True Grit

The 2010 version of True Grit (iTunes versionicon) earned ten Academy Award nominations – winning none, so I hope it truly is an honor just to be nominated, otherwise the Coen brothers must be really pissed off – which accurately reflects the quality of the acting, the screenplay, and the visuals. It’s also an unusually mainstream film for the Coens, who seem to specialize in cult favorites or films that garner more acclaim from critics than at the box office. I enjoyed the film more for its critical aspects than for the story, and would rank it as above-average but have a hard time pushing myself to call it plus.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney, who subsequently fled into the Indian Territories (now constituting the bulk of Oklahoma) to escape arrest. Mattie, ostensibly in a frontier town to collect her father’s body and belongings, hires the dissolute bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn – over his objections – to catch Chaney, with the condition that she accompany him on the chase. They are joined by the arrogant Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, himself pursuing Chaney for the murder of a state senator and a dog in Texas. (It is unclear which was the greater transgression.)

The Coen brothers were, as far as I can tell having not read the novel, faithful to the original work, or at least far more so than the 1969 adaptation for which John Wayne won an Academy Award. (I haven’t seen that film either.) That decision appears double-edged to me, for while it means they stuck to Mattie’s perspective and gave her character a richness it might have otherwise lacked, it also leads down the figurative and literal slope of coincidences and sentiment in the film’s final fifteen minutes. Everything is a little too clean and perfect. You knew that a snake would come into play. You knew someone would fall into the hole in the ground. The Coen brothers didn’t have to kill off a main character to make the film a little grittier, pun intended, but it seems that their loyalty to Portis’ original work won out.

Two aspects of the film stood out over all others. One, obviously, is Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Mattie and was just 12 years old when True Grit was filmed. Her performance was absolutely critical to the movie’s success – she needs to be tough, firm, adult-like in sensibility yet still maintaining the naïveté of a child of her age; if she’s not believable, nothing that comes after in the film would matter. She must be able to boss around the grizzled, alcoholic Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and yet to be vulnerable when she’s first exposed to violence or finds herself disdained (or worse) by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). And she owns the screen in her negotiation with the dismissive horse-trader that ends with her talking him into a corner and out of his money, a scene where you would easily forget Steinfeld’s age were you not reminded of it within the dialogue. That she accomplished this at her age in her first significant film role is remarkable and justifies the passel of awards she won for her work, as well as the nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (an award won by Melissa Leo for The Fighter).

The other aspect that stood out is the cinematography, which is not something I ordinarily notice in films unless it’s done poorly. But the Coen brothers played True Grit as a classic Western epic, filling the screen with wide-angle views of the countryside, using plot elements like having Mattie on top of a cliff while a battle rages below as an excuse for Roger Deakins to give us an expansive shot of the dusty plateau where the climactic encounter of the book occurs.

(I admit I would have loved to have seen an outtake featuring Rooster Cogburn ordering a White Russian, but maybe that’s just me.)

As for the Best Picture race of last year, I’d still give The King’s Speech the nod over True Grit; both were well-acted, but the two lead performances in The King’s Speech were better than any of the three major performances here. Both films benefited from some contrived drama – the former by altering historical circumstances, the latter through a little coincidence and some silly foreshadowing – but The King’s Speech did so more subtly.

The Big Lebowski.

The 2011 draft is safely in my rearview mirror; you can read my team-by-team recaps for day two, separated into the American League and the National League. I also wrote a recap of day one on Monday covering ten teams who did well or made me scratch my head.

I finally rectified a major hole in my movie-viewing history by seeing The Big Lebowski. (It’s also the first movie I’ve watched on the new iPad, and, well, f-yeah-movies-on-the-iPad and all that.) So how exactly do you write about a movie that 90% of your audience – conservatively speaking – has already seen, many of them more than once? I’m guessing I’ll say nothing that hasn’t been written before about the film, so please forgive any unoriginal thoughts that slip in here.

There’s no real reason that I never watched the film; I liked Fargo despite its brutality, and might be one of the few people on earth who liked The Hudsucker Proxy (too saccharine for Coen brothers fans?). I like quirky comedies and dark comedies and films with great characters. I just never got around to this one when I was watching movies more regularly in the early 2000s, then my daughter was born and I ended up in a job that often has me watching baseball games at night rather than films or TV, and now I look up and realize many of my readers/followers have been speaking a dialect I didn’t understand. At least I finally get the title of Matthew Leach’s blog (which, by the way, got the biggest laugh out of me of any line in the film).

My favorite aspect of The Big Lebowski was its connection to the hard-boiled detective stories I love, even though The Dude isn’t actually a detective by trade. He’s intricately involved in the crime, which itself involves at least one con (I don’t want to ruin it for the four of you who haven’t seen the film), and ends up threatened by multiple elements, a standard of Philip Marlowe novels. The motives of everyone else involved are generally unclear. There’s a lot of drinking, although the Dude’s drink of choice seemed a little more soft- than hard-boiled, and a lot of petty violence like whacks on the head. He spends a good chunk of the story suspecting the wrong people. The familiar story arc made the movie much more enjoyable for me and I could concentrate on the witty dialogue*, from “obviously, you’re not a golfer” to “he fixes the cable” to “thank you, Donny” to “I’m just gonna go find a cash machine.” And John Turturro … well, now this makes a little more sense, too**.

* Did anyone else think Tara Reid’s one significant line was delivered a little too, um, naturally?

** I was convinced that Turturro’s character would somehow figure more prominently in the main plot. The fact that he is pure comic relief turned out to be even better.

About the only criticism I could offer is that there was no question how the scene with the new red car was going to end. Maybe that’s the point – you’re supposed to cringe and laugh simultaneously as you watch the metaphorical trains collide – but for a movie with so much obvious attention to detail, like The Dude’s obsession with making sure the half-and-half is fresh, the car seemed a little like a cheap laugh. It’s not like we didn’t already know Walter had a temper to match his exceptionally bad judgment.

That’s sort of like saying that Troy Tulowitzki should steal more bases, though. Julianne Moore was phenomenal. The nihilists (and the nod to Kraftwerk) were hilarious in their mannerisms and their incompetence, and I loved the cameos by Flea and Aimee Mann. (Pretty good German accent from her, by the way.) I can see why it’s such a cult hit and hang my head in shame for not watching it sooner. Anyway, tell me what else I missed about this film’s greatness while I figure out what to watch on my next flight.