True Grit (2010)

True_Grit_PosterHaving just watched the 1969 version of the film starring John Wayne, I thought it was time to see the remake. I usually avoid remakes of favorite movies, and the original True Grit is a favorite. I have always thought it was the Duke’s best performance, portraying a character full of life and humor.

I made an exception for this particular remake. I figured if anyone could do a credible Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges was the guy to do it. So the day after watching the original, we fired up the Roku, popped over to Netflix and selected True Grit.

Ahead of shooting, Ethan Coen said that the film would be a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the 1969 version. It’s partly a matter of the perspective from which we see the story unfold. The book is written from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl. Thus, it has a certain feel to it, very different from th first movie which was clearly skewed to a John Wayne sensibility.

The book is known for being funnier than the original movie … but the remake is not lighter or more humorous than the original movie. It may be more faithful to the book in some ways, but honestly, I didn’t see a huge difference in attitude, perspective or even the story from the first movie. In fact, the two movies are different … but not hugely different. Different scripts, actors and so on with the differences that inevitably arise from these changes, but in fact, the remake is darker and more violent than the 1969 movie. It is not only darker in feeling, it’s visually darker and a great deal of the action takes place at night.

A Grievance – Slight Digression

This makes It hard on the eyes when viewed on television and I really wish the people who press the DVDs would take into consideration that watching on the big screen and watching at home are two very different visual experiences. Lighten it up when you put it on DVD please. And rebalance the audio so the sound effects and music do not completely overwhelm the voices … requiring closed captions to have any idea what anyone is saying. This is especially annoying, especially when I’ve just paid a premium for Blu-ray.

Television does not render darkness as well as big screens do. But movies these days don’t spend much time in theatres. They have them out on DVD faster than a speeding bullet, often before they’ve finished their first theatrical run. Considering that the majority of a movie’s life will be on DVD, shown at home on smaller screens, directors might take that into consideration and brighten these movies up a bit. I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s art, but shouldn’t the actual viewing conditions under which most people will see the picture carry some weight? I’m just saying.

And now, back to our main feature, already in progress

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Much of the original movie’s dialogue is identical in the 2010 version. The best and most important scenes in both versions are word for word the same. Between those signature scenes, the dialogue is different. The character of Cogburn is very similar in some way, but very different in others. Wayne’s taciturn old marshal contrasts sharply with Jeff Bridges’ loquacious  version whose Rooster Cogburn talks a blue streak.

Hailee Steinfield’s Mattie Ross is more like her original character than Bridges’ Cogburn is like Wayne’s.

None of this is real criticism. This is a good movie on its own merits. It stands on its own legs. Obviously the two movies derive from the same source, but despite large amounts of identical dialogue, the two movies feel very different. If you had never seen the original and didn’t compare them, I would simply say the 2010 True Grit is a good western with fine performances.

But it’s a remake and there’s no avoiding comparisons. It may not be entirely fair, but it’s inevitable. Some of the scenes, when the dialogue is the same in both, are not only played the same way — Bridges even manages to do the “Duke’s walk” — they are shot the same way. Several key scenes are pretty much identical, frame by frame. Then, the movies diverge only to come together again a bit further down the  cinematic path. The convergence-divergence pattern can be disconcerting.

Regardless, you could never mistake this for an old-fashioned western.Its gritty, dark texture is typical of modern westerns. It isn’t necessarily an improvement, but it’s a constant visible reminder that this is a recent film, not an older one.

Characters are less heroic and more ambivalent. True Grit makes a moderately successful attempt to integrate both old and new, moving back and forth, mixing John Ford with Clint Eastwood. Sometimes it feel a bit disconnected and jumpy, leaping from familiar dialogue common to both movies, to completely different dialogue and mood … with no bridge. Whoa, I cry … where are we now? The sudden shifts might actually be a continuity and/or editing issue, but as a member of the audience, I can’t tell the why of it, only discuss the result.

TRUE GRIT

There’s no cheery ending for the new True Grit. It’s not sad, but it’s not happy either.

If I had to choose, I prefer the original, but the remake is a good movie too. Jeff Bridges is a great actor. The entire cast is excellent. Perhaps the comparison is unfair and it’s better to take each movie on its own merits. That being said, I am not likely to watch the 2010 True Grit a second time. Too grim for my taste, though I appreciated the art that went into its making.

How you feel about each movie is of course subjective. Two good films, genetically related. Take your pick. You won’t go far wrong either way.

