Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CST does the Oscars: True Grit

With the Oscars taking place at the end of this month, Cleveland Sports Torture is revisiting the films nominated for 2011 Best Picture. These reviews may contain spoilers, so reader beware.

Saturday night, I decided to take the lady out for a special Valentine's date - first, we had a great dinner at Jekyll's Kitchen in Chagrin Falls (I highly recommend it) and then we went to see Oscar nominee True Grit. While the Coen Brother's latest film is not the most romantic movie in the spirit of Valentine's Day, I loved it.

The western is a remake of a 1969 John Wayne film of the same name. I did not see the original, but you can find several articles comparing the two versions, including this very good review by Charles Moore. What struck me about the movie was that there were no scintillating action scenes, no explosions, no mind (or building) bending special effects, no sparkling vampires, and no wizards. There weren't even elaborate sets or costumes that you might expect to find in a 2011 western. The movie was not spectacular in the visual sense, which is why the movie is so great. It is carried by the actors and subsequently, the characters they portray.

The film follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross, brilliantly brought to life by Hailee Steinfeld, trying to avenge the death of her father at the hands of an outlaw. She hires drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) because he has "true grit". We find out quickly that Mattie, in fact, has that same "true grit"... and the two develop into an oddly matched, but believable pair.

While Bridges is exceptional as usual (he seems to be at his best playing outlandish characters), I can't understand why Steinfeld was nominated for an Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role. In my opinion, she should be in the Actress in a Leading Role category, as she carries the film. (It's a disgrace that she wasn't nominated for a Golden Globe). She does an amazing job portraying Mattie as a learned, quick-witted, stone-cold 14 year old girl, while making her believable by allowing us to see glimpses of her vulnerability and naivety - that she is, really, a 14 year old girl.

The film definitely has that "Coen Brothers touch". Like many of their films, there's a grittiness to it (pardon the pun) where the landscape and settings play a major role, coming to life as antagonists through out the film. Most of the characters have a bit of over-the-top, uncomfortable quirkiness to them (perhaps not as extreme as in past Coen films), including Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced Le-Beef... no relation to Le-Bron, except maybe ego).  LaBoeuf and Mattie meet in a great scene, in which the 14 year old awakes to LaBoeuf watching her from a chair. The exchange is an example of some of the great dialogue through out the movie, and reminds me of other Coen films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Following some initial quibbling back and forth:

LaBoeuf says, "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin' I gave some thought to stealin' a kiss... though you are very young, and sick... and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt."
Mattie replies, "One would be just as unpleasant as the other."
One complaint I have about the film is that the story was a bit difficult to follow because of the heavy accents of the characters, amplified by Rooster's drunkenness. A minor flaw, considering I found Inception, another Oscar nominee (although I really don't understand why) much more difficult to follow (or sit through for that matter).

After the movie, I asked my wife if she liked Black Swan (read the CST review here, sorry for the self-promoting) or True Grit more. We agreed that it's hard to even compare the two Oscar nominated films because they are so different. That is what will make this year's Academy Awards so interesting. I've seen three movies I would consider worthy of Best Picture – Black Swan, The Social Network, and now True Grit. All could claim the Oscar. I thought 'Swan and 'Grit were a bit more artistic, a bit more ambitious as films. I'd have no problem with any of the three winning Best Picture. True Grit is more than worthy.