True Grit

Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn in The Coen Brothers' rehash of TRUE GRIT.

True Grit has just about gotta be the most un-ironic thing the Coen Brothers have ever conjured.  The Coens have explored the landscapes (No Country for Old Men) and themes (law and order in Fargo and the “man on the run” in Raising Arizona) of Westerns before, but this is their first stone-cold stab at the genre.  They’ve done remakes before, too, lest we forget the travesty of The Ladykillers.  Yet it is here where they play it completely straight and deliver a polished, hard to dislike, feature film liquored-up with top shelf quality right down the line. Continue reading

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The Fighting Irish

We’ve been lured by urban settings before – places so vivid they become a character in and of themselves:  Dickensian London, James Joyce’s Dublin, Scorsese’s New York…and now, in recent years we’ve found a great attraction to Affleckted Boston.  Movies like The Departed, Gone Baby Gone and this year’s The Town have taken us there before.  Ben Affleck may have nothing to do with this latest, The Fighter, but he’s been the greatest purveyor of this white trash squalor, and it runs amuck in David O. Russell’s fact based tale surrounding Micky Ward’s struggle to rise above his roots in the Lowell subsection of Boston to become a champion boxer. Continue reading

The Darker Side of Christmas Films

Quick!  What comes to your mind when you think of Christmas movies?  It’s a Wonderful Life?  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?  Scrooged?  Home Alone?  Bad Santa?
 
Eh, who needs ’em!?  It’s that time of year for…
 
The Schleicher Spin’s Top Ten Non-Traditional Christmas Films:

These are movies that highlight the darker side of the season or perhaps just have that contemplative, cold wintry feel.  So sit back with some whiskey, put a log in the fireplace and cozy up with something a little bit different.

10.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 

"Daddy, daddy, does Santa live there?" "No, son, that's where Blofeld lives."

What says Christmas better than gun fights and chases on skis, blowing up Blofeld’s mountaintop resort/terrorist compound and seeing your wife murdered in a drive-by?  Ah, the holidays!

9.  Eyes Wide Shut

Santa knows you've been a naughty boy.

Kubrick’s swan song if chock full of that holiday spirit – from swanky yuletide parties, to brisk walks through the night, to cultish orgies…the whole film is strung up like twisted Christmas lights. Continue reading

Cinematic Rites of Passage

Cinema, the youngest of the great art forms, has wrestled in its time with defining its own archetypes.  Some have been pilfered from other art forms…literature and theater and opera…your classic Oedipal complexes and hero-worship.  But there is one archetype that has evolved into something purely cinematic.  It’s been there from the earliest days.  We saw it with Dreyer and Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a prototypical materializing of The Director orchestrating The Performance from The Actress.  In its infancy, cinema gleaned from the religious.  After its golden era of youth, as it settled into cynicism and postmodernism, it became more deranged.  Polanski’s Repulsion…Bergman’s Persona…Altman’s 3 Women…Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.  There have been seeds of it planted in horror as well…Argento’s Suspiria…De Palma’s Carrie

We know the characters:  The ingenue dying to land her first big role (Natalie Portman), the fallen star (Winona Ryder), the obsessive mother figure (Barbara Hershey), the psychotic director (Vincent Cassel) and the dark femalien foil to the ingenue (Mila Kunis).  To play these parts…to choreograph this masturbatory madness…it’s become a cinematic rite of passage.  Darren Aronofsky — impregnating the archetype with his own hang-ups — makes his film, his rite of passage about the achievement of perfection.  He’s so comfortable with the archetype that the first spoken words of the film following a fade from black are, “I had the craziest dream last night.”  He closes arrogantly with, “It’s perfection.”  Fade to white. 

Portman speaks both of these lines, and the transformation we witness in between…well…it’s the archetype as we’ve never quite seen it before.  Everything we think we know about the archetype is spun seductively into the mind of The Actress!  Her character and Aronofsky’s camera twirls like a ballerina out of control…but there’s nothing graceless or mad about The Performance.  Portman has us just where she wants us.  She is in complete control at all times.  Never once did I think she lost herself.  Continue reading

Crazy White People

Would you like some coffee with your civil war?

Claire Denis is one of the most renowned and prolific female directors in world cinema, but her films are known by few outside of urbane critics and religious patrons of the art houses.  Her surprisingly heartfelt slice-of-life piece about multiethnic Parisians, 35 Shots of Rum, probably would’ve made my top ten list last year had I seen it in time and is a film that deserved a wider audience.  Her latest, the frustratingly non-humanist White Material, isn’t about to win over any new fans or stir up any kind of decent business.  But it will have plenty of people talking.

In an unnamed African country, civil war has broken out.  Isabelle Huppert plays Marie, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation and refuses to leave amidst the anarchy and danger, even after French soldiers beg her and her family to evacuate and all of her laborers abandon their work to flee.  Determined to bring the latest crop in, she hires a weary group of day laborers while her family falls apart and a notorious rebel leader, wounded and hunted, finds refuge in her home. 

Giving the film no historical context is a bit frustrating, but Denis, who has her own tenuous ties to the continent, seems to indicate this could be “Anywhere Africa” and what she displays — the ailing after effects of colonialism, the brutality of civil wars, the inhumanity of using children as soldiers, and the rampant anarchy of a land full of “hot air” is a hellish portrait of her former home. Continue reading

Freedom Fighters

“But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.” – page 444.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is an epic piece of self-loathing.

I didn’t read Franzen’s Corrections – the literary cause-de-celebre from a few years back that shot Franzen’s name as a contemporary literary titan into the stratosphere — ahhh…the power of Oprah.  When it comes to writers like Franzen, I like to come in through the side door, read their follow-ups first and introduce myself to them when they are perhaps not at their best.

In Freedom, Franzen introduces us to the Berglunds – the on-the-surface, perfect, Mid-West, All-American, upper-middle-class family living the dream.  It comes as no surprise that they are anything but, and Franzen paints an epic anti-Norman Rockwell portrait of this family from the parents’ teenage days to their children growing up and flying the coop.  Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: A Return to Normalcy (Season Finale)

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide 

Boardwalk EmpireA Return to Normalcy (Season Finale)

Season One: Episode Twelve

Directed by:  Tim Van Patten

Written by:  Terence Winter (series creator) from the novel by Nelson Johnson

The Spin:  If I’m being honest, Van Patten has been the weak link in terms of directors for the series, but he finally pulls out all the stops and delivers a deeply satisfying season finale helped immensely by the hands-on teleplay from series creator Terence Winter.  Next to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire is the best written show on television, and though there’ve been some rough patches, it tops AMC’s award-winner in terms of pure entertainment.  In the finale, all of our favorites get their big scenes (Emmy…Emmy, can you hear me?) but Van Patten keeps the histrionics turned down a notch.  Just as it seems like Nucky is making peace with all his enemies, the local and national elections go his way, and Margaret comes back to his side (not after his emotional revelation about the true nature of his wife’s passing, but after a silly superstition gives her a grim premonition she will do anything to make not come true), those closest to him (a recovering Commodore, a soused Jimmy, and a spiteful Eli) begin to plot against him.  Meanwhile, Van Alden is about to heave-ho from his new Carthage riddled with guilt until a saucy special someone shows up while he’s packing to announce a bitter bun is in the oven.  A winning period-song accompanied montage (which in grand Scorsese-inspired style has become the show’s most potently dramatic calling card) leaves us tinged with melancholy over what has passed and filled with equal parts hope and fear over what is to come.  The closing images of an early dawn soaked boardwalk are the perfect postcards to send viewers off for a long hiatus. Continue reading