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True Grit (2010)

It may sound like sacrilege to some to remake True Grit. What can the Coen brothers add? Can Jeff Bridges fill in the boots of John Wayne? Those familiar with the 1969 original will recognize many of the same elements and a solid 70% of the dialogue is the same owing to the fact that both films come from the same source, Charles Portis’ novel. Where the Coens step out is placing the story’s focus on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old seeking vengeance for her dead father. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is a rascally often drunken cynic, so it’s easy to get swept up in the amusing character, initially played by the Duke and now played with great gruffness by Bridges. But the Coens know this is Mattie’s story, and apologies to Kim Darby, but Steinfeld looks like a 14-year-old. Every second onscreen reminds you how truly vulnerable she is, that is, until she opens her mouth. Steinfeld is remarkable and so self-assured. She holds her own with the stars. This is a young actress that has a bright future in Hollywood.

The Coens have put together such richly drawn characters, so it’s a tremendous pleasure just to watch the people interact, luxuriating in that old West speaking style that actors chew over like gumbo. It takes a while for the film to assemble its pieces, but once the gang is underway you just want to spend. As anyone who has ever seen a Coen brothers’ picture, the movie is technically flawless. Whether it be the sumptuous old west cinematography by the best man in the industry, Roger Deakens, the stirring score by Carter Burwell, impeccable sound design, or the overall languid yet authentic pacing of the whole film. There are moments of offbeat humor, moments of quiet tension, explosions of brutish violence, but I had to ask what it all added up to. It’s a good time spent with some nice characters, but it’s hard to shake the idea that the movie falls short of greatness. The Coens can’t be expected to make a masterpiece every time they step behind a camera. But the films that fall short of the M-word generally can be slotted in the “mostly very good” category (O Brother, Burn After Reading). You’re left with a somewhat sour resolution and it starts you thinking whether or not the film had anything substantial to say about vengeance, friendship, community, or a legion of topics. It turns out, True Grit is a solid two hours of great actors working through an entertaining story. For any other filmmaker, that would be all you could ask for. For the Coens, it means the film only can be classified as “very good.”

Nate’s Grade: B+

Jonah Hex (2010)

Clocking in at barely 73 fraught minutes, Jonah Hex is a bizarre Western sci-fi hybrid that never really stops to fully explain the rules of this universe. Josh Brolin, who does what he can with the disfigured badass, plays the Hex of title. Hex has a facial deformity along his mouth, which means it’s hard to understand whatever the man is saying as he slurs and mumbles the majority of his tough guy talk. It’s not smart to have your main character unintelligible. Watching Jonah Hex gives you the impression that nobody, cast and crew, knew what was happening. One minute Hex rides a horse with a, I kid you not, double gattling gun, and the next he’s fighting against a crazy John Malkovich who wants to build Eli Whitney’s doomsday machine. Did I also mention that Hex can bring people back to life for short periods of time via his magic touch? The look of the film is overly aggressive, with a rock guitar jackhammer score and plenty of souped-up special effects shots that try and ignite some flailing sense of excitement. It’s hard to get excited about a movie that feels so soulless. Jonah Hex feels like some studio shill thought they could buy a comic property and fill it with sure-fire elements that would please a teenage male base. Megan Fox (Transformers) in a bodice can only distract from the gaping void of a cohesive screenplay for so long. Then you stop and remember how much this movie sucks.

Nate’s Grade: D

Milk (2008)

The biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official is stirring, thoughtful, and occasionally limited. Sean Penn gives a wonderful performance as the captivating and tragic Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). He changes his look, his voice, how he carries his shoulders and moves his arms; it’s a terrific and transformative performance that only sometimes hits a few fey stereotypes. The movie mostly follows Milk’s path as a community organizer who successfully mobilized the gay rights movement. You’ll witness local politics in depth, and that’s my one reservation with this fine film – it focuses too heavily on the political formation of a movement and less on the man that kick-started it. You get little glimpses of Milk the man, and most of those glimpses happen to be his romantic relationships with annoying men. That said, director Gus Van Sant orchestrates real archival footage from the time including protestors and homophobic spokespeople, and it gives the movie an authentic relevancy. The deadly confrontation between Milk and White is played in a painful, very un-Hollywood approach that made me wince hard. It’s amazing to watch Milk and realize how far the American public has come since the 1970s and how much further we, as a nation, have to go.

Nate’s Grade: A-

W. (2008)

Director Oliver Stone’s first draft at history is never boring but it’s rarely insightful. The film portrays George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) as a stubborn and simple man trying to live outside his abilities and the long shadow of his successful and emotionally distant father. George W. was not the favored son, as he is routinely reminded, and Ma and Pa Bush express their frustration. And yet the son who did not have his family’s support and acumen accomplished what no one else in the family had. He won reelection. He toppled Saddam Hussein. And then it all came crashing down. Ultimately, who was this movie made for? The detractors of Bush will view the film being too light, providing a psychological context that humanizes the man amongst his mistakes. You may even feel some sympathy as George W. repeatedly tries to earn his father’s approval. The movie is not a partisan or mean-spirited skewering. The fans of Bush will consider the film to be a cheap shot that restrings famous blunders and transplants Bush malapropisms into new settings. People may take offense at the idea of the current Iraq War being a result of unresolved daddy issues. Seriously, for a two-hour movie spanning the life and career of the most reviled modern day president, did Stone need to include the moment where Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel? Over the 2000 election debacle? Over the Air National Guard? Over 9/11?

W. lacks a strong point of view and the film’s timeline closes too soon, only going so far as January 2004, not even the halfway point for a two-term president who has only sunk lower in national approval from that moment. A miniseries would be a better medium to explore the failures and calamities and personalities of the Bush Administration. Brolin is terrific in the title role and he never dips into parody. The rest of the actors are hit-or-miss and the movie becomes somewhat of a game of identifying famous historical figures in their one-scene appearances. My biggest surprise was how much I felt emotionally connected to the first President Bush, played by James Cromwell in a performance that doesn’t even attempt to imitate the real-life figure. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) certainly don’t hide the characters they connect with (Colin Powell, often the voice of reason, is given a stirring speech calling for caution). Certain creative license is taken to provide dream sequences that can point toward the inner turmoil of Bush, like when his father admonishes him for destroying 200 years of the family’s name over the Iraq War. Overall, W. is an empathetic and sometimes dithering portrayal of the 43rd United States’ president that could have succeeded if it had more to say.

Nate’s Grade: B-

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Joel and Ethan Coen are two of cinema’s most talented oddballs. Together, they’ve created some of the most intricate, eclectic, and best movies of the last 25 years. Their last two efforts, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s remake of The Ladykillers, didn’t feel like Coen movies; they felt like they were compromised and missed the artistically deft touch. As a result, both movies were mild failures for filmmakers that have a series of genre-spanning masterpieces to their name. No Country for Old Men is the first time the brothers have adapted someone else’s work, in this instance Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. Not too shabby if I say so. Fortunately for all lovers of film, the Coens have embraced McCarthy’s blood-soaked tale and crafted an exciting, honest, and intensely provocative modern Western that stands out as one of the greatest films of the year.

In dusty West Texas, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting the lonely plains when he discovers a blood trail. It leads him to four empty cars riddled with bullet holes, dead bodies collecting flies, and a sack containing two million dollars in cash. The signs are all there that this was a drug deal gone badly, and two million will never go unnoticed, but Moss sees this as an opportunity of a lifetime and takes the money. The men in power have hired Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find their drugs and money and exact retribution. Chigurh’s preferred method of killing involves a high-pressured air canister that can blow out doorknobs and human brains. Chigurh chases after Moss all the while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is following the trail of death to try and save Moss or any future innocent victims.

What a fine-tuned, nerve-wracking, and engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller this film is. The action is brief but the buildup can be nearly unbearable to endure. The tension is magnificent. Chigurh chases Moss from hideout to hideout and some of the tensest moments are just waiting. There’s a moment where Moss is calling the front desk of his newest motel and we hear the phone ringing unanswered again and again from the hall, all the while Chigurh’s footsteps inch closer. But it’s the moments of silence that cause the most dread. When Moss is trying to recover his loot, all the while Chigurh is in the opposite motel room, it becomes a balancing act of sound and silence. No Country for Old Men is expertly orchestrated to involve the use of sound as a tool for high suspense. None of our main three characters inhabit a scene together. Sure Moss and Chigurh shoot at one another but even then it’s short and focused on waiting for response and counter response. Moss is no dummy and he sets up some traps for his would-be dispatcher. No Country for Old Men is unnerving, intelligent, near flawless entertainment.

Chigurh, as masterfully played by Bardem, is the stuff of nightmares. I was literally afraid to go home after seeing this movie and it is because No Country for Old Men fashions a villain so methodical, so cold-blooded, and so downright deadly and cunning that I felt as if he could very well be residing under my bed at night waiting. Bardem is hypnotically horrifying and the Coen brothers establish early on how ruthless their cinematic boogeyman is. The very first moment we’re introduced to Chigurh he escapes from police custody and strangles the inattentive officer on duty. He drags him to the floor and chokes the life out of him, but the Coens position the camera not on the last desperate kicks of the officer but on the face of Anton Chigurh, and it is nasty. His eyes are bugged out and his intensity comes across as sadistically jubilant. He seems like a caged animal finally let loose. It’s a scary yet fascinating introduction to a deadly character.

Chigurh is a humorless and determined man, and every scene he steps into instantly changes. A gas attendant casually asks Chigurh about the weather and gets on his bad side and the stone-faced killer in the Dutch boy haircut proceeds to press the poor man with increasing agitation, yet Chigurh always speaks in such a placid tone that makes him far creepier. He’s a maniac that never raises his voice. Chigurh then corrals the man into one of his signatures, having a victim decide their fate by the flip of a coin. Before the man can say anything the coin is flipped, Chigurh intones to “call it,” and the man nervously repeats that he needs to know what he’s at stake to win. “Everything,” Chigurh responds. This scene starts off so innocuous but becomes monumentally unsettling thanks to the rising dread and Bardem’s deeply committed portrayal. Bardem is alarming, ferocious, grimly efficient, mesmerizing, and deserves an Oscar win, not just a mere nomination, for what is his finest performance to date.

There are many ways to describe Chigurh, but it seems most appropriate to speak of him as nothing short but the full-tilt vengeance of God. He’s a hired killer, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from killing indiscriminately. He murders several innocent victims, he murders his competition sent out to nab Moss just because it insults him, and even after the money no longer becomes a concern, Chigurh still plans to continue his wrath out of sheer moral principle. He made a promise of swooping vengeance and he will stick to it. This means that anyone could die at any moment while onscreen with Chigurh, and No Country for Old Men has plenty of surprises as it toys around with our baited anticipation. When Chigurh gets the drop on his competition he doesn’t shoot the man immediately; instead the scene plays out for an agonizing length even after we listen to the room phone ring several times, and then blam! Chigurh answers the phone and casually raises his boots so the pooling blood doesn’t touch his feet. This is the most memorable incarnation of soulless evil I have seen in the movies since Hannibal Lector came to iconic form in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.

Brolin is having quite a career year for himself after compelling turns in American Gangster (where he also shoots a dog), In the Valley of Elah, and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half of Grindhouse. Brolin gives the audience a figure to root for even though he never actually displays true heroism, just survival instincts. Jones serves as a wise and guiding father figure that feels out of place in a world that is becoming increasingly, shockingly violent. It’s a role that Jones has performed before but it’s a role that fits the actor exceptionally well. Woody Harrelson pops up as a charming and laid back handler trying to convince Moss to give up before things get worse. Kelly Macdonald, as Moss’ wife, cuts through the darkness in a refreshing performance.

The technical craftsmanship is on par with previous Coen excellence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is exquisite, Carter Burwell’s score barely makes its presence felt, and the editing is tight and focused. The sound design, which I’ve already discussed in detail, deserves an Oscar. This being a Coen brothers’ film, it wouldn’t be complete without some dark humor to punctuate the bleakness. They have a perfect ear for local vernacular and Texas shorthand, so the dialogue feels sharp but realistically twangy without being condescending as some had accused Fargo (I do not agree with this accusation).

What works in the favor of No Country for Old Men may perhaps be its undoing for a mainstream audience. The film works against conventions and this provides for some stellar surprises and upheavals, none of which is bigger than killing a certain character off-screen. No Country for Old Men definitely seems like it’s laying stage for a climactic showdown and then one key figure has been bumped off by a group of ancillary characters that have little overall bearing over the plot (I have read that the same gap happens in McCarthy’s novel). If this doesn’t perturb audiences then the final 10 minutes ought to do it. There’s no sense of closure for the movie and this will frustrate many, but it all fits rather nicely with the movie’s highly nihilistic tone. Like Chigurh’s coin, the film focuses much on the randomness and cruelty of fate. By sticking to this ethic, the Coen bothers are eschewing the traditional Hollywood rulebook and playing around with our expectations for characters and plot. The outlook isn’t too sunny for many involved. It works and demands an audience remain on edge for fear that anything could happen at any moment. However, don’t say I didn’t warn you if you walk out of No Country for Old Men and say, “What was that all about?”

No Country for Old Men is exactly the kind of material the Coen brothers needed to return to form. This is a lean and stirring thriller that plays to their strengths and echoes some of their most riveting and twisty work, like Blood Simple and Fargo. In many ways the film feels like a Western, a high-stakes drama, and a tragedy that takes its time to unravel. It may have taken some time but the Coen brothers are back, baby, and No Country for Old Men is fit to stand beside their hallowed pedigree of cinematic classics.

