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.
Meet internationally renown oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and some of his Team Zissou: Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) his estranged wife and the "brains behind the operation"; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) the loyal chief engineer; and Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) the septuagenarian producer. Unfortunately Zissou's days are numbered having been pushed close to bankruptcy by his arch rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). But what's really bothering Zissou is that his best friend and longtime collaborator Esteban (Seymour Cassel) has been eaten by an underwater assailant known as the Jaguar Shark. Charged by vengeance Zissou sets out on his boat The Belafonte to hunt down the predator in one last filmed expedition. He is joined by two new Team Zissou members: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a young airline copilot who may be Zissou's son and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) a beautiful and pregnant journalist assigned to write a profile of Zissou. Along the way they face overwhelming complications including marauding pirates kidnappings and a maelstrom of human yearning.
Bill Murray has got to be one of the funniest people on the planet without ever seeming to be and his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (Rushmore The Royal Tenenbaums) have happily exploited that wellspring of comic talent. Zissou is pure Murray: slightly acerbic slightly aloof not terribly likable but deeply vulnerable. Sure the actor can play this part in his sleep but somehow he never makes it boring. The rest of the cast also measures up. Huston is striking as the austere Eleanor who is basically the glue that holds Zissou together. Wilson another Anderson staple is once again playing a very earnest fellow who simply wants to connect with the man who could be his long-lost father while also finding a little love with Jane. As the journalist the always good Blanchett who was actually pregnant during the making of Aquatic is perfect as the emotional conduit between Zissou and Ned. Dafoe finally gets to be funny in a film--and we don't count his turn as a surly fish in Finding Nemo--as the fiercely devoted Klaus who's a bit jealous of Ned. But the pièce de résistance is Brazilian actor Seu Jorge as The Belafonte's safety expert who regularly serenades the team with Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs. Classic stuff.
In what is definitely the director's most ambitious film to date--and he may be tired of hearing that--The Life Aquatic further highlights Wes Anderson's twisted yet exquisitely witty sensibilities that were evident in his three previous efforts Bottle Rocket Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Paying obvious homage to the stiff documentaries made by the legendary Jacques Cousteau as well as incorporating references to such movies as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach expertly hand us the skewed universe of Zissou in hilariously played-out sequences. We can also clearly see where the bigger budget went when Team Anderson sets out to sea. There's the spectacular Belafonte set with its individual compartments in which the actors move about and the campy stop-motion special effects of the odd sea life Zissou and gang encounter. While all of this makes for an enjoyable ride the movie ultimately lacks a cohesive soul. There is a small amount of redemption at the end when Zissou comes to terms with his life and ambitions but it seems tacked on as a way to tie everything up.