Thursday, December 30, 2010

"True Grit," a True Masterpiece of Western Cinema

Here's Matt's review of the Coen Brothers' new film, True Grit, in theatres now. The review appeared in The Huntsville Item this morning.

It’s tricky business trying to convince someone that a remake, particularly a remake of one of John Wayne’s seminal films, is worth their time, especially when you’re a person who’s spent years declaiming against most remakes at the movies. The remake stigma – “Why can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas?” “They’ll never replace the original,” etc. etc. – has been clinging to Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit since it was announced they were making it. Even when the stellar cast was named, even when the trailers showed promise, those whispers continued: “But it’s a remake. I just don’t care for remakes.”

Thankfully, the release of the flick seems to be proving most of those whispers wrong. If you’re still on the fence, consider that there are exceptions to the “Remakes Are Dumb” rule. Huge exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions are a re-imagining for a new age (Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a good example of this), sometimes they’re just a chance to have fun with ideas we already know we love. Sometimes, as is the case with True Grit, it’s a chance to create a more faithful adaptation of the source material (Charles Portis’ 1968 novel), and to refresh and reinvigorate a faithful old genre: the Western revenge tale.

In post-Civil War Arkansas, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is traveling to settle her father’s affairs after his murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired man who shot him after an argument. After making arrangements for her father’s body, Mattie sets her sights on revenge, and seeks out someone to help her bring Chaney to justice. After hearing that he’s the “meanest” of the U. S. Marshals, she seeks to hire Marshal Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken, overweight, one-eyed lawman who, after persistent pestering from Mattie, agrees to accompany her into Indian Territory on Chaney’s trail.

Also on Chaney’s trail is a flashy, cocky Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon). He’s been hunting Chaney for months, and while Mattie believes the man that killed her father to be a buffoon, La Boeuf cautions that he’s much more, that the buffoonery is only an act, that Chaney is actually a cold, calculated killer who murdered a Texas State Senator months before. La Boeuf urges Mattie to go home to her mother, and he and Cogburn even attempt to set out on the trail early and leave her behind. Mattie, with the help of her new pony, refuses to be shaken from their side, and the adventure into the wilderness in search of a killer begins.

Fans of the John Wayne version will find many recognizable chunks of the story still intact, including the famous “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” scene. Where the Coens shove off into new territory is in the film’s tone. While Cogburn was undoubtedly the driving force of the first film, the Coens focus much of their energy on Mattie, who narrated the original Portis novel. Everything happens through her eyes, colored by her determined, unshakeable desire to avenge her father. This not only makes the film more emotionally resonant, but also funnier, as Mattie observes the macho foibles of Cogburn and La Boeuf trying to outride, outshoot, and out-tough one another.

The film is also decidedly darker than its predecessor. The original True Grit, though it deals with dark themes, is bright, brisk, often almost hopeful. This True Grit, seen through the lens of brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, is gloomy, dim and crawling with shadows. Combine this with the Coen’s insistence on a more accurate depiction of the brutally desperate American West, and the result is a film that makes its predecessor look tame.

The entire cast is perfect, but no one can eclipse the daring, iconic performance of Bridges. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne with an eye patch. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is unrecognizable as Jeff Bridges. He disappears into the character, inhabits him, transforms into him completely. It’s another landmark performance from one of the greatest American actors. Steinfeld could be commended just for keeping up with the heavyweights that surround her in the flick, but she manages much more. Her vision of Mattie is nuanced, bold and wise beyond her years, just as the character should be. Brolin is wonderful, redeeming himself for the disaster of Jonah Hex earlier this year, and Damon proves he can do Westerns.

It was inevitable that any major discussion on True Grit would have to involve comparisons to the original, but it’s a shame if that’s the only place the discussion goes. There are parallels, to be sure, but the Coens’ True Grit is a different, more cinematic world, filled with breathtaking images, brilliant dialogue and all the love that comes with two fans of the genre working at the top of their game. It’s still amusing and amazing that two Jewish boys from Minnesota have made some of the great Southern films of our time (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men are just two examples). True Grit fits that bill, but it goes beyond. In their first exercise in straight genre filmmaking, working against history and cynicism, the Coen Brothers have managed to create a classic of Western cinema.

Matt’s Call: Easily one of the best films of the year, and the best Western made since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven nearly two decades ago. Don’t let your devotion to The Duke cause you to miss it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best Christmas Flicks You've Never Seen

So, it's getting to be about that time of year again...the time of year when we all sit on our asses, eat cookies and catch about 36 straight hours of Christmas programming with the family. Personally, I never get tired of the usual suspects: A Christmas Story, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Elf, It's a Wonderful Life and the like, but I'm sure some of you are a bit wearied with this, and besides, there are other Christmas films out there, just as good but often overlooked for one reason or another. So, in the interest of holiday diversity, here's a trio of lesser-known Christmas flicks you might want to check out this year.

