From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
“Review Proof” is a phrase that gets tossed around from time to time when a film in question is clearly made to be enjoyed on a basic level. It implies that the filmmakers behind it knew they were making a less-than-stellar movie but it didn’t matter because they also knew that they had a built-in audience that wouldn’t care about all the problems that emerge along the way. Basically “Review Proof” is code for “If you didn’t like it it wasn’t made for you.”
I however do not think that any film is “Review Proof.” It doesn’t matter if you’re making a feature adaptation of a fake trailer about a Mexican day laborer (Danny Trejo) out for head-chopping revenge against the man who framed him for murder (Jeff Fahey) and the man who killed his family (Steven Seagal) or a film about the liberation of a concentration camp. All films even the silly ones need to deliver on a fundamental set of criteria of dynamic characters involved in an interesting storyline that’s edited together coherently. If any of those elements are too far out of line it cripples the entire thing.
With Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis' grindhouse throwback film Machete there’s nothing wrong with the characters. Trejo was born to play the eponymous all-that-is-man stoic hero but the glue that holds the often messy film together are all of the supporting players particularly Fahey Jessica Alba Don Johnson and Seagal each of whom is having a ton of fun chewing into their extreme characters (no one can be just a federal agent or just a racist sheriff or just a drug lord; they have to be the most outlandish these-colors-don’t-run version possible). The film’s story isn’t exactly original but the “framed for an assassination” plot is a tried and true staple of the action genre for a reason so it hardly holds the film back. That pinpoints the weakest link in this rather simple chain as the film’s editing.
Unless one is curious as to how long a certain scene was one should never be motivated to look at their watch during a movie. But during Machete I couldn’t help but find myself constantly reaching for it as though it were some kind of lifeline wondering when the minute hand would discover the magic number that could rescue me from the increasingly grating affair. It’s disappointing that a film with as many decapitations and naked Lindsay Lohans as Machete can be boring but sadly that is the case here. Much of the film slogs through a swamp of story arcs that were seen coming from miles away completely forgetting that a movie of this nature needs to sustain its high (which essentially comes whenever Machete picks up well any object) without any dragging
distractions to kill the buzz.
It’s easy to admire Robert Rodriguez’s intended goal with Machete - to make the kind of offensive politically incorrect film that played in grindhouse theaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s - but good intentions only go so far. In a strange way Machete is almost too faithful to its ancestry. Sure the violence is awe inspiring (at one point Machete repels down the side of a building using someone’s intestines for crying out loud) and its adamant refusal to keep things comfy and PC is more than welcome but its pacing gives the film too much slack rope with which to hang itself.
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.