Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the old saying goes. But what about in wolves’ dens? It’s a question I never knew I had. Just one of many reasons why THE GREY, the new thriller from co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, is such an uncommon and splendid achievement is that it asks (and answers) that question.

I had been sold on this movie from the minute I was made aware that it was to be a survival drama where the great actor Liam Neeson faces off against a pack of hungry wolves. “Herman Melville meets Jack London meets Hemingway meets wolves meets Liam Neeson’s fists.”  That movie would have been just fine.  But this movie is twice as good.  It’s got all the thrills and chills you could hope and expect out of that brilliantly direct premise — but on top of that, THE GREY is one of the more profound, dynamic, and uncompromising illustrations of existentialism I have seen on a movie screen in quite a while. This film goes deep — like “straight to the bone, through the ribcage, all the way through to the soul” deep.

For those of us who have been starving for brutal, bruising, uncompromising American cinema, THE GREY is proof of life.

The Grey (2012)

That was what I had started to write in January 2012. Here’s what I finally wrote about the movie in December for Daily Grindhouse:

THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared.  I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart.  For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.

The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear.  The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible.  And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class.  I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em.  I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.

I was lucky enough to see THE GREY a month early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public.  Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the simplistic and reductive “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene.  Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely.  Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying.  And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point.  First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect.  But more importantly:  The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.

Think about the title.  Did you look at the wolves in that movie?  Didn’t look all that gray to me.  They looked almost black.  They blended in and out of that night with ease.  These aren’t real-world wolves.  These are something else.  The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass.  In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves.  This is a movie about mortality.

The Grey

Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care.  Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered.  (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.)  This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life.  That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.

There are also personal reasons.  I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime.  Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest.  I’ve been living with death.  This movie is what that feels like.  Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea.  The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do?  Pray to God?  Good luck there.  Worth a try.  Maybe He answers your prayers.  Maybe He doesn’t answer.  Probably he doesn’t answer.  Now you’ve got a choice to make.  Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.

“Fuck it.  I’ll do it myself.”  That isn’t a renunciation.  That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision.  This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them.  I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.

The Grey (2012)

For further reading:

My Top Ten Of 2012

THE A-TEAM

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

@jonnyabomb

AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

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And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, then congratulations!  You’ve seen the greatest movie ever.  But even if you’ve seen every Western that Sergio Leone made (which you really ought to), you’ve still only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns.  Another Sergio – surname Corbucci – made some of the best-regarded of those movies.

Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE is about a mute gunslinger nicknamed “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant, maybe not a household name but a terrific actor and still starring in major movies at 82), who tries to help a small community who have been besieged by a band of vicious criminals, led by the cooly genocidal bounty hunter “Loco”, played by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski.  Loco collects dead bodies like a hunter collects pelts, while Silence only kills in self-defense – to be fair, he does provoke a lot of dickheads to draw down.  That way it’s legal.  Silence kills bad guys.  Loco is the worst guy.  Inevitably they’re going to meet up.  Sounds like a movie we may have seen a few times before, right?

Not quite.

The main element that drew me to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when I first saw it, the element that got me into Italian Westerns for life, and the element that THE GREAT SILENCE has in abundance, is the otherworldly quality of it all.  There’s a beautifully weird disconnect that happens when Italian filmmakers use international actors to shoot stories about the American West in (usually) Spain.  THE GREAT SILENCE is one Italian Western that doubles down on the otherworldliness.  The story takes place in Utah, on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere.  The characters are bundled up in layers of animal hides, brown and grey spots in an oppressive blanket of whiteness.  And the score by Ennio Morricone is one of the most haunting you’ll ever hear, even by the haunting standards set by the maestro.

THE GREAT SILENCE will stick in your guts, and that’s good because it leaves you with a few things to think about.  Corbucci wasn’t the most political of Italian-Western directors (that’d be the third Sergio, Sollima), but there is some clear subtext here if you’re interested in looking for it.  It may or may not mean much that the voiceless hero is a Frenchman – maybe Trintignant was just plain the best guy for the job – but I’d say it certainly means something that a blond, blue-eyed German is the monster of the piece, and Loco’s every action in this film bear out that hunch.  His monstrousness is familiar, is all I’m saying.