Scrooged, 1988
 Bill Murray stars in this updated, decidedly 80s-tastic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, as a sleazy, greedy TV executive who cares more about ratings than holiday cheer. As a result, he's visited by three spirits and finds the true meaning of Christmas. It's the same story, just a lot naughtier and starring a Ghostbuster.

Rounding out the cast are Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), John Forsythe, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait and legends John Houseman and Robert Mitchum.

Best Scene: Murray gets smacked in the face with a toaster by the psychotic ghost of Christmas Present.

Black Christmas (1974)
Tired of the irrepressible Christmas cheer swirling around the house? Try a Christmas fright instead. This unlikely classic, directed by Bob Clark (Who would go on to make A Christmas Story nine years later), is the story of a group of sorority sisters staying in the house they share over the holiday break as a psychotic killer roams the streets, making threatening phone calls and picking them off one by one.

It sounds silly, but it  was positively revolutionary in '74, and the flick holds up surprisingly well. It's legitimately creepy, even disturbing, and featured a great cast that includes Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey. Plus, it predates John Carpenter's Halloween by four years, but uses many of the same trademarks.

Best Scene: Murder with a plastic bag. So hard to watch and yet such a great suspenseful moment.

The Ref (1994)
 Denis Leary is a hardened criminal. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are a couple at each other's throats in the midst of a divorce. He takes them hostage, they drive him crazy, and Christmas is all around. Hilarity ensues.

Best Scene: All of them

Monday, December 20, 2010

New on DVD: "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," Or "LaBeouf Without the Robots"

Shia LaBeouf hangs his head in shame after losing Megan Fox AND his robot car.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is new on DVD this week. Here's Matt's review from the release in September.

If there’s any director on the planet that knows about ups and downs, it’s Oliver Stone. The guy has gone from the height of cinematic glory (Plattoon) to the deepest valleys of box office and critical failure (Alexander), and everywhere in between. But it’s not because he has strange luck, or because he’s not talented, or even because the world wasn’t ready for his movies. It’s simply because he takes risks, visually, emotionally and thematically. He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a Wall Street broker.

Which is appropriate, because Stone has now made two films, in two very different eras, about the financial system. Wall Street, released in 1987, is widely considered a classic, if condemning, portrait of the Reaganomics era, and garnered an Oscar for Michael Douglas. And now, with a vastly different money world, Stone has released a sequel, his answer to the 2008 financial collapse: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Gordon Gekko (Douglas) is released from prison in 2001 after serving eight years on a bevy of insider trading charges stemming from the events of the first film. Seven years later, Gekko has a new book about his experiences that’s rising up the best-seller lists, and begins making the rounds on talk shows and university speaking circuits.

Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a rising star in the world of investment banking under the tutelage of a legend in the field, Lou Zabel (Frank Langella). He’s also dating Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who refuses to talk to or about her father. 

After the massive, Bear Stearns-esque failure of his firm causes his hero, Zabel, to jump in front of a subway train, Jake sets out to get the man he feels is responsible, fellow investment banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin), while simultaneously attempting to begin a relationship with Gekko.

The financial ins and outs of the plot are fast-paced and often elusive. I didn’t like the first Wall Street as much as many did, simply because I don’t care about all the market mumbo-jumbo. Money helps me buy DVDs and comic books, OK? Call me childish, but that’s where I’m at, so a film about investments and sneaky trading is going to be inherently hard for me to follow.

But the emotional basis of the elements at work here is plain enough. Jake is attempting to juggle his own success with revenge for his mentor, his private life, his deepening friendship with Gekko and his interest in an alternative energy company that’s about to go under if new money doesn’t begin to flow to it. All of this proves much too much when Jake realizes he’s not the only person manipulating the powers at work. In fact, everyone is. It’s a film rife with secrets, and it’s how they unfold that makes Money Never Sleeps sometimes hard to watch.

Stone is famous for the message in his films, and it’s clear that this flick has that too. The problem is that at times it seems like he’s not sure what he’s preaching. There’s an element of self-righteousness among the characters that is often overlaid or even walking hand in hand with smug vindictiveness. It’s impossible to figure out any of the characters (except Winnie, who is the victim, of course) right up until the very end, and even then we’re not sure. Maybe that was the point, but when your plot is already more complicated that one brain can handle, making your characters individual puzzles in and of themselves is a bit too much.
There’s also a kind of sensory overload at work in the film’s visual style and sound design. Everything overlaps, visual metaphors fly past at breakneck speeds, and songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno seem out of place and grating against the rest of the flick’s tone. 

