Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Few Words on "Grit"

To start with, I did see the 1969 version of True Grit when it first played in theaters. Considering I was 13 at the time, I only recall a few things from the film, such as the title song performed by Glen Campbell, John Wayne with his eyepatch and Kim Darby as Mattie not using a single contraction in her speech (come to think of it, that's a decent amount to remember after 40 years, I guess.)

So I went into the Coen brothers' remake of this film with open eyes; I could judge this film on its own. My verdict? Outstanding photography, a very good screenplay, but only so-so direction. This is certainly watchable, but except for the last 30 minutes or so, hardly compelling. After seeing the film, you wonder why the brothers bothered remaking this particular piece of work.

It's a pretty straightforward piece of entertainment, at least in terms of the Coens (straightforward for Hollywood these days is usually pretty lame, so I at least give the brothers credit for giving us films that don't insult our intelligence). By now, everyone must know the storyline of how 14 year-old Mattie Ross turns to US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (cranky, lumbersome Rooster Cogburn) to find the man who killed her father. I do like the way the screenplay is organized here as first we are introduced to Mattie (wonderfully played by 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld) and her stubborn ways (nicely spelled out in a lengthy scene where she negotiates a fee for her losses) and then to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in a typical charming performance) and his rough and tumble manners (the initial view we have of Cogburn is on a witness stand; his answers and muffled delivery are a nice insight into his character).

But after this opening, things tend to move along from point A to point B in a fairly conventional manner. That might work for some film makers, but one would hardly make the argument that the Coen brothers are conventional. The plot lines are all eventually tied up, but I expected more, especially visually. I say that even as I marvel once again at the remarkable work turned in by director of photography Roger Deakins, who has been the filmmakers' cinematographer since 1991. Is there a more accomplished cinematographer working today? Certainly no one captures low light photography better than Deakins and this visualization is exactly what this story of revenge and murder call for. It's also interesting to see the desaturation of colors in the outdoors scenes, certainly a change of pace from the usual brightly lit skies of a typical Western.

The last half-hour of this film is captivating, as the direction improves, especially in a visual sense. The scene where Rooster takes Mattie for medical help on horseback is quite remarkable; under a star-filled sky, the two characters take on an otherworldly identity. This is one of the most memorable images from any film by the Coens; it's a shame that they couldn't provide more moments such as this in this film. (There is also a marvelous shot of the couple on horseback that leads into the nighttime action, as we see them in silhouette under the setting sun.)

Given the theme of redemption, you understand why the Coens became involved in this project. But at the end of the day, you wonder what drew them to this particular work. It's got it's moments and it's always a pleasure to look at, but it just doesn't have the inventive moments of their best work. They've shown their own true grit often in the past - too bad more of it isn't on display on this occasion.

P.S. I'm quite certain that Roger Deakins will once again be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film. If this does indeed happen, it will be his ninth nod - he has yet to win an Oscar. He will, I am happy to report, receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 2011.

I am also predicting an Oscar nomination for Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporing Actress - she truly deserves it!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

"Sometimes it's easier living a lie." - Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks)

Living a lie is the primary theme of Steven Spielberg's wonderful 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can. On the surface level, this dramatization of how teenage Frank Abagnale, Jr. became one of America's most wanted con men of the 1960s, is about the big lie he lived for several years. But on a deeper level, the film is concerned with the lies between a father and his son, a wife and her husband, a mother and her son as well as a law enforcement officer and his wife and daughter. Ultimately this film has a rather dark message that family values are often hollow and lead us to a road of deception - at the end of the day, how do the lies we encounter in our family lives change our behavior?

Interestingly, the two main combatants of the story, Abagnale (Leonardo diCaprio) and Hanratty, the FBI agent assigned to catch him, have the most honest relationship in the film. Their bond is based on several factors, not the least of which is that neither one can stop what he is doing - Abagnale passing bad checks and impersonating a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot with Hanratty obsessively pursuing Abagnale across the country and even into Europe.

While Hanratty initially treats this case like others he has been involved with in the past, it becomes much more than everyday work for the agent. He soon deduces that Abagnale's behavior is not necessarily prompted by the need to make money and stay a step or two ahead of the law, but in reality to try and save his father from prison. His father had IRS trouble and when his plush suburban house is repossessed, he must move his family into a rather modest apartment. Soon, his wife, bored with her surroundings, cheats on him with one of his friends, no doubt punishing her husband for his lack of success.

Divorce soon follows; this is a shattering moment for the young Abagnale, who is forced to choose which parent he will live with for the remainder of his life (he selects his father, of course, whom he greatly admires). This is a beautifully edited scene by Michael Kahn, as shots of a confused Abagnale in the apartment are intercut with images of him wildly running down a street, away from the family chaos and toward a train station that will offer him a journey that will take him to situations he never imagined.

Abagnale uses his wits to manufacture phony checks and then pass them, making several million dollars illegally. His motive at first is to help his father pay back his debts as well as achieve a better life, but he soon realizes that his father is becoming more distraught as well as a bit unstable. He treasures his father's love and though his father never really abandons him, their relationship becomes frayed.

Missing his father's attention, Abagnale turns to Hanratty, via a series of phone calls, many of them on Christmas Eve. These scenes are among the most touching and deeply felt in the film, as they show the isolation of the two characters, with Hanratty often alone in his dark office late at night and Abagnale by himself in an anonymous hotel room or at a bar. Abagnale contacts Hanratty, not only because he needs someone to talk to, but because he respects his honesty as an authority figure. Hanratty soon welcomes these calls, not only as they help him track down Abagnale, but also as he feels a connection to the teenager; the relationship between his former wife and daughter having been greatly diminished.

In one of the most revealing moments of the film, Hanratty tells Abagnale over the phone that he (Abagnale) called because he had no one else to talk to on Christmas Eve. Hanratty laughs at this and is proud of this sudden discovery, but for Abagnale, this is an affirmation of his loneliness and it scares the wits out of him. Spielberg gives us a reaction shot of a clearly dazed Abagnale that is beautifully composed, with half of his face covering the top of the frame with the phone (out-of-focus) in the bottom half. John Williams' mournful cue, performed here as a saxophone solo, perfectly communicates Abagnale's isolation; this is a turning point for the criminal, who suddenly realizes how his life is not presenting the true freedom he so greatly desires.

Spielberg has always surrounded himself with some of the best technical talent in Hollywood and that craftsmanship is brilliantly on display in this work. Janusz Kaminski, who had become the director's regular cinematographer since Schindler's List (1993), has given us a complex pallette, ranging from the muted browns and yellows of the Abagnale apartment to the kitschy, glowing yellow and orange of Miami and the south in the mid-1960s. Costume designer Mary Zophres performed marvelously here, capturing a large range of looks from the dull colors of corporate world suits to the bright pastel shades of the stewardess uniforms. Kahn's editing keeps this 140 minute film flowing beautifully.

John Williams, who had been composing music for Spielberg's films since Jaws (1975), delivered one of his most distinctive scores that recalled the jazz influences of his early years; the opening theme is a jaunty one featuring saxophone, vibes and even finger snaps! Coming from a composer who wrote so many famous blockbuster themes for full orchestra, this more intimate sound is a nice change of pace. Additionally, the opening theme perfectly suits the wildly inventive animated title sequence that recalls the great title designs of Saul Bass in the 1950s and '60s. (This opening is worth watching in its own right; it was designed by Nexus Productions. I saw this design parodied a few years ago on an episode of The Simpsons - how many title sequences have been so honored?)

There are several excellent performances; Hanks is especially good as the humorless FBI agent who has to put aside his no-nonsense approach for awhile if he is to finally catch his prey; his Boston accent is flawless and you can tell he must have thoroughly enjoyed himself on this film. But it is Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. who steals the show here (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for this role). Walken beautifully underplays his role, moving from self-confidence to utter dismay at his poor fortune in life. So often the actor has gone over the top in his on-screen portrayals and given his image as a unique, slightly oddball individual, no doubt many directors let him do as he preferred. It is to Spielberg's credit to a certain degree that Walken reined things in for this role.

As for Spielberg's direction, it is as subtle and and self-assured as he had delivered to that date (and perhaps since). He is able to find small moments of humor (such as the shot of dozens of model airplanes in a bathtub or the scene where Hanks does his laundry) and glides his camera across sets effortlessly. There is plenty of irony in this story (drying a forged check in a hotel Bible, for example) and the director again communicates this with much less bravado than he had displayed in the past. His direction of the scene when Abagnale is arrested at his mother's new home on Christmas Eve (again, that night!), while Nat King Cole's rendition of The Christmas Song is heard on the soundtrack, is quite touching and sensitive, without the maudlin one might have expected.

Catch Me If You Can is often a light-hearted piece; certainly the mood is often humorous, especially in the middle of the film when Abagnale falls in love with a nurse (innocently played by a young Amy Adams) and then tries to impress her socialite parents. Despite the feel-good way the story resolves itself, this is hardly a film with a joyous message. The repeated shots of Abagnale tearing off a label off various ketchup, soda and champagne bottles point to an unmasking of the truth. Placing a logo on a check will give the appearance of reality, but it is of course, a lie.

The two characters are presented in much the same way - the surface level tells us one thing, but their inner truth reveals something else. In the case of Abagnale, the supposed joy and power of conning others succumbs to a cry for help, as deep down he wants to be caught (hence the retention of his first name Frank for all of his phony identities). For Hanratty, the solemn edge he brings to his work is a mask for the unease and loneliness he feels every day (he cannot bring himself to laugh at his partner's jokes). Catch Me, reads the title, but who is that person?

Photos ©Dreamworks