Movie Reviews - 2010 postsSaturday February 12, 2011
Movie Review: “Biutiful” (2010)
WARNING: THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD SPOILERS
The world of Alejandro González Ińárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) tends to be a polyglot of crowded, marginal characters. It’s a world where everyone ekes a living off of each other, and what light there is is fluorescent. Halfway through his latest, “Biutiful,” the sun shines on a family eating breakfast together. “Ah, the sun,” I thought. Then it goes away. The sun is for other people’s movies.
Ińárritu is all about border crossings. At the start of “Biutiful,” Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is facilitating between two immigrant groups, the illegal Chinese and the legal African, in Barcelona. The former make bootleg products in basement factories, which the latter then sell along Las Ramblas or in the Plaza Cataluńa. Uxbal bribes la policia to look the other way.
He’s also clairvoyant. Did I mention that? He can communicate with the recently dead and help them cross that final border to the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. I should add that never has such a gift been presented in such by-the-way fashion in a movie. Uxbal has an answer to the most profound question in human history—does the individual consciousness survive death?—and he views it like it’s pro bono work, like it’s a hobby. He does it on the side when he has the time.
Despite this gift, Uxbal’s life is no great shakes. He lives in a cramped, basement apartment with his two kids. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is bipolar, an addict, and sleeping with his brother. He’s really only a step or two up from the immigrants he’s helping or exploiting. Then he’s diagnosed with cancer and given months to live.
So is this going to be that kind of story? The inconsequential man, forced, by the proximity and sudden inevitability of death, to see the beauty of life? Yes, there’s some of that. Uxbal is a hulking figure for much of the first third of the film. (You realize what a powerful back, and what a huge head, Bardem has.) After his diagnosis, he softens a bit. He visits his clairvoyant mentor, who tells him, “Put your affairs in order.” Both she and he know that the biggest problem for the recently dead is worry over unresolved matters, which get them to linger, to remain where they shouldn’t, and neither wants that for Uxbal.
So Uxbal begins to put his affairs in order. He tries to help the Africans, who are being deported for selling drugs. He tries to help the illegal Chinese immigrants, who live in horrible conditions, by buying them space heaters. He reconnects with Marambra, who still loves him, and he and the kids move into her apartment. They have breakfast together. The sun shines through the window. Life is good.
But life, as short as it is, lasts longer than “good.” The Africans are deported despite Uxbal’s efforts. Marambra goes back to partying, and doing drugs, and she beats the youngest, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), forcing Uxbal to move everyone back into his basement apartment, which he’s already given to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of one of his deported Africans.
Most horrific: the heaters Uxbal buys for the Chinese immigrants—made, no doubt, by people under conditions similar to theirs—don’t work properly. Ińárritu telegraphs the moment. Twice in the movie we see the Chinese foreman unlock the doors to wake the workers at 6:30 a.m., but both times we’re inside the room. The third time Ińárritu places the camera outside the room, over the foreman’s shoulder. The door opens and, lo and behold, dozens of dead bodies lying on the floor. Patricia, watching next to me, gasped in horror, but I was only surprised that it was an apparent gas leak. I was expecting charred bodies burnt to a crisp.
So now Uxbal has dozens of deaths on his conscience just as he’s dying himself. How does he deal with the weight of all this? Poorly or not at all. He makes a few motions, feints in several directions, but he’s really too busy dying to do anything proper. He withers, wears diapers, is confined to bed. Ige begins to watch his kids, to feed them. Will she be his savoir? On his deathbed, Uxbal gives her money to pay a year’s rent, so at least his kids will have a place to live for a year, but she uses the money to travel back to Africa and her husband. She abandons his for hers.
Every attempt to put his affairs in order, in other words, leads to chaos and heartbreak. It’s as if a sick God is foiling his every move. One is.
What is it about Ińárritu? He deals with themes I care about but his execution always bores me. His scenes are gritty but peculiarly weightless and airless. He shoves too many characters on the screen, shrinking them to make them all fit. He pisses me off.
I did like two scenes, however, shown both the beginning and end of the movie.
In the first scene, the camera focuses on two pairs of hands, male and female, and we hear voices, male and female, talking about a diamond ring. “Is it real?” she asks. Yes, he answers. She wants to wear it. He lets her. It could be a young couple, postcoital, at the beginning of their journey, but by the end of the movie we know it’s Uxbal and his daughter, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), and the conversation is the last he will have in this world.
In the second scene, Uxbal is in the woods eyeing a handsome young man. They smoke cigarettes and have an odd conversation about owls. The man, younger than Uxbal, shorter than Uxbal, seems the dominant one, while Uxbal has a kind of shy, flirtatious love shining in his eyes. Initially confusing, by the end of the movie we know the man is Uxbal’s father, who died when Uxbal was young, which means Uxbal is now dead. This is the afterlife. But it’s almost like a dream, isn’t it, pieced together from life in the way of dreams. Freud once observed that anything we hear in a dream we first hear in life, and so it is with the conversation about the owls. Initially it was Mateo’s conversation to Uxbal. The woods themselves seem culled from a refrigerator drawing of Mateo’s: childish woods beneath the word “biutiful.”
But this is only the beginning of death. In the woods, Uxbal’s father moves away, and Uxbal says “What’s over there?” He follows him. The camera stays behind. And that’s where the movie ends.
Patricia loved it. When the lights came up I looked over and her cheeks were soaked with tears. For a moment it made me question my own nonplussed reaction. But only for a moment.
Ińárritu is all about border crossings but his movies don’t inspire any border crossings in me. They don’t take me any place I haven’t been or want to go. I remain (stubbornly? frustratedly?) on this side, in the place I started.
The Tardiest and Positively Last List of TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2010
The movie year increasingly reminds me of the old video game “Space Invaders.” In the beginning, the invaders drop down intermittently and at a snail's pace—easy pickings—but as the game progresses they come fast and furious until you can't keep up, and then ... Blam! Game over.
That's my movie year. It starts out slowly, luxuriously, with huge gaps between one good film (“The Ghost Writer”) and another (“Un Prophete”). The dashed hopes of spring (“Kick Ass”) eventually give way to the heat of summer blockbusters (“Toy Story 3”; “Inception”). In fall, there's September pretenders (“The American”), October surprises (“The Social Network”), but before you know it you‘re inundated (“Black Fair Rabbit Fighter Job Speech Grit”) until ... Blam! Game over.
Long way of sayng I should’ve posted this sooner but kept trying to pick up all those I missed. Then I looked around and it was February and I knew I had to go with what I‘ve got.
This is what I’ve got.
10. “Inside Job” is the first of three documentaries in my Top 10. It's the least powerful but probably the most necessary since it goes into the whys and hows of the global financial meltdown, which most of us, including especially me, don't quite understand yet. The talking heads we want (Henry Paulson; Larry Summers) aren't talking, of course, but enough middle-management types, flattered to be asked, are. My favorite? Little Freddy Mishkin, tanned and suited up, who hems and haws through a series of questions, including one on a 2006 independent study he co-authored, for $125,000, for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. He called it “Financial Stability in Iceland.” This was just before the Icelandic economy collapsed disastrously. So now in his CV it's called “Financial Instability in Iceland.” When questioned on the switch, he responds with his usual grace: “Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing—if it's a typo, there's a typo.” Review excerpt:
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, a lot of which will be their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
9. I had problems with “The Ghostwriter,” particularly the ending, in which the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) figures it all out then gives it all up to his enemies, the faux-Bush administration, and dies two seconds later. It's as if U.S. government agencies are quick, coordinated and supersmart rather than the slow, clumsy battleships we know them to be. So I never thought this movie would make my top 10. It's the weight of it that finally won me over. It's the images that stayed in my head: the lone SUV, alarm blaring, on the ferry; McGregor next to the full-paned window revealing the dunes outside—making it appear he's half in the room and half out; the unsexy sex scenes; the investigation through GPS; the cold and the gray and the paranoia of it all. For all the problems with story, the feel of it was created by a true artist. Review excerpt:
In the 1970s, and in political thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got. In “The Ghostwriter,” the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.
