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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids posterSynopsis

Co-written by Kristen Wiig as Annie, it’s about her preparations for her mate, Lillian’s, wedding.  Lillian is played by Maya Rudulph.  Annie had a cake business which went bust.  She has friends with whom she plays the bridesmaid:  with rich Helen (Rose Byrne) another friend, with her obnoxious boys, another is gentle, and another is the wisecracking Rita (Wendi Mclardon Covey).  Rita looks disconcertingly like an overweight Ricky Gervais.  Annie has a boyfriend (Jon Hamm) with whom she has a jokey relationship.  Then she meets an Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd ) who is the usual nice guy who seems to promise deliverance.  The bridesmaid friends eat in a Brazilian restaurant and get food poisoning so they end up dumping anywhere in the bathroom of a posh bridal shop.  Lillian does her toilet in the street,  she is wearing a big wedding dress.  Annie bitches about the rituals and gets at Helen’s poshness.  Annie gets stoned on a plane and then she’s kicked off it.  The wedding turns out well after Maya’s misgivings.

Criticism

I laughed quite a bit at this film which is funnier than both Hangover films but I have doubts.  It’s a woman’s picture and it’s all about the supposed miseries of being left on the shelf and I”m uneasy with that.  Annie can get whoever she wants yet she’s prone to self pity so that your sympathies for her bridesmaid status are not activated.  She alienates the Irish cop who sleeps with her, by berating him for seemingly taking her for granted.  She can pick and choose.  She’s cynical about men yet wants conventional wedded bliss.  She expresses this cynicism in her job in a jeweller’s shop, she deliberately alienates prospective customers telling them that lasting friendships are illusory anyway, unsurprisingly she gets the sack.  She’s kicked out of her flat (Matt Lucas is the smarmy landlord) and goes to mother who watches Tom Hank films.  At a posh engagement reception (naturally organised by posh Helen) she competes in unctuousness with Helen as they keep grabbing the microphone from each other, Lillian is embarrassed.  At another reception Annie goes berserk at the affluent bad taste on show, letting out all her bitterness at life..

This film may be about empowered women in which men (except for the Irish Cop) have only peripheral roles but it’s really a mainstream rom-com, more conventional than it cares to admit.  The old assumptions about marriage are never challenged.  We get the same celebratory bad taste about marriage that we always get in Hollywood films.  I can remember from the 1970s that a white wedding was considered kitsch and out of date.  Germaine Greer alluded to this in The Female Eunuch. Then came the 1990s and Four Weddings and a Funeral and ever since we’ve had the cliche of the bride in white either running down a street, or being late, or thumping somebody.  Here the bride toilets in the street, is this supposed to be liberating?  Weddings have been the big deal in Hollywood, obvious rituals of status success and money.  We never see poorer people getting married, do we?  Marriages’ impossibly romantic expectations never seem to be questioned, so being a mere bridesmaid is quite naff.  The film celebrates a kitschy wedding at the end and this makes it quite conservative and more of a rom-com, though  admittedly with more than average caustic wit.

The film is also pretty mainstream in the way the overweight Rita is made to get Annie out of her self pity.  Why Rita?  Doesn’t this underline the snobby vanity of Annie and the other (thinner) women?  Furthermore, Annie’s relationship with the cop is predictable, he’s the nice guy so you know he will get her in the end, and we can all feel good about it.  Still, there’s a good comedy scene where Annie and Helen try to get the cop’s attention, so they go through cartoonish routines of traffic offences, which he ignores.  Annie’s rancourous envy is undermined by the self parody of her tantrums.  It looks as if she wants to be that paragon of conservatism, the happy marriage partner.  Each of the bridesmaids seems to be a fully rounded character and yet they have unthreateningly conventional quirks:  rich bitch, sweet, cynical, earth mother with advice.  Sometimes amusing but conventional.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Submarine

Submarine posterSynopsis

A film about an unprepossessing adolescent set in the 1980s in Swansea, directed by Richard Ayoade, from a novel by Joe Dunthorne.  Ben Stiller is involved in it.  It stars Craig Roberts and Oliver Tait, a sharp witted and observant schoolboy (we are given to understand).  He bullies a slightly corpulent girl in order to win over Jordana (Yasmin Paige) who wears a red duffel coat.  She seems to dominate Oliver.  His parents are played by Noah Taylor, who is a marine biologist, and Sally Hawkins, who works in an office.  She is getting bored with hubby and has designs on Paddy Considine who plays a leather clad, would-be mystic .  Oliver has fantasies, he imagines the public grief at his demise.  He poses as a philosopher.  He plays host to Jordana, using boxed wine and prawns and then a candle lit bedroom.  Jordana’s mother has cancer and Jordana rejects Oliver for not visiting her mother in hospital.  In order to get her over her grief for her mother, he tries to poison her dog, thinking that such an action will get her used to grief.

Criticism

This is quite funny for the first half, though you might find your laughter getting self consciously thin.  It’s a coming of age film and I think it’s apposite to list the cliches of this kind of film.  The Graduate has a lot to answer for.

a) The lead character is usually an unprepossessing sulky young man or woman but has one or two supposedly cool confederates.

b) The lead character is usually sexually inept but keeps girlfriend anyway.  If a girl, she is bright and scares boys off.

c)The lead usually makes a great fuss about learning things the rest of us take in our stride.

d) The lead usually has hippy liberal parents into sexual liberation.  They always try to  keep up with fashionable ideas and of course they are shamefully uncool.

e) The parents are usually played by actors like Stan Tucci or Noah Taylor.  Dad is usually a sexual failure and figure of fun.

f) The hero’s house is always clean and his/her parents never seem to work.

g) Freeze frame with titles indicate some moments of comic insight.

h) The voice-over threads relentlessly through the film. There is a tone of.disparagement of teachers and pupils, usually such comments focus on physical quirks or personality deficiencies.

i) Just to get some intellectual credibility, the lead must either read or name drop Friedrich Nietzsche, compulsory for adolescents..

j) So the star has to be a nerdy existentialist.

k) There is posturing with flattering fantasised self image, like Billy Liar.

l) There is some obligatorily silly friend or family relation of the nerdy hero.  They are usually some self deluded uncle or old flame who is so uncool.

m) There is the inevitable heart to heart with Mum or Dad, usually in the bedroom.

n) Somebody manages to be ill or die and this is supposed to be a wake up call.

o) If it’s set in a particular decade there will be anachronisms.

p) There is usually a leitmotif (quirky of course) and this explains the title.

q) There always must be a highly obtrusive soundtrack of guitar twanged ballads of teen angst, usually superfluous to understanding the lead (should you want to).

r) The main characters are always middle class.  Submarine is guilty of a) b) c) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) l) m) n) o) p) q) r) s) t) u) and r).  Oh dear, all of them.

SThe funny bits cannot distract from the film’s obvious lack of originality.  Its precursors go from The Graduate and Here we go round the Mulberry Bush to Adrian Mole and Juno and The Scarlet A.  The last two are by far the best of the lot.  There is the same smug self regard sinking into suffocating  self absorption.  For all the intelligence of the lead in Submarine, he is slow to learn about himself – cliche (c).  Like similar characters, he might be a dark horse to his more alpha-male aspiring school colleagues, but he is often cowardly and snobbish, and of course he gets the girl in the end.  Jordana goes around in a vivid red duffel coat which is of course an uncool article of clothing.  We are meant to think of the midget in Don’t Look Now, she turns round and slashes Donald Sutherland with a knife.  In Submarine someone turns round to him but it is not Jordana.  The coat is visually stunning in a landscape of greys, browns and greens, it’s like a splash of scarlet paint over a grey canvas

There is fashionable amusement with the quirks of other decades.  Oliver invites Jordana to a meal and he has a box of wine on the table and I wonder if that’s more 70s than 80s.  Cliche (l) is embodied in Paddy Considine.  He plays a leather trousered would be mystic, all Allen Partridge insecurity and medallion man gormlessness.  His hairdo is a mullet, he drives a star spangled van straight out of a 1968 rock tour.

