Saturday, February 19, 2011

True Grit

Back in 2008 the Coen Brothers scooped up some Oscars in their deserved hands with No Country for Old Men, which gave rise to a pie analogy on these very pages. Good old pies, you can always count on them to help explain a Cormac McCarthy adapted thriller that stretched out tense shoot outs and epic landscapes. Anyway, the Co-Bros are back with another adaptation, this time of True Grit, a Charles Portis novel already made into a film back in 1969 featuring John Wayne. Not being a big Western fan, or alive when it was released, this review can only take True Grit on its own merits and will have to side-step the remake factor.

True Grit is the story of a 14 year-old girl attempting to avenge her father’s murder by hiring a bounty-hunter type person in the shape of a drunk and violent Jeff Bridges. Helped / hindered by a Texas Ranger on the same man’s trail (Matt Damon), the film is a simple adventure story with shoot-outs, long pony rides and some gentle violence along the way. Bridges has been Oscar nominated for his portrayal as the grizzled drunk, and he is an amusing watch, complete with a drawl so thick it’s sometimes too difficult to understand what on earth he’s saying. Matt Damon is a pleasant surprise, almost unrecognisable as the slightly square Texas Ranger, riffing with Bridges and taking a much-needed step away from the rectangular-headed hero role he’s recently cast himself as.

Completing the trio is relative newcomer Hailee Steinfield as 14 year-old Mattie. Steinfield is up for best supporting actress, and rightly so. She plays the unbelievably competent teen with suitable gravitas, but shows enough flecks of fear in her eyes to give her a human edge. Not that it’s particularly easy to accept her as entirely human. Her character reels off Dawson’s Creek-style dialogue, bargaining with adults, tripping through legal terminology and coming across as one of those know-it-all teens that only exist in fiction (because let’s face it, teens know nothing). She verges on being one of those teen heroines doing feats that you’d only see in some early Disney flick, maybe called “Cowgirl!” or something equally jolly. Thankfully the adults around her stop it from falling into that genre, and the incredulity of her character is offset by the likeable lead Steinfield creates.

Overall, True Grit is an enjoyable adventure, with some flashes of suspense, a couple of thrilling shoot-outs and plenty of dark humour. But it doesn’t rise above being a simple Western tale. There is no undercurrent here, nothing extra to savour or ponder, and the ending feels somewhat unsatisfying. No Country was compared to a big pie, while the lighter Burn After Reading got a tasty snack such as a chocolate chip muffin. In my world of food, True Grit would sit as a really nice cheese and tomato sandwich. Fills a hole in a substantial way, but you wouldn’t turn to it if you needed a fully satisfying meal. With the Coens behind it, this is one well-made sandwich. But even the greatest chefs will be constrained by what they chose to put on the menu.

I’m being overly critical, perhaps because of increased expectations from nominations and other reviews. And I would definitely recommend True Grit, with enough enthusiasm to build it to a CF2. But it’s just not the pie I was expecting, and if you go wanting pie and get a sandwich then you leave wanting something a bit more. Some chips maybe. I’ll stop now – I’m hungry.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Fighter

Every time I thought of this film I’d get Christina Aguilera’s song “Fighter” in my head, which puts a strange girl-power perspective on this boxing drama. To make it clear: the song and film are not related, although actually if you read through the lyrics you’d get an internal monologue from The Fighter himself, Micky Ward.

See, Micky takes shadow boxing to the extreme by forever being in his big brother’s shadow. Big Bro, Dicky, was a success until a pesky crack addiction turned him into a twitchy ball of trouble. The Fighter is Micky’s tale of battling with an overbearing family in order to do what he does best: punch other men in the face and kidneys.

So far, so familiar sports-biog (it’s based on a true story), but The Fighter surprises a sports-biog-snob like myself by flinging some depth into the mix. Not just a tale of Micky, but a peak at his brother’s fall from grace, his mother’s misguided love, and the love fraught with conflict from his girlfriend. Director David O. Russell (behind 90’s hit Three Kings) keeps the pace moving with a belting soundtrack, blistering fight scenes and, naturally, some sport-based montages.

