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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 01:13 am

A weekend of holiday movies


Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld star in True Grit.

Dude trumps The Duke in Grit-ier remake

While most filmmakers would shy away from remaking a beloved American film, Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as actor Jeff Bridges, eagerly put their own stamp on Charles Portis’ True Grit.  Theirs is a more realistic and ultimately more successful take on the story than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version featuring John Wayne’s Oscar-winning turn. I realize some will consider this statement blasphemy and in some senses you could argue that comparing these two movies is akin to doing the same with apples and oranges. Yet different eras produce different takes on stories and the Coens’ more violent and grounded interpretation is befitting the audiences of today. It is far more honest in its treatment of its characters and the times they inhabit.

Though only 14 years old, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is nobody’s fool and has more sand than many men she encounters in Fort Smith, Ark., in 1880. There to settle the affairs surrounding the murder of her father, she hires Marshall Reuben Cogburn (Bridges) to help her track down the man responsible, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Though she’s been told that “fear doesn’t enter into his thinking,” her first encounter with the lawman is less than auspicious as he dismisses her out of hand. Still, Mattie’s tenacity impresses the Marshall and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who’s also on Chaney’s trail in an effort to collect a bounty on his head for having killed a Texas state senator. This contentious trio head into the Indian Territory to hunt down Chaney, who is rumored to have joined Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), an outlaw Cogburn knows all too well.

The Coens immediately grab you with the film’s epic emotional sweep and elegiac look at this bygone era. Suffused with period music, shot on wonderfully authentic sets and composed of long takes to let us drink it all in, the film is something of a time capsule in which we are given a glimpse of the past. While the Coens cast a romantic spell on the viewer during the film’s first act in Fort Smith, as the characters go deeper and deeper into the wilderness, they accentuate how raw and dangerous the environment is, which is reflected by the flinty characters with whom we’re keeping company.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of the film is its language. Sporting large sections from Portis’ novel, as adapted by the Coens there’s a formality to the dialogue that’s intelligent, poetic and a joy to listen to. Pay particular note to the scene in which Mattie negotiates with a horse trader early on, or our first encounter with Cogburn as he’s giving testimony at a murder trial. These common folks convey themselves with a rhythmic cadence and pointed, smart language that’s a wonder to behold and illicits a sense of nostalgia for a time in which such things were held as important.

It’s no surprise that Bridges and Damon do fine jobs in their roles. These two couldn’t give a bad performance if their lives depended on it. Bringing realism to their characters is in their bones and they don’t disappoint. However, the revelation here is Steinfeld who, like her character, goes toe-to-toe with these master thespians and holds her own. You utterly believe in the strength, determination and, at times, innocence Mattie projects and it’s to the young actress’ credit that we can’t take our eyes off her.

There’s a majesty at play in True Grit wholly unique from any other film released this year. The Coens have succeeded in making an instant classic in a genre that, like the era it portrays, has been forgotten by many. They generate a sense of longing for the old-fashioned ideals True Grit contains, a time when taking matters into your own hands and accepting responsibility for your actions was the norm as opposed to the exception to the rule.

Natalie Portman stars in Black Swan.

Swan, a compelling dance of madness

Director Darren Aronofsky has always gone out of his way to push our buttons. His latest project, the psychological horror film Black Swan, is no exception. Following one woman’s descent into madness as she attempts to conquer one of the most difficult roles in the ballet world, the filmmaker bombards the viewer with a wide variety of themes in a shamelessly manipulative manner that’s initially intriguing and at times a bit frustrating. While Aronofsky telegraphs his intent far too early, robbing the film of some of its suspense, the end result proves haunting.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young woman whose emotional development has been arrested by an overly protective mother (Barbara Hershey) yet finds herself on the back end of a ballet career that has yet to pay off with the degree of recognition her hard work deserves. That could potentially change as the company she belongs to is set to tackle Tchaikovsky’s Black Swan, an oft-done piece, but a challenging one for the dancer who gets the title role. That’s because she must inhabit two roles – that of a virginal princess and also her darker doppelganger. The progressive director of the company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is sure he can bring something new in his production but the key is finding the perfect dancer to build it around. Will it be Nina or the newcomer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whose addition to the company is more than a little suspect?

