Saturday, February 12, 2011

They don't make 'em like that anymore: True Grit & The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I grew up watching a lot of westerns. My dad had always been a fan of any western, and my mom enjoyed the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne classics.
Western is one of the most challenging genres. They are operettas. They share a great deal with Shakespearean tragedies, old world mythology, and Japanese shogun films. Central themes include honor, justice, and, most commonly, revenge. They explore the complexity of the moral spectrum- sometimes the good guys are pretty bad, sometimes you have to break the law to get justice.

True Grit is about revenge. The shockingly intelligent Mattie Ross is on a mission to avenge her father's death. Trouble is, she's a 14 year old girl. So, she seeks out the toughest, meanest U.S. Marshall she can find: Rooster Cogburn.

I don't know how, but the Coen brothers managed to make a true, classic Western. I didn't think this kind of movie was even possible anymore. Unforgiven was close, but Eastwood was trying to give us something a little more modern. The Coens clearly studied the old movies closely to create something that feels so authentic.
The way the camera moves and the way the characters interact with each other and their environment evokes the atmosphere of the classic westerns. Part of this success may be that they were so faithful to the original 1968 serial. The dialogue is the shining star. People don't talk like that anymore.

It's a shame that Jeff Bridges won the Oscar last year, because the work he does in this movie is incredible. He contorts himself into this rugged curmudgeon in such a way that he is almost unrecognizable. He chews on his words like tobacco and growls like an old lion. His familiar face is the only thing betraying his identity.
Hailee Steinfeld is amazing as Mattie Ross. Her intensity and tenacity are pitch perfect. It is impossible that anyone else could have played this role so believably and organically. The casting here is excellent. The woman who plays Mattie as an adult, Elizabeth Marvel, blends with Hailee seamlessly.
Matt Damon is good here because he is not playing a hero. Damon excels when he is vulnerable, but good-hearted, and he wears the character of LaBoef as well as the buckskin he sports.

The cinematography is breath taking. It draws inspiration from classic westerns like True Grit, The Searchers, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but it mixes in just enough modern technique to make it all seem fresh. The composition of every shot is lovely. It borrows from both the American western of the 50s an 60s, but it also works in the epic scale and sophistication of Leone's spaghetti western.
The story-boarding the Coens did really shows through. They do it for every film, but here you can practically see the panels. It feels like a graphic novel. Like a less-concept-driven 300 or Sin City. The special effects are used sparingly, and they make quite an impression without distracting from the rest of the film.

Apaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma were noble efforts to try and re-capture the romance and drama of the Western, and truly wonderful films, but True Grit hits its mark without feeling pretentious or boring.

The title itself refers to the quality Mattie is looking for in Rooster Cogburn. He is a lawman, he has morals, but he is not what most would call a "good man". Yet, when the moment calls for it, he is honorable. He has "true grit".
If you love Westerns, or just long for a fresh dose of American mythology, go see True Grit.

Now, for a very different kind of classic, the likes of which you will never see again, get your hands on 1968's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Revel in the glory that is Maggie Smith before we saw her as Professor McGonagall in the Potter movies, or Wendy in Hook. She's a grand dame cut from the same cloth as Judi Dench, Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Mirren, but she just doesn't get the same recognition, and that is a sin!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is adapted from a novel of the same name and tells the story of an eccentric school teacher at a private school for girls in Scotland. Her romantic and bohemian ideas about truth, beauty, art and love lead the students she mentors to places they never could have expected- and not always in a good way.

This movie is sort of disturbing because you think it's going to follow the path of Dead Poets Society, or To Sir, with Love, but it goes careening in another direction entirely. It's a dark tale about obsession, about living vicariously through others, and about how our own feeling of invincibility or superiority can damage those around us.

I'd put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the same category as Doubt or Notes on a Scandal. But the thing I liked the most about it was how it embodies everything I like best about movies made in the late 60s. The fashion, the colors, the hair!
There is some great foreshadowing here and there of the fates of the characters. I won't spoil it for you, but we all know that sometimes the games of children reflect their true desires or destinies.

1 comment:

Nena Nadine said...

Just got this on blue ray and will be watching it on Monday. I'll be back for this review.