Archive for the ‘Beards’ Category

 

It’s been over a year since I updated this page.  A lot has happened.  I’d love to say I’ve been doing all my writing over at Daily Grindhouse, but the truth is, I haven’t done all that much writing in the past couple years. Trying mighty hard to change that. Sometimes it’s all I can do to get up in the morning and go to work and be there for my family and do the bare minimum required of me as a human being. It’s been that kind of a stretch. But there have been several things I’ve written at Daily Grindhouse and even a couple other places, so I’ll get back on track about sharing them here.

 

First, I’ll post my reflection on the movie MANDY, which I ran on Daily Grindhouse today. I saw the movie on my birthday, September 16th, and then again two more times on the small screen over the past two months before I was finally ready to write anything. Now I did, and it’s the one thing I’ve done in quite a while that I feel remotely satisfied with. I said what I wanted to say. Now I’d love to know what you think.

 

 

 

At best and at worst, movies serve as emotional prisms. Movies aren’t just stories, aren’t just artwork, aren’t just moving pictures with music. Movies are the baggage that we bring to them. A movie like MANDY, all baroque flourishes and deliberate broad strokes, is particularly revealing in the way it refracts its audience, splitting light in all sorts of directions. MANDY has been rapturously received by several. That’s an authentic reaction. But MANDY may not work for others, and they’re not wrong either. They can’t be. I’ve seen MANDY three times now and while I fall far more on the side of affection for it, even still, I’ve felt a little differently about it each time. How can that be? Some movies — maybe all — have a lot to do with the people watching them. A person’s reaction to a movie can and will vary, depending on whichever self shows up at in front of the screen on that day, at that time, in that exact moment.

 

The plot of MANDY is easily described, by design. A lumberjack named Red, when not working, lives a hermetic but harmonious existence with his girlfriend Mandy in the mountains of eastern California, an existence that is upended by the arrival of a would-be prophet named Jeremiah Sand, who becomes fascinated with Mandy and orders his acolytes to abduct her. When she rejects him, Sand murders Mandy horribly and grotesquely in full view of Red, which sets Red off on the bloody road to revenge.

 

With a storyline that elemental, the specifics are all in the presentation. That’s why the mileage varies so wildly.

 

The movie announces itself more like a 1970s rock record than a movie. In crimson, uncredited words appear on the screen, underscored by an electric-guitar overture: “When I die Bury me deep Lay two speakers at my feet Wrap some headphones Around my head And rock and roll me When I’m dead.” It took a little digging for me to find the source of that quote. Sure sounds like something a frontman might yell out to an arena while looking out at the tiny flames of a dozen-thousand cigarette lighters. But that’s not the source. Those were the last words of a murderer, just before he was executed for his crimes. In reality, in Texas, in 2005. So this florid, subjective, surreal film is grounded in a very distinct, very bleak place, though that would surely be lost on at least 99% of any audience, as it was on me.

 

The music opening MANDY is “Starless” by King Crimson, again placing this film musically and tonally somewhere between prog-rock and heavy metal. The visual world of MANDY opens as Red is completing a logging job, with a notably processed shot of a thick tree falling as Red turns from it to head to the helicopter airlifting him off-site. Red is a smoker. He tosses his cigarette away. He wears a baseball jersey with the number 44 on it. Shirts are important in this film. Inside the helicopter, a colleague offers Red a flask, but Red waves it away. Immediately that’s a detail that registers.

 

 

Mandy is introduced lips-first, as she takes a smoke. Her face is introduced alongside her painted artwork, currently in process. Red arrives home, turning off a radio playing a Reagan speech which pins the timeframe of this story in the early 1980s. A stylized, sparkling blue title card announces this is happening around the Shadow Mountains, ‘circa 1983.’ The Shadow Mountains are a real place which may sound like the name of a prog-rock or metal track title. When he enters the house, Red announces himself to Mandy with a knock-knock joke with no real punchline. He’s played by Nicolas Cage, instantly recognizable as such. Mandy is played by Andrea Riseborough, less world-famous, sure, but still a prominent talent, who here is unrecognizable by contrast. She shows him the painting she’s been working on, and he’s impressed, though not particularly articulate about it.

