Now, at long last, Oscar bait is hitting the theaters, and some of it promises actually to be good. I've seen two so far that I highly recommend. The first is "True Grit" (10), the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen. It's not so much a remake of the John Wayne-Glen Campbell vehicle from 1969 as it is a new adaptation of the novel that inspired both films. Not having read the novel, I can't really comment on which is a more faithful adaptation (though I understand from other critics that the Coens win on that score). What I can say is that the new film has it all: it's funny and warm and spare and colorful and, to me, inspiring in all the right ways.
To begin with, the casting is inspired. Matt Damon is delightful as La Boeuf (which he hilariously pronounces "La Beef"), a Texas ranger whose exaggerated pride makes him into a buffoon--until he turns out to be quite brave and true. Damon manages to make La Boeuf laughable while still imbuing him with dignity. Jeff Bridges far outdoes his Oscar-winning turn in "Crazy Heart" (the Coens have, of course, written him a much better part) as Rooster Cogburn, an unredeemable cuss who is half drunk most of the time and doesn't care what anyone else thinks, but whose unparalleled instinct and determination kicks in in a crisis. And newcomer Hailee Steinfeld shines as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the determined girl who hires Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer and fully intends to come along and help him finish the job. It took me a bit to decide how I felt about her clipped line readings--but ultimately I thought she perfectly captured the assuredness of a Victorian-era girl who has done her learning from books and also from observation that most adults don't live up to their billing. Her Mattie is determined without being cocky; she simply knows what she knows. She chooses Cogburn for the job over a candidate who comes more highly recommended, uncannily spotting in him what she rightly senses is needed: true grit.
The chief inspiration I drew from the film was its depiction of that rare and precious thing. It shows three characters who you wouldn't necessarily want on your side--an arrogant buffoon, a profligate drunkard, and a preturnaturally confident child--and reveals that they share in common a sort of focus that kicks in when it is most needed, an ability to suddenly know and do exactly what needs to be done, even if that thing seems and is impossible. There really isn't a way to describe it better than the film's title does, and how that quality manifests in these three disparate people is a sight to behold. When Cogburn springs into action late in the film to save Mattie's life, I wept at the beauty of it.
Though some may be disappointed that the Coens have omitted the cynical wink characteristic of most of their films (which I happen to love), I think they wisely chose to play this one clear-eyed and true. It's not that they have presented an unquestioning homage to the Western ideal; rather, they have presented the genre in all its stark beauty and its contradictions--the barren landscapes, the cold, the strangely precious-yet-profane language (a la "Deadwood"), the rough and even lurid qualities of frontier justice--as the perfect backdrop for showing an admirable quality rarely seen and rarely understood. I left inspired to fight another day.
I also recommend "The Fighter" (8), which is garnering lots of acting award nominations for good reason. It's based on a story of two brothers who are both boxers; the older of the two, Dicky, well-played by Christian Bale, is a hometown hero of Lowell, Mass., for having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and now coaches the younger brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg). But Dicky's crack addiction and a seriously screwed up family system, including mom Alice (wonderfuly portrayed by Melissa Leo), interfere with the success of Dicky's, and Micky's, efforts.
As boxing movies go, this one follows a familiar tread, still worth seeing, of a working class hero fighting for more than just success in the ring. But where the movie really reaches for greatness is in its depiction of the family at its core. Rarely has the intractability of a family system been so well portrayed; the movie demonstrates how Alice and Dicky are utterly convinced they are there to help Micky as "only family" can be trusted to do, even while they are in the very act of sabotaging him. Alice is always surrounded by a bevy of daughters who look and act as though they walked onto the set from the streets of Lowell. And we see how the love of a decent, though flawed woman (a lovable and very convincing Amy Adams) gives Micky the courage and impetus to break out of the system, and how relentlessly that system pulls him back. For me, it made for perfect Christmas Day viewing.
The story falls apart a bit at the end, where the family resolutions seem too easy and the boxing ending is too predictable to be as interesting as it might have been. Given that we're talking about a living family, I would have been surprised if the authenticity had gone the distance. Still, it's worth seeing if only for a group of really fine performances and some moments of recognition for those of us who've fought these battles and don't usually see them so well-portrayed.
For those of you who visit my blog, up to now I've been listing a numeric rating for all the movies I see. Once I start watching 2011 movies, I'll start adding a sentence or two about each. I'll keep sending the longer reviews by email as well. Always feel free to ask me for more on anything.
Happy new year!