Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reviews: Harry Nilsson/King's Speech/True Grit

I have no doubt about the finest film I saw last year this past year: hands down, it was Winter's Bone. I've heard people carp about how "accurate" it was, especially people who felt it portrayed their part of the world unflatteringly. I don't know -- there's plenty of areas like that, even here in upstate New York. And if "accuracy" is going to be some kind of gauge for best picture of the year, there's an awful lot of statues to be handed back. All the trailers I saw before True Grit today claimed to be "based on a true story" which always makes me groan. The truth is no basis for a story: too messy. But let me save that rant for another time.

Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him) offers an insightful look at the brilliant singer songwriter and his life. The film benefits from the ailing Nilsson's decision to try to record a kind of autobiography, the found tapes proving a real treasure trove of commentary that makes the late singer a very vivid part of the film. It helps too that his family including his third wife, Una, with whom he had six children and seemed to be as happy as he found possible, were also cooperating. The tragedy of course is that someone so talented was also so troubled. Paul Williams' description of Nilsson as a great big bunny with real sharp teeth captures that succinctly. He had many hits, collaborated with the Beatles and the Pythons, but wasn't able to shake the ghosts that haunted him, from the father who abandoned him to the friends near to him who died like Keith Moon and John Lennon. As a bonus there are so many extras, too -- as if they couldn't bear to part with any of the footage shot, including Eric Idle's tribute song. They talk to all kinds of people who worked with him from Richard Perry to Van Dyke Parks and with his wives and kids. Excellent: I highly recommend it.

The King's Speech has already received laurels a-plenty which has a lot to do with its cast: they are indeed splendid, including many fine actors in tiny roles who get a couple of lines each (like Claire Bloom, alas). Like so many films now, the background is left enigmatic (well, you know the history, fill in the details yourself, I guess) and only the central actors received development. That really only means Rush and Firth: Helena Bonham Carter is reduced to appearing with corgis and going "there, there" on occasion (AKA a MWW masquerading as a MW1W). The direction is bizarre at times, especially in the first half hour, with angles that take you out of the narrative wondering where on earth the camera is supposed to be. Worse, in the set-up scene between the Prince-soon-to-be-King and the Aussie therapist, the camera work is so bad as to make it look like they're both gazing off into space rather than talking to each other. What really makes the film fall flat is the overwrought ambiance, from the overplayed music to the mountain-out-of-a-molehill plot. Yes, as someone once crippled by the thought of public speaking and who overcame it, I know what a trial it can be for people, but to have someone who treated men just back from Gallipoli call the pampered royal "the bravest man I've ever known" (as do half the people in the film) is just ridiculous hyperbole. If you love Firth, you'll still enjoy it, I guess.

True Grit is like a truly satisfying meal when you're really really hungry. The Coens have a great team of people (apparently Matt Damon has his own whole team, too, according to the credits) from Carter Burwell's musicians to Roger Deakins' seemingly flawless eye. You know Jeff Bridges is going to be good, and yeah, I'll admit it though it burns me a bit, that Matt Damon can be truly skillful when he wants to be. There's a whole host of grizzled frontiersmen, too: Peg and I were joking after the film that they must have put out a call for the ugliest character actors with the tag, "Must have abundant facial hair."

The real star is Hailie Steinfeld. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, here's a young woman who more than capably carries the film flanked by powerhouse actors who might easily intimidate many a seasoned performer. From the get-go Steinfeld strides into town and into the part with all the certainty of the true believer that she is. You believe her, the grudging respect she wins from the men and when her faith falters, you see that she is a child yet and so very young. It's incredible work. For the Coens, this is a bit different from a lot of their work because there's not that distance that allows ironic humor (we have to be able to laugh at Barton Fink's sufferings because they would be too harrowing; A Serious Man walks that razor's edge with dizzying grace). It's a straight-forward adventure. Don't get me wrong; there's humor, but as in Shakespeare's dramas, it's there to give you a breather from the tension. Well done: go see it.

12 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Worse yet, over the weekend Alice and I, who had suffered through the remake all those years ago, watched THE HAUNTING, and Alice, who hadn't ever seen it before, asked, "Why have I never heard of Claire Bloom?"

THE KING'S SPEECH seemed a bit facile from the promos. Looks like the promos don't mislead. HBC amusing on the BBC this morning, noting how little clothing sense she feels she has. I can sympathize.

And jeez I might be forced to do (I hope not the first) monograph on the common threads of Robert Bloch's PSYCHO and Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, from Cranes and imposing domiciles and mother-hatred/identification, and the films based on them (including the atrocious masturbation of both remakes of those films).

Nilsson...if ever a man needed a little more punk rock in his life...(and I'm somehow reminded of Paul Williams's lingering fate. It catches.)

Thanks for the encouragement on TRUE GRIT...it looked as if it might be a natural double feature with WINTER'S BONE, even as I AM LOVE almost was.

K. A. Laity said...

You've provided a good lead-in to tomorrow's column ;-) which I just mailed off. I think True Grit will only improve with every viewing.

I'd buy that monograph!

What a wonderful film The Haunting is. I can never get over how effective it is on students who roll their eyes at "old" movies, especially ones without blood and gore and guts. Great book, great film.

Todd Mason said...

And both short novels, about women fleeing to some degree criminously so as to change their desperate lives, and for reasons that were not driven by their transgression were both messed over, were published within months or weeks of each other in 1959. As Max Roach noted in another context not to much later, clearly at the time, It's Time.

I've rather liked the first film of TRUE GRIT, but since I haven't yet read the novel, I take Ed Gorman's dismissal of it as essentially Disneyfication under advisement. I gather the new film, not so much.

K. A. Laity said...

I have a fondness for the original just because it's one of the first films I can remember clearly as seeing in the drive-in as a child. I know I saw others before it; whichever movie has a lion named Fluffy caused us to refer to the drive-in where we saw it as "Fluffy Theatre" but I don't remember the movie at all. I never much cared for John Wayne.

pattinase (abbott) said...

TRUE GRIT was swell but I don't feel they brought much of theirselves into it. It was as straight forward as could be. But still a fine film.
Also agree on THE KING' SPEECH. Very BBCish and it seemed like he lived in a warehouse. Maybe he did.
Love the book TRUE GRIT and the first film even though I am not usually a Wayne fan. Don't know that this added more than a superior performance from Matt Damon as compared to Glen Campbell.

K. A. Laity said...

I think they've been moving away from the kinetic irony of the past and into a new phase of realism; much of it still explores comedy with their superb timing, but it's a long way from Raising Arizona (still one of the all-time funniest films). I'm not much of a Wayne fan. I am interested in reading the book (in my abundant spare time...).

pattinase (abbott) said...

RAISING ARIZONA is my favorite even with the dubious acting of Nic Cage. He wasn't so mannered back then.

K. A. Laity said...

It was before he became the bloated filler that he seems to be now. I have heard people say Kick-Ass redeemed him, but I was very disappointed in the film and thought it a real caricature of a performance.

Todd Mason said...

"Cage"'s affectations were more appropriate to his roles in the VALLEY GIRL/RAISING ARIZONA years.

Anonymous said...

matt damon used to be dreamy
-b

K. A. Laity said...

Too long in the tooth for you? Yeah, he's over 25.

Anonymous said...

needs a shave....