Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Film Review | True Grit (2011)

The news that the Coen brothers were remaking True Grit, the film that won John Wayne his one and only Oscar, received a lukewarm reception from many moviegoers most of whom are probably a bit older than myself. Why remake a classic that features one of the most revered performances of a Hollywood legend like Wayne? Undoubtedly still resonating for some fans of the brothers' work is their decidedly hit-and-miss 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, to date both their their worst film and only other remake. Still, the Coens' resoundingly successful venture into the Western genre with 2007's No Country For Old Men gave more than a glimmer of hope. This coupled with the fact that they would again be teaming up with Jeff Bridges twelve years after his now iconic performance as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of their most beloved films, made calling the success or failure of True Grit a tricky task indeed.

The film tells the story of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to capture criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who murdered her father and has since taken in with a band of outlaws led by "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). She hires the services of US Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), who has encountered Pepper before, in order to do this. Also on Chaney's trail is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger after the bounty on Chaney's head for the murder of a senator. LaBoeuf teams up with Cogburn, and despite both men's protestations, Mattie insists on joining them on the hunt as they head into the Colorado wilderness.

Any fears of the film being either an unnecessary or unsatisfactory remake are soon quashed. I almost put the word "luckily" at the start of the previous sentence, which would have been untrue - luck has nothing to do with it. This is purely great filmmaking from every angle. To call this a reboot is also untrue, as the Coens have apparently gone back to the original novel by Charles Portis in telling the story. Having never seen the 1969 version I can't draw comparison between that version and this; nor have I read the novel upon which both films are based, so faithfulness to the source material is also not something I can analyse. But the film should be judged on its own merits, and to do that is to find a genuinely excellent film.

The film doesn't contain a bad performance; a wealth of fantastic turns are on offer here. From her first moment on screen, Steinfeld has a presence, maturity and gravity that makes it quite mindboggling that this is her first big screen outing. She makes the character of Mattie her own immediately, providing a unique yet believable balance between the innocence and youth of her fourteen years and the quick wit and indomitable spirit of an adolescent who has already experienced the harshness that the world can present.

Damon, too, continues to show why he is one of the most reliably talented actors of today, bringing a stripped down authenticity to LaBoeuf that it's hard to imagine many other actors of Damon's generation being capable of. LaBoeuf's arrogance and enigma make him simultaneously repellant and intriguing and Damon's performance expertly provides the balance between these two facets of the character. Damon clearly relishes the classic Western heritage his character is swathed in, whilst never falling into parody or cliché. It's also worth noting that Damon handles to perfection the change that occurs in the way Laboeuf speaks midway through the film. It would be easy to turn the character into a mockery of his established self, but Damon incorporates this change seamlessly into what he's already created without missing a beat.

Deserving of mention too are Brolin as Tom Chaney and Pepper as Lucky Ned. Whilst both characters receive relatively small amounts of screen time, what they do with the scenes they have adds to the all-round excellence of the film. The calculated control of Lucky Ned contrasts wonderfully with the recalcitrance of Chaney.

However, it is undoubtedly Bridges as Rooster Cogburn who provides the film's most memorable character. The veteran actor never misses a beat, taking the character of Cogburn away from the one-dimensional grizzled lawman and imbuing him with a complex and enigmatic blend of mystery and candour. We get the impression that Cogburn is a man who has seen and done a great deal throughout his life, and what we see is just a snapshot of an immense character. It is the fantastic performance of Bridges that puts across a character of such enormity, whilst at the same time keeping him firmly rooted as an ordinary man. Cogburn is by turns intimidating, admirable, pathetic and amusing - it's therefore no surprise that elements of Bridges' previous Coen incarnation as Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski welcomely seep through here and there. It's hard to keep a grin from your face as you watch Cogburn barely stay in the saddle as he rides through the Colorado woodland drunk and not to let yourself see The Dude, just stranded in a different century.

True Grit doesn't simply get by on the performances of its cast, however. The story is genuinely gripping and, after a slow burning first act to establish Mattie and Cogburn, the tense and gritty scenes just keep coming until the inevitable showdown that both stays in keeping with the film's authentic approach and doesn't disappoint. This is also arguably the Coens most beautiful film with marvelous cinematography taking advantage of the landscape the story is set against and camerawork wonderfully reminiscent of the Western genre heritage. The quirky Coens-style moments are not as prevalent as in most of their previous films, but that's not to say it's not there. Early scenes between Mattie and a horse trader are vintage Coens; another where Cogburn and Mattie encounter a man wearing an entire bear skin (complete with head) will surely raise a smile for its sheer absurdity.

