Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

I realize I’m in the minority here, but I personally found A Serious Man to be one of the Coen brothers’ lesser efforts. On one level, it was interesting to see two of American cinema’s most prominent stylists take on a project inspired by their family histories. But while most Coen brothers films inject unique touches into the framework of classical genres, they didn’t have that jumping-off point in A Serious Man. Consequently, the film feels overly fussed-over, with crises and indignities heaped upon a characteristically Coen-esque put-upon schlub. And although this character type anchored great Coen projects from Barton Fink to The Man Who Wasn’t There, without the genre framework to prop him up he’s mostly just a punching bag.

So as you might imagine, True Grit was much more my speed. Making a straight-up Western for the first time gives the Coens ample opportunities to show off their flair for visual panache and vivid supporting characters in a new venue. But while it’s easy to imagine the directors being attracted to Charles Portis’ novel for its tangy use of frontier patois, I also think they were drawn to the strength of its protagonist- no, not cantankerous marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, marvelously dissipated), but steely youngster Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld).

Much has been said about the Coens’ scorn for many of their heroes, but if one looks back at their films, there’s also a pattern of strong women who the brothers seem to genuinely admire. Most obvious among these is of course Marge Gunderson, whose folksy demeanor and unmistakable pregnancy couldn’t hide her canny police work. But stalwart women pop up again and again in their films, from leads like Abby in Blood Simple and Edwina in Raising Arizona to supporting characters like Barton Fink’s Audrey and No Country for Old Men’s Carla Jean, who even in their limited screen time provide emotional grounding for their stories.

Mattie is in this tradition, and Steinfeld is up to the task. Still in her teens, she is nonetheless able to convincingly match up with the Coens’ gifted ensemble, from heavy hitters like Bridges and Matt Damon (as the vain Texas Ranger LaBoeuf) to the directors’ requisite rogue’s gallery of supporting performers, including Dakin Matthews as the irascible Col. Stonehill, with whom Mattie shares a perfectly-realized negotiation scene. In less capable hands, Mattie Ross would have come off not only as a little girl in a tough man’s world, but as a contemporary kid playing dress-up. But Steinfeld proves herself up to the task of selling the stylized dialogue and holding her own with the grown-ups. So near the end of the film, when LaBoeuf demonstrates his respect for Mattie’s skills out on the trail, we can’t help but concur.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)

Nowadays, many cinephiles apply the word “auteur” to directors who build their movies from the ground up, writing and producing (and sometimes more than that) as well as directing. But in the formative years of auteur theory, many of the movement’s most revered figures (e.g. Hitchcock) didn’t write their own material, but instead took other people’s screenplays and make them their own in production. One of things that makes The Fighter compelling from a critical standpoint is the sensibility that David O. Russell brings to the film. It’s the first of Russell’s films to date that he didn’t write or co-write, and although the relatively pedestrian screenplay shows through in the final result, Russell finds plenty of ways to make it feel like it’s of a piece with his other work.

The most obvious example of this is the sense of barely controlled chaos in the scenes involving the family of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg). Ward is supposed to be the hero of The Fighter, but he barely registers in scenes opposite his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky (a live-wire turn by Christian Bale), his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), and his gaggle of trashy sisters. Taken by themselves, these scenes are pretty grating- especially the sisters, who seemingly move and think as a collective. But in terms of the movie as a whole, Russell makes them work, specifically as a counterpoint to Ward’s budding relationship with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) who wants to help Micky get his boxing career back on track.

It’s this contrast between simplicity and chaos in Micky’s life that gives the movie a kind of screw-loose energy that distinguishes it from most underdog sports sagas. In Russell’s telling of the story, what holds Micky back as a boxer isn’t a lack of ability, or even poor management by Dicky, but the fact that he’s surrounded by noise and disorder with no means of escape. It’s only when Charlene makes her way into his life that he has an oasis, a place to find comfort and clarity amidst the hubbub. Just like the hero of I [Heart] Huckabees, it’s when he finds that clarity in his life that he’s able to move forward and accomplish his goals- in Micky’s case, to get a shot at the title.

Of course, Micky’s rise to the title bout is fairly standard as far as boxing movies go. But I did enjoy the detail with which Russell and his screenwriters explore the strategies behind boxing instead of simply showing us two fighters slugging away at each other until one of them got knocked out. However, despite the film’s obvious knowledge of boxing, it’s most interesting for the way Russell shows Micky learning to distinguish between the two contrasting sides of his life, and later on, to reconcile them. The Fighter could have been a straight-up paycheck job for its director, but because of Russell’s unwillingness to be lazy, it’s cut or two above what it might otherwise have been.

Rating: 7 out of 10.