Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Osterman Weekend

Release Date: 
14 Oct 1983 (USA)
(viewed SA 10 Mar 2012)
Sam Peckinpah
Robert Ludlum (novel) Ian Masters (adaptation)
Rutger Hauer
John Hurt
Craig T. Nelson
Burt Lancaster
Dennis Hopper
Chris Sarandon
Meg Foster

IMDb link and rating:
Plot Synopsis:


I like spy movies and enjoyed this film for the things I expect from this genre: some genuine suspense, the cat-and-mouse maneuvering of competing intellects, and a couple of interesting twists that managed to catch me by surprise. There aren’t any really likable heroes in the film, apart from the innocent and surprisingly resourceful wife played by Meg Foster, but the antagonists are plentiful and varied in their levels of villainy and sinister intentions, and the roles are played by a first rate cast. The sole moment of comic relief--a preposterous scene in which otherwise ultra-sophisticated, all-powerful CIA surveillance equipment suffers from the failure of a simple on-off switch, thereby forcing an undercover agent, caught with his face on the television screen, to ad lib an extended weather report to preserve his cover--reinforces the seriousness and heaviness of the rest of the film. 

In her review, Lynne mentioned the dated feel to the film and I agree with that observation. Of course, I am not criticizing things like the movie technology (a film cannot be blamed for not using techniques that had not been invented) or the setting (the Cold War might seem out of date now, but is a perfectly good topic for fiction). Still, though, I think the film seems frozen in time--I would have said the ’70’s, but actually the film was released in 1983--probably mostly because of the music, which an Amazon editorial review called a “jazzy approach” that imbued the film with a “sensual, dangerous ambience.” In art, the price of being hip in your day is being irrelevant later.

The performances of the male actors were matched by very good performances by the women, which is not always the case in movies that seem to hold as a primary qualification for the female roles the willingness to remove one’s shirt on the big screen. Of course, I’m never one to complain about the liberal exposure of women’s breasts, but the frequent baring of chests in a decidedly unromantic, squalid, and sometimes disturbing style did strike me as merely gratuitous (and the only aspect that really warranted the R rating).

On second thought, however, maybe the gratuitous flaunting of bare breasts was the point. It conveys the theme of the film: that we are all watchers and are watched ourselves, and we don’t look away even when we might have done so. (Recall the sole comic moment I described above; the failure was, significantly, that the television wouldn’t turn off.) The film ends with a challenge: “What you’ve just witnessed is, in many ways, a life-sized video game. You saw a liar talk to a killer and you couldn’t tell them apart. Buy hey, it’s only television. As you may know, television programs are just the filler between attempts to steal your money. So if you want to save some, turn me off. It’s a simple movement, done with the hand and what is left of your free will. The moment is now. My bet is you can’t do it. But go ahead and try.”


Despite its strong late 70s fashion-feel (hair, clothes, make-up, drug culture, over use of titillating bedroom scenes), The Osterman Weekend holds up well enough in its portrayal of the art of psychological manipulation and its action sequences.  I was able to suspend my general distaste for those cultural vestiges and concentrate on the story it tried to tell.  But on that score alone, I have to admit I was confused between the spy, traitor, double-agent motivations set-up between the CIA director (Burt Lancaster) and the murine-faced CIA agent (John Hurt). Due to the coupling of incredible abilities with unbelievable incompetence, I began to suspect the underlying plotline early on: Don’t kill a man’s wife—especially when he can’t understand how he got so lucky in the first place—and expect him to roll over.

As to the ostensibly civilian characters, I disliked them to a man. One woman, the one the studio executives wisely chose to place on the movie poster, was a kick-ass, but sadly minor, player. Among the other men, Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson had some moments of believable buddy banter during the flight for their lives, but it relieved none of their more awkward moments throughout the movie. Worth mentioning, the R-rated movie also showed a smooth collie in peril and implied moments of extremely bad parenting.   

I gave it a 5.5 because it kept me awake (automatic 5 on a Friday night, 4 on a Saturday) wondering how it would all turn out and because it starred Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson who – even with the rat growing under his nose – is a terrific, possibly under-rated actor.

