Friday, March 18, 2011

True Grit: A Classic or Revisionist Western

True Grit vs. Stagecoach
Many consider John Ford's Stagecoach to be the quintessential Western. The film takes place in the scenic Monument Vally and stars the king of all Westerns, John Wayne. Stagecoach establishes many of the elements that are commonly associated with a classic Western film: clearly defined roles of good and evil, justice and morality as valid justification for violence and the concept of people getting what they deserve. The Coen Brother's 2010 film True Grit includes many of these classic ideas, but distances itself just enough to not be considered a classic Western. True Grit, a remake of the 1968 film which also stared John Wayne embraces the grandeur of  the wilderness that defined many of Ford's films. Both films uses extreme long shots that encompass the vastness of the environment that surrounds the characters. True Grit also has a clearly defined roles of good and evil, of righteous versus immoral. In both films, the bad guys get what is coming to them. What separates True Grit from other classic Westerns is that the ending lacks perfection. Unlike the optimistic ending of Stagecoach, where Ringo and Dallas ride off to a perfect life, True Grit leaves the audience with hints of regret. It seems unfair that the adult Mattie is unable to meet up with her old friend Rooster before he dies. However, more so than any other Coen Brother's film, True Grit seems to be a mostly straight genre exercise.

True Grit vs. Unforgiven
While Stagecoach represents the classic Western film, Clint Eastwood's 1992 Oscar-winning Unforgiven is the opposite. The film highlights many of the harsh realities of life on the frontier that classic Western films often choose to ignore. Most prominent among these themes are the reality of violence, and the concept of moral ambiguity - there are rarely clearly defined roles of good and evil. In the film, the scene where the Schofield Kid breaks down and cries after killing the second bounty allows violence to be seen in its horror. The Kid breaks down, admitting that he had never killed a man before and he never will again. "I'm not like you, Will", he tearfully proclaims. This stark critique of violence is a far cry from Stagecoach where violence by the "good guys" can always be justified. In a sense, True Grit can be interpreted as critiquing violence because of how graphically it is portrayed. The Coen Brother's are known from being over-the-top with violence and True Grit is no exception. Unforgiven also represents revisionist Western's because it blurs the lines between good and evil. Although Will Munny is clearly the protagonist, and Little Bill the antagonist, both characters seem more and more similar as the film progresses. Will's ruthlessness in the bar contradicts the classic Western theme of the main character being a symbol of righteousness and morality. This whole concept comes to a head as Little Bill lays on the floor dying with Will standing over him with a gun in his face. Little Bill gasps, " I don't deserve die like this. I was building a house." to which Will replies, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it...". True Grit, when compared to elements like this of revisionist Westerns, seems to be closer to a classic Western film. In True Grit, Chaney is definitively a bad man, and he gets what he deserves.

True Grit: A Classic Western
Despite several irregularities with the classic Western formula, which seem more byproducts of the Coen Brother's style, True Grit can nearly be considered an classic Western. Like Stagecoach, the film has clearly defined roles of moral and immoral, and in the end, like in all classic Western's, the bad guy gets it and the good guy's ride off into the sunset. Although True Grit takes a more graphic approach to violence, it fails to lambaste violence like Unforgiven. Although the ending to True Grit isn't as perfect as most classic Western's, the film can be considered the Coen Brother's first straight film lambaste: a classic Western.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Online Film Analysis

Ocean's Eleven
The scene starts with six people sitting around a table playing poker. The shot uses deep focus, as players are placed in the foreground and middle ground. By sitting around the table, the shot is balanced according to the Rule of Thirds. The light is dim, illuminating only the from of the players and the table which helps to instill the atmosphere of a casino. This opening scene is followed by several scenes, lasting four or five seconds, that frame three players with one placed in each of the planes of depth. Although Pitt's character is obviously the dominant figure, as his commanding dialogue makes up for the majority of the sound, he is obscured by shadows which helps to build his character as a "behind the scenes" guy. Rusty's disgust with his idiotic and pampered clientele is shown by zooming in on him as he slowly takes a drink after Eric from That 70's Show celebrates his "all reds". The camerawork shifts in the following sequence, cutting between Rusty and Danny. Both characters are the subject of several shots where one of them will be the only important object in the frame.

Strangers On a Train
The scene starts with a chaotic gun blast. The victim is partially obscured by a rotating Merry-Go-Round, and the camera follows the body as it falls to the ground. The chaos is multiplied through the repetition of increasing speed of rotation seen in a gear of the ride and the increasing pitch of the ride's music. This creates a sense of escalating danger and chaos. One scene takes a First Person POV of one of the detectives who has boarded the ride. The camera spins because the ride is spinning, again adding to the chaos. The diegetic sound from the ride is combined with the non-diegetic soundtrack as a man tries to climb under the spinning ride to stop it. The struggle between two men on the ride is set amongst a dynamic spinning background, often with a deep focus. One scene is is filmed from the axis of the ride, as the elderly ride attendant slowly crawls closer. It seems that nearly every shot has been carefully composed, and adheres to the Rule of Thirds. Character's are given close-ups as the struggle, either against another or to complete a task.

