Catching Up #4: True Grit, Somewhere, Rabbit Hole, Carlos...
By Fernando F. Croce

True Grit. Can disingenuousness be an art form? Not to these eyes, which is probably why I usually can’t trust Joel and Ethan Coen. That’s been changing with their latest films, however. First came the uproarious-scabrous A Serious Man, the closest the inscrutable brothers have come to exposing the jangled nerves under their armor of irony, and now this adaptation of Charles Portis’ savory novel, a comic-brutal-sad Western that superficially seems less personal yet strikes me as the first movie they made con amore. Rooster Cogburn, the sodden, eyepatch-wearing marshal played by the aging John Wayne in an Oscar-winning vaudeville turn in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, is here a grizzled near-hermit assayed by Jeff Bridges with a mush mouth, pockets of growly despair, and a single peeper that can turn startlingly lethal. Matt Damon as a fancy-pants Texas ranger and Josh Brolin as a frontier knuckle-dragger match him in buffoonery in this sagebrush "congress of louts," but it’s Hailee Steinfeld’s relentless schoolmarm-in-training who gives the journey its anchor. Haunted, painterly, and unafraid of mouthfuls of Portis' prose, it’s a marriage of Mark Twain and Brothers Grimm as well as a gallant remembrance -- the heroine’s for the events that shook her notions of vengeful justice, and the filmmakers’ for a genre forever in danger of succumbing to parodists. Pretty stirring cinema from top to bottom, and miles ahead of the reactionary peevishness of No Country for Old Men.

*

Somewhere. Having last turned Versailles into a shopping mall, Sofia Coppola moves to Los Angeles and locates the existential haunted house in the Chateau Marmont. One Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is the Hollywood zombie drowsing around in affluence, a movie star so weighted down by what Andrew Sarris once called "Antoniennui" that he falls asleep mid-cunningulus with one of the hotel’s assembly line of fembots. Visited by his estranged eleven-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning), he’s gradually faced with his own void -- the procession of promotional tours, press conferences and award shows the actor inertly ambles through shifts from mere gilded cage to asphyxiating purgatory. Coppola has only three or four things to say about human connection and identity, though here she compounds her customary fragile rue with newfound austerity and toughness. Really a reversal (rather than a retread) of Lost in Translation in its snapshots of pampered drifting through liminal spaces, the film purposefully prunes away much of the earlier movie’s charm and humor to reveal the horror underneath: It gives you not wily Bill Murray shrugging at middle-age but helpless Dorff alone in a rubbery glimpse of his withered self. It’s not La Notte or Hôtel Monterey or Alice in the Cities, yet it shares with them a vision of anomie bent ruthlessly by an alert, sensitive eye.

*

Rabbit Hole. Really Ordinary People. With grief encircling them like an Iron Maiden, a suburban couple copes with the death of their child: He (Aaron Eckhart) clings to tapes and baby car seats, she (Nicole Kidman) bakes pies and recoils from his touch. The wife forms a murky alliance with the similarly numbed teen (Miles Teller) responsible for running over the toddler, but the only suspense comes from guessing how long it will take for the inevitable flashback, with its giant close-ups of Kidman crying "Nooooooooo!" in slow-mo, to kick in. John Cameron Mitchell, a humane chronicler of comedies of desire (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), neuters himself here with this brittle lump of patrician suffering. The source material, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play, understands that familial loss is not a matter of group hugs but of often unhealable wounds, and Mitchell navigates its dolorous zones with a scrupulous touch and traces of humor. But the visuals remain drearily stagy even when the camera ventures out to supermarkets and bowling alleys, and the big Kidman-Eckhart scenes play more like Oscar clips than raw arias. At the onset, I had hoped for the humanism of a Raymond Carver story; by the time the parallel universes of the title were spelled out by way of a comic book, I was praying for one of Stephen King’s dead-kid-returns tales.

*

Carlos. Even when not on the run, Olivier Assayas’ characters rarely stand still -- freed and unmoored in increasingly frontier-less cultures, they rush through spaces, languages and relationships, followed and linked by a fluid-jittery camera. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos "the Jackal" (Édgar Ramírez, magnetic), the notorious Venezuelan-born ‘70s terrorist at the center of this absorbing sprawler, is one of the filmmaker’s most layered sprinters, a blur of ardor, brutality and narcissism who quotes Marx but gets a bigger thrill when one of the oil bigwigs he’s holding hostage asks for his autograph. "Romantic but doomed" is how a fellow activist describes his bomb-hurling efforts, though politics and poses remain muddled to this Carlos, whether he’s a wiry Che wannabe, a jet-setting swashbuckler of international fame, or a spent, bloated spook-in-hiding. Assayas keeps a wryly analytical distance, but he’s still an erudite cinephile getting high on whiplash style, and the film regularly re-energizes itself with incongruous earfuls of music, spurts of violence, and the subtle farce of primping hijackers and bazooka-toting bumblers. Goodfellas and Che have been trotted out for comparison, but the interest in the perversion of rebellious impulses feels to me closer to the JLG who in La Chinoise and Sympathy for the Devil wondered what the hell had happened to the revolution.