If you want the sheer discomfort of watching dysfunctional couples I recommend Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? If you love the psychological thrill that comes from spies, traitors, and not knowing who to trust, I recommend Seven Days in May or No Way Out. Finally, if you crave a match between man and a woman that strains the bounds of credulity, I recommend Funny Face.  If you want all three  compressed within the loose trappings of the late 70s, served up on video, The Osterman Weekend is the way to go. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

True Grit (2010)

Release Date: 
22 Dec 2010 (USA)
(viewed SA 26 Feb 2012)
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen based on a novel by Charles Portis
Jeff Bridges
Hailie Steinfeld
Matt Damon

IMDb link and rating:

Plot Synopsis:
A young woman, determined to see her father’s killer brought to justice, enlists the aid of an unlikely hero.


Having watched this 2010 remake of True Grit just twenty-four hours after watching the 1969 original, I can scarcely avoid comparing the two. And in most of the head-to-head matchups of characters and details, the new film falls slightly short. It’s not that it’s bad--I enjoyed the movie--but there were a few differences that were conspicuous to me only because of the direct comparison.

The biggest of these was probably the script, which was considerably inferior in this remake. Paradoxically, it was the suprising fidelity to the original script throughout much of the film (whole stretches of dialogue seemed to be reproduced word for word) that made the missing details stand out in relief. It seemed like the Coen brothers had gone out of their way to remove details that were, if not exactly essential, at least important in fleshing out the characters. Lynne gave several examples of this below, all of which I agree with. One of the most important changes, which Lynne didn’t write but had pointed out to me while watching the film, was the fact that the remake presented revenge as Mattie’s motive--or at least treated revenge and justice interchangeably, blurred the distinction between the two--while the original made it clear that Mattie was interested only in justice.

I liked Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie Ross, though her interpretation was significantly different than Kim Darby’s in the original. Miss Steinfeld’s Mattie was serious and sullen. Darby’s character was serious, too, but not sullen. Both conveyed Mattie’s courage and intensity very well, but in Darby’s character we suspect that under the layers there is a burning desire to live, while Steinfeld’s character suggests stoic resignation. (This is reinforced by the dreadful ending.)

One thing I liked better about this version of the film is Matt Damon’s portrayal of La Boeuf, compared to Glen Campbell’s in the original. He’s a little more mysterious and a little less foolish.

The film ended on a completely different chord than the original did--and that chord, frankly, was senselessly dissonant where the original was uplifting. Maybe that is simply the Hollywood formula nowadays: End on a bitter note to inject a bit of “realism,” lest the film be accused of melodrama or naive optimism. To me, that is just poor writing reflecting poor thinking.


It is much more difficult to rate this film on its own merit given that I watched and enjoyed the original so much more the night before.  Plainly, while the script and action veered only slightly from the original, I felt that in all but one minor case, those diversions detracted from the character of Mattie Ross.

Mattie2.0 was certainly as spirited and directed as the original Mattie; however, in giving us no clue as to her relationship with her father, the writers gave us no hint that her coldness in finding him dead is not a quirk of her personality. When she negotiates with the horse dealer, she comes back with documentation regarding the final agreed upon price rather than enter the negotiations all prepared. The original presentation of that scene shows not only her tremendous knowledge of horse dealing, but also her confidence in her abilities to reach that price.

The introduction to Cogburn’s Chinese store-owning friend is as the man who shows Mattie where Cogburn is sleeping in the back room rather than by Cogburn as his “family” as was in the original. Mattie’s meeting with the Texas Ranger, played well by Matt Damon, is much more threatening in this version, taking place in the bedroom, than funny as it was in the original. Mattie talks more of avenging her father’s death, than of justice.

Rooster Cogburn is still a drunkard and mean bounty hunter, but he leaves the dead thieves at the cabin rather than bringing them to the nearest outpost for burial as he did in the original. I think this detracts from his character.  While still an ancillary player, the Texas Ranger was a better developed character in this one and I appreciated his altered fate.

But the worst blow in this movie was the ending. Rather than left as steadfast, practical, and loving, Mattie is shown many years later as a bitter old woman. I found that to be an inexcusable betrayal of the indefatigable, plucky character I began to love in the original movie. 

Action Items:
Read the novel by Charles Portis. It may be that the 2010 version of the movie is closer to the author's story and the 1969 version is more to its director's liking. (L)

Supplementary Details: 
There was a noticeable increase in biblical references in this newer version and a noticeable absence of Mattie’s ruling philosophy. (L)