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: 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…

Classic Review: A Fistful of Dollars

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

Review:  The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better.  Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.

While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre.  Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns.  Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.

Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting).  It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.

Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove.  In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho.  Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.

As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years.  Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score.  Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.

Then there is the camera work.  Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts.  It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense.  Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots.  He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.

In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be.  Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality.  I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people.  This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole.  Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film.  With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns.  Then the sequels came …