True Grit - 4th February 2011

I have a thing about remakes, particularly remakes of horror movies from the 70s and remakes of films that already have huge franchises and don't really need another one.

Then there are the exceptions, which is a short list but, in no particular order, would include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (70s version), Scarface, John Carpenter's The Thing, Peter Jackson's King Kong and The Coen Brother's True Grit. These are exceptions because in the case of most of them the remakes come from a book, or source material and usually remain more faithful to it and in the case of all of these they were made by truly intelligent, visionary Directors for, what I believe is, their own motivations and not, and this is crucial, NOT just for the money.

I know everything is essentially made to make money but when it is the original motivating factor behind a trend of remakes, like we have seen in recent years, then it usually churns out films for the simple reason that no one involved had any better idea and they thought it would sell. The sad fact of the market place is that halfwits line up round the block for these pale imitations of legitimate classics.

However, on to one of the aforementioned exceptions and a film that had me involved, enthralled and fantastically giddy from beginning to the very end of the credits, The Coen Brother's True Grit. What was most wondrous about this film was that it was so good, so majestically put together that it made me stop on my way out and remember all the classics the Brother's Coen have made and say, right, these guys, now happily in my top 5 all time best directors of all time.

I must confess that while I am sure I have seen the original at some point, or at least scenes from it, I can not really claim any worthwhile remembrance or knowledge of it so I can not compare the two films, neither have I read the book. Now that may make me a bad reviewer if comparing and contrasting is your game but personally I'd rather just comment on this one for now, I have every intention of revisiting the original sometime in the future.

True Grit, as far as the Coen's previous work is concerned, is probably what would happen if Fargo, Miller's Crossing and No Country for Old Men collided, in terms of style, landscape photography, atmosphere, violence and music and as such has all the class, thoughtful vocabulary and assured direction that we have become used to with the Coen's when they are doing their 'serious' work.
The opening 30 minutes, as they establish the town and the characters, almost plays like theatre rather than a film, in a way that makes you aware of the performances and the dialogue, something that usually would not be a good thing as cinema tends to attempt and reward naturalistic performances but with True Grit  the enjoyment comes from watching the performances, deep and involved as they are, and listening to the words.
It is a wonderful experience to go to the cinema, to watch a film so beautifully and supremely professionally put together, each lighting or camera trick appearing effortless, relishing each actor's delivery, which, in true Coen fashion, is enhanced with ticks, mannerisms and quirks making each character rich and interesting, taking time to observe their costumes and surroundings, sets which are fastidious in detail and era yet never intrusive, the whole thing is tremendous.
As if all this creative, stylistic and impeccably crafted beauty wasn't enough you have a first rate script telling an exciting and emotional story, never pulling any punches, remaining faithful to the attitudes of the times and containing as many wince inducing violent action scenes as hearty laughs. All in all it's pretty much a triumph.

Jeff Bridges, who I could quite happily watch reading the phone book for 2 hours, is his usual, uninhibited, curious, hilarious and mannered self.  His Rooster Cogburn is a joy to watch and while it does occasionally come dangerously close to almost pantomime or parody proportions, ultimately he is the one we are rooting for. He does, out of all the cast, have the showy role and Bridges doesn't disappoint, bringing in a performance that's as if The Dude met Jack from The Fisher King and considering, in my mind, those two are Bridges at his best, I was bound to love him in this.
I haven't read up on how they found her but Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation. The fact that she is nominated as best supporting actress is a bit of a gut busting hoot because the film attempts to rest but ends up teetering on her scrawny tween shoulders. The whole thing succeeds or fails on her performance and while you would forgive a child actor who was trying hard any small slip ups when surrounded by Bridges and Damon, there is no forgiveness needed here as she is every bit the picture of a head strong, determined, intelligent, stubborn, sensitive and freely spoken girl you could imagine. Especially in the early scenes where she is sorting out her deceased father's estate and rustling up some money, she storms through the film chewing up not just scenery but whole chunks of film stock, it's quite the most interesting and, unusual for a Coen's film, natural performance I have seen this year.
Matt Damon, however, threatens to steal this film from under the nose of the showboating Bridges and the remarkable new comer, Hailee Steinfeld. This is because he has to try three times as hard as everyone else to end up where he is by the end of the picture, in the audiences affection. He has the non-showy, almost-villain, sidekick role that could've been played as fairly throwaway by a lesser actor but in recent years Damon has shown himself to be on the way to becoming genuinely terrific and versatile, far more the gifted character player than a bland leading man. His pompous, verbose Texas ranger, the wonderfully named LaBoeuf, is the perfect foil for Bridges' braggart Cogburn and in his perfect and patient performance you can also see Damon behind the man he's playing thinking "stick with it, stick with it, you hate me now, sure, and I won't ask for your love, but by the end of the film, you'll see..."
Finishing up the cast is the usual, intriguing, 'only in a Coen Brother's movie' type players with a late in the day appearance by a fantastic Josh Brolin. Everyone is pretty marvelous all round and it's always a pleasure watching a Coen's movie because of the varied, authentic looking and interesting faces they find, some with funny hair, or a funny build, wonky nosed people and folks who you could go trick or treating in their jowls. Including a cameo by the Irish actor from the original Day of the Dead (I hate how I have to say original... there should be no other Day of the Dead!!).

Which brings us full circle back to remakes, see what I did there?

So all in all it is pretty bloody smashing. A good and proper pulp, boys-own-adventure, western filtered through the radiant and mesmerising beauty of Roger  "give him a damn Oscar already!!" Deakins' lenses and invented, built and nurtured every step of the way by the simply marvelous The Coen Brothers.

9 out of 10 bowls of ratty looking slop stew cooked over the hearth in an old log cabin
Points from The Wife 9 out of 10 as well.

Wake Up Ron Burgandy - 5th February 2011

Ghostbusters - 29th January 2011