Archive for December, 2010

True Grit

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Feature film newcomer Hailee Steinfeld holds the screen with veterans Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of “True Grit,” a sturdy piece of genre moviemaking quick to remind viewers of the enduring appeal of the Western film. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel contained plenty of humor, but the Coens specialize in absurd observations honed to a razor’s edge. The filmmakers’ gift for shaping a universe from the syntactically stylized patois of its denizens has not seen this kind of workout since the invented gangland slang of “Miller’s Crossing.” Much of the dialogue is pulled directly from Portis, who imagines 1870s oral communication as the poetic “prairie Shakespeare” familiar to fans of David Milch’s brilliant “Deadwood.”

Familiar to scores of fans, “True Grit” traces the quest of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) to find the killer of her father. Enlisting the help of a salty alcoholic, and soon joining forces with a proud, mustachioed Texas Ranger, Mattie’s horseback odyssey – and her own “sand” in the face of hardship and violence – defies the expectations of the older men en route to the creation of a thoroughly engaging Bildungsroman. The Coens have noted their admiration for Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” another kid’s-eye-view tale smoldering with the gothic, and the newer film’s inclusion of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as an aural motif is one of several tributes to the 1955 thriller.

In a film predicated on the transactional, the Coens hold up their end of the bargain, remaking “True Grit” with all the grace notes of their signature brand of funny-bone fatalism (which runs parallel with the tremendously satisfying dialogue originally crafted by Portis). Entrepreneurial commerce, a familiar theme in the American Western, brightens the eyes of more than half the film’s characters, and many conversations hinge on negotiations related to buying, selling, or trading everything from room and board to bounty hunting services to corpses. Alongside Mattie’s literal righteous indignation at the already overburdened justice system’s unwillingness to apprehend her father’s murderer, the Coens take obvious pleasure in the ongoing hustles, haggles, and barters taken up by Mattie and just about everyone else.

Jeff Bridges, more versatile if less iconic than John Wayne, makes a terrific “one-eyed fat man” as he tries on the role that brought the Duke his only Oscar. As United States Deputy Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the trigger-happy lawman who likes to “pull the cork,” Bridges gleefully mush-mouths his dialogue to the brink of incomprehensibility. Like Wayne’s Rooster, Bridges embodies a sense of joy and merriment in the execution of his often dangerous trade. Although Mr. Cogburn’s reputation as a killer contrasts with Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s live-and-let-live passivity, both characters share the quintessentially Western idealism that privileges individual freedom over the restrictions of settled society.

While the Coen version is superior to the original in many significant ways, especially in maintaining Mattie’s point-of-view, a post-denouement coda depicting the heroine twenty-five years following the action distracts from the potency of Steinfeld’s work by catapulting Mattie into adulthood. Hathaway’s version, which concludes with Mattie’s touching offer to inter Rooster in her family plot (and Rooster’s comic rejoinder that he isn’t interested in moving in any time soon) preserves the character – who would appear in a 1975 sequel and resurface in a 1978 TV movie featuring Warren Oates in the role – without mourning, fossilizing or deifying him. While the Coen edition sticks closer to Portis’s story, it’s more satisfying to imagine Rooster alive, reins in his teeth, and guns ablaze.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 12/27/10.

The Fighter

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

David O. Russell’s third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg recounts and burnishes the story of Lowell, Massachusetts junior welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, a Rocky Balboa-like working class slugger whose family ties constantly threaten to derail his career. Hewing close to the requirements of the underdog struggle, “The Fighter” is surely Russell’s most traditional feature – seemingly miles away from the love-it-or-hate-it chaos of “I Heart Huckabees.” Closer inspection, however, reveals several of the filmmaker’s thematic strengths, most notably intellect disguised as foolishness or stupidity and the ways in which cynicism and redemption form uneasy truces.