 

The scene shifts to the middle of the night, with a bluish glow reminiscent of the scene-setting title card. Red and Mandy lie together in bed, not sexually but intimately, talking of space and of the Marvel character Galactus. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, already flush with color, takes on a new glow here — the movie is already parting from reality long before any of the characters partake in mind-altering substances. In the morning, Mandy wakes to the sound of an unidentifiable animal. She goes out to the woods alone, where she finds a dead fawn. Was this the source of the sound, or the result of it? Either way, Mandy sheds a tear. That night, she shares with Red a troubling story about starlings from her childhood. Between small birds and small deer, Mandy appears to empathize with the peaceful creatures of the world. She identifies with the animals who are often prey. At the end of her story, Red says only, “Oh baby, come here,” and embraces her. It’s notable that what little personal background we get of these characters comes all on the side of Mandy. We don’t know anything of Red’s past, save one detail from which we can infer plenty.

 

 

Mandy goes for a walk and a smoke along a mountain road, which is where she encounters the van driven by Jeremiah Sand’s Children Of The New Dawn. The scene is filtered red, and everyone inside the van appears to be varying degrees of stoned. The heretofore idyllic score by Jóhann Jóhannsson turns malevolent. The screen freezes on Mandy’s face as she passes the van and her eyes meet Sand’s, in a stylish flourish that could just as well have come from an early Tobe Hooper film.

 

The narrative is hijacked here by the movie’s villain, a la PSYCHO or MANHUNTER, and not just the narrative, but the filmmaking style itself. In an interview with Rue MorgueMANDY director Panos Cosmatos reveals Linus Roache was not the first choice for Sand. In fact, he was thinking of Nicolas Cage. For sure, Jeremiah Sand is a role anyone can imagine Cage playing, with relish. Cage would not be the obvious choice for a taciturn character like Red, and likewise, Linus Roache, a fine actor, is not who any genre fan would have expected to play a deranged cult leader. In some ways, his performance is the boldest and most inarguably creditable aspect of the film. Roache invests the role with exactly the level of histrionic high-low ferociousness that Cage would have done, and he’s excellent.

 

Sand sends his henchmen after Mandy. One of them, Mother Marlene, played by Irish stage actress Olwen Fouéré, first approaches Mandy at the convenience store where she works, posing as a friendly customer. Mandy mentions she lives “up by Crystal Lake,” the naming of which cannot be a coincidence in a film like this one. Meanwhile, another henchman, Brother Swan (also played by an Irish actor little known to American audiences, Ned Dennehy), uses an instrument called the Horn Of Abraxas to summon up fearsome figures from deep in the woods, who resemble something that could have resulted from a collaboration between George Miller and Clive Barker. These men are the Black Skulls, and the first time I saw this movie, it didn’t even occur to me that these characters WEREN’T supernatural in origin, which I think is probably the point. If MANDY is a film that exists apart from reality as we perceive it, the Black Skulls, whose closest cinematic precedents are the Gimp from PULP FICTION and the Plague in HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, feel like they exist from a reality even apart from MANDY, if that makes sense. They arrive by sound first, monstrous, and pull up on motorcycles and ATVs. Their faces are masked in leather and they snarl inaudibly. Brother Swan is visibly terrified by them. The Black Skulls accept a human sacrifice, taking one of Sand’s more expendable followers with them for undisclosed purposes, before proceeding to siege and befoul Mandy and Red’s sanctuary of a home.

 

The abduction is a horror-movie scene, and a violation of the sanctity of the three-act structure to boot. The movie’s inciting incident comes at the midpoint, if not precisely then intuitively. This disregard for convention, the kind of convention that is traditionally comforting, I think is the main reason some people are turned off to MANDY. Others call it pretentious, or predictable, and while I can’t disagree, I perceive a sincerity in the making of this film that allows me to buy into it whole-heartedly.

