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True Grit

Jeff Bridges’s work with the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski is well known, and as his Academy Award for Crazy Heart shows, he is no slouch in a cowboy persona. But to indulge a comparison of those roles to Bridges’s character in True Grit is to distract the viewer’s attention from the originality of the Coen brothers’ latest effort — so, too, would be a pro-and-con assessment of remake vs. original. Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn and the Coen’s True Grit stand alone.

Bridges leaps at the role with such grind and boast that we are often left with too much to appreciate: the stumbling drunkard (his belly defying the buttons of his garments), the wide-draw lawman, the heart-wrung father figure. Bridges hones his drawl so thick that his lines should sometimes have subtitles, crunching vowel and consonant as if he were chewing through his jawbone. Decipherable or not, he presents a convincing foil to Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the opposing figure of law and duty — sober, educated, and shamelessly conspicuous in a tasseled, yellow jacket. Their moments of showy competition are sublime.

That said, the film really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old firecracker determined to bring her father’s murderer to justice. We are devoted to her cause from our introduction. Steinfeld balances the role well, embracing her cherub features but hardening them in a convincing, understated way. Just as Mattie stuffs her father’s cowboy hat to make it fit, so too does Steinfeld fill the role with nuance. Her matter-of-fact-delivery; her voice, thin and sealed; and her tall, narrow stance are elements of a superbly crafted character. Mattie commands respect from friend and foe alike: “You do not varnish your opinion,” mumbles her captor. “You give little sugar with your words,” utters her savior.

But no Coen brothers’ picture rests solely on the actor’s trade; indeed, the brothers often make actors look better than they really are. Here, the Coens continue to impress. They don’t simply avoid clichés, they turn them on their head, making fresh, bold choices in an aged genre. They bring their characteristic flair for crisp, fluent dialogue and achieve some well-earned laughs between the guffaws and chuckles. They bask in expert cinematic frames of depth and height, allowing the viewer to surmise just how high a man can dangle from a tree or just how wide a horizon can expand a grave. They mute the backing palette for a stark contrast with an important symbol: the somber blues of twilight are interrupted by a sparking pipe, the burnt ambers of a desk simmer up to a bowl of red apples. These flashes of color illustrate the film’s treatment of violence - violence that is often sudden, ferocious, and has consequence.

Such is the thematic heart of the movie. True Grit is not a revenge tale or even a justice tale. It is a film about strength in the face of any obstacle, about the compass of respect between the righteous and the renegade. Such is evident from the almost dismissive treatment of the “villain” in the film’s final act, of his virtually nil screen time. The true villain is a more-innate adversary. The climaxes the viewer encounters are not the ritual of common Westerns, they are a universal call to catharsis. We are distanced from our instinct to compare. As Cogburn growls when relaying his plan, “Get ’em to know our intentions are serious.”

★★★★



The Fighter

The Fighter is not so much a movie about boxing as it is a movie about fighting, the act of conflict, the dynamic of opponent verses opponent. In this sense, the film’s title is fitting — the opposing pugilist as a metaphor for more-personal adversaries. Of course, just about any film concerning boxing uses the sport as a simile for a larger personal struggle, but never has the attention been so lopsided in its focus on the dramatic turmoil of the titular character — the fighter inside the man, outside the ring.

The film’s greatest strength is the tension in the characters. Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, the real-life road worker from Lowell, Massachusetts, who recharged his sputtering boxing career to win the WBU Light Welterweight Championship in 2000. Wahlberg, who has always had a slugger’s physique, brings an engaging sensitivity and restraint to the role. We see him battle on the ropes, but we experience Ward’s toughest matches against his family and in his home: the judgmental eyes of the close-knit community, the scummy mother using guilt to impede his independent progress, and, of course, the crack-addicted brother/trainer, living vicariously and in mediocrity.

Unable (or unwilling) to follow Wahlberg’s example, Christian Bale brings a twitchy, frenetic histrionic to his performance (“I’m squirrelly as fuck!”). Hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked, he attempts to steal as much of every scene as he can. His delivery might be justified by the reality of his addiction — is this not how a crackhead would act? — but it also seems too obvious. Bale is predictable where Wahlberg is powerful.

