Black Swan *


* My review/short essay on Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” has been published in the 5th and final issue of Hawaii Women’s Journal, paired with a lovely review by Rachel Ana Brown, and can be viewed there.  Pages 58-59.

   HWJ 5

True Grit (2010)

Fill your hand!

When writing an allegedly impartial piece, one should refrain from making such claims as “The Brothers Coen are the most prolific filmmakers working today.”  Omitting any cliche’ I could dig up to justify this sort of claim, I’ll avoid stating it altogether and simply take a look at the recent record.  Joel and Ethan Coen have released a film every year since winning Best Picture for 2007’s No Country For Old Men, and even prior to the McCarthy adaptation, they were turning out films of great variety and substance near-annually.  From dark, violent, atmospheric breath-stealers (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy) to thoughtful, dialogue-laden adventures with colorful characters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to cult favorites with no defining label (The Big Lebowski), the Coens have tried their four respective hands in plenty of territory.

With True Grit, the brothers continue to surprise.  This film is their first true genre exercise: an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  While the film is a second adaptation of the book and not a remake of the 1969 film with John Wayne, it does share plenty of similarities, right down to some scenes being carbon copies dialogue-wise.  What sets this film apart, among other things, is the cinematography.   Not only do we have a vintage Coen Brothers film that manages to be dark, serious and (I guess I have to use the word) gritty, but also a story that remembers its origins: where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa began to pave the way and both almost succeeded, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has restored the true spirit of the Western to modern American cinema.

For those who have been asleep since the late sixties, the story follows Mattie Ross (formerly played by the spunky Kim Darby, now played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young newcomer) a fourteen year-old girl looking for revenge against a drifter who killed her father.  She seeks the help of a rough, homely old U.S. Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role John Wayne played in the original), who is seldom caught sober and who apparently doesn’t take many prisoners.  Joining them out of personal interest is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (a moustached Matt Damon in the role formerly occupied by Glenn Campbell).  The adventure centers largely around these characters, and the antagonists are only talked about, never seen, until the final fourth of the movie.  However short a time they are given on screen, they are played to full effectiveness by Josh Brolin (as Tom Chaney, the object of the quest) and Barry Pepper ( as Lucky Ned, the leader of a dangerous gang with whom Chaney has fallen in).

The cast works together as a dysfunctional machine.  This film is Steinfeld’s first shot at a leading role, yet we never get the sense that she is being buffered by the grizzled Bridges and the experienced Damon – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  As Mattie is the main protagonist, she narrates the story, controls the main action, and commands every scene in which she appears.  She is a strong presence and an incredible gift to young actresses (it’s okay to have an unknown thirteen year-old girl as the lead character in a movie that has Bridges, Damon and Brolin!).  Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn, making the role his own and never looking back at John Wayne, yet paying as great a homage to the rugged Duke as anyone ever has.  The Coens wisely keep the iconic buildup to the four-on-one gunfight, and when Cogburn shouts his famous lines at Lucky Ned, it’s difficult to not only suppress a cheer, but to avoid seeing John Wayne on that horse for just a moment.  In addition to being a weathered old anti-hero, however, Bridges’ Cogburn has his lovable moments, particularly when traveling alone with Mattie and relating the events of his life.  On the other end, Damon is great as La Boeuf, the character whose alignment is constantly in question (the “problem character,” if you will), and you’ll never once think “that’s Matt Damon” when watching him.  Brolin plays a pure villain with whom even the toughest gang in the West wants nothing to do, and Pepper plays Ned as a woolly-chapped gang boss who, while completely sure of himself, knows he’s an outlaw and a ruffian, and avoids being a blowhard Western baddie.  Domhnall Gleeson also appears as the ill-fated Moon, in a role once played by a young, pony-tailed Dennis Hopper.  The “Your partner’s killed ya” exchange is preserved and wonderful.

The Coens make good decisions with the supporting cast as well.  The characters we liked from the novel and the old movie return and are given a bit more to do, such as Harold Parmalee (Bruce Green), the “simple-minded” member of Ned’s gang who communicates only by making farm-animal noises.  They eliminate the character of Mexican Bob altogether, and they severely reduce the appearance of Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), the Chinese grocer with whom Cogburn lives.

