Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Sherlock HolmesIt’s been a long time since Guy Ritchie served up a proper hit: The box office reception of his last film “RockNRolla” was less than lukewarm despite many positive reviews and could never match his success with “Snatch” almost a decade earlier. Whether as an attempted remedy or not, “Sherlock Holmes” marks Ritchie’s first true departure from the gangster flick (let’s discount “Swept Away” shall we?) he perfected. Well, not entirely. After all the underworld of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s London was every bit as grim and dangerous as that of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the cocaine-injecting Holmes of the novels has something bizarrely parallel to something Ritchie might concoct himself. Drug use is only and barely implied on screen however (this being a PG-13 rating after all) but the new Sherlock Holmes is every bit if not more eccentric than fans might expect.

It is 1891 and something mysterious is brewing in the British capital as the villainous sorcerer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is seen rise from the grave and soon schemes to take control of the empire itself. With the police helpless, enter Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his somewhat reluctant companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to try and stop Blackwood before it’s too late. Meanwhile the appearance of dashing crook and Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) with her own agenda threatens to derail the detective further. Robert Downey Jr., in a role that actually suits his acting persona plays Holmes as an utterly (or at least seemingly) catatonic mess; mind racing, keenly observing yet highly frustrating to those around him. As he can speedily predict a bare-knuckle fist fight unfolding, so is he grossly unhygienic and performs medical or “scientific” experiments on himself and his bulldog. Many of these apparent contradictions come across in a manner not dissimilar from Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – essentially far cleverer than he appears. Watson is the foil of course, Jude Law doing an excellent job of “playing him straight” against Holmes’ schizophrenic strains and ultimately it is their on-screen sparring that becomes Ritchie’s biggest attraction and is genuinely fun to watch.

Which is very necessary because the coils of a rather shallow mystery plot are soon to unwind as Ritchie switches to all out action mode in the second and last third. These sequences are once again good fun (especially a slaughterhouse with added kaboom) and stylishly caught through Ritchie’s lens but come up short on sustaining viewer interest. The final showdown atop a half-completed Tower Bridge seems particularly underwhelming. even though the plot takes one more turn for the better. There are more problems besides: Rachel McAdams’ character is hardly developed at all and it seems one of her key scenes (seen in the trailer) ended up on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, shots of auld-London (again the bridge) make little effort to hide their digital inception and for whatever reason are all rendered in very soft light, thus highly jarring against Ritchie’s sharp live-action work and the fantastic art direction. Thus while “Sherlock Holmes” is an entertaining view, it abandons many elements of the traditional tales and has hardly anything to substitute leaving it without any real spark to ignite it.

Sherlock Holmes OSTRounding out a good year for Hans Zimmer was the rather surprising Oscar nomination for “Sherlock Holmes.” And while the recognition should really have gone to his “Angels & Demons” score, the German maestro clearly had a lot of fun creating the musical sound for the film. Collaborating this time with Lorne Balfe, their score is an eclectic collection of odd sounds, headed by a fun theme that runs into a mad endless loop like Holmes’ mind itself. Guitar, cimbalon, banjo, honky-tonk piano and of course the violin are all used (or abused) in creative ways, incorporating both Irish traditional and gypsy characteristics that make this perhaps the strangest score of Zimmer’s life. The highlight is the monster cue “Psychological Recovery… 6 Months” in which all the action and thematic ideas of the score are explored thoroughly including a mutilation of the Big Ben chime tune. Sadly some work contributed by “The Chieftains” never made it onto the album despite contributing a huge amount to the tone of the film. But still, a strong effort from Zimmer all around.

Downey Jr. and Law make for a great duo but Richie doesn’t quite have tight control over the film’s entirety. The inevitable sequel (already set up by this film) is on the way and there’s a real chance that some of the many good ingredients might gel more easily next time out.

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Super 8 (2011)

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Super 8Though J.J. Abrams has long been a darling of many looking for a possible successor to Spielberg at the top of the Hollywood brat-club, his directorial success has been almost exclusively limited to TV pilots. As his re-imagining of the “Star Trek” franchise proved however, he is an artist with considerable potential and how better to earn your spurs than with an homage to your childhood hero and the great director himself? Kept under wraps to heighten anticipation, the look and feel of “Super 8” is quick to betray Abrams’  inspirations: the film is firmly rooted in his childhood and the Spielberg, Lucas and Zemeckis films of the late 70s and early 80s. So specific is the zeitgeist of the era that it is easy to remark that “they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.” The setting is vital indeed but Abrams and Spielberg (acting as executive producer, giving us the first Amblin film in years) are on the best road to prove us wrong.