The parents responsible for the cliche offences d) e) f) g) m) are Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins.  Noah Taylor looks like the perfect wally dad.  He can be relied on to offer good natured platitudes to the son he is not supposed to understand.  Sally Hawkins has become the face of Mrs Englishwoman for all decades from the debutantes of the 1950s, to Dagenham housewife of the 60s,  to a 21st century manic  optimist.  If she’s not careful, she will be wheeled onto more films to provide comfort for right wing nostalgics.  She is our contemporary answer to Deborah Kerr, the professional Englishwoman.  No doubt Americans lap this sort of thing up.  They love to hear Limmies being clever and humorous, and these sort of glorified TV productions that have been turned into films tend to be well worked rungs up the Hollywood ladder. This would have been better as a shorter TV production.

Occasionally funny but very derivative.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now posterSynopsis

Set in Vietnam in the late 60s.  Martin Sheen plays Willard sent on a mission to kill Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an American officer who has turned into a mad mass murderer in the jungle.  Willard is in a patrol boat with a surfer, a pilot, a young soldier, and a would be chef.  On the way they meet Robert Duvall directing gunships onto suspected Vietcong positions but it looks like a massacre of defenceless peasants.  They come onto a concert in the middle of the jungle and they murder Vietnamese on a trading boat, thinking they’ve got weaponry.  Willard reaches Kurtz and meets Dennis Hopper as a photographer who worships Kurtz.

Criticism

This is based on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness set in the Congo looted by Belgian colonialists.  It has since become a cliche, the dark heart of colonialists in Africa.  Coppola transposes this into the US degradations in Vietnam.  In the 60s and 70s there were plenty of anti-war films and this seems to be anti-war but there are some interesting ambivalences.  Robert Duvall with his helicopter gunships looks like a clownish war criminal but the film lingers over these exploits and sails into a choreography of Wagner’s music and the insane delight in destruction and carnage.  There’s a creepy feeling that though the viewer of course must be repelled by this savagery, still there is some sort of mysticism here which goes beyond our cosy categories.  Why don’t we feel any reservations about violence in thrillers and westerns?

Martin Sheen plays Willard as a cynical commentator who appears to be corrupted by his work.  He is happy to murder a wounded Vietnamese woman and this act undermines his bragging rights in anti-war cynicism, he is surely a part of the militarist evil that he so casually despises.  Willard spends a lot of time speaking in tones of breathy portentousness, rolling his eyes sideways in unconvincing paranoid edginess.  This is supposed to be a dramatic response to the surrounding evil but Sheen’s acting looks like a substitute for real thought, we are meant to think the film engages with great issues of evil but I think it’s into a sort of Nazified chic.

Brando plays Kurt as a mumbling psycho presiding over his jungle killing fields.  He quotes from T.S. Eliot about the Hollow Men.  This is probably a reference to Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz as a human void lacking the psychic wholeness that would enable him to avoid evil.  This is the caricature of the Nietzschean ‘hero’ who is beyond Christian decadence, like Harry Lime in The Third Man.  Apocalypse Now is fascinated with the evil it should deplore.

Dennis Hopper plays that figure we have come to loath – the excitable guy who talks lots of hero worshipping blather, usually to someone who’s just come off a plane or a boat.  It’s the sort of hectic self promotion that allows no response or criticism.  They look like they’re off their heads.  Hopper does this in a film which is set in a killing field in Cambodia, the film was made in 1979.  The truth about Pol Pot’s killing fields was just being made known to the world.  There is a big debate about this but turning massive suffering into any kind of artistry is at best controversial.

