True Grit

Posted on December 22, 2010 at 8:05 am

In a remake of the John Wayne classic that is truer to the Charles Portis book, the Coen brothers have made their most sincere film yet, a western as spare and yet majestic as its unspoiled landscapes. Like all great westerns, it is a meditation about the forces that shaped the American spirit, the determination, resilience, passion for justice, and most of all the mingled pragmatism and idealism.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous films have had a preciousness and remove from their often-grotesque characters, a frequent feeling of ironic air quotes in their picaresque speech patterns and fantastic, even mythic plot twists. This time, they give us a sincere and appreciative portrayal of a steely 14-year-old heroine (remarkable newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to find and kill the man who murdered her father. true-grit-2010.jpg
Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a girl whose tight braids demonstrate her no-nonsense determination. She crisply negotiates the disposition of her father’s body with the undertaker and then demonstrates her mastery of horse-trading by selling back to the local broker the horses her father had come to town to buy, and, with a little extra leverage from a threatened lawsuit, getting some cash and a pony out of the deal. And so when she sets her mind to hiring the top tracker in town to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, you know she is going to be successful.
That tracker is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man who may too old and infirm (he has an eye patch and a drinking problem) and possibly be too quick to kill (he can’t or won’t recall under oath the details of some of the men he’s killed) to do the job. It turns out someone else is looking for Chaney, a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). The two men have no interest in working together and even less in bringing along a 14-year-old girl, but their mutual determination and stubbornness has them soon on the trail together.
The first version, directed by Henry Hathaway, was a bit of a miss-match and a more than a bit meta, with Wayne playing and playing off of his screen persona, pop singer Glen Campbell as LeBoeuf, and Kim Darby, then in her 20’s, playing Mattie. In this film, the actors are far better matched to each other and their roles. Bridges, whose most memorable role may be in the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski,” fully commits to the character, not caricature, of Rooster Cogburn. The asperity and resolve of the young girl are well matched by the man who may be undisciplined and ungovernable but who is also in his own terms honorable. It is these two, both who must continue after dire physical sacrifice, who represent the forging of a social construct that will support frontier society.
The landscape, spare, magnificent, and challenging, is stunningly photographed by the Coen brothers favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Production designer Jess Gonchor makes every shot look like a painting somewhere between Thomas Eakins and Grant Wood. Each shot is meticulously framed to add a transcendent dignity and seriousness of purpose to the story.

(more…)

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Remake Western

Jonah Hex

Posted on October 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

Josh Brolin plays Jonah Hex, a man transformed by loss in a fantasy western set just after the Civil War, based on the series of comics and graphic novels. The war is over in the United States, but it continues to haunt Hex, who rides the West as a gun for hire still wearing his Confederate Uniform.

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Hex has no friends, at least not any who are alive. He has one enemy, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who made Hex watch as he ordered his men to make Hex suffer as he had, to watch as he loses everything he loves and has to live on, scarred inside and out. After Turnbull burns down Hex’s home with his wife and child inside, he orders his men to apply a fiery brand to Hex’s face, burning through the skin to the jawbone. “Every day that mark will remind you of the man who took everything you had.”

But that physically and psychologically searing experience gave Hex something, too. “It left me with the curse of talking to the other side,” he tells us. And so he rides, feeling nothing but vengeance, a gunman for hire, haunted by the dead and answerable to no one but himself.

Turnbull steals the most powerful weapon ever made, a sort of pre-industrial age H-bomb, And President Grant (Aidan Quinn) orders Lieutenant Grass (Will Arnett) to get Hex to find Turnbull and stop his plan to bring down the United States government as it reaches its 100th birthday.