Making a zombie movie during the summer holidays on their super 8 camera, a group of tweens unwittingly become witness to a terrible train accident. It soon becomes clear that this was anything but a regular train as mysterious events begin to grip their town of Lillian: Army personnel roll in to gather evidence, dogs and then people disappear and power goes out again and again. What was contained in those freight carriages and what evidence might be contained on that reel of film that captured the immediate aftermath of the accident? The kids begin to hunt for the truth as the gripping tale begins to unfold. Abrams’ casting is key and with mostly unknowns it seems he’s hit the jackpot for every single role. The focus is on Joel Courtney’s Joe and his developing relationship with Alice (Elle Fanning), both struggling with difficult family situations and together they provide the heart of the film. Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zack Mills make up the rest of the crew, adding a “Goonies” touch but providing much more than comic relief. Despite some typical Hollywood sensibilities, they are all entirely convincing throughout – their performances simply feel natural and we may well be watching the stars of the future (Elle Fanning is almost there already anyway). The adults, including Kyle Chandler who creates great dynamic with Courtney, rightly step into the background. Abrams wasn’t going to let anyone steal the kids’ show and their story is wholly involving.

The production design and keen cinematography (by Snyder regular Larry Fong) will immediately evoke nostalgia within those that grew up at that time but the film creates a great world for every viewer to feel into. Abrams’ direction is led by a sort of pure escapism that makes one yearn for those days of teenage freedom summer adventures despite the fact that onscreen events are anything but carefree. Indeed, many elements of “Super 8” far remove from kids-film territory, providing thrills, jumps and horror galore that will have you leaping out of your seat at several instances. And this is where eventually the film’s weaknesses do appear, namely when the plot requires the nameless terror to be revealed. At this point, Abrams can’t settle between homages to the likes of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” or building up elements inspired by his production baby “Cloverfield.” Settling on all-out action sadly leaves the last 30 minutes devoid of the glorious filmmaking that defined the first 90 and robs the film of the highest possible rating. The film thus meanders into predictability and genre generics when it could really have been something outstanding. Thus the denouement is somewhat underwhelming and while this leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste as the credits finish up, nobody can complain of not having been entertained sufficiently in the initial two acts.

Super 8 OSTAfter his Oscar win for “Up” two years ago, Michael Giacchino’s output has been somewhat lessened and his effort for “Super 8” is a very welcome return to form for the composer. Significantly, this score provides him the opportunity to meld a beautiful, heart felt theme for the children with his very robust action style that he perfected for Abrams’s films. The child identity that plays mainly to Joe and Alice is heard at the outset of the album and is a very fitting and memorable theme. Sweeping strings are dominant in many passages and as always with Giacchino there’s a hint of John Williams though that of course is a nice play on the maestro’s scores for Spielberg. Secondary themes are explored in “Aftermath Class” and action explodes on the album’s latter half in tracks like “The Siege of Lillian” where significant inspiration from the Cloverfield Overture are to be heard. Even though some tracks are on the short side, there’s a generous amount of score on the album and makes for an excellent listen both beside the pictures and divorced from them. Both fans of the composer and casual collectors will find much to enjoy here.

Reminiscences to Spielberg’s own works mean the film carries the heavy burden of comparison to some real masterpieces one it can’t quite overcome. “Super 8” is very well worth seeing even though it ultimately falls short of the highest order. They really don’t make films like this anymore but J.J. Abrams is an honourable exception to that rule of thumb.

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King Kong (2005)

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King KongHow do you go about trying to top the greatest film of your career? Never mind that said film only won 11 Oscars, made over $1 billion worldwide and is already considered one of the masterpieces of cinema. And yet after taking the world by storm, Peter Jackson turned to revive a failed project from his pre-“Lord of the Rings,” namely a remake of the film that he had seen at the age of nine and that inspired him to make movies in the first place. The 1933 version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray was revolutionary in its own right, completely changed the face of cinema’s visual effects and offers one of the most iconic scenes ever committed to film. A rather faithful tribute to that classic escapist adventure, Jackson’s take bloats the tale to epic levels, constantly pushing the envelope of digital technology and recreating the world’s favourite 25-foot gorilla and the world he inhabits one pixel at a time.