The boat crew become increasingly demented, we’re meant to think they succumb to the horrors of war but they become automatons of killing.  Nothing is accountable in Apocalypse and this seems to include Coppola who opts out of judgements.  Willard tells us the would-be chef is not only too tightly wound up for Vietnam but for New Orleans, where he comes from.   There is a surfer who does a bit of surfing (to show the surreal theatricality of war I suppose) then gets into body painting, maybe he’s just read Lord of the Flies.

There is product placement which pioneered the visual stereotyping of Vietnam films:  the brandy, cigarettes, and the music by the Doors.  The film takes us from an Ernst Jung fascination for war (his book Storm Of Steel praised war) rather than All Quiet on the Western Front, and its protest against war, to a jungle-swarmed tourist kitsch depravity.

Visually impressive but some sort of accountable mentality is difficult to find in this film.  A sort of hip appreciation of war.  Probably went down well with backpackers in Bangkok and all places ‘exotic’.

 
 

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Oranges and Sunshine

Oranges and Sunshine posterSynopsis

Directed by Jim Loach about the deportations from Britain to Australia of 130,000 children, this only ended in 1970.  Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker contacted by an Australian woman who had been one such deported child.  Humphreys assumes that if deported, the children must have been orphans but she learns the truth about single mothers not being allowed to keep their children.  Parents went searching for them but the children were sent to homes or exploited viciously by the Christian Brothers and others.  Humphreys must quit her job and work full time to uncover the shame of British and Australian governments.  In Australia she meets adults who were these abducted children and she soon realizes the emotional and bureaucratic magnitude of her task.  She befriends Len (David Wenham) who is initially hostile but then shows Humphreys the Bindom Christian Brothers Institution.  Humphreys did not want to get too emotionally involved but did so anyway, putting great strain on herself and her family.  Len and others contact their parents in the UK.

Criticism

This is the mixture of the Magdalena Laundries and Rabbit Proof Fence.  The former is about the savage treatment of girls in a convent run orphanage in Ireland and the latter is about forced adoption in early 20th century Australia.  The film is like a lid clattering on emotions about to explode.  The problem with these films is that often you don’t get the full picture so it can exploit and manipulate its selected truths, in this case some children probably got through the ordeal well.  Further more there may well have been a few genuinely well intentioned people involved in this but of course they are crowded out by the sad criminality that damaged lives.  Len is the emotionally hurt boy who got through adulthood without much damage.  He takes Humphreys to confront the priests who can only wilt under reproachful gazes, even the younger priests, who appear to be innocent of these crimes.

We still get the conventional cinematic gestures in this film.  Humphreys and Len win each other round after the usual suspicious sparring.  We get the life enhancing soundtrack, Cat Stevens on the car CD.  We get the hero’s long suffering family and her husband seems too patient to be true.  We avoid the family rows but Humphreys does get medical attention for stress.  Presumably ,Humphreys must have been consulted throughout the film but there are other too conventional moments.  We get embarrassed politicians and bureaucrats staring into their teacups, we get the heart-warming support from a bureaucrat complete with appropriate music what we could call a Richard Attenborough moment.,  Humphreys herself is very restrained, her face is a mask tautening under the strain of overwhelming emotion.  She perforce assumes a messianic role in the lives of these people which too easily translates into cinematic hokiness, though the film holds back from too much of that.  I had to fight the temptation to blubber as the film pays skilful homage to the gravity of the whole business.

There are other minor quibbles.  Humphreys is often too restrained, her social worker training enabled her to do this but it makes her look too detached on film.  No doubt when she was tracking down the Christian Brothers she was threatened but we have seen this often in cinema, as if the mere fact of being confronted or attacked is sufficient proof of the usefulness of the investigations.  Motives are unexamined but useful to raise the dramatic profile.  I was reminded often of the crusading tactics of Erin Brokovitch  which is one of the best of this kind of film.