Garry Armstrong: The Movie Maven’s Take

Reading Marilyn’s review of the True Grit remake, the obvious occurred to me. I am a child of the old school of movies. My heroes and heroines are the stars from the 30′s, 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. My film morality sensibilities have been shaped and nurtured by movies from Hollywood’s “golden era” through the 60′s. Not surprisingly, John Wayne is probably my favorite movie star. “Star” not actor. I thoroughly enjoyed Wayne’s “True Grit”.

His “Rooster Cogburn” was a sum of all the heroes Wayne had played for 40 years. Older, fatter and more prone to corn liquor, Rooster’s sense of morality was still pretty simple. There was good and bad and few in-betweens. Wayne nailed all that with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Wayne was Rooster and Rooster was Wayne. The original’s end with Rooster frozen in frame and time as he and his horse leap a fence is “print the legend” stuff.  Veteran director Henry Hathaway (“The Sons of Katie Elder”, etc), is in familiar territory and gives the original “Grit” lots of traditional, old school western flavor.

All that said, Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in the “True Grit” remake is also memorable and can stand alone. Jeff Bridges as an actor can stand alone. He invests his own irascible charm into “Rooster” while paying homage to the Duke. Matt Damon’s “LaBeouf” is much better and more complex than Glenn Campbell’s Texas Ranger in the original. Josh Brolin gives Tom Chaney much more depth and compassion than acting school guru Jeff Corey gave the original villain. I still prefer Robert Duvall’s “Lucky Ned Pepper” but Barry (“61″) Pepper is also pretty good in the remake.

The remake gives us an extended look at Mattie with an ending closer to the book than the original film. Hailee Steinfeld is her own Mattie — equal to Kim Darby’s offering in the original. So, while I can enjoy the “True Grit” remake, I am still very partial to the Duke’s original film. Arguments?? That’ll be the day!!

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A Late Quartet (2012) – A Review

A Late Quartet refers to one of a group of string quartets written by Beethoven at the end of his life, in this case, specifically Opus 131.

Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers (screenplay): Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman

The Cast:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert Gelbart
Christopher Walken, as Peter Mitchell
Catherine Keener, as Juliette Gelbart
Mark Ivanir, as Daniel Lerner
Imogen Poots, as Alexandra Gelbart
Wallace Shawn, as Gideon Rosen
Anne Sofie von Otter, as Miriam.

Garry and I watched A Late Quartet the other day. I bought it from Amazon a few weeks ago after reading some good reviews. It sounded like a movie for grown-ups and there have been a dearth movies that don’t star fresh-faced children. It turns out the reviewers were right.

It’s a lovely film. If anyone is a “hero” in this film, it’s Christopher Walken who plays against type with elegance and grace. Add Marc Ivanir, who usually plays Israeli heavies on NCIS and other crime shows (he actually is from Israel and is an actual hero) as the dedicated and ever so slightly demon-haunted violinist, plus Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing his usual workmanlike job and Catherine Keener on viola and as “could be better” wife to Hoffman’s second violin  It’s a great mix of characters and some of the best work done by Walken and company.

Their movie musicianship is realistic. I know they were not actually the group used to produce the sound track but it looked to this ex-music major as if they knew their way around string instruments. Some may have had some early training, others were coached for the movie. Whatever the means, it enabled the cinematographer to follow the actors’ movement closely, without resorting to long shots that disguise the real identities of the performers. Well done.

While doing a little side bar reasearch on the stars, I discovered — entirely to my surprise — that Walken actually attended the same college as Garry and I and probably was there during one of Garry’s years at Hofstra University. He was only there for one year and left for a gig in an off-broadway show, but it was news to us that he’d been there at all.

It is one of the many ironies of Garry and my education that most of Hofstra’s most famous graduates are not graduates, but attendees who left before getting a degree to begin highly successful careers. We had a very good drama department and perhaps the biggest measure of its success is how many of the students in the program were “discovered” before they got degrees and went on to fame and fortune without benefit of that all-important piece of paper.

Although it doesn’t hurt if you know some classical music and particularly, if you understand the cutthroat world of classical performers, but if you don’t, you can still enjoy the movie.

The plot? It’s the 25th anniversary of “The Fugue”, a classical string quartet. The world is catching up with them. Christopher Walken, their cellist and oldest member of the quartet has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needs to retire. The first violinist is in love with the second violinist’s daughter, and the second violinist wants to be the first violinist … and sex in the form of “oops” infidelity adds enough spice to imperil the survival of the quartet if the rest of the problems were not enough.

