True Grit and Black Swan:Two film reviews

Natalie Portman in "BLACK SWAN"

TRUE GRIT (**** 4 stars out of 5)

It's hard to step into the sizeable shoes of the legendary John Wayne, so give Jeff Bridges credit for being unafraid to walk in the shadow of Hollywood's greatest action hero. When the new version of True Grit hit the screens, few people were comparing Bridges' performance as Rooster Cogburn to the character from the original Charles Portis novel. They were comparing it to Wayne's Oscar winning performance In the 1969 version of True Grit. (Wayne reprised the role of Cogburn in the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn.)

While Jeff Bridges doesn't have Wayne's iconic status and sheer star-power, he is a more talented and versatile actor than Wayne was. Whereas Wayne embodied the role through the magnitude of his reputation as the screen's leading cowboy, Bridges artfully brings the literary version of Cogburn to life, creating a more weary character, and thus avoiding the macho excesses of Wayne's version. This is one of Bridges' best performances in years and it makes up for his 'I'm-in-this-for-the-paycheck' appearance in the recent Tron remake.

This new version of True Grit is written and directed by the Cohen Brothers and it is a huge departure from their usual fare. The talented Cohens generally make more unique and unusual films (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowsky, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, etc.) and shun traditional storytelling. True Grit is their most normal, linear movie to date. It's definitely not the sort of thing you'd expect from the guys who like to experiment with new ways of telling a story. You won't see their usual hallmarks but that doesn't mean they don't do an excellent job bringing the story to life. Their version of the old west may lack the majesty of a John Ford epic but they do create a realistic and visually interesting terrain for the story to unfold in.

The familiar story revolves around a stubborn and formidable 14 year old named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to ensure that the man who murdered her father is caught and punished. The killer, Tom chaney (Josh Brolin) was a former employee of her father and he is now at large in Indian territory. Mattie asks around to find out who the toughest and quickest-on-the-trigger Marshall in the region is. She is steered toward Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn because he has "true grit". She hires the cash-strapped Marshall to go hunting Chaney for her and even talks him into letting her come along, although he doesn't like the idea of her coming at all. She is repulsed by his heavy drinking because it violates her Christinan upbringing but she needs him.

A Texas ranger named LaBoeuf--pronounced "La-Beef"--(Played by Matt Damon) inserts himself into the arrangement and tags along but his intentions toward young Mattie are less straightforward and above-board than Cogburn's are. He pops in-and-out of the film sporadically. The LaBoeuf character was played in the original film by country music star Glen Cambell who did an adequate job but doesn't have the acting chops of Damon.

Steinfeld is excellent as the headstrong Mattie. The scene where Mattie out-bargains a crooked businessman over the price of some horses is a highlight. Kim Darby played Mattie in the original film (she was 20 at the time) and gave a memorable performance, but Steinfeld is even more impressive considering her age, which is more accurate to the literary Mattie of the novel. She may have a good career ahead of her.

The cast overall is excellent and the Cohen Brothers do a fine job of steering the cinematic ship using a divergent style to what they are accustomed to. It's really Bridges and Steinfeld who carry the day, with two of 2010's best performances. An old pro and a young novice make a good pairing here. This is definitely worth seeing, even if you don't like westerns.

BLACK SWAN (2 and a Half Stars out of Five)

There has been a lot of hype and praise laid at the feet of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, and some of it is deserved but in certain ways, the hype is unjustified. This visually arresting portrait of a young woman's decent into madness is often engrossing but at times it's too confusing, too crude and even a little dull.

Aronofsky's last film was the marvelous The Wrestler, a brilliant character study of a burnt-out performer who is losing his ability to do the only thing he had ever done well. This follow-up takes place in the very different world of the Ballet and features an up-and-comer instead of a down-and-outer.

The story follows lovely young ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) whose second-rate dance company is performing the done-to-death old standard "Swan Lake". Nina is a second generation ballet dancer and her tightly strung mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a bitter stage mother who never danced a lead role in her career. She is putting a lot of pressure on Nina so she can live vicariously through her daughter. Nina desperately wants the duel role of the Swan Princess and her evil twin because Nina feels constrained by her bitter mother and sees success as a ballerina as her way of cutting the umbilical cord and finding her place in the world as an adult woman.

Nina manages to get the part, even though her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) can only see the virginal White swan in Nina, not the seductive black swan who she must also portray in dance. Nina begins to stress-out about her inability to embody the sensuous black swan, especially after newcomer Lily (Well played by Mila Kunis) is chosen as her understudy. Lila has a wild side and she is a perfect fit for the black swan. Nina is worried she'll be replaced. The pressure of starring in her first show at the illustrious Lincoln Center; competing with Lily and dealing with her demanding mother pushes Lily over the edge and she starts to quickly unravel, becoming rapidly more insane as the big night comes closer.

The best thing about Aronosky's The Wrestler was that we really got to know the main character and therefore became very sympathetic with his plight. Here, we never get to know Lily before she goes mad. She starts off as a quiet, determined girl who is very disciplined regarding her art. We don't get to see the real Nina at the beginning, so it's hard to appreciate why the pressure she feels makes her snap.

Nina is what is known in cinematic and literary nomenclature as an unreliable narrator. The whole film is seen from her point of view. As her world falls apart, It becomes difficult to decipher, as the film progresses, which events are actually real. Is any of the film's second half real or is it all a delirious nightmare from her distorted mind?