At the height of the great depression, megalomaniac movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) charts an expedition to an uncharted and deserted island to film an adventure romp. Chased out of New York by the studio executives and the police, Denham and his mismatched crew chart course for Skull Island, this last blank space on the map on a rusty old ship named the “Venture”. Last minute cast member is fledgling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) who jumps at a chance to work with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, looking dishevelled as usual). A love affair soon blossoms between the pair. Against all odds, Denham finds the island and the crew go ashore but soon find that it’s not so deserted after all. Prehistoric natives manage to capture Ann and in a Temple-of-Doomesque ritual offer her to the beast of the jungle – the giant gorilla of the title. Not content with leaving her at the mercy of this monster, Jack leads a company to bring her back, encountering all the creatures of the island that include dinosaurs and some very nasty creepy-crawlies. From an excellent opening montage of 30s New York to the drama on the ship, the film starts very promisingly. Indeed, by allowing over an hour of running time before Skull Island even shows on the horizon, Jackson gives himself a great opportunity for character building, humour and atmosphere. The Venture’s crew are a shady lot: Thomas Kretschmann’s Captain Engelhorn, Andy Serkis as Lumpy the cook, Evan Parke and Jamie Bell as a great mentor/student duo. There’s also an excellent turn by Kyle Chandler as lead actor Bruce Baxter. Indeed the opening act is full five star material.

However, as much as Jackson can showcase his talents at the beginning, most of Kong’s most interesting aspects are sidelined come the jungles of Skull Island. The director has decided on all-out action here but as the creatures and corpses pile up, the film’s flaws become more and more, and painfully obvious: The over-reliance on CGI yields some badly rendered shots (remember that this film won an Oscar for visual effects), the sheer number of VFX shots clearly just too much for the usually excellent Weta Digital. Far more problematic is the running time. Like one of Carl Denham’s safari pictures, the film simply goes on for a few reels too many. The middle section in particular sags under its own flab and even come the climatic Empire State sequence, the aeroplanes circle one time more than necessary. Drawn out like this, there will come a moment when every viewer realises the nonsense of what is essentially a love story between a woman and a gorilla. At that point, either nervous laughter or hysterical giggles will be inevitable. It’s a tricky situation because Jackson is clearly a geek in love with his material but unlike “Rings” he has let the fanboy within get carried away. It’s a huge shame because there’s so much to like about this version of “King Kong.”

Such as? Kong himself is well done, with motion-capture courtesy of Andy “Gollum” Serkis and great effects work, though it’s a fine line between human and animal emotion. The live-actors do well too. Naomi Watts, a worthy successor to Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jack Black too is clearly having a ball as the crazed Denham, a great tribute to directors like Werner Herzog. It is a pity that most of the great supporting cast aren’t given as much exposition later on. The scenes in New York also benefit from awesome production values and the “look” of the picture, dinosaur stampedes aside, is fantastic. In the end it’s just not enough.

King Kong OSTAt the eleventh hour, Howard Shore’s score was rejected and James Newton Howard was drafted in as a replacement with literally weeks to write a score to a three-hour film. The reasons will probably remain forever in the secrets vault of Hollywood and while Shore probably wrote great music, Howard’s replacement is amazing, especially considering the time constraints. Famously, the composer never met the director until the film’s premiere, the pair conversing through video chat, one in Los Angeles, the other in New Zealand. Though he cannot quite rival grand master Max Steiner’s epic score, Howard’s score overflows with character, providing a relatively straight action score. The music’s main themes are presented at the outset and crop up again repeatedly. Highlights include “Defeat is always momentary” which plays to Denham and “It’s in the subtext” which is a slowly building suspense cue that plays over Anne and Jack’s first kiss. The motif for Kong is a brass pattern, heard primarily in “King Kong” and again in “Something Monstrous…” The climatic cues “Beauty killed the beast” are simply numbered with haunting female vocals almost equalling Howard’s career high-point “Lady in the Water.” While it’s regrettable that Shore’s music was rejected, Howard’s score is among the best of 2005 though the Oscar remains elusive for the composer.