Walken as the sensible, down-to-earth member of the group, dealing with his own burdens and unwilling to tolerate the childish carryings-on by the other performers, is wonderful. “The Fugue comes first,” he says, or words to that effect. It’s interesting to see Walken cast as the stable, adult, and not even slightly crazy member of the group.

The music — especially Opus 131, the late quartet — is magnificent. I’ve rarely heard this piece performed. It’s an exceptionally challenging piece of music, written when Beethoven was already swathed in silence by the loss of his hearing, yet still able to hear it in his head and write some of the most advanced, complex and intense music of his life.

I admit to being inclined in advance to like this movie. I love the music, studied classical music for many long years. I love Beethoven, probably my all time favorite composer, whose music I play as I drift off to sleep at night and whose symphonies have been my companion on many journeys throughout my life.

It did not disappoint us. It’s not a light piece of fluff, nor is it depressing or hopeless. Problems come, problems are addressed, problems are resolved. Not everything has a happy ending but within the limits of what is possible, these adults work out their problems, musical, health, personal and relationship, like … adults.

It is a nice change from watching stupid kids running around like stupid kids, clearly clueless about life and from the looks of things, not likely to become wiser assuming they manage to survive to grow older.

It’s very much worth a couple of hours of your time, if just for the music. But it is really better than just the music. The DVD is available on Amazon (which is where I got it) and the soundtrack is available separately.

‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ will bring movie fans into the light

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“To Boldly Go, Where No One Has Gone Before”… a simple, yet iconic phrase that has delighted TV viewers and film fans for decades and is attached to the journeys of “Star Trek” in all of its forms. Open today in theatres everywhere “Star Trek: Into Darkness” takes us deep into the universe in ways that will delight the hardcore fans and not alienate the casual ones either.

After an attack of terror from one of their own within the Federation, Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) leads the crew of the Enterprise into uncharted waters risking interplanetary war to try and track down this one man weapon of mass destruction.

As J.J. Abrams gets to dive into this world for a second time, the results range from thrilling and brilliant to occasionally maddening but it is never dull and even the most dedicated and hardcore ‘Trekker’ cannot deny that “Star Trek: Into Darkness” is a wall to wall thrill ride that will delight all ranges of fans considering how brazenly nervy the material does get at times. The script from frequent Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof have craft a big and bold action adventure told on a pretty grand scale, that flows like an easy current allowing us more time to really get to know and exist with these characters. The differences and similarities that we saw in the first film that referenced the original franchise, weren’t as subtle this time out as they clubbed the viewer over the head with some obvious story parallels but it is such a fun ride, that even the ardent ‘Trekker” won’t give up on this one. Always visually stunning to a fault, the film successfully never loses sight of the human element of the “Star Trek” universe as it is these interpersonal stories that have always made the franchise click. As Abrams throws as many lens flares at the screen as he possible can, this film like so many of his other projects keeps the people first and that is truly where the magic lies as the ensemble returns getting fully ensconced in their characters with some excellent performances.

Surprisingly enough, in this second film it is the supporting cast that shines just a brightly as the leads. Chris Pine is embracing the swarthy, arrogant swagger of Kirk that will all love so very much as he leads his crew into battle against this new villain. Benedict Cumberbatch simply tears up the screen as the best kind of bad guy there is, the one we love to hate and he gloriously chewed the scenery at every turn.

Zachary Quinto truly became Spock in this one channelling both emotional sides of his character really becoming Spock’s equal this time out. Karl Urban chews the scenery with his one liners and Simon Pegg provided some fantastic comic relief as John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldana and newcomer Alice Eve rounded out the supporting ensemble making this film a real ensemble piece, just like a Star Trek film should be.

As they pay homage to the old, while trying to bring in new fans, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” despite the occasional hiccup works as an across the board action ode to the countless adventures that are out there in the universe for this crew to explore.

“Star Trek: Into Darkness” is now playing at theatres all across the country; please check with your local listings for show times.

