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In the mood for a romantic comedy – a distracted review of True Grit on DVD


I always eagerly watch the trailers before a film. The best snippets of releases that are “coming soon” can be tremendously exciting. There is also an art to making good and great trailers, with the best of them standing apart from the movies they promote or making a crap film look irresistible. Many movie buffs appreciate this. But more often than not I’ll be watching something with someone urging me to skip to the film we’re actually watching. When I’m fortunate enough to be in control of the remote, I always insist on watching the trailers, even when I’ve seen them dozens of times before.

The first trailer of quite a few before the menu screen on the True Grit DVD, was for Morning Glory, starring Rachel McAdams. I’m mildly interested in seeing this at some point because of a rather different comic role for Harrison Ford, the strange appeal of the breakfast show subject matter and the feminine charms of McAdams. She is cultivating a line in cheeky but likeable performances, with a turn in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the news that she’s been cast as Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman. There’s also a shot of her rounded rear that does the film’s appeal no harm in my book.

Next up was the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. I’ve read a lot about this movie, including some pretty hilarious but ultimately unflattering reviews. I’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s part of a trend of stories trying far too hard to be modern, about “friends with benefits”. In the 21st century what is wrong about a man and a woman, who know and trust each other, having casual but enjoyable sex on a regular basis? Well the rom-com likes to point out that love is the big stumbling block; it always gets in the way when you least expect it. I mean it’s frankly just an inconvenient and inconsiderate emotion. We all ought to hate its lies, its deceit and its inevitably devastating consequences.

And yet it always conquers all. Even those like Portman and Kutcher’s characters, avoiding love like the plague by making sex a satisfying physical transaction, get bitten eventually by that pesky love bug. Cinemagoers too are always infected because soppy idiots fall for the obvious, predictable, signposted, cliche and crappy happy ending.

Today I must’ve been after a happy ending. I wasn’t really in the mood for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar nominated True Grit. I was inexplicably captured by the trailer to No Strings Attached, which as I’ve said I’ve seen several times before and I’d long ago concluded I wasn’t bothered about seeing. Perhaps its my persistent crush on Natalie Portman’s pretty and sexy features. Perhaps its simply my starved and hungry libido. Or perhaps it’s a longing for the perfect emotional satisfaction of the romantic comedy.

Whenever there was a lull in the action of True Grit and I was no doubt supposed to be reflecting on or contemplating the rugged wild west landscape or the moral terrain of the story, my mind drifted into daydreams prompted by No Strings Attached. I don’t think a trailer has ever disturbed my enjoyment or concentration of the following film in quite the same way.  

I pondered again and again what would happen to the relationships I had with people now, how friendships would shatter, grow or change beyond recognition. I planned imaginary grand gestures and pictured the romantic epiphany when I realised that yes, she was the one. I imagined myself living a busy, varied and satisfying life. The social groups that encircled it would be populated exclusively by young and attractive people, and some of them, perhaps just one or two, would care about me. And I’d have lots of sex. In short: I surrendered to fantasy.

What does it mean to be a romantic nowadays? At times I am happy to embrace the label and at others I am disgusted by it, depending on my mood or the particular definition. Is Mattie Ross, the heart of True Grit, a romantic? Some might say that’s nonsense given her realistic and often pessimistic outlook, with a tough maturity well beyond her 14 years. But she is also idealistic about bringing her father’s killer to justice, about the intentions of the law, and indeed her naive and childlike distinction between evil and good men, proven simplistic by her choice of hero.

Maybe it’s the peculiary romantic, noble and heroic ideas of Ross that helped my wandering mind off track. It could equally be of course that the isolation of True Grit prodded my loneliness into creating deluded distraction. The Coens have certainly crafted a film with darker and deeper depths than the 1960s typical John Wayne outing.

True Grit can also be surprisingly warm though. Mattie Ross is a character it’s impossible not to invest in and care for. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a cold and hardened gunslinger at times, and a hilarious layabout drunk at others. There’s some wonderfully teasing interplay and banter between him and Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf. And the dialogue at times evokes the homely West so vividly that you want to take a trip there away from the boring variety of British dialects by comparison.

True Grit is as not as “fast paced” as some of the quotes on the cover would have you believe. But it’s not a dreary, arty take on the Western, as many attempts at the genre are these days. Its runtime is agreeable and its characters playfully portrayed. There is a fairly snappy climax with some good action and shocks. And Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie is a truly remarkable breakthrough. The plaudits have mostly been lavished on Bridges but she is the real star and the glue holding True Grit together. Damon is good too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. But then I was barely paying attention. I know should be talking in depth about a film that chose to adapt a novel’s true nature rather than remake a Hollywood classic badly. The Coens usually make great and intelligent cinema. So perhaps it was majestic; I was simply in the mood for a cruder and more direct, perhaps even a crap, tugging of my heart strings. Is that a crime?

I suspect it probably is.

 

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2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special: Moffat keeps us on our toes


If you’re a “regular reader”, if I have such a thing, then you think I’ve just gone mad. Christmas was over a month ago. And I’m only just getting round to recording my thoughts on last year’s festive offering from our favourite Timelord. But such is the magic of iplayer that I downloaded the fantastic episode immediately afterwards, with the intention of reviewing it, only to let it wither away. Now, with it about to die, I had to re-watch it before embarking on a trip abroad and sing its praises.

Because what Steven Moffat managed to do with this seasonal special is capture the sentimental essence of Christmas and cast a magical spell over Doctor Who again. Peppered with slick, funny, genius dialogue, A Christmas Carol was a marvellous reinvention of a classic, and an expression of a truly unique imagination. Fish that swim in the fog; how wonderfully original and unexpected and inexplicably Christmassy.

The problem in the end, with Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, was that no matter how spectacular, the stories became predictable. In many ways Moffat’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol had expected elements, features expected at Christmas time. But the all important sci-fi, Whovian additions to the tale were quirky, creative and inventive. There was fantastic time-hopping which had gone missing from the Tardis until Moffat’s ascension to the throne. With all of time and space to choose from, one thing Doctor Who should never, ever be, is predictable.

This story had emotional heart as well as more laugh out loud lines, delivered by a superb Matt Smith who’s well and truly at home in the role now, than I can remember. They included though, the brilliant: “What’s it called when you have no feet and you’re taking a run-up?” and the Doctor’s advice for Kazran’s first kiss; “Try and be a bit rubbish and nervy and shaky…Because you’re gonna be like that anyway.”

Michael Gambon was excellent as the old miser transformed. Katherine Jenkins made an impressive acting debut, doing all that was required of her, including delivering some enchanting singing fit for the occasion. The music in general was wonderful. There were some impressive child performances. The script wasn’t always spot-on, with there being some cheesy, ordinary lines, mainly during the sections with Amy Pond. The episode opened with the necessarily dramatic, but disappointing, “Christmas is cancelled!” The sublime moments more than make up for this though, including the Doctor in a white tux, fretting by a swimming pool about his impending engagement to Marilyn Monroe. Talk about conveying the glamour of time travel successfully on a budget.

This story is a showcase for so much. A lot of it very Christmassy stuff. The power of carols, the warming bitterness of thwarted love and memorable quotes; “halfway out of the dark”, “Time can be written, people can’t”, “Never met anyone who isn’t important before”. Wonderful plot twists like when the Doctor shows the young Kazran his older self. Most of all it’s an example of just how amazing Doctor Who can be on so many levels. All the superlatives I’m wheeling out don’t come close to expressing how good this episode was and how much I liked it, how much I loved it. The new series this year will be split into two and the opportunities for cliff-hangers and twists for Moffat will be unprecedented. I can’t wait to see what he does.