Moreover, it says plenty that the romantic interest, Pauline the vengeful widow who sets Silence on his collision course with Loco, who is the man who killed her husband, is a black woman – Vonetta McGee, who went on to star in several grindhouse-friendly films including BLACULA,DETROIT 9000, andSHAFT IN AFRICA, and in my well-educated opinion is only second to Claudia Cardinale in the ranks of most beautiful women ever to headline a “spaghetti” Western.  Race isn’t an issue to Silence, who proves his open mind by engaging in probably one of the earliest examples of interracial love scenes on film, but it most certainly is to Loco, who, in addition to his many other crimes, is blatantly racist.  Corbucci couldn’t be drawing the line between good and evil any more clearly, which is why the movie ultimately becomes quite literally a punch in the heart zone.

Non-spoiler warning: THE GREAT SILENCE has probably THE down ending of all time.  I’m not going to get into it, but trust me on this one.  It’s almost unbearably sad, but it’s also resolutely unique and entirely unforgettable.  If you think you can handle the heartache, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.

THE GREAT SILENCE is screening from Sunday September 9th through Tuesday September 11th at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.  This is the world’s only surviving 35mm print.  If you want to see this movie theatrically, this is the time.

@jonnyabomb

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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.

In THE WILD BUNCH, 1969.

This beautiful portrait was taken by @SethKushner.

Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine passed away Sunday, July 8th, 2012.  He was 95, which is not young.  But anyone who suggests that his age makes the loss much easier would be mistaken.  There are people who are irreplaceable, and this was most certainly one.  Ernest Borgnine, or Ernie to his fans, had more than sixty years in the movie business — just think of how many stories he must have had left to relay.  Though he gave plenty of great interviews over the years, that probably was only a fraction.  With Ernest Borgnine goes a unique and eternally ingratiating talent, and a pivotal bridge that spans Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, and the modern age we’re currently living in.  For this post I’ve collected a ton of pictures and posters of the many movies I’ve seen Ernest Borgnine in.  I will touch on most of these movies (and maybe more) in the longer appreciative piece I am working on, but in the meantime, please enjoy these movie memories of a true original.

Check out this great interview also.

Find Ernie in the southwestern hemisphere.

@jonnyabomb

David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens with an intense, aggressive, dynamic, pansexual, twisted credit sequence.  It’s a series of appealingly grotesque images; inky silhouette figures mixing and morphing and blending into each other, scored to the wild industrial howl of Karen O and Trent Reznor’s urgent cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  Check it out:

This credit sequence is disturbing and exciting and in my opinion the only thing to match it in the nearly-three-hour film that follows is Rooney Mara’s ferocious, revelatory performance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on a lengthy novel by Swedish muckraker-turned-fictioneer Stieg Larsson, who famously died before seeing the international phenomenon that became his posthumously-released trilogy of mysteries featuring the now-famous team of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and disturbed hacker prodigy Lisbeth Salander.  The books were turned into a successful series of films in Larsson’s native Sweden, with the role of Lisbeth Salander going to a woman named Noomi Rapace who will soon be seen in the lead role in Ridley Scott’s PrometheusI haven’t seen any of the Swedish Salander films, but I’ve read the first book, and that’s where I was coming from when I saw the high-profile American version last winter.  I was excited when I heard David Fincher was directing from a Steven Zaillian script, although I had a nagging sense of disappointment that such a uniquely talented director was covering such well-trod ground.  And I don’t like it when my misgivings are proved correct.

To be fair to Fincher’s movie, the problems I have with Dragon Tattoo the movie are the same problems I have with Dragon Tattoo the book.   So we’re not here all day, I’ll just list the prime notions of debate:

1)  There’s not enough story here to justify the movie’s length.  The book is 480 pages.  The movie is 158 minutes, well over two-and-a-half hours.  There’s not quite as much Swedish politics and magazine publishing day-to-day and white-collar crime and expansive geneology in the movie as in the book, but there’s still plenty more than any one movie needs.  Good drama is about incident, not details, and with respect, Larsson’s work was far stronger on the latter than the former.  Which ties into the second point.

