J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for December, 2010

True Grit (2010)

Posted by J on December 24, 2010

This is a Western where the women are tough and the men are tougher.  True Grit honors the time and place of post-Civil War Arkansas.    It takes on the spirit of the 1969 original and, assuming you prefer a degree of realism, trumps it.

The story is probably familiar.  A 14-year old woman, Mattie Cole, hires a U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer.  This Marshall is Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a man that other people say have “true grit.”  Mattie has to talk Cogburn into taking on the job, which is to bring the killer back to court, to be tried and executed under Arkansas law.  Cogburn agrees, but leaves Mattie behind as he heads into Choctaw country.  Bold, but also concerned about Rooster running off with her money, Mattie follows him.  The two are accompanied by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, who doesn’t always get along with either Rooster or Mattie.

There is some gunplay here, of course, and an inevitable showdown.  But the most important feature for all the characters in the movie is their ability to talk.  Because the Coens wrote the movie in a high, mid-nineteenth century dialect, it’ll take a trained ear and a decent vocabulary to watch this movie.  I’ve seen elsewhere that other people have dubbed the movie’s dialogue as “Western Shakespeare,” which is an insult to Shakespeare and to the Coens.  Instead, of all the characters seem to be highly educated Mark Twain characters.  It is even a bit much; read Twain and you’ll see that different degrees of education and experience call for different ways of talking.  It’s a little frustrating that everyone in True Grit talks like the The King but not really anyone talks like Huck Finn. Yet this emphasis on talking is smart.  Tall tales were a primary feature of the Southwest and West, thanks to the locals’ ability to tell a good yarn.  Cogburn seems like not just a character from a tall tale, but someone who could make up one.

The characters talk well and use wit to improve their situations.  The movie’s opens with Mattie bargaining with a horse trader.  The next scene features Rooster testifying in court.  These are long scenes–slow ones to the modern moviegoer–but they establish the necessity in this world of speaking well and bargaining well.  This becomes useful when, late in the movie, Mattie tries to bargain with Ned Pepper.  The nice thing about the movie is that no one is out to harmfully deceive, ala the King and the Duke.  LaBoeuf is a bit of a braggart, but seems to believe what he’s saying about the honor of Texas Rangers.  There’s not a dishonorable character here, including the villains.

Unexpectedly, Mattie is the star.  In a movie with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, her character outshines them all.  You will wonder why there can’t be more young women like her today.  You will in fact long for the increased frequency of this type of woman.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Western | 1 Comment »

Wag the Dog

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Wag the Dog is satire that doesn’t always want to be.  It could’ve aimed for the biting darkness of Dr. Strangelove, but it likes its character and Mark Knopfler’s soft guitar soundtrack is reminiscent of his music for the Princess Bride.  The movie is somewhat prescient in its depiction of media’s relationship to government during the last ten years.  Perhaps for that reason alone it deserves to be watched.

The premise is somewhat shaky.  The President of the U.S., eleven days before the end of his own re-election campaign, is accused of sexual misconduct with a teenager.  For some reason, the President is in China during a re-election campaign, who knows why at a critical moment in his career.  So the President’s team hires a fix-it guy, Conrad Black, who understands that reality is not what actually happens, but what the TV says happens.  Black’s mission is to distract the American people for eleven days so that the sexual misconduct story is effectively buried until the elections are over.  What to do, what to do?

Oh yes, of course. Start a war!  In the great American tradition of fomenting war by creating some incident and blowing it out of proportion — see the sinking of the Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which this movie basically predicts) — Black decides to invent a war with Albania.  His story involves Albanian terrorists and the threat of nuclear weapons smuggled into the United States.  To pull off this stunt, Black hires Stanley Motss, a longtime Hollywood producer who is more interested in doing his job perfectly than in thinking about the morality of inventing a war.  Motss creates a scene of horror with Hollywood magic: a young girl holding a bag of Tostitos is transformed by Motss into an Albanian girl with a kitten who runs away from terrorists.  This scene with the Albanian girl is broadcast nationwide.  For Motss, it’s glorious, his best work ever.

Black and Motss manage to pull off their stunt, although they somehow survive a plane crash and handle a dangerous convict whom they are trying to turn into a warhero.  Their deception is fairly powerful.  They create patriotic music for the occasion.  When the CIA tries to stop them, Black reminds the CIA that all intel organizations have no purpose if there is no enemy.  He, Black, is creating an enemy.  Therefore the CIA should love what he’s doing.  After all, he’s preserving their jobs.  It’s almost as if Black, in 1997, has created the War on Terror — a war against an abstraction of an everlasting enemy who can always be used as a bogeyman.

My primary issue with the movie is that its world is too self-contained.  It castigates thoughtless patriotism at a national level, but is itself too nationalistic.  It assumes that Black’s fraud, which is international in scope, could not be known pretty quickly.  Surely the international press corps would realize that there is no war in Albania and jump on that lie, yet there’s no hint that any press beyond America’s exists.  Moreover, the movie stays within Black’s circle for the entire duration.  We only get to see the innerworkings of Black’s fraud, but never its effects on others (except on TV).  There, in fact, are a lot of people who can sniff out the lies of Presidents and news networks quickly and devastatingly.

The movie also simplifies the ways in which lies and frauds are perpetuated.  The fraud in this movie emanates from one place, Black’s group.  It is therefore nearly completely controlled by this group.  But real life is more complicated.  In Washington DC, there’s a vast network of self-serving bureaucrats and reporters who, first and foremost, are looking out for #1.  There are five major media corporations that print and publish news.  When there’s fraud, as with the fabled Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003, it’s a vast conspiracy in which everyone assents to and contributes to that conspiracy.

Still, the movie is quite useful in understanding the nature of our current “War on Terror.”

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 8 (some bad language)

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Appaloosa

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Appaloosa is standard Western fare, except for its assault against certain elements of political correctness.  Viewers of this film will be reminded of Lonesome Dove, My Darling Clementine, and John Ford’s entire career.  Its likeness to Lonesome Dove — the epitome of the Western bond between two males — is striking.

So here’s the story.  The town of Appaloosa needs a bit of law.  A sheriff has been shot by a scalawag named Bragg, only Bragg can’t be brought to justice, because no one will testify against him.  The businessmen of Appaloosa hire two men, Virgil and Everett, cool and experienced gunmen.  These two men are intimate friends.  Virgil is the alpha dog of the relationship, the head sheriff who reads Emerson but gets frustrated when he can’t remember certain vocabulary words.  Everett is content to be Virgil’s sidekick.  The two are willing to take on Bragg and his men.

A woman named Allison French nearly interrupts Virgil and Everett.   She arrives by train in Appaloosa and takes to Virgil.  They move into together, but shortly after that Allison tries to seduce Everett.  Love triangle alert!  Meanwhile, Virgil and Everett capture Bragg and get someone to testify for him.

Not much more needs to be said.  The plot is quickly guessed knowing the above information.  The big surprise here is how lowly the character of Allison French is portrayed.  She’s an elegant woman, yes, but she also sleeps with four different men.  Around our parts, she’d be labeled with words that begin with ‘s’ and ‘w’.  Virgil and Everett agree, yet Virgil can’t help loving her, even though he tells Everett that, to become a better gunmen, Everett must eschew feelings.  Virgil and Everett decide that Allison is a frontrunner.  She will mate with the alpha male — that is, whichever male is on top in any given situation.  This is exactly what the movie shows.  It’s as if we’re watching primates on Animal Planet.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 2

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »