Monday, December 27, 2010

Applause for True Grit

December 27, 2010

The immediate members of my family, that would be Kathy, Deena and Tommy, are not fans of the Western. I take total blame for this, having basically ruined so many oaters by my pompous commentaries before, during and after the many Westerns I have forced them to endure for the last three decades.

There have been a few exceptions. Kathy joined me for 3:10 To Yuma, and sort of enjoyed it. Even I thought the ending was lame. But some recent Westerns have been just too hard of a sell. I saw The Assasination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford all by myself, and, although I loved it, I was very glad I didn't talk the entire famdam into sitting through three hours of that amber glow.

In truth I have become quite snakebit about recommending Westerns to my family.

That said, on Christmas Day, after opening the presents and having lunch, Deena's new boyfriend, Mike, who hails from Minneapolis and is a big Coen brothers fan, lobbied for us to go see True Grit. I tried to talk him out of it, and poo-poohed the film, which I had already seen the week before, at a critic's screening in Scottsdale. I basically told him not to expect much, that it is definitely the least ironic of all the Coen brothers' pictures. He still voted to see it, and, to my surprise, the others agreed.

Six of us, Kathy, me, Deena, Mike, T. Charles and Pattarapan went to the five o'clock showing at Harkins 16 at 32nd St. and Bell.

The theater, which probably holds 300, was half-full, mostly Boomers like myself, although there were a smattering of youngsters which my kids pointed out to me. Ever defensive, I dismissed this as "mercy dates", that is, grandkids taking grandpa to see what he wants to see on Christmas Day.

As True Grit unspooled and got going, I heard laughs, big laughs (the critics I saw the film with were smugly quiet). Deena, sitting to my left, kept poking me in the arm and whispering, "What?! This is hilarious!" When it was over, there was applause, started by, of all people, Kathy Radina (Meghan Saar said there was applause in the theater she saw it in yesterday and she had never heard this ever before. She is 28). Everyone in the family absolutely loved it. They raved about the political incorrectness of Jeff Bridges kicking the In-din kids off the porch, they raved about the talents of Hailee Steinfeld, the girl who beat out 15,000 other girls for the role of Mattie Ross and they hooted about the mountain man with the bear's head and his ridiculous speech ("So Coen brothers!")

The good news is that the applause extends beyond my family: True Grit finished the week (it opened last Wednesday) at $31.8 million and came in second for the weekened, behind The Fokkers. True Grit also provides the Coen Brothers with their highest opening ever; its three-day total of $25.6 million easily outpaced the $19.4 that Burn After Reading brought home in 2008.

Last night Kathy and I pulled out the original True Grit with John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell and Robert Duvall and watched it. I thought for sure a clear winner would surface, but I constantly found myself saying, "Well, they went at this from different directions, but they both work." I also thought Glen Campbell was much better than I remembered. He still isn't even in the same league as Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger, but he is charming and decent.

Both endings worked for me, although the Coen brothers' ending is more realistic and follows the book. Still, I liked the Duke ending, especially him jumping the fence and maybe even prefer the happier ending, but that probably dates me more than I'd like to admit.

The one thing that I think the Coen brothers are far superior at is the nuance of the action sequence. They have been showing this for some time, but they really hit the top of their game with the Chigurgh (Javiar Bardem) shootout with Lewellan (Josh Brolin) in Eagle Pass, Texas in No Country For Old Men. The very idea of showing the bullets hit their target (and since a silencer is being utilized we get the shock of the hits without the forewarning of the explosions) was brilliant and scary beyond belief.

In the new True Grit, when Rooster is heading over a distant ridge he turns to fire his pistol as a signal he is leaving. Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) is watching through a spy glass. Rooster raises his pistol and we see the smoke and then, a half second later, hear the report. Very, very cool. I can't remember ever seeing this in a Western, the fact that sound travels slower and you would see the muzzle flash before you heard it at a distance.

This is also repeated in the aftermath of the meadow shootout when La Boeuff fires his Sharps rifle just in time to save Rooster from being dispatched. We hear the shot, there is a delay for the bullet to travel 400 yards, then we see a puff of dirt kicked up beyond Ned Pepper (photographed from long distance, which works so much better than in the old True Grit where we get the standard close range camera angle). The bullet has gone through Pepper and hits the ground on the other side of him. Spectacular! Bravo! Really impressive narrative filmmaking.

I thought Barry Pepper stole the Coen brother's True Grit. I loved his look, I thought he was fantastic, but Kathy votes for Robert Duvall as Pepper in the original and goes as far as to say, "He's the best thing in both movies." Hmmmmmmmm.

"I'm shot to pieces."
—Lucky Ned Pepper

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