Mark Wahlberg, whose long relationship with the project outlasted flirtations with Brad Pitt and the departure of Darren Aronofsky (who received an executive producer credit), understands Ward’s manual laborer appeal, and capitalizes on one of the boxing genre’s favorite types: the almost broken, disadvantaged dreamer capable of surprising himself with greatness. “The Fighter” even provides a two-for-one in this category, highlighting the downward spiral of Micky’s graceless, drug-addled half-brother Dicky Eklund – a one-time puncher who managed to last ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky coasts on his reputation, deluding himself and anyone who might listen with talk of a comeback, even though HBO’s “America Undercover” is featuring him in a documentary titled “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”

Christian Bale, recently awarded Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review for his work in “The Fighter,” plays Dicky in the kind of showy, twitchy performance that divides critics and viewers. Hollow-eyed and emaciated, Bale holds nothing back, and despite – or perhaps because of – the dire neediness of Dicky, pulls off some remarkably tricky interactions, most notably a rendition of “I Started a Joke” pregnant with the sort of false sincerity favorite sons use to bamboozle doting mothers.

Bale’s work is matched by the prowess of the frightening and fearless Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky’s mother Alice. Alice presides over a brood that also includes Micky and Dicky’s seven sisters, a group of fiercely loyal, hair-sprayed harpies. Their palpable animosity toward Micky’s new love Charlene (Amy Adams in her best role since 2005 breakthrough “Junebug”) erupts in a handful of blackly comic confrontations in which Micky is caught in the middle. Despite being stuck with the eternally thankless supportive girlfriend role, Adams kicks her Disney princess image hard in the backside.

Amidst the thunderous turns by his co-stars, Wahlberg’s understated presence quietly and confidently grounds “The Fighter” with an element of Russell’s signature irony that casts the pugilist as peacemaker. Not everyone will swallow the late unification of Micky’s opposing camps (Mickey O’Keefe, one of Ward’s real-life trainers, is better than good simply, or not so simply, playing himself), especially in light of the brutal undercurrent of sibling rivalry that perpetually backs Micky into Dicky’s “Pride of Lowell” shadow. We know from experience, not to mention from Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, that blood complicates relationships without regard for logic. On this count, “The Fighter” wins by decision.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 12/20/10.

The Tourist

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The regally named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck squanders his post-“The Lives of Others” art-house credibility with “The Tourist,” the umpteenth homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s dazzling romantic thrillers that falls far short of the Master of Suspense. Lavishly shot on location in Venice with A-listers Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, the movie promises charm, eroticism, and action but delivers absolutely none of these things. A remake of the French film “Anthony Zimmer,” “The Tourist” inserts stultifying, unintentionally hilarious low-speed boat chases, dull chastity, rooftop scrambles, and groaning plot machinery where there should be effervescent and amorous stimulation.

The opening scenes show at least a hint of metanarrative, as Jolie’s Elise Ward is studied, ogled, and gazed upon by men on the street and hidden behind the tinted glass of a surveillance van. Studied from every angle, the mysterious Elise receives a note from her lover (a presumably clever and elusive thief named Alexander Pierce) instructing her to confuse Interpol and a gang of vicious thugs by taking up with a stranger on a train. She selects, more laughably than comically, a Madison, Wisconsin community college math teacher named Frank Tupelo (Depp), sweeping him off his feet and into a gorgeously appointed grand hotel suite as the pursuers close in.

Jolie’s experimental British accent forces her character into a state of imperiousness that prevents any real heat between Elise and Frank. It doesn’t help that the clumsy screenplay fails to include the kind of smoldering double entendre present in “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief,” the two Hitchcock films (along with Stanley Donen’s own Hitchcock tribute “Charade”) that “The Tourist” aims to resemble. Instead, the sheepish Frank sleeps on the couch in his PJs, cheating the audience out of what should have been one of the movie’s certain attractions. The remainder of the film, despite a truncated wet dream and the sight of Jolie channeling Sophia Loren at an opulent ball, insists on vacuum-sealed sexlessness.