If only Jackson had been able to maintain the thrills and suspense of that first, sublime hour, this could have been a truly great film. As it stands, this “King Kong” is overlong and will remain a mixed bag for viewers.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesDespite all the claims that “At World’s End” would be the last of Jack Sparrow’s escapades, the promise of booty in these waters was enough to tempt both Disney and super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. After all, despite lukewarm receptions from critics and most movie-goers, the second and and third films in the series earned Disney in the region of a billion dollars each. And so, having dropped Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and director Gore Verbinski, the pirates set sail once more with Bruckheimer promising a style closer to the swashbuckler spirit of the original. Aside from “Chicago” director Rob Marshall, new crew members include heavyweights Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, next to Geoffrey Rush returning as Barbossa and of course, the one and only captain Jack. Far from a face-lift however, the end product reeks of a dead formula and will have eyes rolling with yet-another-pointless-sequel dissatisfaction.

Picking up with a loose end from “At World’s End,” “On Stranger Tides” begins with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) captured and brought before King George (Richard Griffiths whom you may remember from the “Harry Potter” series) in London, charged with assisting expedition to the Fountain of Youth led by the now peg-legged, wig-sporting and privateering Barbossa. Sparrow being Sparrow and the British guards being incompetent as ever, Jack escapes but instead ends up on “The Queen Anne’s Revenge,” the ship of notorious pirate Blackbeard (McShane) and his daughter Angelica (Cruz), who are both after the fountain as well, for different reasons. The fountain, it is said will grant eternal youth to whoever drinks from it. Along the predictable routes of the quest, there’s zombies and mermaids to be fought, Blackbeard’s temper to fear and Depp’s still damn good comedic timing to contend with. Penelope Cruz is without doubt the best addition to the cast; she’s a good counterpart to Depp and the pair would have considerably more chemistry if the plot permitted it. Your ability to tolerate their nonsense will depend largely on whether you found Depp’s Sparrow charming in the first place but together their interplay amounts to all the film can muster in entertainment.

The actual fountain plot feels extremely tired in its entirety. Even though he’s an excellent choice to play Blackbeard, Ian McShane’s role can never top Bill Nighy and with the exception of one clever scene in which six pistols are laid out, there’s no evil to be felt. What drives him, why is he so evil? This is what made Davey Jones and Barbossa so compelling and Blackbeard has nothing to serve up in return. A romantic sub-plot involving newcomers Sam Claflin and French model Astrid Berges-Frisbey as cleric and mermaid respectively is equally devoid of all life, never mind believability. Perhaps worst of all, “On Stranger Tides” never leaves a moment to breathe, it tries to pile action upon action, as long as it’s always loud, with plenty of crash bang, people will be entertained, right? All these points draw inevitably to the main x everyone will mark on the map (enough with the pirate puns already!) as to reason for all this mayhem.

Marshall has his hands full, trying to keep the huge, lumbering ship on course but can never muster enough style to inject a breath of fresh air. But then, the director was never the problem of this series. The blame must be decidedly laid at the door of screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. The pair have become entangled within the mechanisms of a genius idea they once created, their personal fountain of inspiration dried up. While “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” were over-laden with confusing (but nevertheless interesting) storylines, the fourth entry is more straight forward in its quest plot but the dialogue feels tired, the puns lame and what little drama remains serves purely to move characters between action sequences. These set-pieces too simply feel like a rehash, from an early sword fight, suspiciously reminiscent of the workshop fight in “Curse of the Black Pearl,” and event the fountain set has reminiscences of the Isla deMuerta. Where is a three-way sword fight equivalent? Where is an all-powerful villain? Where the indomitable monster? And where, oh where is any sense of adventure and pirating spirit? Whether or not this extra dumbing-down is truly the fault of Elliott and Rossio or if pressure existed from Bruckheimer and Disney we will probably never know, this is an assignment they (or anyone else for that matter) should never have boarded.

Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides OSTOne of the most offending aspects of “On Stranger Tides” is the original score by Hans Zimmer. Having provided a grand and epic score for “At World’s End,” the only word suitable to describe this music is disaster. Not only is it mixed at excessively high and headache-inducing levels throughout the film, it is largely a copy-and-paste job from the previous three. The much publicised collaboration with guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela to illustrate the latin flair, amounts a minimal amount of score and is extremely uninteresting. Blackbeard’s theme is what one can freely term “Inception” while the only motif of interest for the mermaids borrows heavily from “Angels & Demons.” Zimmer’s application of themes is entirely nonsensical in its rationale. Why exactly is the theme for Beckett or the love theme for Will and Elizabeth present here is anyone’s guess. To top it off, the album presentation features under 30 minutes of score complemented with several (and all terrible) trance and dance remixes. If you thought the rubbish at the end of the “Dead Man’s Chest” album was bad, think again. Even Zimmer’s most hard-core fans have complained about this product. Run away, run away, run away!

Yes, “On Stranger Tides” is just another pointless sequel. Sadly, even the worst “Pirates” yet sets up another sequel at its end that will probably see another film or being made. The box-office reception (though bulged by 3D prices) would confirm the necessity for this to Disney. But really, it’s time to lament and reach for your “Curse of the Black Pearl” DVD.

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Clash of the Titans (2010)

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Clash of the TitansJust because we haven’t had enough of sequels and reboots already, Warner Brothers felt it necessary to push out a remake of the 1981 film of the same name into a spring season desperately lacking in good action material. Not that the original adaption of the Perseus myth was much good either, but it is fondly remembered by some for Ray Harryhausen’s quite excellent puppeteering effects. For the remake, the monsters of ancient Greece would be created in the computer, and Warners appointed director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), assembled a cast with considerable talent and invested significant buck that included a late conversion to 3D to cash in on the post-Avatar hype. On arrival however, it quickly became apparent that the film would fail to fulfil even the lowest of expectations and come to represent the very worst that Hollywood has to offer. It is, to apply mythological rationale, a scourge of the underworld.

Perseus (Sam Worthington) is raised by the fishermen (Pete Postlethwaite and Elizabeth McGovern) who found him with his dead mother, unaware that he is in fact a Demigod, the son of Zeus himself (played by Liam Neeson). After they are killed, Perseus finds his way to the city of Argos, the population of which are angry with the endless squabbles of the Gods.  Angry at loosing the humans’ love, Zeus sends Hades, God of the underworld (Ralph Fiennes) to threaten the city. If the king’s daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), whose beauty has been compared to that of Aphrodite, is not sacrificed in three days, then Hades will unleash the most terrible beast he has created, the Kraken. After learning of his true lineage, Perseus leads a band of warriors that includes Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham to exploit a possible loophole in Hades’ plan and thus save the city. There’s a bunch of other stuff, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all just an excuse to cue one battle and action sequence after the other. Forget such worn out things as plot twists, clever dialogue or, dare we imagine it, character development, “Clash of the Titans” doesn’t need brains, this is about brawn, sculpted abs and overblown action. In many ways it’s masquerading as “Transformers” with mini-skirts, steroids and scorpions but on examination, Michael Bay’s flicks are highly intellectual stuff compared to this.

Not only is the action exceptionally brainless, as it’s presented without any cohesive flow, construction or narrative, the film presents a mish-mash of bits taken from different (and often more accomplished) films: The scorpions and their masters bear resemblance to the Oliphaunts in “The Lord of the Rings” while several gags and of course the Kraken are blatantly borrowed from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The Kraken may be a genuine feature of mythology but its implementation in the latter was infinitely more frightening than some of the shoddy CGI and green-screen work on show here. Furthermore, the film becomes an exercise in wasting as much acting talent as possible. Imagine the possibilities with two masters like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes on screen as arch enemies Zeus and Hades.  Similarly Sam Worthington, complete with buzz-cut and Australian accent delivers a performance that is so cold he may as well have been turned to stone by Medusa. Never, not once does he, or the screenplay for that matter, make any attempts at believable exposition. And Gemma Arterton’s Io is about as interesting as the lacklustre conversion into the third dimension. What, beyond the promise of a large cheque would force these actors to take on projects like this, is beyond comprehension. A disaster like “Clash of the Titans” simply isn’t worth wasting your time, because not only does it show disrespect for the original (a poor thing in any remake), it is in effect giving the finger to the viewer who was dumb enough to see it. After all, it made Warners over $150 million at the box office. There are dumb action pictures that are well made and entertaining, this is a dumb action picture that is badly made and the most unbelievable bore.

Clash of the Titans OSTOriginally set to score “Clash of the Titans,” was Scotsman Craig Armstrong who had worked with Leterrier before on “The Incredible Hulk,” and who was in desperate need of such a large-scale film to show off his talents. As is the way in Hollywood however, Armstrong’s music was rejected at the last minute, making way for yet another of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control offspring. Ramin Djawadi and a team of ghostwriters provide a score that is just as cheap as the film, hammering out the same sound prevalent since “Crimson Tide” way back in 1995. Quite apart from the fact that the sound of electric guitars (a “collaboration” with Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge features) and synthesised bass has nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece, this music is just a cheap and botched repackaging of a familiar sound, more headache-inducing than everything that went before with the exception of Djawadi’s equally obnoxious “Iron Man.” There’s no point describing anything about it, you can listen to “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and you won’t notice the difference.

To call “Clash of the Titans” poor fare is very much an understatement. You’ll be glad to know that sequels are already in the works so we’ll only have to suffer through the same again twice more. Somewhere in the film’s flabby middle, and in a small attempt to insert a witty line, Liam Cunningham is asked how old a certain creature might be. His reply: “I don’t care.” And neither will you.

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True Grit (2010)

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One could argue that the Coen brothers are essentially retelling the same story in every film they make. A crime that gets out of hand has been the basis of everything from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” yet whether they have it play out in snow-covered North Dakota or turn-of-the-century Utah, the pair continue to find new ways to portray it and more often than not land themselves praise and plaudits from critics, audiences and the Academy alike. To follow up “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan turned to Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, a tale that had previously been adapted into one of John Wayne’s most enduring roles. However, nails have long been put into the genre of the classic western leaving breathing space only for contemplative reflections or portrayals of harsh and unforgiving worlds. Naturally, the Coens’ “True Grit” falls into this latter category: It’s a western with all the idealised gloss chipped away, presenting the wild west as it truly must have been – wild.

When her father is murdered, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (new discovery Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring in the killer, a fierce criminal by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). In order to see the task through and to prevent the Marshall from simply disappearing with her money, the young girl insists on accompanying Cogburn. Also looking for Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is portrayed to be the pole opposite of Cogburn, namely the heroic cowboy of old, smooth talking and handsome. Bridges on the other hand is cruel and untamed, taken by old age and drink, after “Crazy Heart,” a role that is tailored for the actor. Rambling and grunting in the most indistinct of southern accents he garbles throughout the film proving quite difficult to understand. It’s a winning performance but even that is an understatement: “True Grit’s” entire cast excel, led by Steinfeld who can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with acting greats like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Her performance is the heart and soul but also the identity of the entire film as the story is told through her eyes. Her innocence clearly at odds with that of her male companions, Mattie Ross must quickly learn the ways of an unforgiving society. It’s a career-making role as much as Cogburn is a career-defining one for Jeff Bridges.

Plot-wise, “True Grit” is actually very, very simple but the means of its telling is masterful, the Coens are almost unmatched in Hollywood today. It’s as highly poetic a tale as it is philosophical in nature, told with their usual dose of dark humour within dialogue that is pitch perfect. The pacing is slow but never laborious, the audience allowed the time to take in the world and its looks. “Set pieces” like an early execution scene and the final shoot-out come as stabs of gruesome violence into a world that is filled with tension but at the same time very still. Coen regular, cinematographer Roger Deakins once again proves his worth for capturing the beautiful yet always harsh landscapes. Best seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the filmmaking craft, the film is a visual heaven to the nth degree. Somehow the cinematography and production design does hark back to the glory days of westerns and perhaps this betrays the Coens’ vision for the film: To tell a traditional western story but how it would actually have happened rather than how Hollywood would have portrayed it in the past. And in this they are of course much truer to Portis’ novel than the John Wayne version could ever have been. Love or hate (some people do) the Coen brothers, their ability to produce this kind of film after twenty years at the top of their game is wondrous.

True Grit OSTOriginally “True Grit” was not to feature any original music. However, after some deliberation with their composer of choice Carter Burwell, the Coens decided to use a hybrid approach. This involved the use of several old hymns that were adapted and arranged by Burwell into his own original score. It’s a very accomplished blend and the result far superior to Clint Mansell’s similar situation on “Black Swan.” Mattie’s religious upbringing is represented through “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” which becomes her signature and the film’s. The theme is performed with remarkable variation on piano and with full orchestra. For this film, Burwell has abandoned many of his experimental tendencies, making “True Grit” one of his most enjoyable scores ever. It’s a conservative approach but that is exactly what the film asks. Perhaps not technically “original” the score is immensely enjoyable both in the film and on album as well.