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Roger Ebert, RIP – Whatever

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I can’t say that I ever spoke to Roger Ebert, but I can say I was once in the same room with him — specifically, the critics’ screening room in Chicago, where as the entertainment editor for my college newspaper I watched a terrible movie called Farewell to the King, and he and Gene Siskel were there as well, sitting, if I remember correctly, in the back of the little theater. Other critics were snarking and catcalling the screen (I mentioned it wasn’t a very good film), and either Siskel or Ebert (it was dark and I was facing the screen) told them to shut it. They shut it. After the movie was done I rode down in the elevator with him. And that was my brush with greatness, film critic style.

For all that I consider Ebert to be one of my most important writing teachers. He was my teacher in a real and practical sense — I was hired at age 22 to be a newspaper film critic, with very little direct practical experience in film criticism (not withstanding Farewell to the King, I mostly reviewed music for my college paper). I was hired in May of 1991, but wouldn’t start until September, which left me the summer to get up to speed. I did it by watching three classic movies a night (to the delight of my then-roommates), and by buying every single review book Roger Ebert had out and reading every single review in them.

He was a great teacher. He was passionate about film — not just knowledgeable about films and directors and actors, but in love with the form, in a way that came through in every review. Even when a movie was bad, you could tell that at least part of the reason Ebert was annoyed was because the film failed its medium, which could achieve amazing things. But as passionate as he was about film, he wasn’t precious about it. Ebert loved film, but what I think he loved most of all was the fact that it entertained him so. He loved being entertained, and he loved telling people, in language which was direct and to the point (he worked for the Sun-Times, the blue-collar paper in town) what about the films was so entertaining. What he taught me about film criticism is that film criticism isn’t about showing off what you know about film, it was about sharing what made you love film.

I saw how much Roger Ebert loved film that summer, through his reviews and his words. By the end of the summer, I loved film too. And I wanted to do what he did: Share that love and make people excited about going to the movies, sitting there with their popcorn, waiting to be entertained in the way only film can entertain you.

I left newspaper film criticism — not entirely voluntarily — but even after I left that grind I still loved writing about film and went back to it when I could. I wrote freelance reviews for newspapers, magazines and online sites; I’ve published two books about film. Every year I make predictions about the Oscars here on the site. And I can tell you (roughly) the domestic box office of just about every studio film since 1991. All of that flows back to sitting there with Roger Ebert’s words, catching the film bug from him. There are other great film critics, of course (I also have a soft spot for Pauline Kael, which is not entirely surprising), but Ebert was the one I related to the most, and learned the most from.

In these later years and after everything that he’d been through with cancer and with losing the ability to physically speak, I read and was contemplative about the essays and pieces he put up on his Web site. Much of that had nothing to do with film criticism, but was a matter of him writing… well, whatever. Which meant it was something I could identify with to a significant degree, since that is what I do here. It would be foolish to say that Ebert losing his physical voice freed him to find his voice elsewhere. What I think may be more accurate was that losing his physical voice reminded Ebert that he still had things he wanted to say before he ran out of time to say them.

His Web essays have a sharp, bright but autumnal quality to them; the leaves were still on the trees but the colors were changing and the snap was in the air. It seemed to me Ebert wrote them with the joy of living while there is still life left. I loved these essays but they also made me sad. I knew as a reader they couldn’t last. And of course they didn’t.

I had always meant to send Ebert a copy of Old Man’s War, for no other reason than as a token of appreciation. I knew he was a science fiction geek through and through (he had a penchant for giving science fiction films an extra star if they were especially groovy in the departments of effects and atmosphere). I wanted to sign the book to him and let him know how much his work meant to me — and for him to have the experience of the book before the movie, whenever that might be. I tried getting in touch with one of his editors at the Sun-Times, who I used to freelance for in college, to get it to him, but never heard back from her. Later it would turn out he and I had the same film/tv agent, who offered to forward on the book for me. I kept meaning to send off the book. I never did. I regret it now.

Although he can’t know it now, I still think it’s worth saying: Thank you, Roger Ebert, for being my teacher and for being such a good writer, critic and observer of the world. You made a difference in my life, and it is richer for having your words in it.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Marilyn Armstrong:

This is MY favorite Christmas movie. Love that “movie within a movie” alternate history thing. Enough like time travel to tickle my brain in all the right places and enough sentimentality to need at least a couple of kleenex.

 

Originally posted on Head In A Vice:

Wonderful Life poster

An angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

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“Lincoln” is amazing on so many levels.

