True Grit

In theaters.

I am officially reversing my stance on Westerns. Previously, I’ve been dismissive of what I perceived as an inherently archaic genre celebrating “the violent, lawless wilderness breached by the noble forces of civilization.” Even Westerns that rejected that model seemed trapped in the paradigm, like Dances With Wolves, which reverses the polarity but is, in many ways, just as simplistic. The brilliant, prematurely canceled TV series Deadwood—with its much more complicated, nuanced view of the conflicts between “wilderness” and “civilization”—made me reconsider, but I eventually judged it the exception that proves the rule. But True Grit has finally convinced me that it’s quite possible to tell a Western without that problematic wilderness/civilization binary overwhelming the drama.

The nineteenth-century frontier setting in True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, is entirely traditional—it’s a place of adventure, danger, and possibilities—but there’s not the sense of it being a place of darkness in contrast to light elsewhere (or vice versa). Maybe I overestimated the weight of the baggage from decades of Westerns past—or maybe I’m underestimating it now—but Grit feels alive and free in a way I hadn’t expected from the genre. I’m happy to be wrong.

Black Swan

In theaters.

My brother didn’t much care for Black Swan. He said the characters were less archetypal than one-dimensional, the story just a string of tired clichés, and the tone a discordant mess of ostentatiously Serious Drama and stereotypical horror tropes. I myself enjoyed the hell out the movie, but I couldn’t disagree with any of that—except, perhaps, the last part. The tone never struck me as discordant because I never took Black Swan seriously. If director Darren Aronofsky wanted his ballet extravaganza to say something meaningful and insightful about art or perfectionism or gender binaries—and I suppose he did—I don’t think he succeeded in that. But so what? I don’t care about his intention. Regardless of what it what it was meant to be, Black Swan is an absolutely decadent melodrama, amped up to a shriekingly high pitch, resplendent with all of Aronofsky’s mesmerizing cinematic style. That’s enough for me.

The Hard Nut

The Mark Morris Dance Group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, December 15.

The tone of The Hard Nut, Mark Morris’s idiosyncratic take on The Nutcracker, is hard to pin down. It’s definitely satiric—tweaking E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, the 1960s setting into which he’s transposed it, and the conventions of ballet itself—but it’s never caustic, and at times, it’s genuinely affecting, albeit in an offbeat sort of way. When the snowflakes, for example, made their appearance—with men and women alike dressed in silly caps, crop tops, and super-short, heavily ruffed tutus, flinging white confetti in sync with the music—I could only giggle along with everyone else in the audience. But as “Waltz of the Snowflakes” continued, giggles melted into happy sighs. The ballet is still irreverent and cheeky, but it becomes wondrous and beautiful too.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

In theaters.

I’ve heard numerous people snidely describe Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the Harry Potter series, as one long chase scene, but that description actually implies more sustained intensity than either the book or the movie (at least Part 1) actually has. Sure, there are suspenseful sequences, but most of the time, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are neither chasing anyone nor being chased themselves. Instead, they’re in hiding, bickering endlessly as they wander about the wilds of Britain. 

That fitful pacing, with its odd spasms and drifts, didn’t bother me much on the page, but it’s glaringly, hilariously obvious on screen. All the beautiful, extended landscape shots just reinforce how little is going on, and the squabbles among the central trio feel overdone and melodramatic, to put it mildly. This is not a movie that could stand on its own without the full weight of the series behind it—but then again, it doesn’t have to be. As a vehicle for cameos from alumni of the previous films, it works well enough, and screenwriter Steve Kloves adroitly sets up the final showdown of Part 2. Even those long landscape shots, extraneous though they might be, truly are beautiful.

More than anything, though, Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is an opportunity to re-experience the book and showcase the young actors who have improved so much over the course of the series. If you’re a sentimental enough fan to appreciate it on those grounds, you’ll probably like it. If you’re not, you won’t. And if you’re somehow not familiar with the series (who are you?), you won’t get anything out of it at all. (Incidentally, because I am incredulous of the idea that someone could be both interested in this movie and ignorant of its source material, I’m going to discuss what would, in another situation, be considered spoilers. Recently awakened coma patients, consider yourself warned!)

Between-holiday fun with music videos

“It’s OK,” Cee-Lo Green; “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire; and “Dancing on My Own,” Robyn.

Every year I swear to myself that this holiday season, I won’t neglect my blog so badly, and every year a heavy workload, bad colds, and various holiday events and obligations conspire to humble me. Eventually, I’ll be getting to the new Harry Potter movie and Black Swan and, I hope, a concert or two, but for now: music videos! Yay!