March 11, 2011
Action, Adventure, Drama, Film, Western
A Serious Man, Black Swan, Carter Burwell, Charles Portis, Clint Mansell, Coen brothers, Crazy Heart, Ethan Coen, Fargo, Film, film music, Hailee Steinfeld, hymns, Jeff Bridges, Joel Coen, John Wayne, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, movies, No Country For Old Men, Oscars, picture, poster, review, Roger Deakins, score, soundtrack, True Grit
One could argue that the Coen brothers are essentially retelling the same story in every film they make. A crime that gets out of hand has been the basis of everything from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” yet whether they have it play out in snow-covered North Dakota or turn-of-the-century Utah, the pair continue to find new ways to portray it and more often than not land themselves praise and plaudits from critics, audiences and the Academy alike. To follow up “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan turned to Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, a tale that had previously been adapted into one of John Wayne’s most enduring roles. However, nails have long been put into the genre of the classic western leaving breathing space only for contemplative reflections or portrayals of harsh and unforgiving worlds. Naturally, the Coens’ “True Grit” falls into this latter category: It’s a western with all the idealised gloss chipped away, presenting the wild west as it truly must have been – wild.
When her father is murdered, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (new discovery Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring in the killer, a fierce criminal by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). In order to see the task through and to prevent the Marshall from simply disappearing with her money, the young girl insists on accompanying Cogburn. Also looking for Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is portrayed to be the pole opposite of Cogburn, namely the heroic cowboy of old, smooth talking and handsome. Bridges on the other hand is cruel and untamed, taken by old age and drink, after “Crazy Heart,” a role that is tailored for the actor. Rambling and grunting in the most indistinct of southern accents he garbles throughout the film proving quite difficult to understand. It’s a winning performance but even that is an understatement: “True Grit’s” entire cast excel, led by Steinfeld who can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with acting greats like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Her performance is the heart and soul but also the identity of the entire film as the story is told through her eyes. Her innocence clearly at odds with that of her male companions, Mattie Ross must quickly learn the ways of an unforgiving society. It’s a career-making role as much as Cogburn is a career-defining one for Jeff Bridges.
Plot-wise, “True Grit” is actually very, very simple but the means of its telling is masterful, the Coens are almost unmatched in Hollywood today. It’s as highly poetic a tale as it is philosophical in nature, told with their usual dose of dark humour within dialogue that is pitch perfect. The pacing is slow but never laborious, the audience allowed the time to take in the world and its looks. “Set pieces” like an early execution scene and the final shoot-out come as stabs of gruesome violence into a world that is filled with tension but at the same time very still. Coen regular, cinematographer Roger Deakins once again proves his worth for capturing the beautiful yet always harsh landscapes. Best seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the filmmaking craft, the film is a visual heaven to the nth degree. Somehow the cinematography and production design does hark back to the glory days of westerns and perhaps this betrays the Coens’ vision for the film: To tell a traditional western story but how it would actually have happened rather than how Hollywood would have portrayed it in the past. And in this they are of course much truer to Portis’ novel than the John Wayne version could ever have been. Love or hate (some people do) the Coen brothers, their ability to produce this kind of film after twenty years at the top of their game is wondrous.
Originally “True Grit” was not to feature any original music. However, after some deliberation with their composer of choice Carter Burwell, the Coens decided to use a hybrid approach. This involved the use of several old hymns that were adapted and arranged by Burwell into his own original score. It’s a very accomplished blend and the result far superior to Clint Mansell’s similar situation on “Black Swan.” Mattie’s religious upbringing is represented through “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” which becomes her signature and the film’s. The theme is performed with remarkable variation on piano and with full orchestra. For this film, Burwell has abandoned many of his experimental tendencies, making “True Grit” one of his most enjoyable scores ever. It’s a conservative approach but that is exactly what the film asks. Perhaps not technically “original” the score is immensely enjoyable both in the film and on album as well.
“True Grit” turned out to be the biggest loser on Oscar night with ten nominations an no wins, a fate it did not deserve. After the Coens swept away big with “No Country For Old Men,” it was unlikely that they would do it again. However, taking the film purely on its own merits, it is in fact superior to the eventual winner, a tale beautifully told in every way. It comes with the highest rating and highly recommended.
How do you rate the Coens? Why not leave a comment and discuss the film? Also please feel free to follow me on Twitter and share the review with your friends. Thank you and all the best!
