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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3:10 to Yuma (2007)

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3:10 to YumaWesterns are a rare breed these days. Gone are the days of the 50s B movie where good and bad are clearly defined and where smart talking hunks sit in saloons or ride around on beautifully manicured horses. Make no mistake, the westerns of today, when made, either take a more understanding and contemplative viewpoint (Dances With Wolves) or else tell dark, gritty and graphically violent tales (Unforgiven). “3:10 to Yuma” fits roughly into the second category, though not completely eschewing mature themes.

Interestingly, James Mangold’s film builds on a concept that would be very much at home with matinee entertainment, reluctant hero Dan Evans (Christian Bale) forced to protect the villain outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), but twists and melds this into a gruelling, unforgiving, yet ultimately very human journey for both characters and their support as well. Evans is up to his eyes in debt for example, his water supply has been cut off and angry creditors burn down his barn. Only at the promise of $200 dollars reward for taking Wade to the titular train and so to trial does he take up the mission. This sets up fascinating relationships between him, his wife (Gretchen Mol) and particularly his elder son, who feels it his duty to follow and assist his father and prove himself.

However, the plot’s main focus is on the relationship between Evans and Wade, and plaudits must go to Crowe and Bale, both are superb. While Crowe lays on the charm, a continuously scheming and necessarily violent outlaw, Bale’s performance is one of restraint, his character very much a broken man (a U.S. Civil War vet as we come to understand) given one last chance and determined to take it. Naturally it all ends in quite a lot of bloodshed, but something about this man manages to crack between the outlaw’s toughened skin. The supporting cast are excellent also, Peter Fonda and Alan Tudyk deserve a mention and Crowe’s ruthless gang are truly frightening, especially front-man Dallas Roberts. And the movie’s great discovery may just be Logan Lerman who gives a very mature performance as Evans’ fourteen year-old son.

It is clear that Mangold (who previously directed a certain Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”) is in the driving seat, whether directing intimate character moments or large scale action sequences. Of these there are many, the ambush on the carriage near the film’s opening is thrilling! However one sometimes gets the feeling that it’s brutality for brutality’s sake – in particular the climatic shoot-out (what else?) is a bit too much, when the focus is clearly what is going on between Bale, Crowe and Lerman. I won’t spoil it for you but let’s just say Crowe pulls his trigger a few time too many and is realy a quite unintelligent way of doing away with a plot obstacle. That aside though, it’s all very stylish and the cinematography is quite simply exquisite. The landscape shots don’t need to be showcased, their awesomeness is just there, yet they, just like the storyline are unforgiving. One recurring image is that of an extremely bright sun, beating down on the characters, time after time.

3:10 to Yuma OSTMarco Beltrami who scored the film is one of those composers that has become stuck in an endless loop of cheap horror films when in fact his talent would reach into many more genres. This is one of those genres! The music he delivers for the film is perfect, an emulation of Morricone spaghetti western but with his own flair. Harsh guitars, both acoustic and electric playing rhythms with percussion, and those trumpet solos are just gorgeous. This is by far the best Beltrami score I have heard.

Overall “3:10 to Yuma” is a very entertaining film, thankfully one that is made for an adult audience unlike so many of other recent action films which treat you like a ten year-old. It’s also nice to see westerns making a small bit of a return. Of course it’s not really comparable to the great Leone or anything like that but it fulfils its purpose remarkably well. It’s just a shame that some people seem to rate a film along the lines of how violent it is.

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So after a bit of an extended hiatus I’m back at writing reviews again. Please feel free to leave a comment. You can also subscribe to my RSS, e-mail or follow me on Twitter. My next review has already been written and will be online shortly. Until then – all the best!

Dances With Wolves (1990)

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Dances With WolvesActors turning into directors is always a tricky subject, much like singers turned actors. This is because for every true master like Clint Eastwood who has brought us some wonderful films, there’s always someone who just isn’t built for the job. It is understandable then that  Kevin Costner’s decision to both star in and direct “Dances With Wolves” was met with some apprehension. Furthermore there was the subject matter: A western. Didn’t that genre die with John Wayne? The project, it seemed, was destined to fail. However Costner was riding on a wave of successes in the late 80s (“The Untouchables”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”) and it soon became apparent that his directorial skills were on par with his onscreen ones.

