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Two heavyweight Oscar contenders in review

Paul Brinnel

Issue date: 1/21/11 Section: Focus
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For over a quarter century Joel and Ethan Coen have quietly become one of the most dependable forces in American cinema. Their last four films came out less than a year apart each, and each is within in its own right a sprawling odyssey, completely dissimilar from anything else in the Coen brothers' already considerable body of work. True Grit fits comfortably into this pattern.

True Grit follows the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl dealing with the aftermath of her father's murder. She doggedly recruits Deputy U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to pursue her father's killer into Choctaw territory. They are soon joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and the merry trio sets off on a finely tuned adventure.

Steinfeld carries herself with an exaggerated maturity, and the Coens' screenplay develops her with an effortless mix of desperate determination and comic seriousness. Bridges plays Cogburn with an exaggerated loutishness, and the Coens harness this energy to great effect. Whereas it would have been easy to fall back on writing a simple "badass with a heart of gold" character, this iteration of Cogburn is completely sincere in his sociopathic boorishness. However, when Cogburn does show compassion, it is not a departure from the character as much as a manifestation of morality through a vehicle still riddled with tragic character flaws.

Rather than approaching True Grit as a remake of the 1969 original, the Coen brothers have combined elements from the original film, the original novel, and many of their own inventions. The result beckons no comparison to the original; it is a re-imagining, and merely tells a similar story in a distinctively Coen manner.

A timid ballerina grows into an artist. Regardless how complicated Black Swan tries to be, that is the essential struggle it depicts. The arguable issues with the film come in the distorting themes layered upon this otherwise familiar tragedy.

Much in line with his previous film, The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky has set out to traumatize his audience with a visceral and violent depiction of a traditionally sterile art-form. Drawing much from Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have turned Swan Lake into a sensuous Danse Macabre.

The two main characters, Nina and Lily (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) are constructed as foils to the point of a classical fable. One precise, one passionate; one paranoid, one carefree; one virginal, one wanton; one wears white, one wears black. The theme of explicit opposites is displayed so prominently that at many points it begins to grow a bit desensitizing.

As Nina grows less and less stable, her perceptions morph into those of a paranoid schizophrenic. Unfortunately, Aronofsky chooses to portray her unwinding with the tact of a typical slasher film. Suspenseful music and horror movie tricks dominate the last act of the film, making it less about representing our heroine's tragic demise and more about depicting a series of abstract climaxes. It might have been more effective for Aronofsky to take a note from Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, and realize that a paranoid descent into madness is most terrifying when it's implicitly felt rather than scared into the viewer.

Grievances aside, Aronofsky has endeavored to make a complex film that doesn't spoon-feed the audience its exposition. There are many issues, but none due to a lack of ambition.



Paul Brinnel maintains his own film review website at www.cfilmc.com.
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Issue Summary

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  • Surprises abound at Film Society's 36th Annual Sci-Fi Movie Marathon
  • Two heavyweight Oscar contenders in review
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