2)  There’s plenty of atmosphere, but not that much mystery.  This is a testament to the cinematic mastery of Fincher.  The man is incapable of shooting a movie that looks and feels anything less than impeccable, precisely-mounted, and absorbing.  He makes movies that look better than most movies, yet his images have texture and mood and momentum, all of which make his films feel weightier and realer than just a moving coffee table book of pretty photography.  But all the grace in the world can’t lift a story that is lacking.  Dragon Tattoo is a mystery at its core — Blomkvist and Salander are hired to investigate a decades-old cold case involving the disappearance of the niece, Harriet, of the mega-wealthy Henrik Vanger (played by the formidable Christopher Plummer.)  It’s an Agatha Christie whodunit, a parlor mystery.  But rarely in a film of this pedigree (and length) is the list of suspects so limited.  Was it Henrik’s nephew, Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgard)?  Was it Dirch Frode, Henrik’s attorney (Steven Berkhoff)?  Was it Henrik himself?  It’s fairly obvious in the book and it’s very obvious in the movie.  Casting, baby, casting.  Anyone who’s seen a few movies before will quickly pick out the bad guy — which isn’t necessarily a problem, if the story hadn’t spent so much time building to the monumental — and in fact, anti-climactic — reveal.

3)  It’s ironic that Daniel Craig plays the role of Blomkvist, since, like James Bond, Blomkvist manages to bed just about every female character in the story.  (The movie actually does the service of removing one of the love affairs from the novel.)  In the book, since Blomkvist is a crusading journalist like Larsson was in real life, this romantic track record reads like wish fulfillment on the part of the author.  In the movie, it’s troubling in a different way.

As in the novel, Blomkvist and Salander become romantically involved.  In both the novel and the film, this feels false.  Salander is a troubled victim of sexual abuses whose mutable sexuality sees her at an early point in the story having a fling with another young woman.  The fact that Salander isn’t resolutely a lesbian does make her interesting, but the fact that she quickly hooks up with the traditional male hero figure makes her far less so.  As dreamy as Daniel Craig may be, and as altruistic and intelligent as Blomkvist is meant to be, it’s difficult to buy this man in particular, let alone any man, as the type to attract Lisbeth Salander.

Salander is by far the most intriguing element Larsson’s novel has to recommend it, and she’s by far the strongest part of Fincher’s movie.  Rooney Mara had a small but pivotal role in Fincher’s The Social Network, but here she tears into the central protagonist role with a nearly-animalistic fury.  It was one of the oddest, most bruising, most unpredictable female performances to come out of any movie last year, and it should have been more widely recognized and rewarded.  The most thrilling and violently compelling scenes of the movie are when Mara, as Salander, avenges herself and her gender against a patrician society full of debased pigs in jackets and ties.  Blomkvist is comparatively a good guy, but he feels like a civilian when she’s more of a symbol.  It’s a little like how Wonder Woman used to date regular dudes without superpowers and it didn’t feel right.  It’s a little worse than that, actually.

The romance angle in Dragon Tattoo quite frankly isn’t worthy of the Salander character.  At best, it plays more like Chasing Amy (where a straight man “converts” a gay woman), really, and I expect more nuance out of David Fincher than I do of Kevin Smith.  At worst, it lazily discards all the character work that would make the story original.  The final scene of the Dragon Tattoo movie, which I have little trouble spoiling as it spoils the movie all by itself, shows Lisbeth Salander, awesomely vicious warrior of the internet age, excitedly buying a gift for Blomkvist.  She goes to give it to him, but instead spots him reconnecting with his longtime paramour, Erika Berger (Robin Wright).  Upset by the sight, Salander spitefully tosses the present in the trash, like a jilted schoolgirl, without ever confronting Blomkvist about the betrayal.  It’s an egregious end, considering how the fierceness of this character has until this development been the best and (frankly) the most active part of the movie.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is much too well-made a movie to have that flawed an ending.

Bottom line:  Good character, good screenwriting, great acting, great direction, bad story.  The last undoes the rest.  To make a great movie, as Fincher has done before and will do again, you need all of the elements working in concert.  A false note played that loud spoils the entire symphony.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let’s hear it, below or on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb