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Column Wed Dec 22 2010

True Grit, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, All Good Things, Little Fockers & Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

True Grit

Sometimes, filmmakers put together something that is so strong, so perfect, so abundantly great that they make it look easy, and you wonder why everyone making movies can't produce something this close to flawless. Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit is just such a film, an effortless work of perfection that captures a sense of place and period so convincingly that you are taken aback by how effortless it all seems. The Coens haven't always reached this level of moviemaking, but they do so with alarming regularity with such works as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. Now, if I didn't name your favorite Coen Brothers movie, it's not because I didn't like it. But in all of their other films, I could see them trying maybe a little too hard. Nothing wrong with that, but when I stumble upon one of these five films (and True Grit will be added to the list) on a movie channel, it gets watched to the end because I don't even notice time passing.

I love that the Coens decided to make a much better adaptation of Charles Portis' novel than the 1969 version starring John Wayne. I don't despise the original True Grit at all, but it's never been a favorite of mine. I can't remember if it was Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel who said it first, but they were always perplexed when someone remade a classic movie. Why not remake a bad movie and make it better, they wondered. That's not exactly what has happened here, but it's damn close.

True Grit is not the story of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, haven shaken off the CGI glitter of last week's Tron: Legacy), a drunken, worn-down U.S. Marshall hired by a child to find the man who killed her father. All of that surely happens, but if you go in thinking Cogburn is the focus of the film, you've been misinformed. In fact, it's the young girl Mattie Ross (the magnificent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who sits at the center of this story as all manner of lawman and villain cross her path in the search for the outlaw Tom Chaney (a weirdly affected performance by Josh Brolin). Mattie has come to town to ship her father's body back home to her mother and take care of his affairs, which in her mind includes finding his killer.

At one point in the film, someone refers to Mattie as "the bookkeeper" of her father's business, and with that little throwaway line, we understand that Mattie is the brains of her family. Steinfeld's performance sometimes makes you forget to breathe. Her enunciative delivery is unlike any I have ever seen from an actor her age. And she easily matches wits and intellect with everyone she comes into contact with, whether it's a business transaction that requires some expert haggling or she is working out a fair arrangement with Marshall Cogburn. I am in no way knocking the performance Bridges gives at all. The first time we see him clearly, he's testifying in court about men he killed, and it's one of the funniest things I've seen all year due exclusively to his deft delivery.

The third member of the small posse out seeking Chaney is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef and played with an odd tint by Matt Damon). More than once during the course of the story, we get the distinct impression that LaBoeuf might be coming onto Mattie, but strangely enough it doesn't feel as creepy as it sounds. Instead, we get the sense that the Ranger comes from a place where girls Mattie's age are getting married to men his age, so he doesn't even consider him looking at her in that way inappropriate. Other times, he treats her like the child that she is, especially when she lets her emotions get in the way of the mission at hand.

I saw True Grit twice in the space of a couple of days, and it wasn't until the second viewing that I really noticed some of the small moments that accented the more obviously skillful tactics at hand. The Coens' screenplay is one of their best, with small touches in the language that are both period specific and just damn fine wordsmith-ing. There are almost-unnoticeable ways in which the characters pronounce certain words that I loved. Notice the way Damon says "Adios," and try not smiling.

And gradually over the course of this fine story, you begin to realize that it is not about finding the bad guys; it's about the very real bond that forms between Cogburn and Mattie. We get more than one scene where Cogburn is just running at the mouth about his life, failed marriage, and all of the other things that had plagued him over the years. Sure, it's humorous, but it's also the stuff that friendships are built upon. In a strange way, when they finally do cross paths with Chaney, it's a rude and unwelcome reminder that there's a mission at hand and that now all of this enjoyable conversation must end.

Turns out Chaney is running with a gang run by Lucky Ned Pepper (an almost unrecognizable Barry Pepper), who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters in True Grit. He seems like an outlaw with whom logic and reason are two of his most skilled weapons. Lucky Ned doesn't really come into play until the final act, but when he does, other facets to Cogburn emerge that continue taking us by surprise, and each time that happens, you love the man just a little bit more. And while you're at it, watch how brilliantly Brolin plays Chaney. He's slow on an intellectual level, but if you give him enough time to let the gears turn slowly in his brain, he's capable of making some damn smart choices

True Grit is sheer joy for film lovers, from Roger Deakins striking cinematography to Carter Burwell's lovely score to each and every perfectly cast extra whose dusty, sunken faces add character and authenticity to every scene. The Coens have always excelled at selecting the perfect faces for every role--big and small. The story is hardly a complicated one to follow, but there is so much going on in every scene that it takes two or three viewings to really soak it all in, which I was happy to do. Even sequences that seem like throwaway moments are loaded with character development, especially the squabbles that occur between Rooster and LaBoeuf about the reputation of Texas Rangers vs. Cogburn's own flawed past. Just writing about True Grit makes me want to go see it again just to make sure I'm not forgetting any of its glory. If you are even questioning at this point whether or not you want to see this movie, I have nothing more to say to you until you make the right call.