Lincoln movieIt’s exactly what you hope for in a historical movie … and so very rarely get. Spielberg not only made this wonderful movie well, he made it smart. Instead of trying to cover the entire Lincoln saga or perhaps myth, he focuses on the President’s last months on earth, the period following his reelection during which he pushed through the 13th amendment that finally eliminated slavery in the United States, and ended the war. You will see more about the man Lincoln than in any previous movie or documentary about Lincoln.

The performances are universally brilliant, as you would expect. This is the Hollywood A Team where the magic comes together. Everyone is in this movie — some not even credited but you will recognize them — even if only for a tiny cameo, as if being part of this movie was an honor.

And perhaps so.  I suspect actors volunteered for the privilege of being included. The script is intelligent, elegant, somehow managing to convey both the greatness of the man and his pained humanity. There is no reason for me to go into the details of the cast, writing, history, and so on. The  review published in the New Yorker covers those bases well and you can read it here or on its original site.

“Lincoln,” was written by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg, and derived in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”

Daniel Day-Lewis has gotten the role of a lifetime and gave a performance that will probably define his career. Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and so many others … literally too many to name … are all brilliant. There are not many big roles for women in this story, but I’d like to make a special mention of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Her performance as First Lady gives this suffering woman the first real depth and three-dimensional portrayal I’ve ever seen. Mrs. Lincoln has in cinema and history been given short shrift, labeled a crazy lady, then dismissed.

That she was not quite “right” after the loss of her son is well-documented and disseminated, but she was more than a mere wacko. She was politically savvy and highly intelligent, albeit emotionally unstable and in great pain. Perhaps a more stable, supportive mate would have been able to provide some rays of light in the dark world of President Lincoln … but given the dreadful times through which they lived and were destined to play major and tragic roles, this couple was probably doomed to misery, even had Mary Todd been the incarnation of Pollyanna.

Cover of "Team of Rivals: The Political G...

Cover via Amazon

The enormity of their personal tragedies combined with the responsibility of being the nation’s leader at this particularly desperate historical turning point would have crushed anyone. Lincoln was a giant, but also a man with a wife, children and more than his share of family drama.

The movie is mesmerizing. The way it’s shot, moving from panorama to private moments keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, you live through the battles on the floor of the House of Representatives and in the back rooms where agonizing bargains are struck as if you’ve never seen it before. It’s a painfully accurate and timely look at the real process of getting legislation passed, the viciousness, ruthlessness, chicanery and all else that goes into a process that hasn’t significantly changed over the past 150 years or more. Great cinema and a Real Politik civics lesson for young and old.

Most of the reviews I’ve read have emphasized the historical importance but failed to mention that this is a really compelling movie that makes you feel you have traveled back in time. It’s great drama with more than a dollop of wit and humor. Watch and chew your nails while Lincoln and his carefully picked team somehow push through an amendment to the constitution against staggering odds while simultaneously ending the deadliest war in American history.  It feels like you’ve never heard or seen it before. Spielberg manages to inject a level of tension and excitement that should be impossible. There are surprises, some of them very funny.

Given the subject matter, it’s amazing how often film will make you laugh. There are wonderful scenes, small and intimate, revealing of magic and myth. There are the mandatory “big scenes,” of  battlefields heaped with corpses, but most of the story takes places in small places, in sheds and basements, back rooms, parlors and hidden corners where the light is always dim. Everyone always looks cold … in the most literal sense. It’s winter without central heating and while no one mentions it (why would they? that was the way their world was), men and women alike constantly wrap themselves in blankets and shawls to fend off the chill. It makes you grateful for electricity and radiators, not to mention thermal underwear.

abraham-lincoln-tadLincoln is too tall for the world in which he lives. It can barely contain him or the sorrow he carries. He stoops, bent under the weight of impossible choices and ducks through doorways never high enough.

Go see this movie. Take your kids. Take the grandchildren. Then buy it on DVD and watch it again. Let it remind you of how painful it is to have a free nation and how heavy is the price we pay for the privilege.

This is grand entertainment, history, civics and drama wrapped in a story so insane it could only be true. To quote a familiar phrase, “you can’t make this stuff up.” You rarely get to see movies this good. It’s a treasure that will be even more appreciated in years to come.

Regardless of how many Oscars it wins … or doesn’t win … this is destined to be a classic. It can’t help it. It’s just got classic written all over it.

One more interesting note. When the movie ended and the credits started to roll, no one got up and left. No one at all. Every single person in the theater sat there and watched the credits until the screen went dark. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that happen before.

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