I am concerned about a certain scene, however.  During the hanging at Fort Smith, the prisoners are given last words before taking the plunge.  But as the Native American prisoner begins to speak, a bag is shoved over his head immediately.  This drew laughter from the audience.  It isn’t supposed to.  This is a person being treated as a second-class citizen on his own land.  The land belonging to the “injuns” is called “unsettled territory.”  It isn’t a joke.  It’s a small gripe, but I haven’t decided whether it’s a gripe against the filmmakers or the rabble.

The film has beautiful locations and ambient music by Carter Burwell that knows when to take center stage and when to back up.  There are a few editing errors here and there, but having worked on a film myself recently, I know they happen and I know why they happen, especially when deadlines come into play.

The Coens continue to push their own limits with film.  Did True Grit need to be remade?  No.  The original is an adventure that has held up to this day.  However, the Coens’ version stands apart as its own film, and has the most likable trio of protagonists in recent memory.  By the end of the film, I wished I could have spent more time with the young Mattie and old Cogburn before the epilogue.  But hey, maybe in fifty years, someone will remake Rio Bravo…again.

True Grit (2010); written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

And he almost deserved it

The most magical and complete of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series of children’s novels no doubt presented a tall order for director Michael Apted.  The book is presented in episodic fashion, with Lewis giving us a different tale in each chapter, such that a reader might have a different adventure each night before bed.  As such, the one arc holding the story together is rather flimsy when presented dramatically, and requires a bit of invention on the part of the filmmakers in order to deliver something that feels urgent and complete.

The cast is an amalgamation of familiar faces from the first two films.  Skandar Keynes returns as Edmund, who has graduated from Turkish Delight to solid gold conchs; and Georgie Henley finally takes her long-deserved lead role as Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, who is now old enough to be concerned with all of the harmful trappings that come with being a teenage girl in present-day human society (trappings that Lewis did nothing but perpetuate by having Lucy obsess about her own physical appearance).  Ben Barnes reprises his role as Caspian (for the last time as a young man, if the books are to be followed); and Will Poulter, a young newcomer, takes on the tough role of Eustace Scrubb, the Pevensies’ obnoxious cousin, who undergoes more than one transformation during the course of the story.  Simon Pegg takes over as the voice of Reepicheep, the talking mouse knight, replacing Eddie Izzard, and Liam Neeson still plays Jesus in lion form.

In the novel, Lucy and Edmund go back to Narnia in order to help Caspian find seven Lords who were once banished by his evil uncle.  That’s all.  In the film, there’s a generous injection of stock fantasy material: not only must the protagonists find the Lords, but they must recover magical swords (MacGuffin time!) in order to repel a dangerous mist that has been whisking sailors away to Dark Island.  This is also an excuse to bring back Tilda Swinton as the dead White Witch, Jadis (I’m not complaining; she is wonderful).  However, instead of adding further inventions, such as a villain, Apted and screenwriter Christopher Markus simply rearrange the adventures from the novel and milk/draw out the already-resolved ones for further drama (and CG opportunities).  For example, a very brief brush with a sea serpent during the first half of the novel becomes an epic battle at the end of the film. Where Eustace is a nuisance through only a small part of the book, lightening up after living a few days as a dragon, both Eustace’s grating personality and his tenure as a winged beast are strung through two-thirds of the film.  It works as a narrative film technique because, as characters are generally expected to change by the end, it only makes sense to have them change at the end, at least in a fantasy film for children.

While Lewis denied any intentional allegory in these novels, he wrote them shortly after becoming a born-again Christian (coming from a life of Atheism), so the Christian themes are certainly there.  The film tones this down (mostly) in favor of providing shallow, Grimm-style moral lessons for children, and lays on a bit of the Christian lessons later.  I prayed (figuratively) that the writers would omit a certain line from the book, but alas, if there’s one thing these films have been, it’s loyal to the bare-bones events of the books.  Ultimately, though, it’s harmless.

Where the film beats the previous ones (and also where it falls short after beginning to succeed) is the development of and the conflict between the characters.  Right off the bat, Edmund and Caspian have a conflict: they disagree on fundamental issues to the degree that they end up drawing weapons and threatening physical violence on one another.  They make up with the aid of Lucy, the level-headed, more intelligent female, but the conflict doesn’t end.  They both have eyes for Lilliandil (Laura Brent), a living star who guides the group to a certain island.  The conflict, however, is abandoned.  The battle at the end is apparently enough to quell any disagreements between two very different young men from very different worlds, thus we are left with a few loose ends.