“True Grit” turned out to be the biggest loser on Oscar night with ten nominations an no wins, a fate it did not deserve. After the Coens swept away big with “No Country For Old Men,” it was unlikely that they would do it again. However, taking the film purely on its own merits, it is in fact superior to the eventual winner, a tale beautifully told in every way. It comes with the highest rating and highly recommended.

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Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

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Where the Wild Things AreThe live action version of Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s book, in development and production trouble for many years, finally made it to the screen in late 2009. For director and co-writer Spike Jonze, its completion marked the end of a very personal tale, the story of Max the explorer story occupied almost a decade of his life. For the rather short and almost completely word-less source material not only required expansion to fill a feature-length film, the sense of adventure, and spirit of the novel would be forever lost with a director not entirely at one with Sendak’s vision and the fertile imagination of a child. Certainly, Jonze’s previous projects, oddity pictures like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” showed offbeat character that captured the imaginations of moviegoers while at the same time remaining technically sharp and highly intelligent.

After being disobedient towards his mother (Katherine Keener), bright, wild and enthusiastic eight-year-old Max (new discovery Max Records) runs away from home, still dressed in his wolf costume. Finding a small boat, he sails out of its pond and out over the ocean expanses, landing on an island inhabited by wild monsters. After convincing them not to eat him and telling of his otherworldly powers, the “wild things” make Max their king and part of their lives. Led by the friendly and cuddly but easily hurt Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the fantasy monsters are themselves childlike in their behaviour, each one representing one of Max’s wildly swinging emotions from hyperactive exhilaration to deep hurt. Together the eccentric troupe stage a wild rumpus, dirt-clod wars, build a fort and all sleep in a big pile, at times having great fun but again and again disagreeing and eventually turning against Max as they realise he has no powers to take away all their sadness. It is by all accounts a twisted fairytale but one that is so incredibly charming we cannot help but fall in love with the ins and outs of these wild things, Jonze’s world expertly designed and a treat to look at.

Created with a combination of animatronic puppets for their bodies and computer generated imagery for facial expressions, the wild things are scary yet entirely loveable. All their distinct characters have been properly fleshed out to make the wild things island come alive in a way that is most true to Sendak’s creations.  The film’s real stroke of genius lies in Max Records however. As always with child actors, the lines between acting per se and real behaviour are blurred but Records impresses both through an excellent range of emotions and the sort of utter believability that never for one second wavers. Potentially quite scary for young children – as all fairytales are in essence – Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ extended plot is laden with metaphors about childhood, adulthood, freedom and responsibility that will have adult viewers yearn back to as well as contemplate their childhood in a deeper manner than before. Some of the film’s harsher moments are indeed disturbing and traumatic, Max’s own destructive tendencies as well as the destruction of his igloo and Carol’s miniature creation. The overarching sense of concern though is completely at one with many children’s world views – as excellently portrayed in an early classroom scene. Children tease out these fundamental and philosophical questions as we adults do, childhood innocence is something we perhaps misunderstand. Do not be deterred however, “Where the Wild Things Are” never attempts to lecture, simply to portray the pendulum of childhood emotions and always incredibly charming.

Where the Wild Things Are OSTThe film’s soundtrack consists of original songs written and performed by Karen O and the Kids as well as a score by Carter Burwell. Karen O’s vocals are very well suited to the spirit of the story Jonze is portraying, a sort of childlike humming that is memorable and likeable from the outset. Whistling, as well as light guitars and percussion make up highlights such as “All is Love” on the album. In the film itself, the music is occasionally placed too high in the mix, drowning up some of the monsters’ dialogue. Burwell’s contributions can be found on a separate all-score album. Despite containing some exceptional Violin and piano work in “We Love You So” and harmonic mystery in “Sailing,” neither the score nor the songs can never quite muster the same likability factor as the visuals and remains a minor disappointment. That said, the song album in particular may very well be enjoyed separate from the film and can function almost as a solo album.

It is impossible not to like “Where the Wild Things Are” and Spike Jonze has created a charming fairytale that will appeal to almost everyone. Some fans of the book may be disappointed at the changing of a key plot-point (Max is sent to bed without dinner as his mother calls him a wild thing), this has little impact on the film’s standing as an expertly told children’s fantasy tale.

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