Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oscar's One-Two Punch: The Fighter/True Grit

The Fighter

Upon hearing about The Fighter, one might ask, "What? Another boxing movie?"

Yes, when it's as good as The Fighter.

Most boxing movies are primarily just the boxer's story. There may be a few other key figures, but the boxer is always the central figure. What sets The Fighter apart is that it's truly about the dynamic that exists between the boxer, and his family and friends - some of whom are helpful, some who are poisonous, and some who are both.

This dynamic, sharply directed by David O. Russell, is shaped in such a way that for a good long while, I couldn't really tell where the story was going. Boxing movies tend to follow predictable patterns, but this one dances outside the lines and serves up the best kind of sucker punch.

Much has been made of the performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, and rightly so. Bale (whom I would argue is really a co-lead with Mark Wahlberg) once again puts his chameleon act on display, being nothing less than utterly convincing as a washed-up crackhead. Amy (have to call her by her first name) shatters her goody-goody image once and for all playing Wahlberg's girlfriend, who does not have a trace of Princess Giselle in her. And Leo is so convincing in her role, I actually didn't recognize her at first.

Not to be underestimated, however,  is Mark Wahlberg. He may have the least flashy role of the bunch, but he is the solid center around which everyone revolves. If he doesn't deliver, the movie doesn't deliver, but he and the movie do.


He Said/She Said: True Grit

This may be one of the Coen brothers' more disappointing works in that it plays much more conventionally than usual for such deliciously unorthodox filmmakers. Maybe that's what you get for making a movie as out there as A Serious Man, then following that up with a fairly straight-ahead Western.

But that doesn't mean it's not a very good film. It is indeed.

Unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges plays grizzled very well, and he makes a great Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne devotees may kill me for saying this but he outshine the Duke's performance in all respects. Wayne's Oscar-winning role was really not that much different from the typical John Wayne character, but Bridges' Cogburn makes for a lout of a man who nevertheless is keenly aware of who he is and what he needs to do.

The true star of this movie in my mind, though is young Hailee Steinfeld as the girl who hires Cogburn to hunt her father's killer. She is absolutely fantastic as a girl who simply won't take no for an answer, wearing down everyone around her with her unstinting logic and determination. This is the second best female performance of the year, after Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

Hannah Poturalski also enjoyed the dynamic between Bridges and Steinfeld, writing, "The continual razzing between Bridges and Steinfeld’s characters added a legitimacy to their character’s budding friendship. It was like they quickly became longtime friends. What I liked about the dynamic as well, was that Cogburn was one of the first people to actually take Mattie seriously on her adventure instead of dissuading her just because she was a young female.  The two actors were sensitive to their character’s motives and feelings and I really hope they make out well during the awards season."

For me, the movie fares best in the first half, when Bridges, Steinfeld and Matt Damon playing a Texas ranger let rip with the Coens' unique cadences of dialogue. It's more unsteady in the second half when the action becomes fairly standard and the third act resolves itself a bit too quickly.

By that point, however, the movie had won me over. It may be one of the Coens' more conventional movies,  but it's also one of their most flat-out entertaining. Hannah liked it even  better than I did, stating that "Ethan and Joel Coen certainly lived up to their potentials on this film. The atmosphere and quality was typical of the Coen brothers, and this is one of their most enjoyable films."

Read her complete review here.


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