It has a trim just-over-80 minutes running time, so I’m guessing there will be a future DVD release with a lot of deleted scenes. But the lean story-telling works well for its taciturn characters and spare settings, beautifully presented by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, and well scored by Marco Beltrami and John Powell with assistance from Mastodon. The blend of history and fantasy, both tweaking and saluting the conventions of both genres, works better than the clumsy references to current concerns like terrorism and tea party anti-government sentiment. Brolin is as at home in the role as he is in the saddle. As (of course) a prostitute with a mean right hook and, at least for Hex, a heart of gold, Megan Fox has to learn that a husky voice and a smoldering look are not enough to create a character. On the other hand, in that wasp-waisted corset (reportedly a Scarlett O’Hara-size 18 inches in diameter) she should get an award for staying upright.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Crime Fantasy Western

Australia

Posted on March 3, 2009 at 7:00 am

Writer/director Baz Luhrmann is known for his surprises. In Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet , and Moulin Rouge! he created visual and musical mash-ups of classic and pop that achieved, sometimes apparently accidentally, some transcendence and that were just about always a lot of fun.

But this big epic is told absolutely straight and is all the duller for it. The moment we see the tight little walk of Lady Sarah Ashley (could there be a more snore-ific character name) in her immaculate little suit with the veiled hat, we know it is her destiny to meet a dusty cowpoke and Learn a Few Things, probably involving some earthy cattle, some frolicking in water with said cowpoke, some enlightening experiences involving earthy native peoples, an look of growing appreciation and approval from the earth-smeared cowpoke as he discovers that she has some spunk, a test of her mettle, and a new appreciation for, well, earthiness.

It all unfolds like a script that could have starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and probably did at some point. Three Aussies (one playing a Brit) have made a movie that gives us no special feel for the country’s landscapes, culture, and history. The one attempt to engage us with something meaningful, the authorized abduction of mixed-race children for government-run camps, has little of the power of the fact-based “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” Re-cuts are evident in a last half-hour that seems to end three or four times with two too many reversals. The setting, timing, and accents may be new but there isn’t one line, one plot development, one bad guy, or one adorable urchin that we have not seen before, anything that feels new, or real, or arresting. It’s always nice to see pretty people in grand vistas doing great things and falling in love as the music swells, but in telling the story that should have been most his own, Luhrmann has ceded his vision to someone else.

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Drama Epic/Historical War Western

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Posted on February 5, 2008 at 8:00 am

This movie may be about one of the most famous outlaws in the days of the Wild West, but it is not a bang-bang shoot-em-up Western. It is a broody psychological Western, a lot of peering out into endless prairie landscapes, as much Ingmar Bergman as John Ford, with a little bit of Heathcliff thrown in.


Tabloid headlines and general movie star-ness makes it easy to forget how good Brad Pitt really is. His performance here as Jesse James is meticulous and powerful. He shows us James’ charisma, volatility, and disintegration. As the other title character, Casey Affleck has a different kind of volatility. When we first see him, presenting himself to Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepherd) as something between a groupie and a stalker, it is clear that he is one of those dangerous fans who can switch from over-love to over-hate in an instant. He confuses fame with respect, law-breaking with courage, guns with manhood, and, most fatally, tolerance with acceptance.


The title sets out the movie’s themes. In some Westerns, the man who captures the notorious outlaw is the hero. But two words tell us what this movie’s point of view will be. Jesse James is “assassinated,” not killed or stopped. And the man who kills him is a coward. The usual definition of coward does not include going undercover to spend time with an outlaw who is known to shoot anyone he suspects of disloyalty. So, how does Jesse James come out the sympathetic figure of the title and why is Ford so reviled?


That is very much the focus of this film and we hear at great length from the overly intrusive narrator about how Jesse James continued to be a figure of fascination and even admiration while Ford, even though he spent much of his life literally re-enacting the night he shot James in front of paying audiences, found the fame he sought to be bitter. Somehow, no one thought he was a hero. And too many people thought he was a target. Like some perverse and deadly game of tag, being the man who made his name killing Jesse James made him a man whose death might make some else’s name next.


Strong performances include particularly fine work by Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother Charley and Paul Schneider as the ladies’ man of the James gang. The narration is ponderous and distracting. But the cinematography by Roger Deakins is breathtaking, the endless, wintry spaces evoking both bleakness and promise. Ultimately, however, the movie undermines its own point by making us, like those who have been enthralled by Jesse James for more than 100 years, wishing we could see the entertaining part of the story instead.