This was clearly a western of a different type. The screenplay was adapted from his own novel by Michael Blake and tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who, after an apparent act of heroism chooses to be reassigned to the western frontier of America, in search of himself as much as anything else. Finding his post deserted, Dunbar soon comes into contact with a wolf and the local Sioux tribe. However he soon realises that the Indians are far from the thieves many make them out to be but a people of laughter, harmony and peace. Friendships are formed and as Dunbar learns more and more about them and earns their respect he gradually becomes disillusioned with his white kinsmen. The Indians name him Dances With Wolves and as he finds love he decides to shake off the Union soldier altogether.  The tale of shedding one’s own values in favour of a culture more spiritually advanced is by no means a new one and has indeed been copied many times since (“The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”).

However what makes this “Dances With Wolves” stand out is in it’s sheer beauty, scale and ultimately its message. Costner has a keen eye for detail, a style some may call simplistic but here it works wonders. The spirit of adventure and the unknown is captured perfectly in the vast spaces of the prairies, a land as of yet undefined by white settlers. It is clear that the nomad culture of the Indians is drawing to a close as ‘civilisation’ encroaches and this gives the picture an idyllic if mournful beauty rarely seen in previous efforts to highlight their struggle for survival. Costner and Blake can do so much more than stage action sequences. But when action is called for boy do they let rip: From the opening firefight emerging from tense waiting to the thrilling Pawnee attack and climatic rescue, the action is every bit on par with the matinee serials of the 50s. The highlight is the spectacular buffalo hunt in the middle of the film. Amazingly (as one of the special features on the DVD reveals) this was done for real with Costner and stuntmen riding among a herd within an enclosure.

It is important to mention however that this isn’t only Costner’s show. With a running time of over three hours – and an even longer directors cut – it is possible for all the characters to be properly fleshed out. It is a joy to encounter the different Indians and their reaction to a white man in their presence from the wild Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the wise chief Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) to the inexperienced youngster Smiles A Lot, Mary McDonnell’s Stands With A Fist and perhaps the most significantly Kicking Bird played by Graham Greene. He is a thinker keen to understand the white man, eager to learn and becomes Dunbar’s most valuable friend. The fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota Sioux  with subtitles lends the actors an authenticity few other portrayals can match and the inevitably tragic outcome will leave many viewers heartbroken and hopefully reconsidering their stance in relation to present day Indians still living on reservation in the U.S.

Dances With Wolves OSTWho better to score a tale of romantic adventure than John Barry? Apart from his escapades into the world of James Bond (which launched his career) Barry has become a master of the style and “Dances With Wolves” is in many ways a culmination of  all his talents. The sweeping score perfectly captures the expanses of the landscape and the main John Dunbar theme soars whether played as a militaristic trumpet call of as a softer representation of the character. Added to this are two beautiful flute themes “The Wolf Theme” and “Love Theme” and wild percussion and horns to portray the Indians (mainly Pawnee but sometimes Sioux)  at their more warlike. On the soundtrack album the best cue is arguably “Journey to Fort Sedgewick.”  In any case this is most likely the best score of John Barry’s long career.

Far from being a failure “Dances With Wolves” turned out to be one of the best things about 1990 (OK, I was also born then…) and walked away with seven Oscars, two for Costner (Best Picture and Best Director, although he was also nominated for Best Actor) and one for Barry. If you seek a western that truly explores the meaning of the ‘West’ then this is the one you need to see. Although Costner has taken on other projects (“The Postman” and “Open Range”) he has not yet managed to top this. It’s an absolute  masterpiece!

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That’s it for another week. Please leave a comment and any feedback is appreciated. Feel free to subscribe to the blog or follow me on Twitter. Until next time.

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