 

From here, the film takes a hyperdrive warp into psychedelia, as Mother Marlene “prepares” Mandy for Sand by dosing her with a sting from a [noticeably fake-looking] giant wasp. As Mandy reels from the intoxicating effect, one of the film’s most indelible, disturbing, hilarious, and temporarily gratifying scenes transpires, as Sand plays Mandy a track from his terrible folk album (where he sings lyrics extolling his own greatness) and then literally exposes himself to her. It’s disgusting and weird and upsetting, which is why it’s such a hero moment when Mandy laughs in his face, spurning his music and his speeches and his dick.

 

The victory is short-lived, because that’s when Sand and his followers burn Mandy alive, with Red bound and gagged and forced to watch the entire destruction of the love of his life. This is an odd moment to bring up the matter of costuming, but I’d like to point out that in Mandy’s final scene, she’s wearing Red’s “44” jersey, while Red is wearing a black-and-red jersey (not for nothing, the same colors as Red’s truck), emblazoned with the face of a tiger. Again, these small details register. Swan hands Sand the “Tainted Blade of the Pale Night” — these people have florid names for all of their belongings — and Sand stabs Red in the gut, vowing he and Mandy will see “the cleansing power of fire.” The viewer realizes we’ve already seen Mandy for the last time, since the Children of the New Dawn carry her out of the house inside a burlap sack, which they string up and set ablaze. The camera hones in on Red’s tormented face, all the more painful because Mandy has already been turned into an inanimate object — neither Red nor we the viewer get a chance to say goodbye.

 

Again, mileage may vary, but for me this scene works as intended, not least because of the force of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score — sadly, his last — which in this moment is equally sad and horrifying. If MANDY is a film that intentionally aligns itself with music, it’s impossible to overstate the heavy lifting this film’s score provides. Also interesting is how Cosmatos and Loeb handle the aftermath. The music subsides, and the lighting goes more “natural” and less apocalyptic. Sand and his people get into their cars and drive away, leaving Red tied up and bleeding, but alive. To me, this is how trauma feels, the way the most mundane observations of sight and sound register after one’s entire world has been altered forever.

 

Red frees himself and watches as the wind blows away the ashes which are all that remain of Mandy. He staggers inside, clad only in his tiger shirt and tighty-whities, and sees that the TV is still on. It’s playing what has already become MANDY‘s most meme-worthy (and in some quarters, maligned) element, the “Cheddar Goblin” commercial, for which Cosmatos recruited Casper Kelly, the absurdist mind behind “Too Many Cooks.”

 

 

Red mutters, “Cheddar Goblin,” and lies down, passing out. In a weird way, this was a relatable moment to me on par with the moment in this year’s HEREDITARY, the aftermath of the accident in which Peter realizes what’s happened to his sister Charlie and is stunned into catatonia. I’ve been there. I hope you haven’t been.

 

One more time, the very substance of MANDY alters as Red has a vision of Mandy in death — presented in a brief animated segment, which is something I don’t think we’ve seen since KILL BILL. And then Red wakes up. He grabs a bottle of vodka and still bleeding, storms into the bathroom, screaming gutturally in grief and drinking. He sits down on the toilet, still wearing only that tiger shirt and his underwear, and cries. This, to me, is the heart of the film. As I said up top, any one movie can be a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, MANDY is a story about a relapse.

 

 

 

Red goes to the trailer of his friend Caruthers, who is played by the estimable Bill Duke, an under-heralded filmmaker and creative force best known as a character actor, who I revere for his work in PREDATOR. Red tells Caruthers what happened, and says he’s come “for The Reaper.” All of this is bizarrely exciting because it suggests some odd backstory we can only invent for ourselves — how does Red know Caruthers? Why is Caruthers holding a weapon for Red? Why do these guys name their weapons? (And does that make them too different from the Children of the New Dawn?)

 

Another highly-stylized chapter heading comes on screen — Mandy’s name, in the form of red veiny lines that almost appear to be transforming the name into a beating heart. It’s also the movie’s title — here now, over an hour into the film, only now does the title screen appear. Red speeds out in his truck in search of the Black Skulls. It’s telling to note that what was for an hour’s time a dreamy romantic reverie and a phantasmagoric horror show has now transmogrified into MANDY in its most crowd-pleasing form, a full-on action-revenge picture, with action-film icon Bill Duke serving as its herald.

 

As Red tears through the Black Skulls in a fit of fury and blood, he cracks one-liners and absurdist Cage-isms (“You’re a vicious snowflake!”)  and snorts some of the coke they’ve left lying around their lair. Again, this is a relapse. The violence is relapse. That it’s the movie’s most entertaining mode is what makes it disturbing — again, to me. There’s a sort of release in relapse. It’s thrilling to rip shit up, even if what you’re ripping up is your own life, or someone else’s. It’s clear by now that Red has been holding back — declining to drink, committing no violence worse than cutting down trees, and choosing instead to love and live with Mandy — but the loss of her has given him permission to unleash whatever fury he’d been holding back. If this were an Oscar-minded drama about the struggles of alcoholism, we would not want to see Red drink again, but since it’s framed as a revenge picture, we crave the relapse as much as he does. And that’s upsetting. It’s upsetting in the pleasure of it.

 

 

Also intriguing is how Red is wearing the “44” jersey in the scenes where he tears through the Black Skulls. The last time we saw that shirt was on Mandy. Really, this is the movie’s least noticeable but most notable break from “reality” — how is Red wearing a shirt Mandy had on when she died? It makes no sense, unless you maybe want to consider that Red is now Mandy’s avatar, acting out the physical equivalent of the laughter she’d leveled at Sand. In other words, the only sense it makes is movie-sense.

 

After killing all the Black Skulls, Red makes his way to their drug supplier, The Chemist (Tom-Petty-esque character actor Richard Brake), whose warehouse includes a tiger in a cage. The Chemist introduces the tiger as “Lizzie,” and as Red glares at him, covered in the blood of dead enemies, The Chemist seems to get the message, and sets Lizzie free. (Remember Red’s tiger jersey?) This particular symbolism may appear to be peripheral, but it isn’t too subtle.

 

Red continues to travel north, and when he stops to rest, he has another animated dream, this time of a nude Mandy caring for a wounded and bloody half-tiger/half-man. She reaches inside his wounds and pulls out a glowing green diamond, and then Red wakes up. He continues on to his final battles, all of which transpire in a canyon which absolutely could have doubled for a FURY ROAD set. The most gore is yet to come. Red splits Brother Swan’s head apart to interrupt him when he references the quote, “Better to burn out than to fade away” (guess Red isn’t a Neil Young fan), engages in a duel of oversized chainsaws with Sand’s most formidable henchman that ends as you might expect, enters Sand’s triangular temple and beheads Mother Marlene, and crushes Sand’s skull with his bare hands. The last two victims both offer Red sex in an attempt to persuade him to spare their lives, but Red has no interest in anything but destruction. After killing them all, Red burns the entire place down.

 

Even during my first screening of MANDY, all this climactic violence felt inevitable. Though it’s never uninteresting to watch, not remotely!, the movie is long since out of surprises. That has significance. From that first absurdist knock-knock joke to Mandy’s harrowing story about the starlings, all of the mystery, all of the reward, was in the relationship between Red and Mandy. Once that’s destroyed, it’s not hard to predict where the movie will go. Without love, without hope, there’s nothing but death. In the final moment of the movie, as Red drives away from the battlefield still caked in blood so thick his skin itself appears red(!), he first flashes back to the very first time his eyes met Mandy’s — the film’s sole flashback — and then he has a vision of Mandy, looking at him from the passenger seat. She’s holding a cigarette and smiling. Many viewers will look at this moment as a last visit with an avenged loved one, a bittersweet moment, such as we get in films like THE CROW. That’s what I’d like to see. That’s not what I see.

 

In the film’s final moment, Red turns to his vision of Mandy and bares his teeth in something approximating a smile, but in truth he’s no longer capable. She’s gone. His hope is gone. The end credits roll without music, possibly only the first or second time the movie has been without it. There’s nothing left for Red. It’s over. This is why you fear the relapse.

 

All of that said, at the very end of the credits, you can hear starlings chirping. And after the credits, the final image we see is a portrait of Red, as done by Mandy and left on her drawing table. She’s not gone, not completely. There’s something left. There always is.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tourist 2010

 

THE TOURIST   THE TOURIST

 

 

THE TOURIST was co-written and directed by a man named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and now that I’ve written that name once, I’m already running low on my daily allotment of consonants.  It has script contributions from both Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, though you’d never notice the signposts of either writer.  Try to imagine a movie that falls between THE USUAL SUSPECTS/ THE WAY OF THE GUN and GOSFORD PARK/ DOWNTON ABBEY.  The supporting cast includes Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, and Steven Berkoff (Victor Maitland from BEVERLY HILLS COP!), so that could go either way.  It was based on a 2005 French movie called ANTHONY ZIMMER, starring Sophie Marceau.  There’s only one way to take a step up from Sophie Marceau.

They say that movie stars don’t matter anymore.  They say that SFX and superheroes have taken over, and people don’t go to watch people the way they used to.  If nothing else, THE TOURIST worked as a repudiation of that theory.  The movie made back double its huge budget and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy, despite not being even a little bit funny absolutely at all.  (The foreign press does love to tipple.)

People went to see THE TOURIST for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.  There’s no other reason I can imagine.  There are some illustrious names in the credits — John Seale shot the movie and James Newton Howard did the score — but between the look and the sound of it, this movie could have just as easily happened in the 1990s.  It’s a Euro-KNIGHT & DAY, but in 2010 people were more interested in Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie than they were in Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise.  That’s just how it shook out.  They wanted to watch two of the world’s biggest and best-looking movie stars take a vacation.

I know people who simply hated this movie, but I didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t into it, but I get it.  I mean, if you’re a super-beautiful movie star and you have the time, why not go to Venice?

The set-up of this movie is akin to a classic Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller, but if that’s the case it’s a lot more THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH ’56 than NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  Johnny Depp plays a supposedly-mild-mannered schoolteacher named Frank Tupelo (to be fair, that’s a great name) who is on a train to Venice when he is swept up in the gravity of a glamorous undercover agent in the form of Angelina Jolie.  Hijinks do ensue.

I do like that this is a movie willing to directly address the fact that one of its characters looks like Angelina Jolie.  Depp’s character sees her and immediately audio-auto-corrects.  “FUCK! …You’re ravenous.”  Lady’s got Johnny M’F’in’ Depp mesmerized.  I buy that.  For a minute, at least.  THE TOURIST does strain the believability of Johnny Depp as a hapless schmuck long past its recognizable limits.  It got to the point where I was focusing on the fact that Johnny Depp speaks in a perfect American accent in this movie whereas he has that weird Robin Williams accent when he talks in interviews.  Is he putting us on in real life?  I don’t think this line of thinking is where Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wanted our minds to go.

Crap.  I used up a lot more consonants.  Didn’t expect I’d have to do that again.

THE TOURIST isn’t a great movie.  All of its action scenes are pretty boring so the music has to work overtime to compensate.  There are a bunch of double-crosses and even a surprising reveal or two, but I kind of dozed through them and wasn’t much moved to care.  Some people hate this movie, but I don’t think it’s a movie to hate.  It’s a movie to forget.  It’s forgettable.  If you’ve seen the poster, you’ve seen the movie.  What was I talking about again?

 

@jonnyabomb

The Big Lebowski.  To watch it once is sublime.  To watch it twenty times is sublime twenty times.  To watch it with a full crowd is probably about as much fun as is legally possible within city limits.  I’ve seen it with small groups many times, but I’ve only actually seen it with a crowd once, back in 1998 when it was first released.  As the credits rolled, my buddy and I turned to each other and both said, “I could’ve watched that all day.”  The rest of the world has since come to share in our enlightenment.  In the intervening years, the Lebowski legend has only grown, and pretty much everyone with a brain and a soul and a sense of humor is in agreement.