8. There are two big reasons why “Black Swan” is on my list. Half an hour after watching it, I still had to remind myself to “breathe” because I'd barely breathed at all during the last half hour of the film. And I'd barely breathed during the last half hour of the film because director Darren Aronofsky, and star Natalie Portman, get you into the head of the main character, Nina, as well as Dostoevsky gets you into the head of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” That's the realm of novels not movies. But Aronofsky is making it the realm of movies. Review excerpt:
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina stole from her over the years. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see versions of herself ready to take it away again. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
7. I still think about it sometimes. What if the creators of “Toy Story 3” had not given us their deus ex machina at the junkyard and allowed the toys, our favorite cinemantic toys, to be pulled into the furnace? What if we had all watched the beloved face of Woody (Tom Hanks) melt away as if he were the Gestapo officer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? How much stronger the lesson would‘ve been about our wasteful, throwaway culture. Of course: the howls of protest that would’ve emerged; the billions of dollars that wouldn't have been made. Instead we got our happy ending. Andy's life goes on but the toys are eternal. They will never die. It's a bit of a lie, but an argument can still be made that the “Toy Story” series is still the greatest trilogy Hollywood has ever produced. Each film builds on, and deepens, the previous one. Review excerpt:
Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What the toys go through is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away. “Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both safe and useful. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz, and finally has to put away its childish things.
6. There's always a hint of unreality when one leaves a movie theater—it's as if you are waking from a dream—but I felt this tenfold leaving Chris Nolan's “Inception,” a movie which knows all about the connection between movies and dreams. And video games? Our inception team goes several levels into the unconscious of its victim and has to fight its way out of each level before surfacing in our own. Or is it our own? That's not just a question for Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb at the end of the movie, or for us in the audience watching “Inception”; it's the question in our heads as we walk the streets afterwards. Why is this level the real one? I guess because we‘re stuck here. Until we aren’t. Review excerpt:
There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has. Not bad for a summer blockbuster.
5. “A Film Unfinished” ran from August to November in the States, played in 16 theaters at one point, and grossed $320,000. What a shame. Everyone should see this documentary. It's not just about the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Holocaust; it's about what propaganda truly means. It's about what evil truly is. The Nazis filmed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the months before its liquidation in 1943. Why? Forty years later, historians realized they actually staged some of those scenes—creating scenes of comfortable and/or rich Jews. Again: Why? To hide what they were doing before they finished doing it? But hide ... from whom? And why film scenes of poor and starving Jews as well? The answer, when it hit me, hit me with a blow that both clarifies and sickens. Review excerpt (and spoilers):
The juxtaposition between rich Jews and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination. In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
4. “The Social Network” sizzles with intelligence, doesn't it? That's how I still think of it three months later. It begins with a tabletop conversation that Quentin Tarantino would slit his wrists to have written, goes into an all-night, intellectual, misogynistic bender, and doesn't stop. The first half is about the creation of a global phenomenon. What fun! The second half is a love triangle between three boys with Sean Parker playing homme fatal. That's less fun. If the first half is about getting ahead in the Internet age, the second half is about who gets left behind. Sorkin's Zuckberg may not be the true Zuckerberg, but Eduardo is us. Review excerpt:
The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then refreshers her page again and again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because we‘re social animals, and socializing online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.
3. “True Grit” is a movie without adjectives or adverbs. It just tells its tale. It’s not pushing us in any particular direction, it's just allowing us to ride along. The spectacle, if there is spectacle, is there in the main character, Rooster Cogburn, and in the language, most of it culled from Charles Portis' novel. But within its simple structure, its straightforward storytelling, the Coens make you feel things. You feel the violence of fingers chopped off and the heavy weight of hanged men. You feel the bark of trees and the biting cold of winter. You feel the power of a single gunshot. You feel the damp sweat of horses. Mostly, you feel the Old Testament logic to the world. As Mattie says: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Review excerpt:
Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his. This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)
2. You know how you hear, say, a political speech that moves you, and then the talking heads on cable news get our their knives and forks and cut it all up? That's how I felt during the Q&A for “Restrepo” after a Friday night showing at the Harvard Exit last May. Both directors were there, Timothy Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, and I was in the back row, still mesmerized by the power of this documentary; then the crowd, Seattle International Film Festival folks, got out their knives and forks. They wanted the doc to say what they wanted it to say. Why didn't it critique our Afghanistan policy? Why didn't it attack the Bush administration? They wanted it narrowed and defined. In the Stephen Daedalus sense, they wanted an improper art that is kinetic and didactic, and Hetherington and Junger merely gave them a painful ode to the fragility of the human condition. They gave us a tragic tale that arrests the mind above desire and loathing. They gave us art. Excerpt:
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
1. Am I too much a Francophile for reasons beyond Marion Cotillard? The French are now 2-for-2 on this site. Olivier Assayas's “L‘heure d’ete” topped my list last year (posted Dec. 31st!), while, this year, it's Jacque Audiard's “Un Prophete,” the story of Malik, a young, illiterate Muslim who survives prison, first, as assassin, and then as lacky and go-between for the powerful Corsican mob. It's a kind of Malcolm X story: deliverance, and ultimately redemption, through incarceration. Malik is a Muhammadian figure the way Cool Hand Luke is a Christ figure. He enters as the most marginal of figures and leaves a powerful one. But it's the moments of quiet beauty that ultimately recommend the film. Review excerpt:
The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me, such as Malik’s first plane trip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, but trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of a deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.
