career.  He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability.  He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice.  Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians.  Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal.  Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes.  I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.

It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing.  We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact.  Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here.  My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears.  I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.

Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes.  The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight.  As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure.  It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story.  Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end.  The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings.  This reality requires true grit.

This film is a total pleasure to watch.  Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit.  I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.

Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

Sherlock Holmes

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  An old-school, fast paced adventure that resurrects neglected elements of one of the most famous people who never lived.

If this reminds of the poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's probably intentional.

If this reminds you of the poster for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', it's probably intentional.

Review:  So my brother is this huge Holmes fan.  I’ve read a little bit of Holmes, I think only the first adventure and a smidgen after that, and I’ve always admired the character from a distance.  One of my favorite movies growing up was Disney’s strangely dark, animal version of Holmes, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, which, come to think of it, would be fun to see again.  I also remember seeing a version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on the old Public Television edutainment show ‘Wishbone’, which was kind of creepy.  So I learned from my brother that the literary Holmes was not the self-assured, all-together character we know from the Basil Rathbone movies of yore (though Rathbone’s Holmes was pretty killer in his own right), but was a bit more like the protagonist of Disney’s rendition, who was irritatingly eccentric and just a little bit mad.  In fact, he would shoot holes in his wall, experiment with drugs (especially opium), and craved difficult cases in a similar manner.  He was a boxer, a martial artist, and a swordsman.

Then I went to go see Guy Ritchie’s new film, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, with ‘Iron Man’ star Robert Downey Jr. in the title role.  And now, in my own way, I’ve found myself an overall fan of the character, opium, bullets, and all.  Not only does Holmes himself get a truer treatment (though with the drug content toned down), but so does Dr. John Watson, who on screen has often been the unfortunate victim of being made something of a buffoon to enhance Holmes’ reputation as the genius.  Instead, like his literary counterpart, Jude Law’s rendition of Watson restores him to the military man who was wounded in action (if you watch the film carefully, you see him favoring a leg), and whose own wits and abilities are complimented and honed by his friend.  Ritchie, an action director, uses Holmes’ and Watson’s physical abilities to the limit, unleashing Holmes as a master of lightning quick fistfight stratagem.  Everything is amped up, just a little beyond what was canon in the books, but not far at all.  Really, it’s pretty grounded in the continuity and style Sir Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned.  The tone that the film strikes comes closer to the classic Indiana Jones adventures and their forbears, the thrill-a-minute serials of yesteryear, than basically anything in the past decade.  It’s a refreshing trip to the movies that I heartily recommend.  My critiques go to the villain, who I felt could have been just a little stronger, and to the pacing, which made the film a little hard to digest on the first viewing.  It roars by, so I suggest seeing it again and again to catch every little detail, which keeps it fresh.

A solid, though imperfect, beginning to what promises to be a fun franchise.  Here’s hoping they don’t make it a trilogy.

Invictus

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A balanced, inspiring Nelson Mandela biopic with all the necessary heart and action of a sports movie.

Jason Bourne plays Rugby with Nelson Mandela.

Jason Bourne plays Rugby with Nelson Mandela.

Review:  So there I was, waiting for the 12:50 A.M. showing of James Cameron’s hyped supermovie, ‘Avatar’, which would be playing in 3D on a pretty sizable IMAX screen.  I had a couple hours before it would start, so I passed time waiting for a movie with another movie, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial feature, ‘Invictus’.  I had the advantage of knowing next to nothing about the film before I walked in, and it’s an event in history I know very little about anyhow.

It delivered.

It’s a brilliant (and apparently historically rooted) synthesis of political biopic and sports drama.  Due to the formulaic and in my opinion unexciting nature of most sports films, I was not too terribly jazzed at the outset of the film, but by the time it had finished, I realized why this movie worked: Because the arena of Rugby is not the subject, but the battleground for South Africa’s hopes for greatness and national identity in wake of the end of apartheid.  In short, it’s not a sports movie, but a solid and beautiful drama with Rugby in it.  The tone and characterizations are consistent and believable, which gives some of the on-the-nose elements a needed balance.  It’s a very accessible film, and well-made.

Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

Elements Of The Screen: Yakkity-Yak, Don’t Talk Back (Dialog And Assumptions Thereof)

Hey, there’s a new ‘Elements’ article up!  Sweet!  Go check it out.

Classic Review: The Matrix

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  An iconic film that changed action movies and sci-fi for the internet age, ‘The Matrix’ features strong performances, good writing, and indelible personality.

Sunglasses, leather, guns, all black.

Sunglasses, leather, guns, all black.

Review:  As my arbitrary limit for declaring a movie “classic” is 10 years, the revolutionary action film ‘The Matrix’ can now be reviewed.  Awesome.

Though still relatively young, ‘The Matrix’ left such a deep impression on pop culture that its acceptance as a classic was inevitable.  Being this new, though, prevents it from experiencing wide acclaim from “them”; you know, the embodiment of the critical zeitgeist.  That won’t stop me, though.

‘The Matrix’ is technically the first chapter in a trilogy of films (I have not, to date, seen the sequels), it stands out and on its own.  Like the first released film of the ‘Star Wars’ series, it remains a satisfying experience whether you’ve seen the sequels or not.  Like another recent classic, ‘The Truman Show’, ‘The Matrix’ is a blend of sci-fi and philosophy, specifically Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (which, if you still haven’t read it after my ‘The Truman Show’ review, you need to go do so now).  This film takes a bent towards action, and pure, undistilled, all-natural dystopia, expressed through dark scenery, a ‘used universe’ setting, and green hues.  Since the “real world” as we know it is a virtual reality in ‘The Matrix’, they can get away with all sorts of cool abilities and plot devices while avoiding direct application of magical tropes.  The primary influence behind the film, and the reason for the reality-bending abilities, is Japanese manga and anime.  Several popular ideas from those media make their way in, most prominently the trope of “The Chosen One”, in this case, Keanu Reeves as Neo.

So the idea is that humanity is enslaved by machines (Many people, myself included, have jokingly said that this is where the ‘Terminator’ franchise is going chronologically).  They are hooked into a dream world, which prevents them from suspecting the possibility of their entire lives being controlled by malevolent computers.  The very idea is nightmare fuel, and it can be very disturbing to watch the construct that keeps people hooked into the titular Matrix.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  If ‘The Matrix’ wasn’t terrifying, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.  So, anyway, some people are outside the Matrix, and are attempting to free those within.  Eventually, a computer hacker named Thomas Anderson contacts them, and is rescued from the Matrix.  What the rest of the plot wrestles with is the question of whether or not Mr. Anderson (Mr. Aaanderrson!  Sorry, carry on) is the One.  Turns out his real name is Neo, and that he is the One.  But it’s the getting there that’s the fun part.

The cast all meshes well.  I can’t think of any characters that I would consider a waste of film.  The highlights are Laurence Fishbourne as Morpheus, the man that Neo contacts when he’s discovering reality, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith (Mr. Aaanderrson!  Don’t worry about me, I just need coffee).  Agent Smith is not technically the main villain, since that is the Matrix itself, but he is the personification of the machines in the dream world.  And he is effective.  His speech towards the climax about the machines relationship to humanity is chilling and memorable.

There’s a lot that can be said for the special effects.  I don’t think there’s been an action film since ‘The Matrix’ that hasn’t tried to capture its flavor in some way, or just outright ripped it off.  Though it didn’t invent it, it made the “bullet time” effect beyond popular, and it even showed up in ‘Superman Returns’ 7 years later.  Now that’s iconic.

How about music?  Don Davis.  The Propellerheads.  “Spybreak”.  Awesome.  Marylin Manson?  Not so much.

The biggest stumbling block, especially for the more conscientious among us, is the murky spirituality.  Which I won’t defend, but I don’t have a moral problem with it… it’s fiction, and it isn’t outright offensive or evil.  The second biggest is the tone (which is dark) and the gore (which is occasional), but you can chalk that up to being an R-rated movie.  The same with the language.

Really, ‘The Matrix’ is a good film.  Not one of the very best, but good.  Good enough to be iconic, good enough to be full of truth and interesting ideas, so that’s good enough for me.

And one more time:  Mr. Aaanderrson!