But, weirdly enough, the emotional oomph of the flick often makes all of that irrelevant. This oomph of which I speak generally emanates from the actors, all of which (yes, even LaBeouf, and I rarely say that), perform at incredible levels of skill. Douglas steals the show even more than he did the first time he played Gordon Gekko, and to watch him work is to watch a true master. Mulligan, as she was in last year’s An Education, is spellbinding, Brolin is searing, Langella and the legendary Eli Wallach are scene stealers (and Wallach manages this despite having only three lines). It’s proof that a great cast can overshadow sloppy filmmaking.

In the end, I think Money Never Sleeps is a film that’s trying too hard to be as relevant as its predecessor, and it simply can’t be done. The world is a more complicated place now, and attempted to place yourself in the heart of the financial crisis and create not only a morality play but a sweeping social commentary borders on a fool’s errand. Stone is still a talented risk-taker, and his film works, but it’s hard not to see flaws.

Matt’s Call: It’s a film unlike anything else at the theatres right now, and it’s often quite thrilling to watch, but don’t expect greatness. There’s too much going on here for anything to rise up and be stellar.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New on DVD: "Despicable Me," the best animated film of the year.

"Despicable Me" is new on DVD today. Here's Matt's original review of the flick from its summer release.

Despicable Me is pure cinematic joy.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to rave about animated films these days. It’s not that I’m getting older, or that the films are getting further and further away from my understanding as I lean toward more sophisticated cinema fare. At this point, the level of saturation of animated gimmick flicks has reached somewhere well beyond critical mass.

Animated cinema was once an event to be cherished. Remember the second Golden Age of Disney? In the span of about a decade we got The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. All brilliant, complex, downright exhilarating movie experiences.

It’s not the same now. Now animated films are computer-generated toy commercials interested in little more than throwing lots of light and sound up on screen (preferably though 3D rendering) and tossing out countless cliched gags that have no originality and no real meaning.

I try very hard not to be jaded about these things, but I’m very, very tired of seeing trailers for films with the following premise: “OK, we’re going to take something that doesn’t talk, make it talk, and hilarity will ensue, because animals aren’t supposed to talk, right? Hardy har har.” Or how about this one? “OK, remember that classic story you all remember growing up? Well, look out, because here comes the twist!”

It’s not my fault, I swear. This is the result of two decades of family films and the slow decay of quality in what was once one our proudest subgenres. Every time I go see a new animated flick, even one by the legendary Pixar, I worry that instead of a film, I’m about to instead watch a lengthy moneymaking equation set to catchy tunes and bad jokes.

And then there are films like Despicable Me.

As much as I lament the current state of animated film, this flick, the debut feature from 3-year-old studio Illumination Entertainment, made me forget all of that. It’s so rare that I get to rave about animated films anymore that I promise over the next few paragraphs I will not hold anything back. Simply put, Despicable Me is a dose of pure happiness fed through a projector.

Gru (Steve Carell) is a supervillain. He’s good at his job. He builds balloon animals and gives them to kids just so he can pop them. He zaps people with his freeze ray so he won’t have to stand in line for coffee. He’s got an army of adoring minions, and an assistant, the brilliant (if a little senile) Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), who can build him any gadget he’d like.

But Gru is being outpaced in the villainy department lately. While he was off stealing the Statue of Liberty (the little one from Las Vegas), new villain Vector (Jason Segel) was busy hijacking the Great Pyramid. Desperate to get back on top, Gru hatches a plot to steal the moon from the sky. All he needs to do it is a shrink ray. Unfortunately, the shrink ray is in Vector’s hands.

Undaunted, Gru adopts a trio of adorable cookie-selling girls: Margo (Mirando Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and unicorn-obsessed Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Knowing Vector’s weakness for cookies, Gru plans to use the girls to infiltrate his enemy’s fortress so he can get his hands on the shrink ray. Of course, being a supervillain, he’s got no head for children, and comedy spontaneously combusts (That’s a weird phrase I know, but I wanted a change from “hilarity ensues.”).

Amid the madcap adventure of it all are Gru’s financial woes (He can’t get a loan from the Bank of Evil. Yes, there’s a Bank of Evil.), his issues with his overbearing mother (Julie Andrews) and his wicked heart melting for the three little girls sleeping in hollowed out bombs in his house.

