The King’s Grit (Weekly Links)

Merry Christmas, from Rooster Cogburn

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and other stuff:

True Grit. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Maybe it’s the voiceover narration that creates this impression, but there’s something about the new version of “True Grit” that resembles a favorite book read out loud. You’ve heard the story before, it’s not really new, but the delights of hearing a good old yarn are significant.

Where you’ve heard the story before is most likely the 1969 film version of “True Grit.” That box-office hit won a richly-deserved Oscar for John Wayne, who was then moving into the final phase of his career. Both films are based on a novel by Charles Portis.

This new one was adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, who recently trekked west in “No Country for Old Men.” Their take on “True Grit” is a lighter movie than that, but it offers the pleasures of the western genre in abundance.

That narrator is Mattie Ross, remembering the story from middle age. As a 14-year-old, Mattie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in an unfamiliar town to send home the body of her father, killed by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney. Being a spunky girl with no small sense of justice, she hires a U.S. marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to find Chaney and arrest him. Cogburn, the old John Wayne role, is played by Jeff Bridges—decked out in eye-patch, paunch, and happy drinking habit.

Marshal and girl are accompanied in their manhunt by a Texas Ranger, LaBouef (Matt Damon), who’s been tracking Chaney himself. Much of what happens is arranged in a few big sequences: a spellbinding set of action around a cabin at night, and the trio’s eventual rendezvous with a gang led by a scurvy varmint called Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The real rendezvous is Jeff Bridges meeting up with a cantankerous character already well-known to movie history. Bridges plays the grizzled humor of it, and is especially good when growling out replies on the witness stand during a trial unrelated to the main plot.

This is an interesting lesson about movie acting. Jeff Bridges gives a nicely thought-out performance, and scores well with it. But John Wayne carried his movie-star presence (and the better part of four decades of westerns) around with him like the sizable gut that preceded his entrance into a scene. There was absolutely no denying him, or his scene-defining charisma.

Oddly enough, Matt Damon—who’s been on a hot streak of late—is underwhelming as LaBouef, and Josh Brolin a bit hammy as Chaney. The smaller roles are filled by a gallery of splendid faces and unfamiliar gargoyles. The movie looks gorgeous, as expected, and the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins create a beautiful interplay between wide-open spaces and intimate exchanges. The language of the movie, incredibly ornate, is also fun to listen to–it’s no mystery why the Coens, whose dialogue tends to be on the elaborate side, were drawn to this style.

Having said all that, the Coens’ “True Grit” carries with it a slightly academic air; it doesn’t have the dreadful undercurrents of their recent pictures (even the slapstick “Burn After Reading” had a sinister quality), and it doesn’t have the pizzazz of a story from a born entertainer. And yes, you’ve heard this yarn before—but hearing it again is just fine.

The King’s Speech. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Those of you with a weakness for movies about the British royalty—complete with vintage costuming, political intrigue, and stiff-upper-lip wartime perseverance—should find yourselves positively weak-kneed during “The King’s Speech.” The movie’s like a weekend marathon of “Masterpiece Theatre” crammed into two hours. It also happens to tell a marvelous true story, and it features a couple of skilled actors doing crowd-pleasing turns.

We first meet Prince Albert (played by Colin Firth) during a public appearance—something the royal family keeps to a minimum, for Bertie is afflicted with a debilitating stammer. Because his older brother Edward is next in line to the throne, Albert’s excruciating handicap shouldn’t be a huge issue—he can live out his life with his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and his two daughters in quiet privilege.

Still, after attempting a variety of failed cures for the stammer, his wife discovers a no-nonsense Australian named Lionel Logue—even his name sounds like a speech exercise—who gives elocution lessons at his nondescript office. Logue is played by “Shine” Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, an impeccable actor who manages to keep the character true even when the script threatens to get overly cuddly.

The friendship between Logue and Bertie is at the heart of the movie, and perhaps the most touching element is the way this Aussie—who, because of his accent, is looked down on by the English keepers of propriety—is responsible for affecting the speaking voice of a king.

Yes, a king: for in 1936, when their father (Michael Gambon) dies, Edward and Bertie are thrown into quite the royal pickle. The unmarried Edward is living the luxe life with a divorced American (thus raising the question: which is worse for the royal succession, a divorcee or an American?), and looking increasingly unfit for a long reign at the top. Which is how Bertie becomes King George VI, and why his daughter, Elizabeth, has the gig today. This section of the movie is perhaps its most engrossing, in part because Guy Pearce’s performance as Edward is without sentimentality—this is a reminder of the royal family as weird, outmoded tradition.

Ah, but director Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) will recover to remind us that George VI played a role in bucking up the spirits of his embattled people during World War II—especially in a 1939 speech that required every ounce of therapy Logue could apply. It’s a satisfying conclusion to an eager-to-please movie, ably delivered by Colin Firth. There’s been much speculation—since before anybody saw the movie—that “The King’s Speech” would bring Firth an Oscar, after he missed last year for “A Single Man.”

