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Sunday, February 6, 2011

TRUE GRIT (2010)

I don't know what you thought of the 1969 TRUE GRIT, but I saw the remake yesterday and it was an odd experience because I saw the original for the first time since I was a kid a few months back and I thought it was merely so-so. The remake, though purportedly more true to the source novel, was virtually a beat-for-beat remake of the original and consequently it was also so-so. It does improve on the original in a few ways — chief among which are not having the incredibly annoying Kim Darby in the lead, and a better, less "Hollywood" ending — but for the life of me I can't understand why it's getting the universal critical acclaim it's racking up. My guess is that since westerns are pretty much a dead genre, audiences (and critics) are starved for "horse operas," so they go crazy when a competent one shows up in the current climate of lame rom-coms, cookie-cutter Judd Apatow films (almost all of which are overrated and not funny, at least not to me), superhero movies of wildly varying quality, Michael Bay cinematic abortions that display a shocking contempt for their audience, and the annual blockbuster season that turns the screen into a toxic waste dump. The new TRUE GRIT is not a "bad" movie by any means, but it simply is not "all that." Here's the breakdown:
  • Like the original, it's too long by at least twenty minutes and it moves at a lugubrious pace. There is no suspense or thrills to be had in it and the film even manages to make Cogburn's famous horseback gunfight against four opponents devoid of excitement (which certainly cannot be said about the John Wayne version).
  • Remember "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms," the tune sung by psycho Robert Mitchum in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)? Well, you sure as hell will after seeing the new TRUE GRIT, because an instrumental of it plays incessantly throughout the film.
  • Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn and does not in any way evoke John Wayne's version of the character. It's a totally new interpretation and much more believable than Wayne's Oscar-winning performance (which is only to be expected I guess, because Wayne brought his "god of the western" stature to every role he played, especially late in his career, even in films that were not westerns).
  • Hailee Steinfeld is a perfect Mattie Ross because, unlike Kim Darby (who was Miri in the original series STAR TREK episode of the same name), she's the right age for the role (Darby was in her early twenties when playing Mattie) and is not so fucking annoying that you want to shoot her through the eyes. Like Bridges, she brings a total believability to the part and she is very good for a relative newbie.
  • Matt Damon is both unrecognizable (due to makeup) and quite good as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced "LeBeef") and makes one completely forget Glenn Campbell's utterly forgettable original version.
  • The interaction between the characters is fun and at times chuckle-inducing, but the film's pacing renders the proceedings into an almost-dreamlike state. That can work in a Sergio Leone western, but this is not one of those.
  • Like the original, we follow Mattie's quest to bring her father's killer to justice, but again we don't care all that much because it's a given that she will succeed and the villain (and his cronies) gets barely any screen time, so we have no character definition other than that which is automatically inferred by their narrative positioning as "black hats."
  • Again we get the bit with Mattie ending up in the pit with the rattlesnakes, a sequence that was totally unnecessary to the narrative in the first place and adds nothing to the new version (other than a slightly different outcome to her up close and personal encounter with one of the poisonous reptiles).
  • As previously mentioned, the film is an almost beat-for-beat remake, despite the Coen Brothers' claims that it's a "new version," and as a result the whole endeavor comes off (to me, anyway) as cinematically superfluous.
The one thing that I am glad of as a result of sitting through it is that it reminded me of MAD magazine's excellent 1970 parody of it (from MAD #133), drawn by the stellar Mort Drucker (one of the best cartoonists ever, whose work is often unfairly overlooked because it runs in a humor magazine). I looked for images from it online and while doing so I was surprised to find that several reviewers of both the new and old version of the film cited that they found the MAD version more memorable than the actual movie. Next to George Woodbridge, I think Drucker was the very best of MAD's artists from the moment they shifted from a comics format to a black & white magazine. Check out these panels to see what I mean:

(I love how the one gunman is riding a hog for no apparent reason.)

But I'm straying from the remake, so allow me to sum up by stating that the new TRUE GRIT is worth seeing, sort of, but I suggest waiting for cable or DVD rental. It ain't worth $13.00 (NYC ticket price).

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