Rabbit Hole

The latest work from eclectic filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Shortbus) is one of the most beautiful, moving, and emotionally powerful things I've seen all year, and I bet most of you will completely ignore it.

It's okay to be scared. It is. But if I told you that Rabbit Hole (adapted by David Lindsey-Abaire, based on his Pultitzer Prize-winning play) is one of the finest movies ever made about the grieving process, I'm guessing many of you would recoil in fear. You often hear about actors being brave, but I want to challenge audiences to be brave as well, and actually see a film with some raw, battered emotions that ultimately leave us with a hopeful feeling. Will you leave the film emotionally drained? I sure hope so. Will you be glad you went and saw Rabbit Hole anyway? Without a doubt.

As the film opens, it becomes clear that Howie and Becca (Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman) have recently lost their son when he was hit by a car in front of their home, and both of them are still emotionally wrecked as a result-- not surprisingly. Now, the couple must find a way to relate to each other again and remember what made their relationship strong, in the wake of this tragedy. What they are left with is pain, short-fused tempers, guilt, assigning blame, and barely restrained anger.

They each find unorthodox ways to cope with their grief. Becca becomes uncomfortably obsessed with Jason, a teenage boy (Miles Teller), whom we first think must remind her of her son until we realize how these two know each other. Jason and Becca have a series of the most grueling conversations imaginable, and they are sometimes very tough to watch. Howie attempts grief counseling and meets a woman (Sandra Oh) who had been dealing with these same issue for years and isn't faring much better than he is. Dianne Wiest plays Becca's grating mother Nat, who dares to compare her own son's death by drugs to Becca's loss. What Cameron Mitchell has brilliantly done is show us the stakes if this couple can't pull themselves back together. It is all too clear the direct connections between this accidental death that was no one's fault and the fate of their marriage. It's as suspenseful as any scary movie, especially when Becca brings Jason into her home to meet Howie.

While this is by far Cameron Mitchell's most straightforward narrative, he's also a fan of the surreal and not afraid to find the humor and serenity in the most seemingly inappropriate moments, which of course, make the laughter and moments of clarity wholly appropriate. There's not much more to say other than I loved Rabbit Hole with every fiber of my being, and it's a prime example of a film about setting the world right between two souls. It will beat your heart up, but it will come back stronger and more full of life than when you went in. I promise. The film opens Christmas Day at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Somewhere

As far as I'm concerned, Sofia Coppola has a perfect track record as a writer-director, with a series of small, quiet, set pieces that pack an emotional punch. Her ornate Marie Antoinette was large in scope but essentially focused on the life of an immature young woman who suddenly had the world handed to her. But it's her films like The Virgin Suicides and especially Lost In Translation that show the emotional depths she's willing to mine to get the heart of her characters. Her latest work has moments of grandeur, but it's still really just a story of two characters: a world-famous actor named Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) and his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). A world-class womanizer, Johnny seems to have a party in his room at the Chateau every night as he prepares for a press junket for his latest blockbuster. Unannounced, Cleo arrives in his hotel room with her suitcases because her mother (Johnny's ex-wife) has decided she needs time off from being a mom and vanishes, leaving Johnny to be a real dad for a time.

In any other director's hands, this might have been butchered and made into a family film starring The Rock. But Coppola lends the story her gentle sophistication and turns Somewhere into a look about a man who has lived largely responsibility free for most of his adult life. He takes the opportunity to spend time with his daughter as not only a chance to be a good dad, but also as a reason to grow up a little, even if their time together is limited. The film is funny (with "Jackass"'s Chris Pontius playing Johnny's best friend-- that seems pretty likely), especially to those of us who have taken part in celebrity interviews in hotel conference rooms or suites. Coppola has clearly paid attention to the inane questions that often crop up during press conferences and the equally empty-headed answers celebrities often give to these questions.

At a crucial moment in Johnny's publicity tour, he decides to take Cleo to Italy with him where he must do European interviews while she gets to live in luxury for a few days. I don't know why, but that sequence truly moved me, because Cleo never comes across as spoiled, even when Johnny is spoiling her, and it's pretty clear she's going to grow up to be a more balanced adult than either of her parents. Putting aside her appearance in the god-awful Nutcracker movie last month, I've always liked Elle Fanning (younger sister to Dakota) in films such as Reservation Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But Somwhere places her in the most extensive, demanding dramatic role she's ever taken on, and she soars. While the weirdly effective Dorff has never really been on my radar as an acting force, he's quite convincing here, playing a version of himself that he'll likely never get to be. But that doesn't mean he doesn't understand the attitude. A photo shoot with the female co-star of his new movie is one of the film's funniest moments.