One of the worst things about Black Swan is that Aronosky adds unnecessary scenes into the movie which are only there to appease male viewers. His inclusion of several scenes of masturbation and lesbian sex are most likely included to arouse male viewers who don't fit into the demographic of an art-house ballet film. Also, as Nina becomes ever more insane, the film starts to move into horror film territory, getting needlessly graphic at times.

The film is very reminiscent of the superior Japanese film Perfect Blue , which allowed us to know the leading lady, making her break-down all the more effective. Here, Aronofsky lays on the symbolism very heavily, with the constant use of mirrors to show that Lily's mirror image (her black swan) is coming to life. Lily's plight is meant to parallel the swan queen's doomed journey.

The good part is that the cast does an excellent job. Winona Ryder is wasted in the minor role of the fading diva Beth, who is considered washed up at 40. Kunis is a scene-stealer as Lily. Barbara Hershey gives a quietly powerful performance as Nina's unhappy mother.

Natalie Portman is a very inconsistent actress, who occasionally hits a home run (Such as in Closer) but generally comes across as bland, with only her beauty as her saving grace. She gives one of her better performances here. She really doesn't deserve the Best Actress hype but nevertheless, she does rise to the occasion.

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Comments 17 comments

izettl profile image

izettl 5 years ago from The Great Northwest

Great, solid reviews. I was interested in the Black Swan, but even from the previews I had no idea exactly what it was about. It seems a little confusing and I might rent it one day DVD just to see it. I find that script writers, directors etc are trying appease a broader audience and that would also be true about the extra sexual scenes in it. I think it's irritating in movies. I went to see "Tangled" which is basically Rapunzel but they put a strong male lead in it and titled the movie in a way to attract boys, not just girls. Silliness really, but Hollywood needs to make more money.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Izetti;

You're right. Hollywood covets that young male demographic and so most movies tend to be slanted in favor of that target audience. There was really no reason in this film for there to be several masturbation scenes of Natalie Portman moaning under her sheets.

Wait for Black Swan on DVD/blu ray. It's fairly interesting to watch but not really worth a trip to the theater. True Grit is far better.

Thanks foreading and commenting.

Rob


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

Great reviews, with a literary flavor to them. You could do a very good job on book reviews as well as movie reviews. I agree wholeheartedly with you about the unnecessary "sexy" slant for Black Swan--that kinda ruins things and is out of context, at least to some extent.

I really think Jeff Bridges is EXCELLENT in "True Grit". He doesn't do a John Wayne imitation. He brings his own characterization to the role, which (I think) is a lot better and more believable than the John Wayne version.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

I haven't seen any of them but Tru Grit with John Wayne was awful because JW always acted the same way in all his film. I don't think he was a good actor.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Paradise; Thanks for the kind words. I may do some book reviewing soon. Bridges was excellent in the role and creates a completely original version of Cogburn, which is more layered and more faithful to the literary version.

Hi HH. John Wayne was more of a movie star than an actor. He didn't have great range but he did have great presence. Like most action heroes in film, he stuck to a standard screen personna for most of his career because he knew what worked for him and he knew what the audience wanted.I would call him the screen's greatest action hero ever.

Thank you both for reading and commenting.

Rob


izettl profile image

izettl 5 years ago from The Great Northwest

I might actually see True Grit, but it's not usually my type of movie.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

If you see it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Izetti. Don't think of it so much as a western, but as a drama. The performances are very good.


SuperGal profile image

SuperGal 5 years ago

Great review on Black Swan. I haven't seen it yet, but have been meaning to; your review was very useful. I might just wait for the dvd.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

I'm glad to be useful, Supergal. I think waiting for it on DVD is probably a good idea.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I think what I so liked about the John Wayne "true grit" was that Wayne was doing a satire of himself.Or so it seemed to my wife and myself.I would probaly see the new one from a different perspective.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi dahoglund. I liked John Wayne's performance in the original "True Grit". He seemed to be having a lot of fun with the role. He did seem to be winking at the audience the whole time.

Thanks for the comments.

Rob


Pinkchic18 profile image

Pinkchic18 5 years ago from Minnesota

Very nice review. I'm still deciding if I want to see this movie... but your review certainly helps!


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Pinkchic; Always good to hear from you. Which one of these were you thinking of seeing? As you can tell from my review, I think "True Grit" was the better of the two, although I know there are many who would praise "Black Swan", especially since Natalie Portman won her Golden Globe award.


lukebr0wn profile image

lukebr0wn 5 years ago from Rainham, Essex, United Kingdom

Awesome review Rob. Can't wait to go see True Grit looks like a great movie and i can tell from your review you were impressed. It's not out here in the UK for about a week. I can see why you weren't particularly fond of Black Swan, it is one of those movies you're either going to enjoy or not, not that much middle ground. Totally agree that the masturbation scenes etc did seem quite pointless especially as they're shown numerous times.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Luke; I hope you enjoy "True Grit" as much as I did. It's excellent. As for "Black Swan" I agree that the repetative masturbation scenes and lesbian sex were pointless gimmicks, which dtetracted from the overall film.

Thanks for reading.

Rob


Silver Poet profile image

Silver Poet 5 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

Before your review I wouldn't have watched either one of those. Now upon reading this hub I think maybe I'll reconsider True Grit...


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Silver poet. I think "True Grit" is definitely worth seeing.

Rob

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