This is a heartening film which rescues some victims from the obscenity of neglect of their sufferings.  Like his father Ken Loach, the director Jim Loach is concerned with the effect of social and political forces on the lives of those who must endure them. The showing of this is timely in a week when British crimes against Kenyan rebels in the 50s are being revealed.  One wonders how many more worm cans have yet to be opened.

The title Oranges and Sunshine refers to the promise made to the British kids that they would have plenty of sunshine and could eat oranges for breakfast when they get to Oz.  When are we going to get films showing the crime of the promotion of forced sterilization policies on the poor?  The ‘Who’s Who’ of socialist worthies were in favour of this in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

 

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X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class posterSynopsis

About the origins of the X-Men.  Michael Fassbender plays Erik, a Jewish Boy in Auschwitz.  He cannot demonstrate his powers to German commander Kevin Bacon (who later becomes Sebastian Shaw), so Bacon shoots Eric’s mother.  Erik gets his revenge on Nazis.  Later, Sebastian has a mutant sidekick who turns into metal, she is played by January Jones.  James McAvoy is into thought control and is an Oxford  professor, he will become the wheelchair bound Xavier played by Patrick Stewart.  Xavier meets other X-people – a blue skinned woman, a blue wolf man, a fire thrower and a winged woman.  They are recruited by the C.I.A. during the Cuban missile crisis.  Sebastian initially helps the Russians but is attacked by X-Men, Erik gets revenge on Shaw and becomes Magneto.

Criticism

If you are not an X-Men fan, this film could be all over the place.  It seems obligatory these days in action films to go from city to city, then we watch the C.G.I. do its work.  There’s scarcely time to get to know any of the characters because of course it’s assumed that we should know about them already.  As in such films as Star Wars where the prequels come later than the sequels, what should be explanatory origins become hasty introductions.  Watching this is a bit like watching Harry Potter for the over 20s with bits of Austin Powers, Bourne Trilogy, and Heroes.  After the 1944 beginning, it’s set in 1962 and there are a couple of anachronisms: short mini skirts didn’t come in until the mid 60s, the song Hippy Hippy Shake came out in 1964.  I’m uneasy with a fantasy story using the Holocaust.  This subject should be dealt with carefully, even Schindler’s List used it in a controversial way.

At times, the film gets into cod ethics about the responsibilities of using powers properly, how should more evolved people relate to normal people, are they friend or foe?  Usually these mutants consider themselves as freaks and want to be normal but in the end they are happy to use their powers capriciously enough.  It looks like a teen vampire movie with special effects machinery added on.  There’s humour about their situation, Xavier gives them jokey routines like Q from James Bond and he throws in a bit of philosophy just to remind us that it can put special effects in their place.  The marvellous becomes domesticated, reduced to the level of teen anxieties as when the blue skinned mutant confesses she doesn’t like her appearance she is reassured that you wouldn’t cover up the face of a tiger, why hers?  This could have led to more promising dialogue but in the end I thought she looked like a Smurf with yellow conjunctivitis.

In taking major historical events and treating them to sci-fi outcomes, this film becomes parasitic on those outcomes, it wants the reflected seriousness of being associated with those events with none of the responsibilities of historical understanding, so it can undermine the lessons these events have for us now.  I couldn’t blame Hugh Jackman For telling Xavier and Magneto to go forth and multiply.  Maybe Magneto later turned up on the grassy knoll during the 1963 Kennedy assassination, he will direct the firing from the knoll to complement Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots from behind.