It’s actually really hard to write about The Big Lebowski because it’s such well-trod turf and because it’s such an individualistic piece of work that its primary charms are in watching it, not having it described to you.  Of course, if you know your film history, you know that The Big Lebowski didn’t spring up out of nowhere — it’s a fairly direct takeoff of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (a distant relative of yours truly, for the record).  I was lucky enough in 1998 to have just chanced to watch The Big Sleep for the first time about a week before I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time.  I can’t possibly understate how
much funnier The Big Lebowski is when you’re in on the joke:  The pointed difference between 1940s Los Angeles and 1990s Los Angeles, the jazzy past versus the country-Western present, the labyrinthine mystery plot that one suspects even the screenwriters couldn’t decipher (and in The Big Lebowski at least, treat as almost an afterthought), and most of all. Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.

In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart tries to get a vital clue from running a pencil over the indentations of a notepad.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges attempts the same trick, only to find that his adversary has been idly doodling penises while on the phone.  That joke is incredibly hilarious on its own, but once you realize that it’s a spoof of a deadly-serious source, it becomes transcendently funny.

The Coens’ brilliant inspiration was to take a Chandleresque noir set-up, and then drop two amazing and ridiculous characters into it to see how they’d handle things.  First there’s Jeff Bridges as The Dude, about which plenty has been written and said but not as often the fact that the character is based off a real person the Coens know.  And then there’s John Goodman as the bellowing and verbose gun nut Walter, who again is a stroke of genius even if you don’t know that he is playing a real person with very little exaggeration.  John Milius is a writer and filmmaker who was an early confederate of Steven Spielberg and the 1970s film-school generation, who had a hand in the writing of the Indianapolis speech in Jaws and in one of the Dirty Harry sequels, and who made the vastly misunderstood and thoroughly awesome 1982 adaptation of the Conan The Barbarian pulp stories.  If you’ve ever listened to the incredible DVD commentary for Conan The Barbarian, you’d know that what John Goodman is actually doing in The Big Lebowski is a pitch-perfect John Milius impersonation.

Goodman.

Milius.

Like I say, The Big Lebowski is funny enough without knowing these little factlets, but it becomes a new level of comedic achievement when seen in that light.

Another great joke of The Big Lebowski is that for a movie about confused bowlers of conflicting political ideologies solving mysteries, it is as impeccably crafted as any prestige picture.  The photography by Roger Deakins is typically beautiful, the editing by the legendary Roderick Jaynes is crisp and sharp.  Just think back on those elaborately-choreographed and inventive Busby Berkeley dream-sequence numbers.  This isn’t lazy filmmaking by any stretch.  It’s as smart and as artistic as any so-called “Best Picture.”

The Coens are such an interesting case.  They work in two distinct modes: madcap and noir.  The first mode is exemplified by their comedies, a la Raising Arizona.  The second mode is the Miller’s Crossing mode, which dates all the way forward to their recent triumph No Country For Old Men.  (There’s actually a third, far more esoteric and personal mode, which includes movies like Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but that’s a subject for another day).  The Big Lebowski comes down stronger on the side of comedy, though it’s an intriguing blend of madcap and noir.  The stakes, as far as The Dude and Walter know, are real:  A young woman could be killed if they don’t deliver a ransom.  But the fact that these two guys are the world’s least-qualified messengers, who spend their private-dick downtime at the bowling alley, is what makes the movie so fresh and so funny.

For having said up front that The Big Lebowski is hard to write about, I sure have found plenty of words.  I guess it IS fun to write about.  But I’d still rather go watch it again.

The Big Lebowski is screening tonight FOR FREE in Central Park.

And I’m 24-7 over here: @jonnyabomb

There is a scene in THE DICTATOR that’s as crazy and as silly and as smart and as funny as you wanted the entirety of the movie to be.  It happens towards the end, and it’s not quite as long as it could be, and it isn’t really enough to make up for the dry sandbag thud which the rest of the movie generally is.

THE DICTATOR is funny and clever in fits and starts, but we expect more out of Sacha Baron Cohen than fits and starts.  I mean, don’t we?  This is the king of banzai comedy here.  Da Ali G Show, still arguably his finest hour to date, was genuinely transgressive and equally hilarious.  Note I said “banzai”, not bonsai.  I’m talking surprise attacks, not finely-tended gardening.