Ultimately, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is dramatically superior, better-written, and more responsibly handled than 2008’s Prince Caspian, which attempted to add darkness and grit to a story for children, and ended up with a story full of kids and talking animals apathetically committing murder after murder.  This movie brings back the magic – how interesting that this should be the case when a film is taken away from the Disney company.  Georgie Henley finally comes into her own as Lucy, rivaling young-adult heroines such as Dakota Blue Richards and Emma Watson, and the supporting cast, including Gary Sweet as Drinian and Billie Brown as Coriakin the Magician, possess their roles as plot devices well.   You’ll probably notice them more on a second viewing.

Maybe it’s time to stop making these movies.  The Pevensie Trilogy is done.  The remaining four books are going to be difficult to adapt.  Non-readers may wonder why we don’t have the same main characters and the same magic as before – not to mention why the writers apparently hate Mormons, Islam, and the Pope.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010); written by Christopher Markus (based on the novel by C.S. Lewis); directed by Michael Apted; starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Will Poulter.


Show business kids makin’ movies of ’emselves…

As much as I enjoy the little featurettes on Rage, Sally Potter’s latest effort, the term “naked cinema” has yet to be defined for me – whether that is because I suddenly find myself a victim of the times and think the absence of a Wikipedia article means a term has no definition, I couldn’t say.  I’m going to venture a guess, though: it means something more than a “cheap movie.”  Rage was made with only $1 million (a phrase I still snicker at when I hear it spoken aloud – “only one million dollars”), and I assume the lion’s share  went to the actors.  If hats didn’t give me headaches, I would wear one and subsequently take it off to this stellar cast of accomplished performers for snubbing expensive jobs they surely could have taken in favor of being involved in a truly ambitious artistic project.

Potter states that “we…live in a culture that is kind of fetishizing fake confessions in the form of reality TV, confessions made for an effect, or to get famous or whatever…I tried to go back to an earlier lineage of confession, which is a kind of…lifting off, if you like, of a mask.”  This film is fully comprised of confessional interviews, supposedly filmed by a high school blogger calling him/herself Michelangelo (yes, it’s important to note that the gender is never revealed; don’t just assume it’s a male).  Michelangelo, a silent, off-stage presence, spends seven days behind the scenes at a fashion show, witnessing a murder-mystery in progress while the key players share their musings with the camera (and quite often share too much).

The colorful ensemble includes appearances by Jude Law as a drag queen named Minx; Steve Buscemi as Frank, a homeless photographer; Judi Dench as Mona, a pessimistic fashion journalist; the gorgeous Lily Cole (who has grown on me) as Lettuce Leaf, an exaggerated version of herself; Eddie Izzard as Tiny Diamonds, the owner of the fashion company; Simon Abkarian as Merlin, a master fashion designer and blowhard extraordinaire; Patrick J. Adams as Dwight Angel, a young, bigoted marketing exec who happens to be ignorant of his own racial insensitivity; David Oyelowo as Homer, a “detective” straight out of a blaxploitation film; and John Leguizamo as Jed, Tiny’s coffee-addicted bodyguard.

For a film almost completely devoid of a traceable story arc, it is impressive to find two sideplots alongside the documentary/murder-mystery (though the first is more of a “side subject”): 1) the creation of a new fragrance, simply called “M,” which leads to insight from several characters about what “M” stands for, resulting in characters “saying more than they’re saying;” and 2) Lettuce Leaf needs to “get away” from the barbarous stress of being in the studio, and asks Michelangelo if she can come home with him/her.  The final shots of the film, quite different from anything previous, are touching, gorgeous, and…shucks.  Just see it.

Rage is a film for the film enthusiast, the writer, and the minimalist.  It’s a film entirely comprised of dialogue, dismissing the importance of plot and resolution, revolving completely around characters and their immediate emotions.  It’s a murder mystery with no possible solution.  It’s a satire of the fashion industry, and more so a satire of reality TV and its dedicated viewers who gawk hopelessly as their idols, people who have done nothing and are nothing, weep and whine about silly, grandiose, arbitrary schlock, and the camera zooms in for a deliberate closeup.

Rage (2009); written and directed by Sally Potter; starring Lily Cole, Jude Law, Judi Dench and Steve Buscemi.