Amy Adams appears as the supportive girlfriend, struggling with her own missed dreams and wasted opportunities. Adams proves just as effective playing a foul-mouthed, streetwise brawler as she does a demure and mousy nun. Like Wahlberg, she brings dignity to the tough-as-nails persona — ruggedly captivating, with a charitable smile and reservoir eyes. Her presence (far more than Bale’s by-the-numbers prison recovery) highlights the film’s themes of shame, effort, and redemption.

Director David O. Russell nicely contrasts the gritty reality of Lowell with the glitzy sheen of Vegas, and we can praise the imagination in the display of boxing-match titles over the urban discord of the town or the voiceover of an argument played in unison with an intimate love scene. Less effective is the pixilated coverage of the matches themselves. This last touch is no doubt intended to offer some sense of historical atmosphere to the proceedings, mimicking the visual acuity of an HBO sporting event. But the effect is lost in the climactic bout when the camera wallows into melodramatic slow-mo. Even before this, the fights are rather absurd — tight, incomprehensible batches of choppy editing and one-punch knockouts. The family quarrels have far more “fight” than the ring, and the customary training montages set to a collection of pop-rock hits do nothing to assist.

★★

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Comments

Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 22, 2010 @ 7:08 p.m.

The ratings system on the Reader website has gone goofy, for whatever reason. I first noticed in the review of 'Unstoppable' by Duncan Shepherd, a new rating mysteriously appears: "Reader Rating: 3.0 ★★★ "

The original rating was of course a black spot (●), as anybody could tell after reading the review. Exact same problem in the Shepherd review of 'Due Date' (it was promoted bizarrely from black spot - to - 3 stars.

I've noticed this upping of the ratings in many other reviews posted this week, higher than the original movie reviewer indicated. I don't know what gives here, but it's time to fix that.

Many other false ratings: 'The The Social Network' now gets 4 stars (originally only 1), 'Elf' gets 2 (it received only 1 in Duncan Shepherd's review). On the other hand, it also cuts the other way: 'Inside Job' and 'Mao's Last Dancer' are now listed with black spots - originally they were given a star each. And 'The King's Speech' is listed as a black spot when I distinctly remember David Elliot's 4-star review. Last one I'll mention: DE's 1-star for '127 Hours' is now listed as 3 stars. So it's obviously not a conspiracy to mess with Mr. Shepherd's integrity alone.

I first noticed such ratings problems on this site when I saw 4-stars for 'Tootsie' and 'Edward Scissorhands'. I only ever saw 2 stars for those movies in print. 'Scissorhands' is back to it's rightful rating, but 'Tootsie' is still at 4 stars for some reason. What gives?

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Scott Ellis Dec. 23, 2010 @ 7:25 p.m.

We're having a problem with the movie-capsule section. Hope to have fixed soon.

— Reader Ed.

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 24, 2010 @ 4:18 a.m.

Glad to hear it. What matters most - of course - is that all the original text of the reviews remain in their original state. The ratings are only there to confuse. I was sort of hoping that the Reader would stop using ratings altogether in Shepherd's absence. Mr. Shepherd may have originally borrowed the Black Spot from Cashiers du cinema (or was it Robert Louis Stevenson?), but he made it so distinctly his own, it's sort of a shame to see it passed on like this. Anyhoo, as long as the reviews are up, they can use any symbols (♡, ✿, ☀, ☺, ☼, ۞, et cetra) or amount of them, and I'll be fine!

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M. E. Dec. 27, 2010 @ 5:27 p.m.

How in the world do you know what the correct rating for Elf should be? That came out in 2003. Or Tootsie, 1982! Do you have a house full of old Readers?

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MsGrant Dec. 28, 2010 @ 12:16 p.m.

jhutt, there are thousands of movie reviews archived here on the Reader website. Below is the link. Just type in what movie you are interested in reading about, and presto!

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movie_archives/

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M. E. Dec. 28, 2010 @ 6:11 p.m.