*

The King’s Speech. Undergoing speech exercises to steady the stutter that could keep him away from the British throne, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) unties his tongue long enough to let out a cataract of profanities. Arriving in the midst of so much frightful tastefulness, the stream of "fucks" and "shits" feels almost sacrilegiously ticklish, like laughing in church. Savor it: that’s the sole charged bit in Tom Hooper’s starched period piece. Firth’s monarch-to-be is a quietly fretful blueblood who, groomed to be a grand spokesman, literally can’t get the royal words out -- that the Australian therapist hired to aid him is played by Geoffrey Rush (who in Shine had a speech disorder of his own to overcome) might be an in-joke, or maybe just another of the film’s friendly reminders to Academy Award voters. Actually, Firth is very affecting as a court mannequin tormented by Freudian hang-ups and warmed by friendship, playing aristocratic Felix to Rush’s plebeian Oscar. The problem isn’t the performers, but the waste of potentially interesting aspects (the notion of wobbly voices at the top of empires, the Shavian role of elocution in politics, the irony of a man working to heal his country’s own colonizer). Like its protagonist before a microphone, the film turns into jelly when faced with anything beyond cozy uplift.

*

How Do You Know. The shape of the film is revealed fairly early, a mirror covered with multicolored Post-it notes filled with platitudes and anecdotes. Gazing into it is Reese Witherspoon’s frazzled softball star, recently ousted from the Olympic team and ping-ponging between her jock-mimbo beau (Owen Wilson) and a smitten corporate mensch (Paul Rudd). The triangle lumbers around restaurants and penthouses, stalling so that such musty staples as the grumpy dad (Jack Nicholson) and the pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) can take their time with their mugging. The dialogue reads like James L. Brooks’ therapy notepad: "I’m in a wrestling match with myself. I’m trying not to manipulate you ... Figure out what you want, and learn how to ask for it ... Ever wish you could hit the delete button and erase everything you’re saying?" Still, give Brooks his due: Despite four decades of shtick-polishing, he still insists on agitated characters who yearn to spill out of their sitcom slots, on McCarey-like mélanges of gaiety and discomfort, on rushes of quips rattled by broken gestures. I’ll take the movie’s distinctive warts over the pasteurized engineering of most current comedies any day of the week. And may those moaning about it not being Broadcast News be sentenced to repeated viewings of Morning Glory.

*

Love & Other Drugs. Like Brooks, Edward Zwick was weaned on TV shows and, despite a hankering for Very Important Topics (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), has never really lost his penchant for tragicomic glibness best consumed in segments separated by commercials. Thus, the flaccid Big Pharma critique of the early passages here (done with an off-key crudeness that makes Jason Reitman look like Ernst Lubitsch) segues into a redeemed-lout-and-sacrificial-lamb weepie, complete with a shameless revival of the dreaded Ali MacGraw Disease. A Viagra-pimping satyr (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a "neurologically damned" collagist (Anne Hathaway) comprise the young couple in question, horny Clinton-era critters laboring to keep some rom-com version of Last Tango in Paris going until illness strikes. "It’s not a disease, it’s a Russian novel." More like a screenwriting-workshop pamphlet. Pockmarked with caricatures and "Macarena"-scored montages, Zwick’s spoiled stew does the literally overexposed performers no favors: Hathaway bulldozes through while Gyllenhaal shuffles puppyishly, neither connecting with the other despite spending virtually the entire film naked together.

*

Tron: Legacy. A relic from Disney’s awkward "dark" period (from The Black Hole to The Black Cauldron, roughly), Tron was created to show off new technology, yet it envisioned a pixel-ated dystopia that gazed back at Metropolis and ahead to MTV. The reboot aims to expand that cyber-disco grandeur with 3-D and special effects, none of them more special than the CG cloning of Jeff Bridges, rejuvenated back to his smooth 1982 self. (Bridges, still in his salt-and-pepper True Grit whiskers, also returns as his original arcade-jockey character, now somewhere between Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Dude.) Despite its numerous stylistic borrowings -- 2001: A Space Odyssey’s 18th-century decor in the future chamber, Lifeforce’s umbrella-shaped spaceship, a whiff of Zardoz adduced by Michael Sheen -- the neon-chrome-vinyl design remains striking, and the gladiatorial bouts and vehicular pursuits have a beguiling spatial elation. I prefer the abrasive gags and kinkiness of the Neveldine-Taylor Gamer, but this sleek cavalcade of grids and portals marks another unmistakable step forward in three-dimensional technique. "Bio-digital jazz, man!" Not quite, but we’re getting there.


Reviewed January 3, 2011.

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