Parents should know that this film has typical Western violence, including shooting. Characters use some strong and crude language, including racial epithets and sexual references.


Families who see this movie should talk about why Jesse James remains an enduringly appealing figure. What is the meaning of the title? In so many Westerns, the bad guy is the one who robs and kills and the good guy is the one who catches or kills him. Why isn’t that true in this story?

Families who would like to see a more conventional (if completely un-factual) movie western about Jesse James should try American Outlaws. Other versions of this legend are in The True Story of Jesse James, or The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. There have been movies about Jesse James since the silent era. One of the most bizarre is Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Families who enjoy this movie will also like to see some de-mythologizing Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or The Gunfighter.

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Drama Epic/Historical Western

High Noon

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries Amy (Grace Kelly) and turns in his badge. She is a Quaker, and he has promised her to hang up his gun and become a shopkeeper. But they get word that Frank Miller is coming to town on the noon train. Kane arrested Miller and sent him to jail, and Miller swore he would come back and kill him.

Will and Amy leave town quickly. But he cannot run away, and he turns around. He knows that they will never be safe; wherever they go, Miller will follow them. And he has a duty to the town. Their new marshal does not arrive until the next day.

Will seeks help from everyone, finally going to church, where services are in session. But he is turned down, over and over again. Amy says she will leave on the noon train. Will’s former deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to help, because he is resentful that Will did not recommend him as the new marshal. Will’s former girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), now Harvey’s girlfriend, will not help him, either. She sells her business and leaves town. Others say that it is not their problem, or tell him to run, for the town’s good as well as his own. The previous marshal, Will’s mentor, says he can’t use a gun any more. The one man who promised to help backs out when he finds out that no one else will join them. The only others who offer to help are a disabled man and a young boy. Will must face Miller and his three henchmen alone.

At noon, Frank Miller gets off the train. The four men come into town. Will is able to defeat them, with Amy’s unexpected help. As the townsfolk gather, Will throws his badge in the dust, and they drive away.

Discussion: This outstanding drama ticks by in real time, only 84 tense minutes long. Will gets the message about Frank Miller at 10:40, and we feel the same time pressure he does, as he tries to find someone to help him. We see and hear clocks throughout the movie, and as noon approaches, the clock looms larger and larger, the pendulum swinging like an executioner’s axe. In the brilliant score by Dimitri Tiomkin (sung by Tex Ritter) the sound of the beat suggests both the train’s approach and the passage of time.

This is like a grown-up “Little Red Hen” story. Will cannot find anyone to help him protect the town. Everyone seems to think it is someone else’s problem (or fault). Teenagers may be interested to know that many people consider this film an analogy for the political problems of the McCarthy era. It was written during the height of the Hollywood “red scare.” After completing this screenplay, the writer, an “unfriendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted. But this unforgettable drama of a man who will not run from his enemy, or his own fears, transcends all times and circumstances.

Questions for Kids:

· Everyone seems to have a different reason for not helping Will. How many can you identify? Which reasons seem the best to you? Which seem the worst? What makes Amy change her mind?

· Why does Will throw his badge in the dirt?

· Do you think the screenwriter chose the name “Will” for any special reason?

· How do you decide when to stay and fight and when to run? How do you evaluate the risks? What should the law be?

Connections: This movie was the first attempt at an “adult” Western, its stark black and white images a contrast to the gorgeous vistas in the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. It was included in the first list named to the National Film Registry, established by the Library of Congress to identify films that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important.” It has had tremendous influence, and has inspired many imitations and variations. “Outland,” starring Sean Connery (and rated R) is a not-very-good attempt to transfer this plot to outer space. “Three O’Clock High” moves it to a high school, with a new student challenged by the school bully. Despite some directoral pyrotechnics, it is not very good, either. “The Principal” has another “High Noon”-style confrontation in a school, but this time it is the title character who must show his mettle. “The Baltimore Bullet” moves the confrontation to a pool hall.

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Classic Drama Western
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