But what really impresses is the cast. Christian Bale skinnies up for Dicky, but it’s not just the weight loss that forms his transformation. His jumpy, haggard exterior is a sight to behold, adding warmth and humour where necessary and crafting an awards-deserving performance. Wide-eyed Amy Adams casts aside her sweet and timid typecast and brings believable power and raunch to her role as the girlfriend, creating a role that is more than just “token woman at the ring-side”. And in the middle of it is Mark Wahlberg as Micky. Good old Mark. I’ve a soft spot for his simple face, and his parts in The Departed and The Other Guys have certainly impressed. But though the character requires it, you can’t help but feel he is the lump of melancholic meat overshadowed by a zesty and exciting side dish.

Just as Portman wowed with her dedication to ballet skills and physique for Black Swan (whose director Aronofsky is The Fighter’s producer), so must credit go to Wahlberg and Bale for honing their bodies into boxing machines. The fight scenes are wincingly real, punches connecting with such apparent force that you’ll forget you’re watching a couple of actors and assume it’s a real boxing match. Without any real interest in the sport, I was still wrapped up in the obligatory finale, but because of the additional family element the film satisfies much more than on a basic “yay sport” level.

Though not as intense an experience as Black Swan, The Fighter still impresses with a formidable cast and chunkier-than-expected plot. A family drama with boxing on the side, The Fighter notches up a CF2, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an award or two tags along soon either.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Black Swan

Ballerinas? They’re pink and fluffy, or posh and prissy. The big macho “The Fighter” has just come out and that’s got a real sport in it, with actors who have beefed up especially. Let the girls have their silly little dance film. It’ll be a sports-movie for girls. Like Bring it On.

You might be mistaken into thinking the above, particularly if your brain is very small and your name is something like Gray. But The Black Swan is so far removed from both a girls’ “The Fighter”, or any sports-genre flick you can think of. It isn’t one ballerina’s struggle to do the perfect twirly thing (I know nothing of ballet but conceal it well). It’s a dark psychological horror. With dancing. Fun!

Director Darren Aronofsky, doing the whole fighting thing with The Wrestler in 2008, trips back to his trippy roots of Requiem and The Fountain for this piece, bringing surreal and graphic images to screen, twisting reality and tightening the drama. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a perfectionist and a prude, who is cast as the central character in Swan Lake. Nina’s task is to embody two roles – one the delicate white swan (which she is made for) and the other a dark and dangerous black swan. Unfortunately Nina’s attempts to transform into the dark side slowly crumble her mind.

Portman is outstanding, and deserves just as much credit as the fighting boys for her physical work, doing ballet training for a year, dropping 20lbs from her already slender frame and sustaining a rib injury during filming. It all pays off, as she is entirely believable as a ballet dancer, her grace and poise beautiful to watch. She also brings great fragility to the role and mixes it with her disintegrating sanity. Her Oscar nomination is rightly so, and I would applaud a win next month.

Aronofsky’s direction is dizzying at times, cameramen twirling among the dancers and flicking past full-length mirrors in “hang on, how’d he..?” moments. And when things get dark, they get really dark – flashes of horror and explicit violence shock among all the plumage, and the whole film leaves you somewhat shaken. There are a few moments that raise a wry eyebrow. Graphic lady-loving, though adding to the seeping darkness in Nina’s mind, is perhaps a tad unnecessary in places and starts to feel a little exploitative. But in all this is a powerful film, with some striking direction and a fantastic cast.

A tense psychological drama wrapped up in the slender and punishing world of ballet makes for a visually exciting experience. Don’t watch too close to bedtime, and if you had hopes of becoming a world-class ballerina this might just put you off. Black Swan nails a CF3.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

127 Hours

Let’s face it, a film that involves one man, largely set in a single small location, with a known outcome that isn’t massively pleasant, does not make the most desirable of pitches. But golden boy Danny Boyle, glowing with over-heaped praise for Slumdog, brings the story of one man’s self discovery (hey, that’s what the inside of my arm looks like!) into must-see territory.

You know the story. Man’s arm trapped under rock. 127 long hours later man escapes. Arm does not. But Boyle plays with your expectations and tweaks the tension, creeping towards the bits you’re waiting for with nervous anticipation and throwing a few extras in to make the journey fresh. Though you’re waiting on the big separation, the rest of the 127 hours highlights the other issues poor Aron Ralston has to deal with; hunger, thirst, temperature, a loss of hope.

