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Friday, March 11, 2011
'The Runaways'/'True Grit'
Girls on film: Teen six-stringers vs. teen six-shooters
The Runaways were an all-girl band whose comet flared briefly in the late 1970s, living precariously on that fault line between party-hearty hard rock and attitude-laden punk. The fact that they were teenage girls who dared to play harder than the cock-rock boys made them notable at the time, when piggy comments such as "Girls can't play electric guitar" were still commonplace. Without The Runaways, there would have been no Slits, no Courtney Love, no riot grrrl movement. They were trailblazers, bigger in Japan than at home (selling almost as well as ABBA and Led Zeppelin), but are now largely forgotten.
Along comes a film, "The Runaways," to give the band a little of the recognition they deserve. Directed by Italian-Canadian music-video auteur Floria Sigismondi — who's worked with The White Stripes, sigur ros and David Bowie — and financed by the group's former guitarist, Joan Jett, "The Runaways" tells a familiar rock 'n' roll parable: group of hungry young kids form a band, hustle for gigs, get their big break, and then lose it in drugs and drink before breaking up in acrimony.
Yes, it's your typical rock band rise and fall, but it's also more than that: "The Runaways" avoids the usual neat moral lessons and instead gives us a clear-eyed appreciation of what rock can be when you're a 15-year-old from Los Angeles with a messed-up home life, dealing with the ego trip of fame and nascent sexuality.
Based on the memoir "Neon Angel" by the band's singer, Cherie "Cherry Bomb" Currie, the film bears all the marks of messy lived-in reality, rather than some phony, overcooked, three-years-in-development screenplay. "The Runaways" offers a vision of rock as both liberation and exploitation, rebellion and sucking it up, joyous excess and burnout self-destruction, and in that totality lies something beautiful and true.
Currie and Jett are played by Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, one all wounded sensitivity poured into Bowie-esque theatricality, the other all glue-sniffing butch attitude, a yin to Keith Richards' yang; both are excellent here, especially as they navigate the loose ground between friendship and maybe something more. Together they make the '70s look impeccably cool, even when clad in silver moon boots and gaudy orange jumpsuits.
Stealing the show is Michael Shannon as the band's notorious manager, Kim Fowley, a demented provocateur whose cruelly abusive approach hones the band down to a white-hot intensity, while also sowing the seeds of their demise. (Much as Malcolm McLaren did with the Sex Pistols). Shannon's take on Fowley is so hilariously rabid you can almost feel the spit flying off the screen: What other manager would hire hecklers to pelt his band with garbage in order to toughen them up?
Not the least of the film's ironies is that this pioneering girl-power band were dependent on a guy who, according to the movie, referred to them as his "property," and who had no qualms about pressuring the shy 15-year-old Currie to sing lines like "have you, grab you, till you're sore," crassly using teen sexuality as a business tactic. But again, this is a film that embraces contradictions: People's motives are never as clear-cut as most movies would have them.
"True Grit," the 1969 cowboy flick that earned John Wayne his only Oscar, seems an unlikely candidate for a remake by the Coen Brothers, yet somehow they've managed to avoid their usual genre deconstruction (a la "Miller's Crossing" or "The Big Lebowski") and played this one rather straight. This is pretty much a homage to classical Westerns, laced with a few eccentric moments such as the Coens are known for.
And yet, taken as a piece with their last few films — "A Serious Man," "Burn After Reading," and "No Country For Old Men" — we see the same theme being hammered home time after time. While the Coens are often described as smirking ironists, their recent output casts them more as sad-eyed moralists. The wheel of karma is mercilessly efficient in the Coens' world, and no avarice is left unpunished — take that bag full of drug-lord cash, blackmail a CIA agent for plastic surgery money, or simply give a failing student a passing grade, and man, you can sure expect judgment to be swift. As the opening voice-over to "True Grit" puts it, "You must pay for everything in this world one way or another."
If Anton Chigurh in "No Country" seemed like an implacable angel of vengeance, then meet Mattie Ross: She's a 14-year-old girl whose father has been murdered by one of his hired hands, a good-for-nothing known as Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie — played by Hailee Steinfeld, who was actually 14 at the time — travels into nearby Fort Smith to bury her father and then hire a bounty hunter to go after his killer.
She settles on the grizzled, one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, taking Wayne's old role), who's initially dismissive of this pistol-packing girl in pigtails but is won over by her determination as much as the money on offer.
Traveling into the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) in pursuit of the gang Chaney has taken up with, they meet a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who's also on the gang's trail. Mattie has problems with alcoholic sloth Cogburn, whereas he finds her naive and annoying; both have little time for LaBoeuf's self-regard.
Viewers will know it's only a matter of time before the bickering trio put aside their differences and bond to achieve their goal, but the pleasures along the way are many. The cinematography of Roger Deakins is about as close to perfect as you can get, and the screenplay hews closely to Charles Portis' original novel, which is brimful of incidents and dialogue that evoke the strange and lawless era in which it's set — only "Dead Man" (1995) has captured this aspect of the weird old west as well.
Steinfeld is great in her fierce resolve, though perhaps a bit too mannered in her old-movie enunciation. Damon certainly shows a new side here, laconic and slightly ridiculous on top of his usual stolid presence. It's Bridges' film to carry, though, and he's certainly up to the task. With his gravelly Tom Waits voice, prominent paunch and gruff demeanor, the bad-drunk world-weariness he displays here makes his role in "Crazy Heart" look like a mere warmup. Bridges is singularly unafraid to look like hell on the big screen, confident in his ability to turn it on and win back the audience when the moment comes.
Repellence and charm: Like "The Runaways," "True Grit" knows that there are no sinners or saints, merely that both compete in every heart.