MsGrant: The website is currently in error (not showing the correct rating). He's telling us what the ratings should be for the site THAT IS CURRENTLY IN ERROR.

Ergo, need another source. See?

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 29, 2010 @ 4:46 a.m.

Hah,

1 - memory ... I remember the ratings of nearly all the movies Duncan Shepherd reviewed. So call me a freak.

2 - yes, I do have stacks of old readers where I live. No need to call me one, freakdom confirmed.

I'd like to point out that I am of course flawed: for instance, I said the original review of 'Unstoppable' was a Black Spot review -- I was wrong, it was a 1 Star (surprisingly). I remember a couple of other times in the past I was wrong....

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 22, 2010 @ 7:10 p.m.

By the way, really good reviews of 'The Fighter' and 'True Grit', John Rubio!

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JohnnyJ Dec. 25, 2010 @ 12:15 a.m.

AGREE WITH ALIAS. GOOD REVIEW OF THOSE FILMS. THE FIRST REVIEW A MONTH AGO WAS OFF.

HOW DID 127 HOURS GET A BLACK DOT? CRITICS PUT IT ON THEIR BEST OF THE YEAR LIST. DOES THIS MEAN THE NEW CRITICS ARE AS BAD AS DUNCAN WAS?

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 29, 2010 @ 4:48 a.m.

I could only hope 1 of 3 of the reviewers now are "as bad as Duncan was", I can only hope.

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nan shartel Dec. 26, 2010 @ 2:23 p.m.

u surely know how to rub it in JohnnyJ....including the caps

i haven't seen these 2 movies yet but i can't imagine Bridges could be any better in it then Wayne...of course the long love affair most my age had with Wayne may have coloured that opinion a touch...

it almost hurts to think it WAS remade

maybe they should take a lesson from Disney and redistribute it every 20 years for the next generation

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SurfPuppy619 Dec. 26, 2010 @ 5:07 p.m.

True Grit looks awesome!

I never liked the original True Grit-must have been that eye patch and me being a kid.....I also never knew The Duke wore a wig!

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acannell Dec. 28, 2010 @ 10:06 p.m.

you people make me sick. im so tired of living in a world full of mostly stupid people. god

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Dec. 29, 2010 @ 4:53 a.m.

"you people make me sick. im so tired of living in a world full of mostly stupid people. god"

Sez the "Tea Party" apologist. Try using Capitols and punctuation next time, and I'll get a giant pillow for that head of yours.

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nan shartel Dec. 29, 2010 @ 1:29 a.m.

CC...it was metastatic...i think they never really knew what came first the chicken or the egg in his cancer...in those day they weren't as able to type cancer as to its original site ...stomach and gastric cancer is so so slow growing it can metastasize and the 2nd or 3rd location can present 1st

puppy most aortic valve replacement in those days were ping pong ball and cage ones that clicked and could be heard sometime outside the chest...now it mostly calve valves...pig valves for Mitral Valve replacement

i worked at Hoag in 73 and a special unit was there paid for by the "Duke"

the talk at the time was both cigarettes and the Monument Valley experience...6 packs a day wow...i guess it was cigarettes then

and acannell...the peeps here r not stupid...but u sure the duck are...move to Mars

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 14, 2011 @ 8:28 p.m.

nan, it is amazing how smoking is no longer "cool", and how the rates-espcially in CA- have come down so much.....

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monaghan Jan. 14, 2011 @ 7:57 p.m.

Back to "True Grit:" it was wonderful. The girl, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are terrific. There is a horse-trading conversation that takes the cake. I hear the novel on which it's based is sold out all over the country, and no wonder.

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nan shartel Jan. 15, 2011 @ 12:17 p.m.

i'm now convinced to go see it....i'm crazy about Jeff Bridges so why not

;-D

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 15, 2011 @ 6:40 p.m.

Nan, I saw Iron Man for the first time a few nights ago on TV-and Jeff Bridges is the bad guy in that show!!!! I had no idea he was in Iron Man.....I am a big fan too.

Did you ever see the 1976 movie "Stay Hungry" with Jeff, Arnold Schwarzenneger and Sally Field??? Good movie.........

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