Movie Review: “The Town” (2010)
You can tell Dougie McRay (Ben Affleck), the handsome bank robber, will wind up with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the pretty manager of the first bank we see him robbing, because, while the other robbers in scary skull masks yell at her to open the safe, and quickly, causing her to keep flubbing the combination, Dougie, ever sensitive to the situation, gently puts his hands on her hands and tells her to “breathe.” We should all have such bank robbers.
Where did it come from—this sensitivity? Dougie’s background belies it. When he was six, his mother ran away from home and he never saw her again. His father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), is currently serving five life sentences in federal prison for killing a guard during a robbery. His sometime-girl, Krista (Blake Lively), has a four-year-old girl of her own (his?), as well as a drug habit. Oh, and Dougie was a good enough hockey player (“hawkey playa”) to make the NHL but had such a temper he fought with his own teammates and was cut loose. Claire sees a photo of him, the local star, at a youth hockey arena where she volunteers, and he just shakes his head. “I look at that picture and see a 20-year-old kid who thinks he’s got it all figured out,” he says, “right before he’s about to throw it all away.”
Not a bad line. Not a bad director, either. Affleck has written and directed two movies now worth seeing, and while “The Town” isn’t as good as “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s not bad. Word of advice, though, for the writer-director: Get a better leading actor next time.
Affleck, as actor, can be awful (“Pearl Harbor,” “Surviving Christmas”), but he can also be very good. Check out “Dazed and Confused,” “Good Will Hunting,” and, in particular, “Hollywoodland,” in which he plays George Reeves, the 1950s Superman, who winds up caught and trapped by his role. He’s good playing petty men or regretful men. But as leading man?
Admittedly it’s a tough role. Doug McRay is supposed to have the quiet calm of a leader, and we see the quiet calm but we don’t really see the leader. He’s supposed to be capable of sudden violence—beating hoods with bats; killing gangsters—but we don’t feel violence within him. His threats, when he makes them, sound hollow. Compare him, for example, with Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the gangland boss inside the florist’s shop, who keeps Doug in the game and in the town. He may be old, his arms may be shriveled, he may be in the act of trimming roses, but you still feel that this is a man capable of sudden and remorseless violence. He’s scary. Dougie isn't. He has arms like oaks, and tats all over his body, but there’s no threat in him, no killer inside him. The opposite. He’s the guy who can put his hands on the hands of a flustered girl and tell her to “breathe.”
His main partner, on the other hand, Jimmy (Jeremy Renner), is a dude you cross the street to avoid. Anyone else think of Cagney here? The short, volatile, Irish gangster? His ending, machine gun blazing as he’s rattled with bullets, has a particular “Top of the world, ma!” quality to it.
The story: Charlestown is the bank-robbingest neighborhood in the world, and these guys, our four guys, are good at it. So good they get a slightly immoral FBI agent, Frawley (Jon Hamm, also without the killer instinct necessary for the role), on their tail.
The trailer tells you most of the first half of the movie. Robbers use Claire as hostage; Dougie subsequently romances Claire, who doesn’t know what he does, or that he used her as a hostage. Jimmy, meanwhile, wants her scared. “Scared,” in Jimmy’s worldview, may equal “dead.”
At this point we have three questions:
- Will these guys get caught?
- Will Claire forgive Doug when she finds out?
- Will Doug choose Jimmy or Claire?
The second half doesn’t do poorly with these questions. Jimmy finds out about Claire, and he and Doug brawl about it, but it doesn’t get any worse. Claire finds out about Doug, through Frawley, and has no forgiveness. Her reaction seems real. She refuses to listen to his explanations and throws him out.
