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.