Reviews: Harry Nilsson/King’s Speech/True Grit

I have no doubt about the finest film I saw last year this past year: hands down, it was Winter’s Bone. I’ve heard people carp about how “accurate” it was, especially people who felt it portrayed their part of the world unflatteringly. I don’t know — there’s plenty of areas like that, even here in upstate New York. And if “accuracy” is going to be some kind of gauge for best picture of the year, there’s an awful lot of statues to be handed back. All the trailers I saw before True Grit today claimed to be “based on a true story” which always makes me groan. The truth is no basis for a story: too messy. But let me save that rant for another time.

Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him) offers an insightful look at the brilliant singer songwriter and his life. The film benefits from the ailing Nilsson’s decision to try to record a kind of autobiography, the found tapes proving a real treasure trove of commentary that makes the late singer a very vivid part of the film. It helps too that his family including his third wife, Una, with whom he had six children and seemed to be as happy as he found possible, were also cooperating. The tragedy of course is that someone so talented was also so troubled. Paul Williams’ description of Nilsson as a great big bunny with real sharp teeth captures that succinctly. He had many hits, collaborated with the Beatles and the Pythons, but wasn’t able to shake the ghosts that haunted him, from the father who abandoned him to the friends near to him who died like Keith Moon and John Lennon. As a bonus there are so many extras, too — as if they couldn’t bear to part with any of the footage shot, including Eric Idle’s tribute song. They talk to all kinds of people who worked with him from Richard Perry to Van Dyke Parks and with his wives and kids. Excellent: I highly recommend it.

The King’s Speech has already received laurels a-plenty which has a lot to do with its cast: they are indeed splendid, including many fine actors in tiny roles who get a couple of lines each (like Claire Bloom, alas). Like so many films now, the background is left enigmatic (well, you know the history, fill in the details yourself, I guess) and only the central actors received development. That really only means Rush and Firth: Helena Bonham Carter is reduced to appearing with corgis and going “there, there” on occasion (AKA a MWW masquerading as a MW1W). The direction is bizarre at times, especially in the first half hour, with angles that take you out of the narrative wondering where on earth the camera is supposed to be. Worse, in the set-up scene between the Prince-soon-to-be-King and the Aussie therapist, the camera work is so bad as to make it look like they’re both gazing off into space rather than talking to each other. What really makes the film fall flat is the overwrought ambiance, from the overplayed music to the mountain-out-of-a-molehill plot. Yes, as someone once crippled by the thought of public speaking and who overcame it, I know what a trial it can be for people, but to have someone who treated men just back from Gallipoli call the pampered royal “the bravest man I’ve ever known” (as do half the people in the film) is just ridiculous hyperbole. If you love Firth, you’ll still enjoy it, I guess.

True Grit is like a truly satisfying meal when you’re really really hungry. The Coens have a great team of people (apparently Matt Damon has his own whole team, too, according to the credits) from Carter Burwell’s musicians to Roger Deakins’ seemingly flawless eye. You know Jeff Bridges is going to be good, and yeah, I’ll admit it though it burns me a bit, that Matt Damon can be truly skillful when he wants to be. There’s a whole host of grizzled frontiersmen, too: Peg and I were joking after the film that they must have put out a call for the ugliest character actors with the tag, “Must have abundant facial hair.”

The real star is Hailie Steinfeld. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, here’s a young woman who more than capably carries the film flanked by powerhouse actors who might easily intimidate many a seasoned performer. From the get-go Steinfeld strides into town and into the part with all the certainty of the true believer that she is. You believe her, the grudging respect she wins from the men and when her faith falters, you see that she is a child yet and so very young. It’s incredible work. For the Coens, this is a bit different from a lot of their work because there’s not that distance that allows ironic humor (we have to be able to laugh at Barton Fink’s sufferings because they would be too harrowing; A Serious Man walks that razor’s edge with dizzying grace). It’s a straight-forward adventure. Don’t get me wrong; there’s humor, but as in Shakespeare’s dramas, it’s there to give you a breather from the tension. Well done: go see it.