As Nina begins to crack under the pressure her mother puts on her to succeed, Aronofsky begins to pull out all of the stops in showing how her mind is beginning to fracture. Hallucinations, fever dreams and bouts of hysteria plague the young woman as she starts to see herself as a more sexually aggressive woman, thinks her reflection at times is that of Lily and begins to finally rebel against her mother in exploring the world outside their tiny apartment.

From Nina’s bedroom, which is befitting a nine-year-old what with it’s menagerie of stuffed animals and girlish aesthetic to the motif of blood that appears repeatedly, it’s obvious that Aronofsky is intent on exploring Nina’s delayed metamorphosis from young girl to mature woman. This is meant to mirror her role in the ballet, as is Nina’s emerging sexuality as she toys with seducing Thomas, anonymous sex and perhaps a bit of lesbianism with Lily. The Madonna/Whore complex comes into play here, as she’s required to be both in order to please those whose approval she craves. Unfortunately, in trying be all things to all people, nothing is left for Nina herself to relate to, as she is uncomfortable in both of these roles, leading to a psychotic break.

We’re never sure of what’s real and what’s not. Is she really making love to Lily or is this all in her mind? Does she repeatedly visit Thomas’ former lover and ballerina Beth (Wynona Ryder) in the hospital or are we simply made privy to her own fears about life after her career comes to an end? And what about the climax in which we witness a series of events that in the end defy logic but certainly make for a gripping finale?
I’m not sure all of the narrative pieces fit together, but that’s Aronofsky’s point. An examination of one’s descent into madness is only effective if we are put into the shoes of the afflicted, and the film does just that. Thanks to the filmmaker’s audacity and a fearless performance from Portman, Black Swan proves to be a gripping, shocking and haunting look at the fragility of the human mind and how defenseless we all can become to our fears and insecurities.

Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter.

The Fighter delivers an inspirational knockout

My fear concerning David O. Russell’s The Fighter is that many will dismiss it as just another boxing movie. But as Rocky is more love story than slugfest, this compelling biography of fighter Mickey Ward is really an examination of one man’s struggle to free himself from the toxic environment he finds himself wading through. While Ward faces many worthy opponents in the square ring, his greatest threat comes from his dysfunctional family, a sad sack crew of miscreants who force him to put himself on the line for their benefit.

While Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is more than able to defend himself in the ring, he’s a chump where his opportunistic mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and his crackhead half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale) are concerned. Working as his manager, she has no problem setting up bouts he can’t possibly win, as getting paid is her main concern, while Ward insists on his brother training him due to a misplaced sense of loyalty. However, salvation appears in the form of Charlene (Amy Adams), a tough, sexy bartender who falls for the big lug and helps him look out for his own interests.

It comes as no surprise that Ward has some success on the comeback trail and it’s here that the film almost becomes bogged down with clichés. However, Russell shrewdly constructs the movie, capturing a sense of raw realism between the characters as well as their hardscrabble environment (the film was shot in Ward’s hometown of Lowell, Mass.) so that we accept these later moments as genuine. Eschewing the Rocky template, Ward’s key fights are shot in much the same way that they appeared when televised. The result is a film that, while not shot in documentary style, at least doesn’t feel like a formula Hollywood product.

Despite their faults, we come to care not only for Ward but also for his extremely flawed family members, primarily because of the sympathetic, realistic performances delivered by the cast. Wahlberg has been unjustly underrated since he entered the acting game and hopefully his turn here will rectify that. He brings a determination and sense of sympathy to the character that has us pulling for him. Bale, who underwent another physical transformation for this role, is fascinating as he goes all the way in exposing the depths of Dicky’s fall. In fact, there are times when he steals the film from its star and the sparring these two engage in is fascinating to watch. Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is Adams, as she proves she can handle sexy and strong as easily as sweet and innocent. Her Charlene holds her own, giving as good as she gets with a dynamic piece of work. These three go to the mat for their characters and prove to be the difference, as The Fighter is no ham-and-egger but a true winner.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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