The clip begins with an elderly Salieri in the middle of the frame, and alternates to a youthful priest. The alternation continues as the two converse, aside from several shots that highlight Salieri in the midground as he plays some of his old songs on a piano. The only source of light is through a window behind Salieri. The light both illuminates him and lights up streaks of dust as it pours into the room. As he conducts a song playing in his head, the scene flashes back to a Rubenesque woman descending down a flight a stairs while singing opera. The singer is clad in white from head to foot, and stands out amongst the brown background. The scene then refocuses on a youthful Salieri as he conducts a full orchestra. As the song finishes, the scene flashes back to the elderly counterpart, reveling in his memory of past glory, illuminated by the light from the translucent window. The entire scene is distinguished by the oscillation between Salieri and his guest, each character being the sole subject of the frame when the camera turns to them.

The Mirror
The scene opens with two young, bald boys leaving a dimly lit room furnished in all-wood furniture. A reverse tracking shot backs away from the scene, while keeping the original room in the frame for as long as possible. The camera then pans to the window of a door, and in the deep background, the two boys who originally left the room are seen at the front entrance. The only sound heard is the diagetic sound of a dog barking, and a man passionately calling out "Mikah". A hand-held camera follows a young boy as he walks out a back door. The camera slowly pans across from the house's porch, to center on a house in the background engulfed in flame. A woman stands in the foreground watching, and a man stands in the mid ground, both in silence. The boy goes out to join the woman. The only sound is of flames burning and rain falling onto the porch's overhang

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top Movies of 2010

Of the ten films nominated for Best Picture, nearly all feature Hollywood all-stars. With the exceptions of Winter's Bone and The Social Network, the 83rd Acadmey Awards displays many familiar faces in some very good films. The 2010 class for Best Picture is overall strong, but lacks a clear front runner. I have seen almost all of the nominated films, the exceptions being 127 Hours and The Kids Are Alright.

8. Winter's Bone
My least favorite film of the 2010 class is Winter's Bone. It's not a bad film, but of the nominated films, it left the least significant impression. The film follows Ree, a teenage girl who is forced to cope with the many problems her poverty-stricken world throws at her. She becomes the sole caretaker for her two younger siblings when her meth-cooking father disappears and her mother retracts into herself, refusing to talk and becoming another liability for Ree to deal with. Ree's difficult life threatens to fall apart when she finds that her father put the family's house up for bail and he missed his court date. The rest of the film follows Ree's search for her father, ending with the terrible but necessary retrial of his body. The film's muted colors make obvious the utter poverty that defines this part of the Ozarks. The cold and barren winter landscape coupled with the faded and dull colors make clear the harships that defines both the people and the region. The sun never shines on this forgotten world. Again, the film wasn't bad, but of the eight nominated films I have seen, it was my least favorite, mostly because I have so many unanswered questions and many characters seem only partially developed.

7. True Grit
I can't believe I ranked a Cohen Brother's film so low. The Cohen Brother's take on a traditional Western  is in many predictable ways quintessentially Cohen Brothers, but deviates from many of their hallmark traits. The film follows young Maddie Ross, who seeks a brutal Texas Ranger to avenge her father's murder. She finds a man of "true grit" in Rooster Cockbern, previously played by John Wayne is is only Oscar-winning role. In Wayne's place is Cohen Brother darling Jeff Bridges who is perfect as the stumbling, gun slinging drunkard with a heart of gold. Bridges should be a favorite for Best Actor with his best performance since...last year. As Maddie and Rooster chase the murderer Tom Cheney, played by another Cohen favorite, Josh Brolin, they meet a host of colorful characters you would expect in Hollywood's Wild West. Most prominent of these is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, who tries to live up to his own self-construed idea of what a Texas Ranger should be, and far surpasses his greatest expectations. As with all great Western's, the wilderness becomes one of the stars. Some of the film's greatest scenes are the tiny dots of Maddie and Rooster against the backdrop of the endless and beautiful desert. I have no good reason for raking the film so low because I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I wont try to explain the madness behind my arbitrary rankings.

6. Black Swan
In the latest effort from underrated director Darren Aronofsky takes on the almost alien world of professional ballet. Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Black Swan is no let down. The duality between Mia's (Natalie Portman) transformation on the stage and within herself is subtle and gradual, making the audience question how her character became what it is. I have always been fascinated and slightly horrified by ballet: the self inflicted pain each dancer must endure to be successful, the intense discipline and history that make ballet like no other art form. Aronofsky takes a stylized approach not only to the ballet scenes, but to Mia's entire life. Aronofsky brings psychological elements to life by creating dream-like images devoid of color. Mila Kunis is a surprising standout. She is the exact opposite of Mia in every way.  I enjoyed this film thoroughly, but it isn't quite as good as some of this year's other offerings. 

