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Monday, January 24, 2011

Not So Gritty After All

Fort Smith, we have a problem.

We finally saw "True Grit" last week, and since the movie is certain to receive a few Oscar nominations tomorrow morning, it's time to give the movie its due. We first wrote about the movie one year ago, and like many, we were highly anticipating the Coen Brothers' remake of the classic film.

(Click on "Movies - True Grit" in the Labels List to read all of our posts about the movie.)
We love the work of the Coen Brothers; their Best Picture-winning "No Country for Old Men" is one of our favorite movies of all time. We knew it was a classic the minute we saw it, and it elevated the Coen Brothers in our minds to the status of "almost can do no wrong". Almost.

(john wayne as rooster cogburn in "true grit")
.We're also very familiar with the original "True Grit" which won John Wayne his only Oscar, and which starred co-starred Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Strother Martin. And although we've always acknowledged problems with the original film, it was nevertheless very entertaining and has, over time, entered the pantheon of most beloved American movies. Even people who aren't crazy about the original movie will admit that it's respectably made and very entertaining.

And so you know what's coming. We can't help ourselves; we have to compare the new "True Grit" with the original. We know that's not the way to do a proper movie review, but then, we're not proper movie reviewers. Besides, if you're going to remake one of the most popular movies of all time, you're going to have to expect comparisons. Could you imagine if someone remade "Gone With The Wind" or "Star Wars" that most people wouldn't compare the remakes to the originals? Of course they would.

On its own, the new "True Grit" is good, there's no denying that fact. But we're sorry, Coen's, it's not all that you promised. Just before seeing the "new Grit", we heard an interview with the Coen's on National Public Radio, and they almost bragged that their version was superior to the original. They also made a big point of saying that their version was based on the original Charles Portis novel, not the original movie. That's strange, because the new Grit movie is an almost shot-for-shot copy of the original. There are a couple of new scenes in the new Grit, and a completely different ending, but if you looked at storyboards of the two movies side by side, they'd be almost identical. So let the comparisons begin!
(john wayne and kim darby)
.John Wayne as the eye-patched Rooster Cogburn was a little white-washed, he certainly wasn't the drunken, dirty character from the novel, but he was good, nonetheless. He was John Wayne for gods sakes, and in 1969, that still carried a lot of weight. But Jeff Bridges almost went too far the other way, trying almost too hard to create a character which would shock somewhat in its dirty grunginess. And in the process he created a huge elephant in the room which we're very surprised no movie critic has mentioned: Bridges is doing Billy Bob Thornton from "Slingblade". We won't describe the "Slingblade" comparison any further, just see the movie, and let us know if you don't think the same thing. And sadly, Bridges just doesn't have the same gravity as John Wayne. The Coen's claimed that their "Grit" was about Rooster and not Mattie, but honestly, it didn't seem that way; Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie stole every scene she was in with Bridges.

Which brings us to Mattie. Hailee Steinfeld was very good; as we said, she stole the movie. But we're not sure she's that much better than Kim Darby in the original. In fact, Darby was a little more believable as someone who is obsessed with avenging her father's death. Steinfeld seems determined, but Darby seemed obsessed. There's a big difference.
(jeff bridges and matt damon)
The biggest improvement in the new Grit is, of course, the character of LaBoeuf. Matt Damon is an actor; Glen Campbell was not. Glen Campbell was cast because he was riding the wave of popularity as a pop singer at the time, but clearly he had no business being a movie actor. And out of respect for Campbell as a musician, we'll leave it at that. No we won't, he was horrific. But Damon is fantastic, and portrayed to perfection a character who is proud, thin-skinned and reckless, all the traits that Arkansan Charles Portis intended as a way to poke fun at a Texan.
(strother martin in "true grit")
.Barry Pepper is good as Ned Pepper, but he's not as menacing as Robert Duvall was. In fact, Barry Pepper took quickly falls for Mattie and almost becomes a sympathetic character instead of someone so mean that you cheer when Rooster tries to blow his head off. And poor Dakin Matthews, who has to step into the role of Col. Stonehill, originally played by the legendary Strother Martin. Matthews is very good, but please, he's no Strother Martin. No one is, or ever will be, Strother Martin. Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney commits the same sin as Jeff Bridges, he tried too hard to create a "character" and almost comes off as laughable in the process.
(hailee steinfeld and barry pepper)
.The cinematography in the new Grit is far superior to that in the original movie, and we're guessing that it will not only receive an Oscar nomination, but might actually win. But we were a little unnerved by how shiny and clean the town of Ft. Smith, Arkansas looked. Obviously, the Coen's were very proud of their town set, they highlighted it in one scene as if it was a character in the movie, but it looked like a movie set and not a real, lived-in 19th Century frontier town.

The biggest disappointment in the new Grit, though, above all else, was the music and score. The music in the original Grit was done by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, and even though some might feel his music was too "movie-like" and polished, it nevertheless helped to create real tension in several key scenes in the movie. The music in the new Grit was barely noticeable, and did nothing to add to the mood and feel of the story. The Coen's are famous for having a fantastic ear for music; their soundtrack for "O Brother Where Art Thou?" was so good that it beat out its pop, rock and rap competition to claim the Best Album Grammy in 2002. So it was particularly disappointing to watch the new Grit, waiting for music which would elevate the movie and key scenes, and it never came.
(john wayne, kim darby and glen campbell)
.We'd still recommend the new "True Grit"; it's very good, and whether or not you've seen the original, it's very entertaining and overall, well-made. It will probably get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and it deserves one, but now, after having seen it, if we were the Coen's, we wouldn't be so quick to belittle the original.

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