Saturday, January 8, 2011

The current cinema: "Blue Valentine" and "True Grit"

Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, is a superbly realistic drama about the deterioration of a couple's relationship over the course of six years. The film crosscuts between the first few weeks of their courtship and the last two days of their collapsing marriage.

Williams is Cindy, an emotionally repressed medical student who lives at home with her abusive father who keeps both her and her mother terrorized, and her thuggish, inconsiderate boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel) is practically a carbon copy of Dad. Gosling is Dean, a high school dropout and would-be musician who works as a laborer and seems content to take life one day at a time. He's determined to fall in love, and when he sees Cindy for the first time, he enthusiastically tells his coworkers that she's the one. She confuses her attraction to his freewheeling attitude as an actual attraction to him, even though they couldn't be further apart. A relationship begins against everyone's better judgment.

She becomes pregnant, and she's sure the baby's is Bobby's, not Dean's. They go to an abortion clinic, but she can't bring herself to go through with the procedure. On the bus ride home, Dean proposes marriage and she gratefully accepts. Dean accepts the child, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) as his own, and they develop such a close relationship that Cindy is frequently jealous, proclaiming that she "doesn't want to raise two children."

By the time we see them in the last throes of their marriage, she's barely able to show any affection to her husband or child, while he stays in a state of drunken denial. He suggests they go to a sex motel (for which he has a gift certificate!) to try to rekindle some spark of affection, so they check into an appallingly tacky suite called "The Future Room" and get sloppily drunk.

She rejects his efforts at lovemaking and he ends up passed out on the bathroom floor. Early in the morning, she is called into work, so she leaves a note taped to the bathroom mirror and takes the car. When he wakes up, still bleary, he doesn't see the note and thinks she's abandoned him. He starts drinking again, finally discovers the note and takes the bus to her job—a clinic where she works as a nurse—for an angry confrontation.

From this synopsis, this certainly doesn't sound like a particularly compelling story, but it is. It's all about capturing realism in a most convincing manner, and it excels at this. I love films that deliver little moments with convincingly-drawn characters realistically, and Blue Valentine is chock full of them. When Dean sees Cindy for the first time, they're visiting a nursing home for different reasons: she's visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) and he's moving a new resident into his room. The care Dean takes in setting up the old man's belongings to make him feel at home is truly touching and immediately adds a great deal of charm to his character.

The near-abortion scene is disturbing, and Williams does a commendable job of expressing Cindy's increasing anguish even as she's being treated by two of the kindest, gentlest medical professionals in the business. My only complaint would be that the semi-improvisational style results in some repeated dialogue, particularly during the arguments, that becomes somewhat tedious.

Made on a conservative budget, the gritty cinematography and art direction contribute to the film's minimalistic realism, as does the lack of recognizable faces in their supporting roles. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance spent a great deal of time developing this project, and even the leads worked hard becoming these characters, and the effort certainly paid off. It's a small film, but it's memorable. And it's nice to see a movie made for grownups every once in a while.

Speaking of movies for grown-ups, the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit topped the boxoffice charts this week, and with good reason. It's a superb adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel, boasting some amazing performances from Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBouef.

Everyone is familiar with the story: 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires U.S. Marshal Cogburn to help her track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the outlaw who shot down her father in cold blood. LaBouef, who is also hunting Chaney for killing a congressman in Texas, suggests that they work together, Mattie objects because she wants Chaney to hang for killing her father, not the congressman. The three bicker constantly as they head out in search of their quarry, only to individually reveal their "true grit" when the going gets tough.

Bridges' take on John Wayne's iconic character is completely his own. John Wayne always played John Wayne—and by the time his Grit came along, characters had to be tailored to his personality instead of the other way around. Bridges' Cogburn, on the other hand, is the fully realized creation of a talented actor who isn't afraid to disappear into a role.

Damon is also amusing as the pompous ranger who continuously tries to one-up the older, wiser Cogburn. Brolin is also funny as the goofy-scary Chaney. Steinfeld is a real revelation as Mattie, a tough, all-business kid who comes to town to take care of family business. Kim Darby was 21 years old when she essayed Mattie in the original; I always thought she looked too old for the part. Steinfeld was actually 13 during production of the remake.

Although it has a lot of humor in it, this True Grit is a much more solemn film than its predecessor. Roger Deakins' magnificent, desaturated cinematography gives us a look at the Old West as it really could have looked. Some scenes look like they've been burnished into leather. And Carter Burwell's score, with its frequent use of variations on the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," also adds to the solemnity.

Violence is wisely used sparingly, but when it comes, it's all the more shocking. This isn't a shoot-'em-and-they-fall-down Western—it's real mayhem, and it pushes the outside edge of the PG-13 rating.

A trademark of the Coens is their use of language and the way their characters speak. In True Grit, the characters speak very formally, using few contractions, which makes the humorous lines even funnier. It's a rather verbose film, but what's being said is engaging. An example:

Cogburn: We'll sleep here and follow in the morning.
Mattie: But we promised to bury the poor soul inside!
Cogburn: Ground's too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.

In summary, it's a vastly entertaining, richly realized film—a Western that manages to be postmodern and surprisingly traditional at the same time. I predict many Oscar nominations.

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