Those who plan to see the film are warned to stop reading here. An ill-conceived twist revealed at the climax of the movie represents the single-most devastating failure of “The Tourist.” The mild-mannered title character played by Depp is, in fact, the sought-after Alexander Pierce – the movie’s MacGuffin who has been hiding in plain sight courtesy of a fortune in plastic surgery. Viewers are asked to somehow believe the unbelievable. Have Elise and Frank been engaging in an elaborate role-play or is Elise, now revealed as a highly trained undercover agent, not capable of figuring out that the man she selected as a decoy is in fact the same person with whom she intimately spent the previous year?

Insulting and idiotic, the introduction of this information wholly negates every interaction between Elise and Frank that has come before. If Frank and Elise are merely toying with the agents pursuing them, why would they pretend not to know one another when they are behind closed doors? Certainly, scores of films mislead viewers in this, or similar, fashion – Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart” and Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension” are two examples. One of three credited screenwriters on “The Tourist” is Christopher McQuarrie, whose Keyser Soze in “The Usual Suspects” is a prime representation of a figure, like Alexander Pierce in “The Tourist” whose identity is disclosed as a last-minute surprise.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/13/10.

The Tillman Story

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Tillman Story,” documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s elegy for misunderstood NFL defensive back turned U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, manages the considerable feat of simultaneously confounding liberals and conservatives who have participated in the mythmaking and hero worship surrounding the slain soldier. Substantially better than Bar-Lev’s 2007 feature “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” benefits from a wealth of archival material, from clips of Tillman on the field for the Arizona State University Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals to the ghastly 2007 hearing in which Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of generals repeatedly claim an inability to recall whether or when they read Stanley McChrystal’s April 29, 2004 memo that warned of the likelihood of fratricide as the cause of Tillman’s death.

Tillman’s death by “friendly fire” – surely one of the most dazzling oxymoronic terms in the entire arsenal of military-speak – invited a bizarre cover-up that saw panicked leadership deliberately lying about the circumstances of April 22, 2004, when Tillman was fatally shot in the head in Afghanistan. Bar-Lev alternates between the construction of a personal portrait of Tillman and the investigation into the government’s decision to withhold information from Tillman’s family members. Neither story feels entirely complete, but the palpable and mounting sense of frustration that clouds the latter issue steers the film along its course.

In addition to the archival photos and videos, Bar-Lev interviews many of the people closest to Pat Tillman. Family members, including Tillman’s mother Mary (known as Dannie), father Pat Sr., brother Richard, and wife Marie appear on-camera. Pat’s brother Kevin, who was serving in the same unit with his brother when Pat fell, declined an opportunity to speak, but can be seen and heard delivering a harsh rebuke during a visit to Capitol Hill.

While Tillman’s incredulous, grieving mother articulately represents the voice of raw familial outrage at the events following her son’s death, retired soldier Stan Goff emerges as the most fascinating of the film’s talking heads. Vaguely channeling the seen-it-all weariness of a “Miami Blues”-era Fred Ward, Goff flays the military leadership responsible for the post-mortem snafu, choosing his words with refreshing candor and grim wit. An echo of Tillman himself, Goff demonstrates exactly how it is possible to simultaneously be a soldier, a patriot, and a skeptic and critic of the government.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” covers much of the same territory as John Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” the gripping bestseller published after Mary Tillman’s tribute “Boots on the Ground by Dusk.” Despite some kind of falling out between Krakauer and the Tillman family, “Where Men Win Glory” pushes harder and digs deeper than Bar-Lev’s documentary. Krakauer identifies the triggerman who almost certainly ended Tillman’s life, and makes sensible the thousands of pages of documentation that the movie must necessarily condense into feature-length running time. Both the filmmaker and the author grasp the irony, and the miscarriage of justice, that billowed from the American war machine despite Tillman’s clearly expressed wishes that he never be used as a propagandistic recruiting tool, and for this reason both texts are worth the effort.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/6/10.