Sunday, 27 February 2011

True Grit

I'm not a fan of westerns. Actually that's a little unfair, because I'm not sure I've ever seen one in it's entirity until now. I read somewhere that Star Wars - which taken as a whole and nothwithstanding the disaster that is The Phantom Menace - is my favourite film of all time, is a space western. Well, that's as maybe but having never seen anything more cowboy-related than the Dallas cheerleaders, I wouldn't know so I'm sticking to my story. I've never seen a real western, until now.

Indisputably, no amount of gunslinging, shot-swigging or large moustaches has ever convinced me to sit through anything starring John Wayne before, so it might be considered odd that I took an interest in the remake of his 1969 classic True Grit.

Until that is you consider that this particular remake is the work of the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. I am a fan of the Coen brothers. The Big Lebowski remains one of the best films I have ever seen, and my appreciation of more recent efforts like No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading made this a must-see. In addition, I'd been promised that this was a story much closer to that in the original novel than the one played out in Wayne's movie. No, I haven't read the book either but everyone knows that books are better than films, right?

Like Lebowski, True Grit stars Jeff Bridges. Here he plays Rooster Cogburn, a washed up old Marshall who somehow finds himself on a mission to avenge the death of a young girl's father. He engages in this potentially deadly pursuit despite being drunk, unconscious or both regularly throughout. His inoxication, added to his Texan drawl make him rather difficult to understand at times but that's ok because he has help in moving the plot along.

At just 14 years of age Hailee Steinfeld produces a stunning performance as the recently bereaved Mattie Ross. She weighs in with a bit of narration too. Her Oscar-worthy efforts are certainly helped by a snappy and witty script, less quirky than Coen brothers fans may be used to but no less entertaining for that. Yet this should not detract from Steinfeld's excellent endeavours, stealing almost every scene from the acting powerhouse that is Bridges, himself delivering another sterling effort as Cogburn. Academy gongs are handed out just hours after the time of writing, and fingers are firmly crossed for both. Bridges is up for Best Actor, while if there is a better candidate for Supporting Actress than Steinfeld then her's is a performance I need to see.

In support are Matt Damon as rival Chaney-chaser Laboeuf and Josh Brolin in the all too brief but wonderfully dastardly role of Chaney. Damon's Laboeuf keeps you guessing from first sight to last, and is in posession of a moustache that is as impressive as anything else his character manages to contribute. Brolin is criminally under-used but as such retains an air of mystery which adds to the intrigue. This might slightly irk those who need a little more screen time in order to truly invest their hatred in a character, but for this viewer it was enough to know what he had done. I couldn't help but get dragged along by Bridges and Steinfeld in any case.

At bug-bear time I do wish the film would have ended a little sooner than it did. The ending seems somehow tacked on, with some unecessary sadness thrown in for what was obviously a stab at prolonging the drama. If it ain't broke though, cowboy. Or something.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Fighter

I can't present it as fact, but I'd venture to suggest that all men my age love Rocky films. Before it all got a bit silly, Sylvester Stallone's original rags to riches tale was an inspiration for a generation. Go on, admit it, at the very least you left the cinema belting out the famous theme tune and shadow boxing with your mates.

'The Fighter' could do the same for this generation, but I had hoped for and began to expect so much more. The film charts the true-life rise to prominence of former Light Welterweight champion Micky Ward, who battled all manner of adversities thrown at him by his dingbat family to beat Liverpool's Shea Neary to secure the WBU crown. Yet having fulfilled that aim so beautifully to a point, the film then takes a worrying diversion down Rocky Road. From musical training montages and unrealistic climactic fight scenes, right down to the freeze-framed moment of glory, 'The Fighter' decides at some point that it must pay homage to it's 1976 Oscar-winning predecessor.

And it's unwise to have done so. The better part of this film is a moving, well acted, genuinely human story. While Mark Wahlberg delivers a confident performance as Ward, acting honours are carried off serenely by Christian Bale. The Batman madman turns in a fully believable performance as Ward's half-brother Dicky Ecklund, himself a former fighter. Ecklund's bitterness at having failed to build on knocking down the great Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight he would go on to lose lead him to a life of crack addiction and violent crime. As such, the story is as much his as Micky's. His is the real tragedy.

All of which personality weaknesses mean that as Micky's trainer, Dicky continually drags his brother down with him. He fails to turn up for sessions and promotes impossible fights against men two stones heavier, yet Micky sticks by him for far longer than this viewer was comfortable with. There's further family interference from the pair's mother Alice, who calls herself Micky's manager but is seemingly as manipulative and selfish as Dicky. It's here that the film really starts to examine it's central theme, that of the importance of family and the moral dilemmas that can ensue between pleasing them and doing what is best for oneself.

Pulling Micky in the other direction is girlfriend Charlene, played more than adequately by Amy Adams, of whom there are at least two gratuitous but potentially prize-wininng posteria shots. Notwithstanding that, you are very much in her corner as she struggles to prise her man out of the clutches of the increasingly manic Dicky, Alice and a gaggle of trailer-park trash sisters who make The Simpsons' Patti and Selma look like The Corrs.

Ward's career never really kicked on from his dramatic victory over Neary, though he went on to take part in three epic bouts with Arturo Gatti between 2001 and 2003. In many ways his fate mirrors that of this film, never quite hitting the heights that it could have had it shown a little more focus. Perhaps the director was persistently bothered by some Dicky Ecklund-esque screenwriter, persuading him to take the more sensational path to Box Office glory.