"Black Swan" and "True Grit"
Black Swan - It's been a full week now since I saw Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan." I still have not determined whether or not I actually believe it to be a good movie. What I determined immediately and still feel very strongly, is that it is challenging, maddening, and that everyone involved have poured themselves into it fully. You have to admire Aronofsky's guts in making a film such as this. Even more than that though you have to admire his ability to get his cast and crew fully on board with a movie that could have gone so terribly wrong. This very easily could have been an unintentional cult comedy classic and I have the feeling that for some it still will be.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a driven ballet dancer in New York City who is undeniably talented but held back by what her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) says is an inability to "feel it." She is determined to get the role of the Swan Queen in his production of "Swan Lake" and has to convince Thomas that she is able to let go of her inhibitions. Nina must also overcome competition in the form of the decidedly uninhibited Lily (Mila Kunis) and also break away from her controlling mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).
At a certain point it becomes clear that "Black Swan" is an oddity even for an "art" film. As Nina begins to let go so does the movie itself. Every emotion is thrown broadly at the screen particularly in the scenes between Portman and Hershey. Eventually I began to expect Hershey to belt out, "No wire hangers, EVER!" I saw the film at a sparsely populated show in Marysville but I could practically hear the cackling from a large (and insufferable) U District audience as some of the bigger arguments played out. It seemed clear that Aronofsky and writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin intended "Black Swan" to be melodramatic but I'm not sure as to why they felt this was the right choice.
In terms of the performances Portman understands exactly what Aronofsky is going for even when we don't. As is the case with the film overall I'm still not sure if the performance really works or not but you certainly can't question her commitment to it. The same can be said for Hershey and Winona Ryder as a once great dancer unable to exit gracefully. Kunis and Cassel are terrific and manage to be subtle in comparison to everything surrounding them.
One thing I'm certain of is that it will take a second viewing for me to really solidify if I think "Black Swan" is a good movie or not. That said, the sort of broad almost comical melodrama that it is just isn't the sort of movie I really want to watch again. Even if I determine that "Black Swan" is a good film in my mind it will probably still be more a movie that I admire than one I really like. What I will say is that if you're interested in seeing it that you absolutely should. Then let me know what you thought of it.
True Grit - In the interest of full disclosure I have only seen snippets of the original 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar. It is however sitting on the DVR so I'll be watching it any day now. As much as I love to rail against the remake insanity that grips Hollywood I have a hard time believing that Henry Hathaway's original will stand up against what the Coen Brothers have given us.
The set up is quite simple. It's the late 1870s and 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is taking care of the business of having her murdered father buried. More to the point though is the business of avenging his death. The man who killed him, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is on the run and she will stop at nothing for justice. When given three recommendations as to who the best man for the job would be in tracking down Chaney she chooses the man described as the cruelest, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
Through sheer force of will she wins over the reluctant Cogburn to perform the task of finding Chaney and bringing him to justice. Also on the manhunt is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), tasked with bringing Chaney in to hang for another murder. The three make an unlikely team and it's no surprise that problems arise between them along the way. Through it all Mattie remains focused on the goal of capturing Tom Chaney and seeing him hanged for her father's killing.
Three years ago "No Country For Old Men" was described by many as a postmodern western. It was also quite possibly the best film the Coen Brothers have made, which is saying something. Now they have made their first "traditional" western. I put traditional in quotes because these are the Coens we're talking about after all. There are a few oddball touches that only the Coens could have concocted but for the most part, as they did with "No Country," they opt for simplicity in the storytelling.
In terms of the dialogue and the performances there is a sense that this is probably closer to the reality of the time period than westerns made back in the 1950s. As "The Assassination of Jesse James" did, "True Grit" acknowledges most of these men were not well educated and they certainly don't enunciate. There are moments as Cogburn when Bridges is unintelligible, something I usually find aggravating but it worked well here. Overall his performance is outstanding. He's a cantankerous yet lovable character on the surface but there's more going on underneath.
Damon is absolutely fascinating as LaBoeuf, a man who initially appears to be nothing but empty bluster. We see the depths of his character as well. As Chaney, Brolin is actually surprisingly amusing and in a way pitiable. There's also a wonderful turn from Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation as Lucky Ned is fictional). Robert Duvall played the role in 1969 and in a way he does again. Barry Pepper essentially becomes Duvall as Ned Pepper, even looking quite a bit like him. I wouldn't have thought that could work but it does in a big way.
Acting wise though, "True Grit" belongs to one person and it's Hailee Steinfeld. She's a virtual newcomer but she proves more than able as she shares the screen with some of the most talented actors in the world. Puzzlingly she's been receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actress from critics boards. Mattie Ross is the main character and Steinfeld easily has more screen time than anyone else. In my mind she gives quite possibly the best lead performance, male or female, that anyone has given in 2010. She displays Mattie's toughness and brutal honesty with wit and confidence. The title "True Grit" may have been meant to describe Cogburn but it is an even more accurate description of Mattie.
Fans of the Coen Brothers, westerns, and just great movies alike should be very happy with "True Grit." It's old fashioned in a new fashioned way. 9.5/10.