For fans of the conspiracy theory, grassy knoll type.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock posterSynopsis

From the Graham Greene novel about a gangster called ‘Pinkie’ Brown who murders another gangster who was photographed with a potential witness, Andrea Riseborough as Rose.  In order to neutralize her as a witness threat, he marries her (wives couldn’t testify against husbands if they didn’t want to; it was not legally permitted until recently).  There is a rival gangboss Collioni who nearly has Pinkie killed .  Pinkie murders Spicer, the titular head of Pinkie’s gang, thrusting a stick of rock in his mouth.  Pinkie is pursued by Helen Mirren who has gangsterish pals and there is John Hurt as a rival businessman to Pinkie’s gang.  This Rowan Joffe  film is set in 1964 Brighton, the era of Mods and Rockers.  The gangsters do their worst while the police are distracted dealing with the rioters.  We see Pinkie among the Mods, he and Rose are both Catholics.

Criticism

The first Brighton Rock film was made by the Boulting Brothers in 1947 from Greene’s 1938 novel.  Richard Attenborough’s snarling baby face was a lot more menacing than Sam Riley’s.  Riley looks like a composite of David Gilman and Leonardo di Caprio, when he’s angry he looks like a choirboy with haemorrhoids.  This story is of course about a Catholic gangster and his Catholic girlfriend and Greene reminds us of his faith:  he can suss Rose’s Catholicism, Pinkie prays before he thinks he’s about to be killed, the secular wedding means they both commit ‘mortal sin’, he thinks atheists have got things wrong, there is a hell.  I haven’t read the novel yet so I don’t how Greene deals with it there but in this film it’s contrived and forced, it looks too much like they’re toying with it.  Pinkie murders and knows he has committed ‘mortal sin’ but leaves it at that.  Where are the agonies of guilt, a tortured conscience?   Rose goes to church and prays to the mother of God, so we get the conventionally exotic token of catholicism, but the film fails to make it interweave with their everyday lives possibly because I suspect it doesn’t understand Catholic psychology of half a century ago.

Furthermore Joffe’s movie succumbs to the Life on Mars syndrome.  This is the habit of films these days to make the mid 20th century look so tacky it’s almost Dickensian.  Admittedly, Brighton in 1964 was not exotic but there was some affluence.  In this movie, just looking at the damp, fungus smelly interiors is enough to give anyone tuberculosis.   Perhaps this is in dark contrast to it’s mirror image opposite: the Postman Pat fantasy world of Richard Curtis.  This version of Brighton looks moth eaten and seedy, a spiv’s paradise of flyblown cakes and cheap tobacco.  There is the usual desperate clinging on to lower middle class respectability that makes me think of the novel Chesil Beach.  Philip Larkin wrote poems about Britain trying to enjoy itself at fairs at the seaside and it’s a ‘Punch and Judy’ hell of frowstiness.  The film cleverly makes the seafront at Brighton look like a setting for a funfair horror.  Britain was just about to discover affluence and was confused by the alarming economic power of the young, but that does not come across in Joffre’s film.  Pinkie and Rose are in a sort of fake Catholic preserve and the Mods and Rockers seem to bounce off its  hermetically sealed bell jar.  Mirren and Hurt play the types that in Ealing films were played by Googie Withers, Jean Kent and Donald Sinden, all sleazily getting their style through osmosis with cheap gangsters, all taken with a gin and tonic of course.  Most of the characters in this film talk in would-be portentous Chuck Norris tones, and it does get to sound like a parody of London urchin’s guvnor and “mind the dusty aspidistras, me old cock sparrer”.

That this is set in 1964 is not just about Mods and Rockers, it was the last year in which capital punishment was still a grim threat to anyone getting into murder.  The last hanging was in August 1964, so that menace should give an edge to this story.  It just about manages that.  Pinkie is afraid of this even though he is all bravado to the police.