I say “poor Aron”, but the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Aron is a cocky, selfish, egotistical little numbskull who thrives off ridiculous thrills and gurns for his camera at any opportunity. One of those people you went to uni with who end up going off round the world on a whim with no real life-plan, and has crazy adventures that they broadcast on a blog while you sit in a drizzly office silently hating the bastard before descending into a sea of self-pity at how uninteresting and pointless your own life is. You know – “one of those”.

Anyway, Aron himself has admitted he was a bit of a knobhead (probably) and James Franco plays it to perfection. Someone you can believably hate but at the same time, once that panic has kicked in as arm meets rock, someone you can sort of care for. There’s plenty of time to think about getting yourself into the same situation and the sheer horror of it all, and more “how far would you go?” questions than you’d probably anticipate.

At a trim 94 minutes this isn’t an epic character study, but Boyle doesn’t need to pad it out. There are some smart explorations into Aron’s psyche (a talk show being a particular highlight) and accepting your fate scenes on a par with the incinerator moment in Toy Story 3 (still haunts me). Though you’d go for the money shots – and they are brutally but stylishly handled – 127 Hours packs a strong emotional punch too. Who knew a film about a guy cutting off his arm could nearly make me cry?

The combination of a raw performance from Franco and Boyle’s typical frenetic direction with a killer soundtrack makes a bold, emotional and squirm-inducing film. Even if arm innards aren’t your cup of tea, it’s still worthy of a watch - you’ll only miss a couple of minutes if you choose to hide your eyes. 127 Hours grips and doesn’t let go, and as such pulls out a CF2.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Next Three Days

For some reason the title of this film stuck in my head as 3 Days Later, so it was with surprise that I found it was not a prequel to the Danny Boyle zombie horror. The Next Three Days is another offering from Paul Haggis, the man who brought Crash to the Oscars back in 2005 (a film reviewed as “Yes, racism, very good. But too polished to be truly affecting” by a very young Cinemafool).

Haggis is better known for his writing, sitting behind Million Dollar Baby and the two Bond re-brands, and given the weighty nature of his portfolio it seems that Three Days is his version of a mini-break. Everyman Russell Crowe has the perfect family – hot wife with a top career and tiny big-eyed child who generally keeps quiet. Perfect. But when wifey (Elizabeth Banks) gets arrested for murder and sent to jail indefinitely, poor old Russell’s world is turned upside down. And, as all beardy college teachers would do, he decides to break his wife out of jail.

Now, this has the potential to be utter faecal matter. Crowe’s character has none of the pre-requisite skills for such an endeavour. So his transformation into jail-breaking superman could stink of, well, poo. But Haggis handles it smartly. Firstly by pumping up the pace to such a degree, you barely get chance to say “hang on…?” Secondly by casting Crowe, whose acting chops lend weight to his character’s emotional stew making him appear human, not a shallow action cut-out. Thirdly, though Haggis bends reality he still clings to it with amusing persistence. How does Crowe learn the majority of his anti-jail skills? Youtube and google of course. A neat trick would have been to have him sit down and watch the first series of Prison Break, but maybe they didn’t have the rights…

Anyway, the pumped pace makes for an exhilarating film, with Crowe building a character you can genuinely care about and Haggis sticking him in situations that you can almost, sort of, believe. Plus he does hi-jinks while driving a Prius, which is always fun to watch. There’s a slight lag mid-way through when clich├ęd detectives are wheeled out, and the lack of time spent with imprisoned wifey means her no doubt harrowing experience – way worse than hubby out in the real world in his comfy house – is inconsequential as she becomes just a woman waiting to be rescued.

You can’t help but wish for a braver ending to give the film a more dramatic punch, but overall The Next Three Days is a fun and thrilling journey that doesn’t make you roll your eyes. Granted, if you had time to stop and really think about the plot it would no doubt turn out to be utterly unbelievable nonsense. But hats off to Haggis for burying that point in exciting chases. Three Days makes for an entertaining watch, and so gets the recommended CF0.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

What happened to 2010...

Yeah yeah yeah, no reviews since April, no review of the year. Yada-ya. What are you going to do? Stop paying me? Exactly.

In brief - best film of 2010? Toy Story 3.

I saw others. They were good too.

That's the door shut on 2010. Sorry.