Finally, yes, they get caught, stealing money from Fenway Park after a four-game Red Sox-Yankees series. (The fun Affleck must have had writing that.) Well, three of them get caught—“caught” as in “dead”—but Doug, the smart one, escapes. Then he wraps things up neatly. He kills Fergie and his bodyguard (too easily, to be honest), then calls Claire one last time. He can see her from his uncle’s apartment across the street, surrounded by FBI agents, urging him to come over. She’s ready to betray him. That’s sad. But at the last instant she gives a verbal cue, one the agents won’t suspect, to warn him away. She cares. That’s good. He smiles. Me, I smiled at FBI agents so stupid they’d stand around in full view in a curtainless apartment while laying a trap. Your tax dollars at work.
All the compliments I have for “The Town” are in the negative. It’s not bad, not poor, the second half is not cheesy. Has anyone compared “The Town” to “Good Will Hunting”? Two friends: one a tall, tracksuit-wearing goombah (Affleck in both), the other a volatile shrimpkin (Damon, Renner). Plus a girl. Here, Affleck takes Will’s genius I.Q., halves it, and gives it to his character, along with the lead and the girl. Both movies are basically love letters to working-class Boston about getting the hell out of working-class Boston. Care is given to character, and story, but the ultimate goal for the lead is as inchoate and adolescent as an early Springsteen song. Just get out. Somewhere, maybe, there’s a girl waiting.
Review: True Grit (2010)
WARNING: FILL YOUR HAND WITH SPOILERS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!
There’s an irony to how well “True Grit” is doing at the box office—$126 million after four weeks, by far the Coens highest-grosser—because, and with deep apologies to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this is a movie that needs to be seen on DVD, and with the subtitles most definitely on. It’s not just that some of Jeff Bridges’ better lines are swallowed in a drunken rumble; there’s such richness to the language here that you don't want to miss anything. It’s so specific to time and place. Examples:
- You cannot have your way in every particular.
- I do not entertain hypotheticals; the world, as it is, is vexing enough.
- You have got very little sugar with your pronouncements.
People speak without contractions. They are precise. Their language is the language of those raised on the poetry of the King James Bible and little else:
- I felt like Ezequiel walking in the valley of dry bones.
- The author of all things walks with me and I have a fine horse.
- I will meet him later walking in streets of glory.
Most of this comes from the source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, but the Coens knew enough not to mess with it, as Hollywood levelers and temperature-takers generally do. You could say this is true of all of the Coens' movies. Each has its own language specific to time and place. Darn tootin’.
In the Coens’ previous western, “No Country for Old Men,” they upended the genre’s tropes—the hero is killed off screen, the sheriff, plagued by nightmares, retires, while the villain keeps on keeping on—and, at first glance, “True Grit” feels like a corrective. It feels like a more traditional western. It is, but those boys are still upending the genre’s tropes.
For one, the story isn’t set in the “west.” It’s set in Arkansas, and the Choctaw Nation, which eventually became Oklahoma.
More, most westerns are about lawless places getting law. The line is clear: there’s chaos and then, generally after the hero arrives, there’s order. “True Grit” has a mix more familiar to modern sensibilities. Yes, people are killed, and outlaws light out for the territory; but the law still reigns.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl intent on avenging her father’s death, uses her lawyer as both cudgel and bargaining tool with everyone she meets. Won’t give her what she wants? She’ll sic her lawyer on you. Won’t tell her what she wants? Her lawyer can help you if you talk.
The first time she sees Rooster J. Cogburn (Bridges), drunkard and U.S. Marshall, he’s in a courtroom, the prosecution’s witness, and a defense lawyer, an almost strutting popinjay, who in anyone else’s movie would be flicked aside by the hero without much trouble, gets the better of him. Cogburn gets off some good lines, some unintentional, and you can see him playing to the crowd; but in the end the defense lawyer confuses him, makes him backtrack and ruins his case. Cogburn is the man with true grit, who has, Mattie says later, “great poise”; but this is a West where words matter as much as guns. Maybe more.
Let’s count the instances.
It’s Mattie’s words, along with the threat of her lawyer, which finagle $320 out of Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) in a hilarious epic of bargaining; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with $100, which finally prompt Cogburn into pursuing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with her own true grit, and the true grit of her horse, Little Blackie, fording the cold waters of the Mississippi into Choctaw territory, that allow her to accompany both Cogburn and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been, in Mattie’s words, “ineffectually pursuing Chaney” for years for the murder (an assassination we would say now) of a Texas state senator.