Somewhere won the award at the Venice International Film Festival (Best Picture), and I'm guessing all the footage shot in Italy didn't hurt its chances. But even without the Coppola name, the film is a knowing peek behind the celebrity curtain that isn't a trumped-up glorified version of the real thing. I love the way Johnny hides behind the publicity team of the movie. I'll never be able to have a publicist tell me talent is running late and not think of some of the reasons Johnny is delayed in this movie. I was also kind of in love with the movie's score by Phoenix.

I'm probably not doing a great job convincing you to check out Somewhere, but the truth is, it's a tough film to explain since not a whole lot happens. But you still manage to learn a lot about universal behaviors and how even the seemingly irredeemable can still be saved. Dorff and Fanning are completely convincing as a father and daughter who aren't exactly estranged, but they aren't especially close either. During the course of the film, they both recognize that being better to each other would benefit everyone involved, and its that process that is the heart and soul of the movie. Another worthy effort from the younger Coppola. The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

All Good Things

One of the more bizarre and less interesting efforts at the end of the year is director Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) Jarecki's feature film All Good Things, based on the events surround the disappearance of Kathie Durst, who went missing in 1982 and was never found. Although husband Robert, the heir to the wealthy Durst real estate family, was always suspected, he was never brought to trial for the crime. Jarecki's film is not a documentary on the subject but a fictionalized account of the events that led to Kathie's vanishing. Kirsten Dunst plays Katie Marks, whose husband David (a truly creepy Ryan Gosling) was an unstable man even before they met. She was not from a rich family, and, as a result, was always looked down upon by David's father Sanford (Frank Langella) and with a great deal of suspicion as to why this beautiful young woman would devote herself to such an odd man.

Although the names are changed, the film's screenplay (by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling) is based on court records, recently uncovered evidence, and a healthy dose of educated guessing all pertaining to the Durst case. There's really no doubt that the filmmakers want us to believe not only did the husband kill his wife and hide the body but also that his father knew about it and did everything his money and influence could afford to hide the truth of his son's actions. All Good Things is well acted, especially by Dunst, as the the wife literally trapped in a marriage to a possessive, paranoid man who would rather see her dead than with someone else--not that she was ever planning on leaving him before he became a controlling brute.

And while Gosling does a decent job being a freaky son of a bitch, I wouldn't have minded getting a little deeper into his psyche to understand why he would go to such lengths (allegedly) to keep his wife from leaving him. I don't need every motivation spelled out for me, but a little more insight would have gone a long way. Gosling is one of the best actors of his generation (as is more clearly evidenced in the upcoming Blue Valentine), but he's given very little to work with in All Good Things, and even his remarkable talents can't cut through the lacking screenplay. Still, if you're interested in catching the best on-screen performance of Dunst's career thus far, then perhaps you can handle the many shortcomings of All Good Things, which opens Christmas Day at the Music Box Theatre.

Little Fockers

I'm officially embarrassed for Robert De Niro. After turning in one of the best performances he's done in the past 20 years in Stone, he felt the need to retreat back to... this. There may have been a time at some point in history where De Niro pairing up with Ben Stiller was a necessary idea. In the original Meet the Parents, there was a kind of humor to their reverse chemistry that might have pushed a few chuckles out of me in 2000. But with Little Fockers, De Niro does nothing but humiliate himself. Not that the rest of the cast shouldn't hide their heads in shame either, but they didn't have as far to fall. And I truly wish Stiller would stop trying to please kids of all ages. Tropic Thunder is a masterpiece in my eyes and I truly admired what he did in Greenberg earlier this year, so to see him play the same exact guy in both his films with De Niro and his Night at the Museum movies forces me to avert my eyes.

What's worse is that the makers of Little Fockers (including writers John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey, and director Paul Weitz) don't even bother with a substantive story. At least with the first two films, some people might be able to identify with the anxiety-ridden moments of meeting the future in-laws for the first time or the changing relationship you might have with grandparents when kids come into the picture. But in this film, there's none of that. There are boner jokes (and what isn't funnier than Robert De Niro playing with erectile dysfunction meds?) and other moments that have the comedic complexity of an episode of "Three's Company." Every joke begins with a misunderstanding that is then cleared up to make room for the next misunderstanding.