Nate’s Grade: A

Grindhouse (2007)

The movie going experience isn’t what it used to be, and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez want to do something about it. There?s no denying that the joy of seeing a movie has been watered down a bit; there’s soaring ticket prices, floundering product, and let’s not forget the influx of teenagers with cell phones. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up gorging upon the exploitation films at their neighborhood grindhouse, where they could see kung-fu, blaxploitation, gory Italian zombie movies, and nearly anything that promised to be titillating and shocking. These movies dealt in copious amounts of sex and violence on a shoestring budget and teenagers lapped it up. Grindhouse was designed to be a double feature with Rodriguez and Tarantino each writing and directing an 80-minute movie. This three-hour plus movie is stuffed to the gills with 70s reverence, right down to cheesy retro clips telling us the film rating via an animated cat. If Rodriguez and Tarantino could, they probably would make the floors stickier just to round out the experience. But that’s the marvelous thing about Grindhouse –– it turns the filmgoing experience into an event once again.

First on the bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. An outbreak is about to sweep across a small Texas town. A toxic green gas is causing people to break out in festering wounds that are spreading rapidly. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is a go go dancer who runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a badass drifter with a dark past. They get attacked by a group of “sickos” who take Cherry’s leg as a chew toy. At the hospital we’re introduced in rapid succession to Dr. Block (Mary Shelton) and her creepy husband (Josh Brolin) she plans on leaving for the lovingly massive cleavage of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (she gets eaten and can, one assumes, be described as being Fergilicious). The sheriff (Michael Biehn) has an unsettled score with Wray and refuses to trust him, even though the town is slowly being overrun by what appear to be zombies. The survivors take refuge at a Bar-B-Q joint, run by the sheriff’s brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), located only two miles away from the military outpost that released the gas.

Planet Terror is a great blast of fun, a perfect ode to schlocky B-movies. Rodriguez creates action movies closer to cartoons, and the more over-the-top and crazy things get the more joyous his films generally turn out. This is a gonzo world cranked up to a wonderfully weird wavelength, where Cherry can have a machine gun leg without any nagging question on how she even gets it to fire let alone why it would be more accurate. It doesn’t matter because this movie is all about 80-minutes of awesome, twisted, gloriously gory fun. Planet Terror isn’t the first zombie comedy, and its inspirations are quite plain, but the film establishes a wide-range of colorful characters effectively and then ramps up the chaos. Rodriguez amuses with even small touches, like a woman trying to operate a car with a anesthetized hands, a pair of skimpy babysitters who clobber a car with baseball bats, and a bio-chemical scientist (Naveen Andrews) that has a penchant for collecting and bottling the testicles of the men who fail him (hey, we all need hobbies). Even amongst an exaggerated canvas there’s still plenty of humor and adoration for the grindhouse experience, like when the beginning of a sex scene is interrupted with a “reel missing” sign. Rodriguez also intentionally downgrades the look of his film, adding hairs and scratches and pops in the film to look like it had been dragged across the floor. Planet Terror even has a dreadfully dated synth score to compliment the full-tilt celebration of splattery schlock.

Tarantino’s Death Proof is going to sharply divide audiences. The action in Planet Terror is relentlessly paced, which makes the adjustment to Tarantino?s half all the more hard. Rodriguez is all about genre relevance and making a film that would excel in the grindhouse era; Tarantino, on the other hand, is all about taking the genre and catapulting it into something ambitious and different and greater.

Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the slasher horror genre, with the unique twist being that Tarantino?s roving killer takes out his prey with his car. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is a stuntman of the old guard. The youth of the day have no idea of the TV shows he worked on or the celebrities he rubbed elbows with. The only lasting visages he has from those removed days are a long scar decorating the side of his face and his stunt car. The vehicle has been outfitted to be death proof, meaning that Stuntman Mike can get into any wreck and come out alive. A group of women are visiting Tennessee for a film shoot. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a makeup artist, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress, and Zoe Bell (herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) are professional stuntwomen. The stunt ladies are interested in test-driving a Dodge Charger, the same iconic car used in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to play a dangerous game known as “Ship’s Mast,” which entails strapping herself to the hood of the car as it speeds along. This is when Stuntman Mike comes roaring with his death proof material and plays an extreme game of chicken.

