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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Isn’t it helpful when reviews compare a new film to something you’ve previously seen? Lots of writers have something resembling a “if you liked that you’ll like this” feature. It’s impossible to keep constantly clued up so to find out Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is a real time saver.
Seriously though what about when those comparisons are technically true but grossly misleading? It’s not really constructive to recommend Pixar’s Cars to someone who liked the revving, neon lighting and cheerleaders of The Fast and the Furious. Black Swan and Step Up are both about dancing but poles apart. Forced similarities are far from enlightening.
Bear that in mind when I tell you Winter’s Bone is like Hot Fuzz. It’s set in a close knit rural community. It’s about crime. It turns out that all the locals are part of a sinister conspiracy to protect the “greater good”, covering up murder most foul. The police are dodgy and probably in on it. A few characters have “great big bushy beards”.
Things happen in Hot Fuzz though. Apart from the above similarities, which made me long for Pegg and Frost blowing Wells to bits, Winter’s Bone is Hot Fuzz’s complete opposite in tone, style and substance. There is not a single laugh in it. Instead of explosions and comical supermarket shootouts, we get moody trudging through woods and a drug dealing lumberjack casually smashing in a windscreen with an axe. Instead of Nick Frost pretending to stab himself in the eye we get sombre, faultless acting.
Winter’s Bone is arty and managed to get enough critics gushing to earn Oscar nominations. It’s beautifully shot, showcasing one of the faces of America rarely given an outing at the multiplex; a bleak, rough and timber strewn existence. We follow Ree, convincingly played by Jennifer Lawrence, on her mostly far from fruitful quest to find her meth cooking Dad, who has skipped bail, jeopardising the family home. She stalks about a neighbourhood dependent on nature, trekking through the crunchy undergrowth to have uninformative conversations with an assortment of stripy shirted chaps playing earthy music. Her walking about the place is almost like a mind blowing and oh so subtle metaphor for her struggle through social convention for the truth and justice.
This is a film that will delight a certain audience, whilst sending others into a coma. I fell somewhere between the two views, partially numbed by the pedestrian pace but appreciative of the acting and cinematography. The drama is always of the dreary variety, except for one harrowing and emotional scene. I will try to avoid spoilers, but up until this point Ree appeared to be hardened beyond her years and unattached to her fugitive father. When she’s asked to carry out a gruesome task no daughter should ever have to do (relating to the film’s title) we see that she is merely a brave child underneath it all, scraping by.
Unfortunately Winter’s Bone doesn’t have enough of these genuinely moving moments to be engaging. It is atmospheric and pretty in its own way. Some will think sunbeams of quality shine from its every orifice. But I’d rather watch something less pretentious. Give me the silly satire of narrow minded communities in Hot Fuzz any day.
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If you were trying to compile a list of the most inappropriate, unworkable topics for a comedy, suicide bombers and their attempts to carry out an attack, would probably rank somewhere near the top. How can you laugh at such a gravely serious and fresh threat to our national security, to our everyday lives? Somehow Four Lions manages to be absolutely hilarious.
It’s difficult to write this review without mimicking the spot-on description on the Rotten Tomatoes website, so I’m going to go ahead and copy it:
“Its premise suggests brazenly tasteless humor, but Four Lions is actually a smart, pitch-black comedy that carries the unmistakable ring of truth.”
When my friend suggested watching Four Lions the premise did strike me as tasteless, but simultaneously I thought if it is any good it must be excellent to overcome the connotations of the issue. What ultimately elevates the comedy and makes Four Lions more thought provoking than most genuinely funny films, is that “unmistakable ring of truth” though.
There are in fact five lions to begin with, (all will become clear in one of the film’s funniest scenes), and four of them are clueless idiots. Only one of them, unofficial leader Omar, can be said to have any common sense at all. His overzealous attitude to terrorist training in Pakistan, results in him blowing up his own men with a rocket launcher. This particular scene verges on the slapstick and there are several of them in Four Lions, yet they marry seamlessly with more intelligent, black humor.
There’s no doubting then that whilst Omar and his family are disturbingly normal, the rest of his oddball crew are incapable and confused imbeciles. They’re basically the sort of halfwits likely to be taken in by extremist ideology. But even Omar is inept and out of his depth, as proved by his mishap in Pakistan. He’s basically seeking to deal a blow to injustice and Four Lions gets you to root for him. It’s a film that exposes some realities about extremism and bombers in the UK. Most of them are probably fools and failures, some are confused but convinced what they’re doing is right. They’re also homegrown and so assimilated with Western culture that their disillusionment is inexplicably and painfully funny for its hypocrisy and baffling motives.
Waj is the most idiotic character of the lot and is played wonderfully by Kayvan Novak of Fonejacker fame. He’s constantly getting confused and doubting the motivation and righteousness of his actions. Often it’s Omar that talks him back to the cause. In one scene Omar uses the capitalist, Western delights of a theme park to explain the concept of the afterlife and a martyr’s death to Waj. Blowing himself up will allow Waj to skip the queues straight to the “Rubber dinghy rapids!”
Also brilliant is Nigel Lindsay as white British convert to Islam, Barry. His political and religious views are horrifically twisted and ignorant. His prejudices have no backing with evidence and he seems to basically crave confrontation. He’s denied the trip to the training camp in Pakistan because he can’t speak the language and would stand out, and this clearly bruises Barry. He’s an outsider and in many ways, despite his stupidity, his adopted views are more radical and dangerous than any of the others’. He demonstrates ruthlessness on several occasions.
Four Lions is funny throughout and I was worried whatever laughs the climax could conjure would disappoint in comparison to all that went for. But somehow the story steps up another gear and so does the comedy. There’s a brilliant argument between police snipers about the difference between a Wookie and a bear, and a hilarious cameo from Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch as a virgin hostage negotiator.
This film simultaneously highlights the seriousness and truth behind a relevant, topical issue, as well making light of the funny side of it. It’s intelligent and funny and modern. It feels incredibly British. It’s basically modern British comedy, British filmmaking and British storytelling, at its best.
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