Everything about the film is just plain playful. There are gags woven into every detail of the flick (see if you can spot where Vector hid the pyramid), from the dialogue to the animation. It’s all spectacularly well-designed, filled with the cinematic craftsmanship that all those garden variety flicks I mentioned earlier just don’t manage.
It’s also a great example of marvelous voice acting. Carell is his usual awesome self, Brand is so adept at his character that you can barely tell it’s him, and all three girls, particularly Fisher, are mindblowingly adorable. And yes, the “It’s so fluffy!” moment from the trailers really is just as awesome as you think it is.

Right here is normally the part where I nitpick about something the flick did wrong, but I was too busy laughing to see any flaws. I think that just about says it all.

Matt’s Call: Easily my favorite animated film of the year. Two hours of absolute joy on screen. Take the whole family and forget your troubles, because this is what family cinema is meant to be.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Movies: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"

It's time to implement your holiday movie marathons, boys and girls! Here's Matt with a tribute to one of his personal favorites:

Around Black Friday the first itch hits me.

They creep in, dull yet unmistakable, around the fringes of my Turkey coma, pulsing in the back of my brain. If I ignore them they grow worse by weekend’s end, evolving into a kind of withdrawal headache and a sense that something is missing.

There’s only one antidote: Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) stapling thousands of lights to his house and accidentally catching his own sleeve, or sledding down a mountain at 100 miles per hour, or being trapped in the attic while his family goes shopping, or watching Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) abduct his boss.

My name is Matthew, and I am a National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation addict.

This addiction began in the throes of my sixth Christmas (1992…it was a very good year). The film was in heavy holiday screening on NBC at the time, and my Dad was interested in seeing it (And, in the golden age of the VCR, recording it.).

I don’t remember my first viewing of the film as being something that was particularly revelatory, largely because I could only vaguely figure out what was going on. As a six-year-old, Christmas movies were things with stop-motion reindeer and sardonic, lasagna-eating cats. But it was on repeat viewings later that same season that I began to realize John Hughes and company were on to something.

These days I’m watching this particular holiday flick at least a dozen or so times each December (I’ve already been through five of my 2010 viewings as of this writing.), and it never loses its luster. The wackiness of it is an obvious appeal to someone of my…idiom, shall we say, but the love of the film has gone deeper than that. For all its comic mugging and slapstick irreverence, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is, at its heart, a film about the bittersweet peculiarity of the modern holiday experience.

It might sound like I’m attempting to project a false profundity onto relatively lightweight cinema fare, but go watch the film so many times that it seeps into your dreams and then talk to me about whether or not I’m wrong. I’m not arguing that Christmas Vacation is not a light film. It absolutely is. You can turn it on right now, watch it through several times, and do nothing but laugh at the unabashed zaniness of it all, from Clark Griswold’s desperate attempts to get his Christmas lights to turn on to Cousin Eddie’s unceremonious disposal of the contents of his RV septic tank. You can do this, quite enjoyably, while giving no thought to whether or not there’s a deeper meaning. In fact, it’s quite possible that the filmmakers themselves had no real inkling of what was lying beneath their comic flights, even as they were filming the thing.

But we are talking about a film written by John Hughes, the late, great pop auteur of the 1980s, the man who brought us The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Home Alone. Hughes had a knack for inserting deeper meaning even when things seemed at their most shallow. His films are of a kind so deeply associated with the American spirit: highly commercial, over the top, even slightly implausible, but packed with a yearning for a genuine sense of truth and emotion. People who think it’s just pre-packaged, supergloss box-office cash-in aren’t looking hard enough for what’s really going on.

Which brings me back to Christmas Vacation. It’s  a film about a man (Clark Griswold) who wants nothing more than to create the perfect Christmas for himself and his family. His overeager, often hapless pursuit of this, is largely selfless, even when it seems destructive. He wants to be that father, that husband, that son, who creates a holiday for the ages. His problem just happens to be that every single thing goes wrong. The lights don’t work, the tree catches fire, the turkey is dry, the Christmas bonus is nowhere in sight, the relatives are unappreciative, uncaring or just plain senile and the wife and kids are simply trying to dodge all of his well-intentioned misfires. 

It’s all very funny, and you can take it as just that, but it’s also a film about our constant yearning for the idealized Normal Rockwell glow that we all wish would materialize in our own living rooms. It’s a film about trying to build perfection out of what will always be chaos, and about discovering that sometimes that chaos is perfection. It’s that undertone, that snow-crested, holly-wreathed quest for a wonderful life, that makes the film so watchable, even when you’re someone like me who’s seen it 200 times.

Of course, if you don’t find all that there, you can always just wait for the moment when the dog chases the squirrel around the house.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New on DVD: "Inception," the coolest movie of the year.

Inception, the mind-bending mega blockbuster from Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, hits DVD and Blu-Ray today. ITZ Managing Editor Matthew Jackson reviewed the film for The Huntsville Item when it was released in July.

Inception really is that good

Some flicks just have an air of destiny about them.

The idea sounds great, the cast and crew come together perfectly, the trailers strike just the right note of anticipation, and when the film finally rolls out for all to see, it turns out it really was the sublime experience everyone hoped it would be.

It’s rare that a film really does that. Films can be good, but not as great as you thought they would be, very often, but it takes something more for them to meet your every expectation. After all, in our minds there are no budget constraints, actors never make mistakes, and special effects look completely real.
It’s an even rarer occasion when a film exceeds your expectations, and rarer still that a film leaves you dumbfounded with a kind of gleeful sensory overload.

Inception, the latest offering from Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, is one of those films. In spite of a boatload of impossible expectations, this flick went far beyond my wildest dreams (pun definitely intended) of how great it could be.

It’s not just that this is a lovingly crafted, carefully designed and flawlessly executed exercise in filmmaking. This is a strikingly original piece of cinema, truly something you’ve never seen before, and that alone should be enough to get you marching to this particular drum.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are thieves of a very particular order. They don’t knock over casinos or museums. They invade dreams in search of world-changing ideas buried in the minds of corporate honchos. They do this because they are handsomely paid by other corporate honchos.

The process involves a technology called “shared dreaming,” in which several people are hooked up to the same sedation machine and simultaneously transported into a pre-designed dream world that is inhabited by figments of the dreamer’s subconscious (this all makes more sense when you see it, trust me). Once there, they find a way to get to the deepest and darkest part of that subconscious, where the secrets lie.

Cobb is good at his job, but he’s also on the run from his own past, and when an Asian tycoon (Ken Watanabe) offers him a chance at redemption through “one last job,” he jumps at it. But the job is anything but ordinary. This time it’s not about taking an idea out, but putting an idea in, something that becomes far more difficult when ensnared in the trappings of the mind.

To pull off this ambitious reverse-heist, Cobb and Arthur recruit brilliant young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design the dream world, and international charmer Eames (Tom Hardy) to rustle up a mass of deceptions, all to be placed inside the head of the heir to an international conglomerate (Cillian Murphy).

I’m stopping there, not just because I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but also because if I wanted to get into the intricacies of this flick’s plot, I’d need a whole book to do it. Nolan, already famous for his magnificently layered films (his breakout film Memento is a prime example) outdoes himself here, crafting a world that’s part reality, part dream, and part dream within a dream, each with its own carefully designed set of rules. 

It may seem a long shot, making a film built around the structure of a heist, which involves careful, logical planning, but set in the illogical and ever-shifting world of dreams. But the whole flick really does make sense, and Nolan achieves this by placing all the things we know about dreams into the context of his tale. Time moves differently, the subconscious intrudes on logic, and everything seems to revolve around the dreamer. All this not only grounds the film, but also makes it believable. Believe me when I tell you that this does not feel like science fiction. 

The realism is heightened by Nolan’s use of special effects. Though what you see is mindbending, never does it feel contrived or intended to impress. It’s all simply part of the world you’ve been pushed into. Cities bend in half, freight trains fly through taxi-packed streets, people spin through hallways in zero gravity, but never during any of that does it feel like Nolan is shouting “Look at me! Look at how cool this is!” It’s all woven into the fabric.

The acting is, put simply, top notch. DiCaprio manages to be psychologically complex without seeming melodramatic, Gordon-Levitt is super-spy cool, Page is alternately curious and wise at all the right times. You don’t feel like you’re watching movie stars cavorting about the blockbuster-scape, and that’s a miracle in itself.

But what’s most brilliant about his treasure of a movie is the way reality almost becomes a character itself. Nolan makes much of the difference between what’s real and what’s not, and is careful to note that as we’re dreaming nothing seems illogical. “Inception” is a film that plays with this concept like no other, bending and shaping reality in layers and shadows into a funhouse of the mind. Never once is the plot, the pace or the conceptual solidity lost in all the smoke and mirrors, and yet by the end you’re still left with a dizzying sense of openness, as if you’re still waiting to wake up. 

Matt’s Call: The best movie of the year so far by leaps and bounds, and nothing slated to come out later this year looks like it will even come close (The Social Network has since forced me to revise this opinion, but not much.). It’s as good as you heard it was, and better. All that’s left is for you to see it.