The narrative structure of Death Proof is deliberately slow. The focus is on a group of Texas girls (including Sydney Poitier’s daughter named, rather unoriginally, Sydney Poitier). They dance to jukebox jams and drink. And they talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. The dialogue is clever but you worry Tarantino has been hypnotized by his own pithy writing. The movie drags a bit but mostly because it follows a film that had the pace of a runaway train. The slow buildup is an intentional correlation to slasher films, which would spend their first half hour setting up characters for the eventual slaughter. I liked how Stuntman Mike was seen playing with his prey and interacting with them. The wait is worth it, though, but then Tarantino turns around and repeats this same setup with a new batch of girls. Many will grow impatient going through the same process all over again and become irritated that they have to endure another round of talky pop culture diatribes in order to get to some more vehicular manslaughter. And at this point, the only character the audience has any affinity for is Stuntman Mike, so it’s a little tough to wait so long for his reappearance. When he does appear, the movie takes some unexpected turns and transforms into a female revenge thriller that left my audience cheering by its conclusion. My wife loved it. I married the right woman.

The makeup work is outstanding. Most of the effect work gets its spotlight during Rodriguez’s half, and Greg Nicotero and KNB have created the most gut churning, sickeningly inventive makeup work since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is dripping in blood, and the gore is heightened to such an unrealistic, comical degree that it becomes more tolerable and, in the end, another element in the overall outrageous vibe of the film. Some memorable gore work includes makeup pioneer Tom Savini being ripped apart like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, soldiers whose faces undulate and bubble until they look like close relatives of the Elephant Man, and a truck smashing against bodies like they were made of paper and filled to the brim with Kool-Aid. This is the kind of movie where entire hoses of blood explode from single gun shot wounds. It is a gory, gruesome, sticky icky movie but that?s part of the fun.

Whereas the makeup work shines in Planet Terror, the stunt work in Death Proof is stupendous. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill tandem, so by writing a part specifically for her Tarantino knew he could get up close and personal during the scary moments. Seeing Bell struggling to stay atop the hood of a car zooming at 80 miles per hour is nerve-racking and exhilarating, and you know there isn’t any computer trickery given how Tarantino’s own characters bemoan how computers have blunted action cinema output. That really is Bell and even though it’s all a movie a part of you does think, “Oh my God, this woman is going to die for real.” This killer bumper-car sequence in Death Proof will have you holding your breath. It takes much longer for Tarantino to rev up his action, but when he does he puts the pedal to the mettle.

But don’t get up for pee breaks once Planet Terror is over, because you may miss some of the best parts of Grindhouse. In between the feature films are three fake trailers directed by friends of Tarantino and Rodriguez, who made a fake trailer himself for Machete, about a Federale (Danny Trejo) out for revenge. The Machete trailer gave me the everlasting gift of a line, “They f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”

The best trailer, hands down, is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright?s trailer for Don’t, a Dario Argento style horror film where a narrator instructs the audience lots of items not to do (“If you are thinking about turning this door… DON’T! If you think about going into the basement… DON’T!”). What makes Don’t so wonderful is that the trailer builds a thick head of steam, to the point where all wee see are bizarre rapid-fire images and the announcing repeating the message, “DON’T!” The momentum builds to a great comic high that left me giggling.

Eli Roth, who gave us Hostel and Cabin Fever, one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences, runs a close second with his slasher trailer for Thanksgiving. The concept is rather straightforward, a person dressed as a Pilgrim picks off residents around Turkey Day, and a great showcase for Roth’s sense of tongue-in-cheek homage and his warped sense of humor. This trailer has some gasp-inducing moments, chiefly among them a topless cheerleader who performs the splits right onto a knife blade. Wow. Then there’s a guy humping a stuffed turkey with a human head attached. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Roth is one sick bastard but he’s my kind of bastard.

Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. sounds better on paper than how it turns out. There’s a subgenre of Naziploitation films (did you know you could add “-sploitation” to damn near any word?), most famously popularized by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie?s trailer has got hairy wolf boobs, Nazis, shiny fetish outfits and S&M, but it feels too new and doesn’t work on the same vibe of Grindhouse. It feels too polished and too happy with itself; it spends more time telling you who’s in this fake movie than delivering anything juicy. The trailer is saved by a brilliant cameo by an actor whom I will not spoil, but suffice to say that I was left in stitches.

Honestly, I cannot say another movie released this year that provides more bang for your buck than Grindhouse. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill will leave you giddy. This is the fastest 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life, folks. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been doing as well at the box-office and this has caused the Weinsteins to contemplate splitting the films into two to make the most of their investment. I suppose Grindhouse was never going to have a 300-sized audience, since the idea of making a sloppy three-hour love letter to trashy cinema seems destined for a limited appeal. This is a high-art tribute to high camp, and you really do feel you get more than your money’s worth even if you pay, like I do, 10 bucks a pop for a show. I can’t imagine having a better time at the movies this year than the one I had during Grindhouse.

Nate’s Grade: A

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