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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

True Grit, Animal Kingdom, and Musical Notes

True Grit

In my (achieved) goal to see all the Best Picture nominees by nomination morning, I caught True Grit last Sunday. I'll start off by saying that I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. They are modern directors with a true vision and a distinctive style. They pick a theme and they go with it and put their own twist on it, whether it be film noir (The Man Who Wasn't There), revisionist Western (No Country for Old Men) or personal purging of their past (A Serious Man). With True Grit they've done something quite different-they've made what I think is easily their most "straight" film, a Western in the traditional sense of the word. In my mind, this has both its advantages and disadvantages. Many scenes have a kind of classic power in that you almost feel like you're watching an image that is already iconic. The stakeout on the roof, Mattie in the cave, Rooster carrying Mattie, and several other moments feel very "classic." On the other hand, this fidelity to the Charles Portis novel and the Western genre leaves a little less room for the Coens' spark. I enjoyed the movie the whole way through, but only at times did I feel the familiar Coen brothers touch.

The three lead performances are all quite strong. As we know from Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges played falling down drunk and washed up quite well. If his performance as Rooster Cogburn seems a little less revelatory than last year's, I still can't think of another actor I'd rather see in the role. Matt Damon brings an enjoyable deadpan humor to his role as the Texas Ranger LaBouef. And Hailee Steinfeld really has the lead role (despite what Oscar said giving her a supporting nod) as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old looking to avenge her father's killer. She has to speak in an old-fashioned cadence and carry herself with determination, and she pulls it off very well and plays very well against her co-stars. The one performance I didn't really like was Josh Brolin as the villain Tom Chaney. He felt like caricature with very little depth, and this made him seem too weak in his scenes with the more fully developed characters.

True Grit has a very good beginning, taking its time to set up the characters of Mattie and Rooster. The middle of the movie is also very entertaining, but again felt reminiscent of many westerns before it. What makes the movie memorable is a truly spectacular last 15 minutes or so, including a poignant epilogue which moves into the characters' future. The Coen brothers are, as usual, served with wonderful cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. Perhaps my favorite part of the movie is the poignant and evocative score by Carter Burwell, which digs into classic American hymns. It's too bad it was disqualified for the Oscars, but take a listen below.

Overall, I applaud the Coens for creating a beautiful film that has great fidelity to both its source material and film history. If it doesn't quite place in the rank of my favorite Coen Brothers films (that would be Fargo, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski), it's still a great addition to their filmography.

Grade: B+

Animal Kingdom

Seen by probably 1% of the folks who saw True Grit, this is a small and gritty crime film from Australia which has mostly been covered for its great Supporting performance by Jacki Weaver, who managed to snag a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Animal Kingdom follows a 17-year-old (James Frecheville) whose mother dies. He then goes to live with his uncles, a notorious and wanted group of criminals, and his grandmother. The most interesting part of the movie is the family interplay, specifically with the mother of the criminals, who watches over her boys like a viper over her brood. Weaver gives a great, surprising, and nuanced performance as the mother. I also loved Ben Mendelsohn as the most vicious of the brothers. I thought James Frecheville was a bit too passive in the lead role, but there's a lot of interesting things going on around him. The movie started off a little slowly, but it had a great final third with many surprising twists and turns.

If you like crime movies, I'd definitely recommend seeking Animal Kingdom out.

Grade: B

Musical Notes

When going over my favorite surprises yesterday, I didn't mention the Best Score category. Take a listen to these 5 scores. Aren't they so enjoyable? I'm an especially big fan of The King's Speech and The Social Network. I'm really pulling for a Social Network win. How cool would it be for Trent Reznor to win an Oscar?

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