BORAT was both — a genuine surprise, even to those of us who saw it coming, and a strongly-sculpted piece of screen comedy.  BRUNO was underrated but also lesser, being a bit too similar in structure to BORAT to be able to genuinely surprise.  Now with THE DICTATOR, we’re back on fully-scripted territory, out of the field and on location with trained actors.  That’s not great, I guess, since we ended up with something closer to the Ali G movie than to the HBO show.

No comedian working today has made a career out of the unexpected quite like Sacha Baron Cohen. But at the same time, a pattern is forming.  We’re not in Adam Sandler territory yet, but there are some obvious formula elements creeping into the process.  It’s getting to the point where, with Sacha Baron Cohen comedies, we’re primed to expect characters with silly voices and accents, with a devilish smile and a hairiness and an enthusiasm to go full-frontal and an unhealthy surplus of (now-questionably lovable) anti-Semitism.  His characters foreigners obsessed with American celebrities, autocrats who surround themselves with sidekicks and love interests who are at once smarter and stupider than the men they follow and love.  The particulars may change, but the rest we’re pretty much used to.  Again, that’s fine if you’re Adam Sandler, who has been (sadly to one-time fans) generally putting in the bare minimum and reaping massive rewards for the trouble, but from Sacha Baron Cohen, we expect better, we expect smarter, we expect the unexpected.  It’s his own damn fault for hitting the heights.

In THE DICTATOR, what ought to be subtleties are bolded and underlined in large font.  The soundtrack cues are just one telling example.  Have you ever heard Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” used to sell a joke in a movie before?  How about REM’s “Everybody Hurts“?  Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On“?  Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5“?  They’re all here, together in comedy again for the hundredth time.

Maybe that’s just a pet peeve of mine.  Maybe I’m being too hard on a movie which is only trying to entertain, and which truly does have a couple sly political observations to make.  For example:  The scene where hot young actress Megan Fox plays herself in a scene where Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen has paid her for her… time may be played just a little bit too broad for my tastes, but conceptually it’s very astute, considering the fact that many of America’s biggest stars have almost literally whored themselves out to actual real-world dictators to collect easy paychecks for personal appearances and performances.

Then there are moments like the scene I referred to earlier, where Aladeen is traversing a wire in between buildings and has to empty his pockets to get across.  The increasingly odd objects he jettisons, and the pacing with which they’re discarded, make for a scene that proves what a dexterous physical comedian Baron Cohen is, and what a knowing collaborator director Larry Charles is for him.

The movie needs more scenes like this one, and less of the flat scenes between Baron Cohen and a mismatched Anna Faris as a neo-hippie ultra-liberal type.  The joke gere is that her unwavering gender politics can in their way be as monomaniacal as Aladeen’s dictatorship, but that’s not a joke I buy into.  I don’t think Baron Cohen or Charles do either; even in jest, you couldn’t possibly compare Rachel Maddow to Idi Amin, or even to George W. Bush.  Faris’ character may be irritating, but she’s never wrong.  So the joke doesn’t stick.

I haven’t done much specific plot recap.  That’s because I don’t want to spoil too many jokes.  THE DICTATOR does have a lot of them, and some of them are well worth your time.  I guess what I’m saying is that, unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s very best work, you can feel the gears turning in THE DICTATOR .  It’s too easy to immediately determine the concepts in the conceptual humor.  It’s leading the witness.  Usually Baron Cohen lets you come to the joke, rather then foisting it upon you.  Or else he totally bushwhacks you with the joke.  THE DICTATOR doesn’t feel as spontaneous as his best stunts.  You can spot the invisible net.  The movie is fine, but it’s not up to the high standards set by one of the world’s most nimble comic artists.

THE DICTATOR is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Pillory me for my insubordination over on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?

Bear!

Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 

@jonnyabomb.

True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.

  

  

As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)

 

  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.

 

  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.

 

  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.

 

  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.

 

  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)

 

 

  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.

 

  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.

 

  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.

 

  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)

 

  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.

 

  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.

 

  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.

 

  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.