And since the runners of this franchise keep adding new characters with each new film, Little Fockers feels more like roll call than an actual movie, with characters from the previous two works getting crammed into the story with as much subtlety as a crowbar to the face. Meaning we have to endure colossally unfunny sequences with Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, and Owen Wilson, while also making room on this crowded ship for newcomers Jessica Alba, Laura Dern, and Harvey Keitel. Yes, Little Fockers finally marks a reunion for Keitel and De Niro. Those poor guys. The scene in question is one of the film's few highlights, but that's not saying much.

What little story there is revolves around Jack Byrnes (De Niro) deciding that Greg Focker (Stiller) qualifies to run the family when Jack no longer can. He never really explains what that means or why Greg should give a crap, but it seems to mean something to both of them. But when Pam's (Polo) ex-boyfriend Kevin (Wilson, whose oblivious good nature is still infectious) comes back into the picture, Jack decides that his daughter should change her life's course and leave Greg. Seriously, if a father-in-law puts that much pressure on your wife to leave, you toss him out on his ass; you don't hem and haw and try to make peace with the guy. Fuck!

And far be it from me to ever complain about a sequence that includes Jessica Alba in her underwear, but there is a totally nonsensical bit of physical comedy involving a drunken Alba (her name in the film is Andi Garcia, get it?) hitting on Greg, stripping off her clothes, and falling into an open pit in the back yard where a pool will be built. Sigh. Alba sure did pull herself together after that baby. Too bad getting knocked up didn't make her any funnier.

But, Jesus, De Niro kills me by continuing to make these movies. He's not even trying, and doesn't it physically hurt him to play a character with so little depth? I guess there is a price for dignity, and that price is whatever his paycheck was for Little Fockers. You may have seen it in the trailer, but it's a bit more graphic in the actual film--when Greg has to stick a needle in Jack's fully erect penis, and Greg's son walks in. Yeah, that's funny. Especially the shot of De Niro fully aroused in his pajamas. Oh the kids and grandparents will adore that one. You know what? I'm done talking about this movie. I hope the folks that made Little Fockers sleep well at night, while kids of all ages and I have nightmares thinking about De Niro boners and Hoffman and Streisand having sex and Owen Wilson's messed-up nose. My therapist is going to be able to buy that second home thanks to you guys.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

I demand that every man, woman, and child of every nationality go see the spectacular, glowing tribute to Santa Claus known as Rare Exports from Finland. Some people are scared of clowns, and others are mortified by that white-bearded dude with a mild pedophile vibe, Santa Claus. Rare Exports is the kind of movie that people who love and hate Christmas can enjoy together as we get a glimpse at how Scandinavian cultures have demonized the Santa Claus myth for centuries to the point where children grow up terrified by a visit from him, and adults live every holiday season twitching in bed at night with horrifying dreams rooting in their childhood memories.

Words barely capture just how perfectly realized and tonally twisted Rare Exports is throughout. The film opens with a archeological crew digging deep in a mountain only to discover sawdust and ice buried deep in the ground, evidence that not only was something foreign placed in the mountain for storage but also that the mountain itself might be man-made, hiding something meant to stay there for all time. But a creepy, short man with a red scarf wants the digging to continue. Nearby, some local residents are grumbling about the environmental impact of the excavation, but before long evidence begins to surface there are a slew of peeping toms in town. Soon after, children begin disappearing, being replaced by straw dummies. Meanwhile, young Pietari starts to piece together what is happening and who is responsible thanks to some extensive research on the Santa Claus myths in his culture.

Then one of Pietari's father's deer traps captures something unexpected, an old naked man with a long white beard and a nasty disposition. At first his father and his friends believe they may have captured Santa, but that turns out not to be exactly right. Director Jalmari Helander strikes a great balance of dark humor and grim, scary visuals in his version of myth making, and trust me when I say there is nothing creepier than a skinny, naked, old man in the snow who smiles when a child comes near him.

Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Pietari, who seems the most fearless one in a group of much older men of his town, and I smile every time I envision a child of about the same age as Pietari (maybe 8-10) going to this movie and getting inspired to learn about dark Santa myths or read a Grimm's Fairy Tales. And by being the only person who fully understands the scope of what is happening on the mountain, he turns into the film's natural leader and plots out the destruction of the evil that lurks within the earth being unfrozen by stolen radiators, ovens, and hair dryers. Despite this sounding like an utterly ridiculous comedy, director Helander never lapses into camp or outrageousness (in a movie filled with naked old man penis, I realize, that's tough to believe). He maintains his sinister vibe and unleashes a few truly scary moments amidst his underlying tone of dread and slow-burn fear. I first saw Rare Exports in September at Fantastic Fest (the new distributor had not yet decided when the film would be released), and this is how I ended my review: "Oh, yes, Rare Exports needs to see the light of day in theaters worldwide in about three months, or I think Santa Claus may find all of us naughty and eat our bones." Don't say I didn't warn you. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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