Each of the main characters has his own vocabulary. Mattie’s words are always straightforward and come with a purpose: these words to get this done. Cogburn’s words are as rambling and shambling as he is. While they ride he goes on about his many wives, and in the midst of pursuit he makes promises to a dying man he doesn’t keep. It’s his very carelessness with words that allows the defense lawyer to run him in circles. LaBoeuf, meanwhile, makes grand, airy pronouncements like he’s his own PR rep. He’s forever in the midst of creating his own legend. “Never doubt a Texas Ranger,” he says at the end, when he finally makes good. “Ever stalwart.” He’s Hollywood a half century before Hollywood.
A word almost causes Cogburn and LaBoeuf to come to blows. “Sounds to me like you are being hoo-rahed by a little girl,” LaBoeuf says, and Cogburn can’t abide it. They accuse each other of being “bushwackers” and “brushpoppers,” and then they get on each other about the Civil War, only 11 years gone at this point, and the role of Capt. Quantrill, whom Cogburn served under, and who staged guerilla raids into neighboring territories—including an infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which 190 men and boys were executed. It’s a passing reference that suggests the vast history beneath the small story we’re watching. The Coens don’t bother tidying it up. You either know or you don’t, and if you don’t you can look it up. (I looked it up.)
Do I need to say Bridges is monumental here? Cogburn’s vanity is on display in the courtroom and Bridges’ lack of vanity is on display everywhere else. He hangs out in his filthy longjohns, hair askew, bloated stomach threatening to burst past his buttons. His one visible eye looks confused at Mattie, annoyed at LeBoeuf, determined and deadly in a gunfight, and mean when he’s on a drunk. His comic timing is impeccable: “Well,” he says, dead bodies lying all around, “that didn’t pan out.”
No vanity for old men.
Steinfeld is a find, wonderfully forthright and proper and heroic; Damon suggests the hollow man LaBoeuf is, while Brolin is all low brow and grunts. He looks villainous and frightening but takes a while to get there.
When, after all that tracking and pursuit, Chaney is suddenly there in the creek in which Mattie has gone to get water, his reaction isn’t frightening at all; it’s dimwittedly friendly. “I know you,” he says, pleased. He can’t imagine why Mattie would be this far out in Choctaw territory. He sees it as a wonderful coincidence.
In the gang with which he hooked up, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), again, he’s not frightening. He’s the younger, stupider brother, forever ignored, disrespected and left behind. “Take me with you,” he whines, to no avail. One member of the gang is a short pug of a man who can only make animal sounds, but even he gets the respect denied Chaney. Mattie needles him for this and almost succumbs to the same fate as her father. Because this is when Chaney becomes frightening and villainous. He’s a man who takes out the disrespect he feels from more powerful people, such as Lucky Ned, on less powerful people, such as Mattie.
Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor with her. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his.
This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,” the adult Mattie narrates at the beginning of the film. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Indeed. Mattie gets her revenge—she’s the one who shoots and kills Chaney—but in that exact moment, when she (and we) should be enjoying her revenge, she begins to pay. The kick of the gun propels her into a deep pit she’s been twice warned about, and once she stops falling she looks up as if from the bottom of grave. (One can’t help but think of her sleeping accommodations at the undertaker’s place in Fort Smith.) Then she’s snake-bit, and Cogburn takes her to the nearest doctor, riding Little Blackie through the day and into the night, and into death. That’s the first way she pays. The second way is with her arm. She wanted to travel with these men and so becomes like them. LaBoeuf, the man full of hollow talk, loses part of his tongue; Cogburn, who likes to pull a cork, has a missing eye. She and her arm. No one gets through this life whole.
You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.
Movie Review: “The King's Speech” (2010)
When I first saw a trailer for “The King Speech” (American trailer, not international), I was almost moved to tears. I thought, “Colin Firth seems amazing. Geoffrey Rush looks like he’s having a ball.” Then I thought, “Except it feels like I’ve seen the entire movie now but for the last 10 minutes. And I can guess those.” (Psst: The speech goes well.)
And Colin Firth is amazing, Geoffrey Rush seems like he’s having a ball, and the entirety of the movie is in the trailer except for the last 10 minutes. And you can guess those.
Once upon a time, trailers merely hinted at what a movie might be. It gave away a sense of the film, its genre, certainly, as well as first-act particulars. By the 1990s, it felt like the trailers were giving away second-act particulars as well. Now we get the whole bloody thing: first, second and third act, all tied up in a neat, two-minute package. For a sequel-mad culture, which only wants to see what it’s already seen, this makes sense. In this way, trailers become a kind of first movie while the actual movie becomes a kind of sequel. Audiences are never forced to deal with the unfamiliar; they go away comforted. As for those of us who still want to be surprised by story? We’re fucked.
(Aside: Among the differences between the international and American trailers, the one I find most amusing is the moment where Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), explains to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) why her husband can’t change jobs. International version: “And what if my husband were the Duke of York?” American version: “And what if my husband were [cut] the King?” Yep. We smart.)
The movie opens in 1925 as the Duke of York (Firth), son of King George V (Michael Gambon), and second-in-line to the throne after the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce), attempts to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. It goes poorly. Poor man can barely get a word out. Some in the audience look annoyed, some amused (these are the bad people), while his wife looks on with a pity (she’s good). Yet isn’t pity as awful a reaction as the others? Who wants pity?
Traditional speech therapists do nothing for him, and, as a last resort, under a pseudonym, his wife seeks out Logue. His office is in a dingy basement, he’s not much for formalities (he has no secretary), and he greets the Duchess of York with a handshake after flushing the toilet.
Informality is key to his therapy. He insists on calling the Duke “Bertie” (as the royal family does) and being addressed as “Lionel.” These early scenes—the clash between an uptight, stammering royal and an iconoclastic, unlettered therapist—are the best in the film. We get one good line after another from screenwriter David Seidler: My favorite exchange:
Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.
Lionel: Please don’t do that.
Bertie: I’m sorry?
Lionel: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Bertie: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel: They’re idiots.
Bertie: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel: Makes it official then.
What Bertie needs, of course, is not just speech therapy but therapy. As a child he was mistreated by a nanny, who favored his older brother. He was made to wear braces on his legs and forced to correct a natural left-handedness. Supposedly this last is a common cause (was a common cause?) for stutterers.
Firth does an amazing job making us care about this man born to privilege. We get a sense of how trapped he is by circumstances. He is, in fact, doubly trapped: by his role, which he can never escape, and by his speech impediment, which won’t let him carry out that role.
He’s not wholly a victim, thank God. He lashes out, often, but even in that lashing out we maintain sympathy. We see the correlation. What we don’t see, and what would’ve been interesting to see, is more of his life outside his attempt to correct the stammer. Yes, his father was impatient and demanding; yes, his older brother was dashing, slightly mad (for Wallis Simpson) and cruel to Bertie when he needed to be. Yes, his wife was supportive, and, yes, his children, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adorable, as was he when he stammered through a children’s story for them. But I still don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be a royal. The dailiness of it. You wake up and ... what? Who is there for you? What is the schedule like? How much of your time is your own? Any of it? All of it? Do you get to go to the bathroom by yourself?
Instead we get a relationship movie, along with the starts and stops typical of relationship movies. At one point, Lionel, the commoner, oversteps his bounds and they break up; at another, Bertie, the royal, discovers Lionel isn’t properly credentialed and they nearly break up. Etc.
Ultimately it’s Lionel’s job to not only correct Bertie’s stammer but his squashed ego: his belief that he doesn’t deserve his position. In this he is the same as any pitching coach from Little League to the Majors. He has to make his charge believe he belongs where he is.
This very personal story is set against a backdrop of love and war. The “love” (and the movie would definitely put the quote marks there) is Edward’s for Wallis Simpson’s, which leads to his abdication, and the coronation, in 1936, of a reluctant Bertie as King of England. The war, meanwhile, is Hitler’s, and then all of ours. In September 1939 it’s up to Bertie, suddenly, to rally the country. But there’s the stammer. “The nation believes that when I speak I speak for them,” he says. “But I can’t speak.” That’s the 10 minutes the trailer didn’t reveal: how the titular speech goes.
And he blows it. His stammer reflects on a nation nervous about war, which plunges the Brits into depression and makes them easy pickings for the Nazis, who roll over the country and the world, ending the idea of democracy and freedom forever. Heil Hitler.
“The King’s Speech” is a smart movie that’s fun to watch. I expect Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Firth, Rush and Seidler. I was moved by the montage of the British people listening to the speech, all ears turned, all with a shared purpose. Other than that, there’s not much to say. It’s all in the trailer.