As for Pinkie being pure evil (as Terry Eagleton suggested) he may have been the usual ontological lack in the novel but here he just looks like a crook who might be capable of redemption.  He records his voice for Rose, starting with “I should say I love you” but then goes on to say something vicious.  Rose plays the record but the needle sticks at “I love you” so she misses the rest and this is an eloquent comment on how this could have been a better film.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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True Grit

True Grit posterSynopsis

A Coen brothers film based on the novel rather than the 1969 film starring John Wayne.  Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) is the daughter of a murdered employer of Tom Cheney, so she wants him hanged.  She hires the reluctant Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) whom she meets in the courthouse where he battles with the lawyer trying to get at the truth about a shooting.  She heads out with him into Indian territory (this is 1878) with Leboeuf, a Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon.  They track down the gang Cheney is with and he is killed.  Mattie loses her arm from a snakebite, Cogburn tries to save her arm, getting her back to civilization as quickly as possible.  We see Mattie at the end of the film finding out about what happened to Cogburn.

Criticism

What’s puzzled me about this film is why some critics have wondered at the point of making it.  It’s a story and films are about stories.  Jeff Bridges is a different Cogburn from Wayne, he drawls inarticulately and seems shrewdly ambivalent later in accompanying Mattie out to the wilderness.  The search and pursue party is a constant of westerns, it’s all about the searchers finding out about themselves through the ordeal of the wilderness.  The setting itself is a harsh snowy landscape, all sepulchrally bare trees and various shades of dust brown, this is not Remington’s more opulent vision of nature that are in his paintings.  The trees bear swaying corpses and the backdrop is visually bizarre, like the rider in a bearskin who looks like a bear riding a horse.  This I think is a nod towards Jeremiah Johnston a reminder that even in the 1870’s the west was still a vast wilderness for whites.  Nature is a mirage which is skirted with ambush and violence.  There is no real claim to visual originality, more an untameable quirkiness which resists moral expectations.  Violence is a sudden bitter flourish in gesture and face.  A man’s fingers are chopped off, Laboeuf nearly bites his own tongue off, a snakebite blackens an arm, night camps are protected by ropes which keep the snakes away, brutality will do what it can when the chance arises, there is a hanging in the town of Fort Smith at the beginning of the film.

All this is in contrast to the peculiarly florid and biblical language that the protagonists (especially Mattie) use.  It’s as if the harshness and brutality can be endured by a florid turn of phrase like engraving a chrysanthemum on a samurai sword.  There is deftness about phrase making and argument, Mattie does business easily and persuades tough men to ride with her.  She will not be dismissed, her precocity excites their resentment and erotic insolence:  Laboeuf administers a spanking.  She does not have to resort to the familiar tactics of sentiment, she forces these hardbitten frontiersmen to act on her terms and in doing so sets up a macho contest between Labeouf and Cogburn.  Each probes the other’s weaknesses, though Cogburn is better at concealing his, finally forcing Labeouf into an initially reluctant mentoring role for Mattie.  Civilization of course is thrown into very dubious relief.  In general, western films are resentful of the spread of urban life even as they thrive on the cut throat individualism of its capitalist dynamism.  There is a real, uneasy sort of fascist eulogizing of wildness which usually needs a narrative of resentment to give it coherence otherwise it would just be a National Geographic look at the Iron Man.  The resentment appears when an idiosyncratically cultivated mysticism is violated by capitalist servility, the spread of civilized mores, or ugly industrialism.  These come out in the Coens’ film.  I detest the Coens’ fascination with violence and physical oddity, but in this film they have found their true calling, they out Peckinpah Sam Peckinpah.

This is a reminder of those 1970’s westerns which showed the west from a worm’s eye view: the alkali dust, the longueurs of rural life, the shear life-corroding harshness of the frontier, the moronic thuggishness of the formerly romanticized villains.  The sepia tinted myths were getting a makeover.  The Coens have not exactly rejected the sepias and there is still the unrealistic silliness of the their gunfights, but it could be the Coens are factoring in their own cinematic mythmaking into this story.  Now westerns have to be comments about the western as they try to recreate life in the wild frontier.  In that respect this is a somewhat old fashioned western, although there are acknowledgements of 1970’s attempts at realism, there is mainly a direct line to the westerns of the 30’s to the 60’s where the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and there is no probing into what makes a guy good or bad.

 
 

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