An especially solid Western that nevertheless feels like a departure of sorts for the Coen brothers, 2010´s True Grit is more or less as good as Henry Hathaway´s 1969 original starring John Wayne. But it´s in pretty good territory if my only reservations are (a) it´s a remake and (b) it´s told in a more straightforward fashion, minus some of the quirkiness or offbeat humor, than we´ve come to expect from the Oscar-winning filmmakers.
Fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is out for blood; her father has been murdered by hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Mattie wants to deliver revenge, knowing the law ain´t likely to satisfy. Looking for a man with “true grit,” she´s recommended to U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a slovenly, eyepatch-wearing drunk who has somehow managed to survive to a ripe old age after years tracking and killing outlaws.
Cogburn initially refuses to help her, but eventually relents; he´s joined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been hunting Chaney for his crimes in another state. Against their wishes, Mattie insists on accompanying them as they travel through Indian territory in search of Chaney, who has joined up with a gang of outlaws headed by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
Bridges is fine as the drunken bounty hunter, but Wayne was Wayne and no fine performance can shake his image when the name Rooster Cogburn is uttered. Bridges disappears into the role and lets the character take over, in a performance full of grunts and groans and occasionally inaudible dialogue that has earned him an Oscar nomination (Wayne won the prize for the original).
Steinfeld, on the other hand, makes the film. Many have highlighted her haggling scene with horse trader Dakin Matthews, which indeed stands out, but it´s her interactions with Bridges and Damon and (by the end) Brolin and Pepper that lend a much-needed dimension to their roles; the Mattie Ross character is almost one-note in her quest for vengeance, but it´s Steinfeld´s presentation of the young girl burdened by this quest that makes a difference. The actress has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar (despite clearly being the lead here), and might surprise with a win.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins beautifully captures the Old West in all its grime and glory, the gritty living conditions balanced out by gorgeous untouched vistas; it´s not always a pretty film to look at, but it feels genuine. Coming up empty after eight Oscar nominations, Deakins is expected to (deservedly) take the prize this year.
True Grit is the Coen brothers´ second remake; it follows The Ladykillers, widely regarded as their worst. It puzzles me why talented directors sometimes choose these projects; I don´t think anyone was clamoring for a remake of True Grit, and whether the Coen´s admired the original film or wanted to improve on it, or more faithfully adapt Charles Portis´ novel, a cinematic version had already been done and done well (even iconically). While watching their version of True Grit, which is clearly superior in many definable ways to the original, I couldn´t help shake the fact that this was more or less the same film, and an important element of the cinematic experience had been lost.
But if an element of surprise, or originality, is lost, the Coens deliver riches elsewhere: they´re fine craftsmen who expertly stage important scenes as complex as a nighttime cottage raid or simple as a brief courtroom discourse, and the film travels at perfect pace. Most important is the grit: the exceedingly authentic atmosphere, which transports us back to a specific time and place of dirt and violence the way few John Wayne pictures could.
You don´t go into a movie starring Christina Aguilera (in her debut role) and Cher (in her first in a decade), expecting high art; low expectations might be affirmed when you note writer-director Steven Antin´s previous work, as one of the writers behind Chasing Papi and the director of Glass House: The Good Mother, a direct-to-video sequel to the Leelee Sobieski thriller.
But Burlesque isn´t just a bad movie, it´s the worst kind of a bad movie: a tediously conventional slog that denies us even the smallest pleasures that we might take from such an experience. The setup and opening scenes promise a PG-13 version of Showgirls, but the rest of the film can´t even deliver along those lines; there´s no camp, no over-the-top acting, no outrageousness, hell, no burlesque. Oblivious to the laughable material, which lies limp on the screen, the workmanlike direction seems to want us to take this thing seriously.
Christina Aguilera is Ali, the small-town Iowa girl with wide eyes and big dreams who quits her job at the local diner and takes off for the city. In Los Angeles, she happens by the Burlesque Lounge, attracted by a poster of Coco, the black girl who apparently headlines the club and is seen throughout the film but never utters a word. Ali is entranced (why, we never learn) by the scantily clad women dancing onstage, lip-synching to classics and being leered at by a rarely-seen audience; spurned in her efforts to audition for a dancing gig, she starts waiting tables and soon works her way up the ladder.
That´s the Showgirls angle, which was outdated by the height of the 1930s musical craze. As if this wasn´t conventional enough, we´re force-fed another storyline wrought with cliché: Tess (Cher), the owner of the club, is behind on her payments and (gasp!) might lose the club unless she can raise enough money; or should she sell to creepy real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane)?
If you think a romantic subplot between Ali and hunky bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) could provide some originality, you may be disappointed. A talented supporting cast fills out roles defined by stereotype, including the bitch (Kristen Bell), the gay friend (Stanley Tucci), and the other gay friend (Alan Cumming); Peter Gallagher is wasted in a potentially interesting role as Tess´s sympathetic ex-husband.
The first half of Burlesque is surprisingly tolerable, climaxed by a truly showstopping Christina Aguilera rendition of Etta James´ Tough Lover. After that, in-between all the plot idiocy, every last number becomes a music video, providing nothing that you might find in an actual burlesque club, and everything you might find at a Christina Aguilera concert. The film loses its one calling card, and quickly devolves into an atrociously-edited (there is no dancing, only the illusion of dancing) MTV mess.
There was something vaguely unsettling about an underdressed Cher belting out If I Could Turn Back Time to a group of horny sailors back in 1989; 20 years later, her face and figure artificially preserved, we feel similar vibes in Burlesque. It´s a delicate topic; she still looks great, having not wandered into Mae West Sextette territory…yet.
But the film does her no favors. Her first number here, the Welcome to Burlesque ensemble, is bland and unmemorable, and her second outright bombs: a power ballad, You Haven´t Seen the Last of Me is belted out to an empty room, crude sentimentality hanging in the air. And that´s it; two numbers, and the rest of the song-and-dance is all Aguilera as Cher is left to deal with the I-have-to-raise-money-to-save-my-club nonsense.
Ultimately, Burlesque delivers unmemorable musical numbers that riff on Cabaret and Chicago and a consolidation of the same storyline we find in every one of these pictures, from Flashdance to Showgirls to Glitter. At nearly two hours long it´s truly interminable, and it plays things too “safe”, never becoming bad enough to be entertaining. It’s the worst thing a bad movie can do.