5. The King's Speech
Colin Firth is amazing. There is no other way to put it.From Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to George Falconer in A Single Man, Firth has become known as one of the best actors in the business. It is no mistake then, that his astounding portrayal of the stuttering King George VI in The King's Speech is the reason for the film's success.  Firth isn't playing the role of the Price Albert, he is Prince Albert. The authenticity and emotion Firth brings to the film should have him going home with Oscar. Opposite Firth's Albert is Geoffry Rush, (he will always be Inspector Javert to me) who plays Australian speech therapist Lionel Louge. Louge not only helps "Bertie" overcome his stutter, but makes him confront his past so he can more forward. The film climaxes with the newly-crowned King George VI delivering a speech to the entire Kingdom, telling the world that Great Britain is now at war. I loved this film, and I hope Firth wins Best Actor because he truly deserves it. 

4. Toy Story 3
I remember seeing the first Toy Story in theater when I was very young. My parents bought me Buzz Lightyear pajamas and a Woody doll, just like Andy's. In many ways, the story of Toy Story mirrors the development of all kids my age. Just like Andy, we leave for college soon and have to leave our childhoods behind. It is with this severe nistolgia lens that I watched Toy Story 3. I doubt anyone thought this movie would be anything short of excellent. Pixar has yet to make a bad movie, (Cars was mediocre, not bad) and with Woody and Buzz back together it was hard not to have fun watching the film. The Toy Story series has a knack for appealing to all age groups. It can appeal to my mom, and in a totally different way appeal to my younger sister. The Toy Story series is successful because we all can relate to it, and Toy Story 3 is no exception.

3. The Social Network
Jessie Esenberg (wait is that Micheal Cera?) takes on the role of the eccentric founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg in this timely cometary on the dynamic state of modern relationships.  The film direction was both innovative and refreshing, and helped to underscore the fast pace life that seemly defies life at Harvard and in Silicon Valley - some young and smart people making boatloads of money very fast. The soundtrack, the best of the year, was also helped to create this atmosphere of money, intelligence and chaos.
I hope this doesn't win Best Picture. If it did, it would be because the Academy wanted to be current, which worked out so well when Kramer vs. Kramer won over Copolla's masterpiece Apocalypse Now. However it is till an excellent film.

2. Inception
Christopher Nolan, best known for his interpretations of  our favorite caped crusader in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, makes maybe his best film to date with Inception. The film operates under a fantasy we all have experienced, what if we had complete control over our world? Like any heist film, the hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) assembles a crack squad of specialists. But this is no normal heist. The soundtrack and amazing special effects made the movie good, but it was the concept that anything could happen - a looming unknown, and that this mysterious and limitless power is inside everyone's own mind, is what made the movie great.

1. The Fighter
Best move of the year. Christian Bale deserves to win Best Supporting Actor. Watch it and see for yourself.

To quote Ebert,"2010 was not a great movie year, but it has many great movies".

Friday, January 28, 2011

My First Movie Review: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

The film, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a 2010 Documentary that follows the growth of the Street Art scene, centering on the excentric and insane Thierry Guetta. The film includes some of the biggest names in Street Art including Shepard Fairey who rose to fame with his Obama poster.

Fairey holding his iconic Obama poster

The undisputed master of Street Art, Banksy, narrates several portions of the film and gives a rare glimpse into the creation of his work which has achieved a level of ctitical and financial sucess on par with 20th Century masters. 

One of Banksy's most famous works

However these titans of the street take a back seet to the star of the show, Thierry Guetta who is prompted by Banksy to have his own art show. Thierry, a Parisian who moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s became involved in Street Art when he discovered the involvement of his brother-in-law, known by the name Space Invader.

Thierry's obsession with always having his video camera in his hand allows him to gain unprecedented access into the secretive world of Street Art under the pretext of filming a documentary. Artists like Banksy and Fairey allow Thierry to film the development and display of their world because they believe he is documenting the growth of the movement. It is eventually revealed that Thierry is not a documentary filmmaker when his attempt at a film, entitled Remote Control Life is an absolute failure. Banksy, who has become good friends with Thierry during the countless hours of filming, suggests that Thierry make some art of his own. Taking the suggestion as a direct order from the master of the art form, Thierry dives head first into the movement, taking on the moniker Mr. Brainwash (MBW) and immediately scheduling and art show of his own.

However, Mr. Brainwash doesn't make any of the art on his own. Instead he hires a team of graphic artists who bring his "ideas" to life. Validated by his association with some of the biggest names in the Street Art world, Mr. Brainwash's art show in L.A is a unprecidented success. By the end of the show, MBW has sold over one million dolalrs in art and became one of the biggest names in the movemet, even getting the contract to design the album cover of Madonna's Greatest Hits.

This really sucks

The film's pessimistic conclusion is that any clown off the street can sell art to a public who believes that ANYTHING is art. It didn't matter if the art was terrible, MBR's association with high profile artists was the only legitimacy he needed. Banksy ends the movie by saying, "I used to tell everyone I meet to be an artist..... I don't do that any more."

The Trailer