Hard to argue with the logic. He’s got the Jeff Bridges element (many years of respect, but no statue), and the role lets Firth show his stuff. Time to crown him as Hollywood royalty.

Rabbit Hole. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There are just enough intriguing things happening in “Rabbit Hole” to make it seem better than it is. This movie doesn’t really come off, but a handful of memorable scenes and a revelatory performance by a new young actor leave an impression.

It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, and although the story revolves around the death of a child, everything here is the aftermath of that traumatic event. The dead boy’s parents have settled into their grief, and despite their efforts to move ahead, show little sign of coping. Nicole Kidman plays Becca, whose bitter rejection of group therapy or religious consolation have made her even more isolated from her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart). One of those memorable scenes comes when Howie, flying solo at a group session, smokes pot beforehand with an unattached woman (Sandra Oh) and they both get the giggles during an extremely serious round of sharing.

For her part, Becca becomes drawn to a teenage boy who played a role in the family’s past. Their park-bench conversations are compelling—both people dream about physics theories in which every person has multiple parallel lives. “So this is just the sad version of us,” Becca muses. “Somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

Kidman is very good in these scenes, projecting the naked intensity of someone who must find something to hold onto. The teen is played by Miles Teller, an unremarkable-looking young man who delivers a terrific, fresh performance. You are surely going to be hearing about this kid, whoever he is.

If “Rabbit Hole” were as consistently good as its best scenes, it would be something special. But director John Cameron Mitchell, who previously did “Hedwig the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus,” appears to be primarily interested in the material as an actor’s showcase. He has a monotonous reliance on matching close-ups for most dialogue scenes, and the heated arguments between Becca and Howie sometimes burn out into more heat than light. Adding some welcome character variations are Dianne Wiest and Tammy Blanchard, as Becca’s passive mother and trashy sister.

This is one of those ultra-grim movies that only come around at holiday time, when awards are being given out and audiences are sometimes in the mood for something heavy. Since not much is heavier than the death of a child, “Rabbit Hole” will be a test even for serious moviegoers.

Tiny Furniture. (dead link; review  below)

By Robert Horton

The advance buzz on “Tiny Furniture” implied that this micro-budgeted indie picture might be insufferable: a privileged 24-year-old writer-director, casting herself and her own family in a tale set against the Manhattan art scene, maybe with a collection of mumbled observations dribbled along the way. A diagnosis of self-indulgence was indicated.

Well, this is why you see the movies before you make up your mind. “Tiny Furniture” is indeed modestly-budgeted and set in the Tribeca loft of the filmmaker’s artist mother. But it’s also funny and tough-minded and smart—and it even looks better than most hand-made indies (banish all thoughts of hand-held jiggliness here).

Lena Dunham is the 24-year-old in question. She plays Aura, a schlumpy college grad who returns to New York suddenly single and without a job. Aura moves back into her mother’s fabulous art studio/apartment, where Aura’s younger sister still lives. They are played by Dunham’s real relatives; her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a well-known artist who creates pieces with dolls and—you guessed it—tiny furniture (she also directed a fascinating film, “The Music of Regret,” with Meryl Streep).

The movie catalogs Aura’s awkward re-adjustment: getting a nothing job as a restaurant hostess, hanging out with a mismatched and needy friend (Jemima Kirke), and gamely trying to attract the attention of a couple of guys. One guy (Alex Karpovsky) is a maker of cult YouTube videos, and thus sort of hip and cutting-edge…except he’s really just an old-fashioned freeloader, looking for a place to crash for a couple of weeks in Manhattan.

The other guy is a creepy chef (David Call) who sends out all kind of warning signals, which Aura blithely misses or chooses to ignore. This leads to a few last-act disappointments for Aura.

The fact that Lena Dunham allows Aura to do foolish things and make wrong moves and generally be as irritating as the other people in the picture is a measure of Dunham’s control over the material. She strikes just the right critical distance from her sometimes likable, sometimes annoying characters. Plus, the movie’s a comedy. As an actress, Dunham herself is so deadpan it’s understandable that some viewers aren’t sure whether this is supposed to be sincere or funny, but almost every scene has a sneaky comic undertone.

No doubt about it: these people in this milieu might drive you up the wall if you encountered them in person. But refracted through a sardonic lens, the whole thing manages to click.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about the current crop of movies, including True Grit, Black Swan, The Tempest, and Tron: Legacy. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

The sixth annual “Critics Wrap,” a bunch of critics sitting around talking about the movies of 2010, is available for viewing in an abridged form on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 hereabouts), including a 9 p.m. showing tonight. Click here for the schedule of future broadcasts, or to watch online.

The trade paperback of Rotten (collecting the first six issues) is available now. Call you local comic book store to check for availability, or order online from Moonstone or your seller of choice. I mean like, now.

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Santa Claus. Aka Santa Claus – The Movie, aka a horrible career decision for Dudley Moore.