January 24, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Berlin State Opera, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, Coen brothers, Film, film music, Forrest Gump, Frank Darabont, Gil Bellows, Hank Williams, IMDb, James Whitmore, Marriage of Figaro, Morgan Freeman, movies, Mozart, Oscars, picture, poster, Pulp Fiction, review, Rita Hayworth, Roger Deakins, score, Shawshank Redemption, soundtrack, Stephen King, The Green Mile, Thomas Newman, Tim Robbins, Titanic, William Sadler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What began as a Stephen King short story outside of his usual horror genre, completely passed over at the box-office and by the Academy, “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of film history’s most improbable success stories. Eventually finding audiences on the home-video market, the film has since continually climbed up the ranks on the lists of both viewers and critics and, sitting on top of IMDb’s top 250, it continues to enthral and inspire the world over. Yet despite its almost supernatural and untouchable status Frank Darabont’s picture remains a very humble masterpiece, proving like “Titanic” did again three years later, that interest in old-fashioned stories will never wane.
Given two life-sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank state prison in 1947. Over the space of twenty years he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, one of the prison’s “getters” who for a small price can smuggle anything, including a rock-hammer and even Rita Hayworth in through the bars. Life on the inside isn’t always kind to Andy who attracts both assault from a prison gang and the attention of cruel guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the warden Norton (Bob Gunton). The latter use his financial skills as the accounting end of money laundering deals that would see them becoming millionaires. The arrival of young convict Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) with proof of Andy’s possible innocence complicates events further, driving Andy towards the edge. The watershed we always expect yet it sleeps below the movie’s surface and still manages to surprise us when it bursts onto the scene. Far more than a classic prison movie however, the eventual redemption makes Shawshank a touching statement about dreams, hope, freedom and humanity. Its genius in this regard rests largely with Darabont’s masterful screenplay and superior directorial style, creating expansive brush strokes of plot and character development that only few others have matched.
In Morgan Freeman Darabont has found the film’s perfect anchor-point. Providing the calming and witty narration, the part of Red has proven the main source of the actor’s godlike standing that continues to the present day. Tim Robbins in the main role meanwhile is quietly brilliant, Andy remains to the last mysterious yet incredibly likeable as he unites the prison inmates with beers on the roof, expands the prison library and, in one of cinema’s most memorable and moving musical scenes plays Mozart through the speaker system, leaving every condemned man speechless in wonder and flashing light into even the darkest corners. They are roles that have defined the careers of both actors. Every other aspect of “The Shawshank Redemption’s” production are equally noteworthy, from the period-correct production and costume design to the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who regularly works with the Coen brothers) and the no less impressive supporting cast including the great James Whitmore as the ageing Brooks, and William Sadler as Heywood. The film’s extended denouement could well be accused of being overly sentimental, however to Darabont’s credit he leaves (literally) no stone unturned when setting out to tell the tale of endurance and hope to the very end. Thus the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in a true ending is all the greater for the audience who have patiently waited for it.
Composer Thomas Newman who was enjoying a high time in his career throughout the early 90s, approaches the scoring of “The Shawshank Redemption” like most of his other scores. That is with extended piano meandering and string plucking that bores many listeners. The difference between Shawshank and his later scores for “The Green Mile” and others is Newman’s writing of a gorgeously haunting and beautiful main theme that encompasses the spirit of the tale perfectly. Heard in “Stoic Theme,” and “Suds on the Roof” the theme is based on sweeping strings and the signature piano. The penultimate cue “So was Red” sums up the idea with an oboe performance and leading into “End Title” that mirrors a sense of accomplishment. And then of course there’s the Mozart: The duet from “The Marriage of Figaro” performed by members of the Berlin State Opera is rightly placed on the album as it is in the film. Similarly, several period songs including Hank Williams strewn across the album do not detract from the listening experience but complete the period setting musically. The score is Newman’s crowning achievement of that period and earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, an award he has yet to win.
Perhaps it was unfortunate that it was released almost concurrently with both “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994, two films that captured audience imagination and the prison epic was ignored, but “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of the few films that has the power to move viewers to tears no matter how many times they have watched it. Its place near or even at the very top of great films is well deserved and is unlikely to have its position challenged. Even for film illiterates, this is not something you can afford to miss. If six stars could be given, that’s what it would get.
Does Shawshank have its place on your top 10? Please leave a comment and tell me your reaction to the film. Also, if you liked the review, please share the link for your friends on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks and all the best to you!