True Grit is one of those films that is simply a joy to experience. There is no part of it that is not of very high quality; nothing lets it down. The story may burn ever so slightly too slowly at the start, but this is soon forgiven for its deep, rich characters portrayed with universal excellence and the masterful control and artistry of the sibling directors at its helm.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Film Review | Love And Other Drugs (2010)

Love them or hate them, one thing that is certainly true of romantic comedies is that you know exactly where you are with them in terms of characterisation and plot development. Of all the contemporary popular film genres, the rom-com is the most reliably safe. Directors and actors remain firmly on the rails to produce middle-of-the-road cinema that they know has a definite audience who paid to see a film that will offer unchallenging viewing and nothing coming out of left field. True, straying from this tried and tested formula can sometimes produce surprisingly pleasing results - just watch (500) Days Of Summer - but it can also hatch cinematic turkeys that can't even provide the vanilla comedy of their unreservedly formulaic cousins. And whilst Love And Other Drugs isn't a complete and utter disaster, it ultimately veers firmly into the latter scenario.

Set in the mid '90s, the film tells the story of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a salesman for drugs company Pfizer whose success comes from being one of the first people to sell viagra to medical practitioners. After talking his way into shadowing an influential doctor (Hank Azaria) Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a patient suffering from early onset Parkinson's. The two quickly form an almost entirely physical relationship, but this soon begins to develop into something more complex.

Technically, I suppose, Love And Other Drugs is a romantic comedy-drama (or "dramedy" for those whose time is too precious to say two words where one can be portmanteaued into existence) as it is clear some sections are there to make you laugh, and others are definitely not. One of the key problems in the film is that of balance; when providing comedy the scenes are simply not funny enough, or awkardly juxtaposed with pathos that makes you unsure of whether you should be laughing or not. Equally, when tackling more serious scenes, the emotion can seem limp - and at times almost completely absent - and the film quickly becomes tedious.

The reason behind this imbalance is that neither Gyllenhaal nor Hathaway's characters are very nice people, which makes it hard to care much about the things that happen to them. Soon after we are first introduced to Gyllenhaal's Jamie he is promptly fired from his job in a top-of-the-range electrical shop for unashamedly shagging his boss's girfriend in the stockroom. Receiving a punch in the face for his troubles, Jamie promptly reminds his irate former employer that he's owed a significant amount in commission and runs out of the store, flirting with a female customer all the while. Jamie comes across as shallow and arrogant from the start, which makes it very hard to care about - or indeed believe in - his emotional journey with Maggie later on. Gyllenhaal has proven in the past that he can deliver when it comes to challenging roles, but here his performance simply doesn't provide the emotional depth or connection with the audience needed to make his character either credible or appealing.

Anne Hathaway too struggles to lift Maggie off the screen, leaving her a collection of rom-com and tearjerker clichés that largely come across as irritating. The fact that Maggie is suffering from a disease rarely associated with the younger generation would seem a fairly easy way of generating sympathy for her; instead, Maggie comes across for most of the film as something of a self-obsessed bitch. Granted, suffering from Parkinson's at such a young age can't be easy, but there are so few moments in the film where Maggie shows even a modicum of care for anyone other than herself that it's hard not to consciously detach yourself from the character entirely. As a result of this, the handful of scenes where Hathaway does begin to bring some depth to her character's condition are rendered entirely useless.

With the two main characters so undesirable, it's not difficult to see why the story becomes tedious fairly quickly. After initially seeming like an extended fling, Jamie and Maggie's relationship soon moves into more involved territory (after much preening and self-obsession from both characters), but this shift is both hard to believe and hard to care about. By the film's halfway point I'd lost virtually all interest in their relationship: when Maggie begins to self-destruct, struggling to cope with the hopelessness of her incurable condition, I genuinely wasn't bothered whether Hathaway and Gyllenhaal's characters stayed together or broke off their relationship. The incredibly clichéd rom-com climax to the film, which seems somewhat out of place following the relatively less conventional format of that which has preceded it, might have felt a bit more disappointing had my attention still been held at that point. As it is, I wasn't all that surprised - it just felt like the filmmakers had given up hope on the film a bit later than I had.

Supporting characters are either achingly out of place (Josh Gad as Jamie's brother Josh feels like he's wandered out of a Judd Apatow film) or painfully underutilised - Jamie's sales partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) appears to be a character with a story potentially much more interesting and affecting than that of Jamie and Maggie, but sadly is relegated to the position of underdeveloped side character.

Considering Love And Other Drugs is based upon a non-fiction book, it's a shame that so many elements in the film are lacking in either dimension or authenticity. Love And Other Drugs has all the ingredients to potentially make it a refreshing and original take on the rom-com genre. But with misfire after misfire in terms of plot and script coupled with lacklustre performances by the leads, this doesn't even have the quick and easy bubblegum cinema charm of safer offerings in the genre. If there was a cinematic equivalent of viagra, Love And Other Drugs would require a lengthy prescription, delivering as it does a consistently disappointing performance.