Thanks to our Westerns Film Editor Henry Beck, last night I got to see a sneak preview of the new Coen brother's Western True Grit.
One of the pitfalls of seeing a much ballyhooed movie is being
disappointed. I remember being terribly disappointed at a screening of Young Frankenstein because I read a review in Time
magazine that said "You will be laughing before the credits are
finished." Well, not only wasn't I laughing during, or after, the
credits, it threw off my appreciation for the entire movie! Going into a
new movie with high expectations can be a curse. [Note to self: how do I
review this dang thing without doing the same to you?]
Fortunately, a bad review from a friend of mine who saw the new True Grit last week (Dan G.) lowered my expectations. He claimed it had no humor. This was a blessing because I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in the new film which came early and often. For example, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn on the witness stand was quite funny (wanted to say hilarious but don't want to oversell it). Since we are comparing the Dude to the Duke, here is my play by play.
• The Victorian clothing and look is very good. Point goes to NTG (new True Grit).
• Courtroom scene: advantage Coen's and Bridges'. Excellent Victorian faces and beards all around. Wonderful word play a la Deadwood, but without the nonstop cursing. Point to NTG.
• Both John Wayne and Jeff Bridges were 60 when they played Cogburn, which is about 20 years older than the Cogurn in the book. Bridges did a better job of portraying a drunkard burnout (complete with vericose nose), but the Duke was in rare form. Hard to compare, but slight advantage to Wayne because he played it so damn good.
• Big Set Pieces: the Coen's took over an entire Texas town north of Austin to recreate Fort Smith, Arkansas and it looks great, advantage NTG
• The gear by David Carrico (who was just voted Best Living Western Saddlemaker in our Ninth Annual Best of the West Source Book ) is excellent. Advantage NTG.
• Hats are spotty. Did not like Jeff Bridges' hat at all—a homeless man's fedora. Matt Damon's hat was a good try (sort of an Australian Outback, one-sided wing deal). The best hat in the picture was on the head of Ned Pepper, played by Barry Pepper, who actually stole the movie for me. No advantage to either Hollywood hatters.
• Josh Brolin seemed miscast to me. He played mean and stupid, but he's too good looking. Advantage OTG (Old True Grit).
• The ending with Cole Younger and Frank James was inspired but it kind of miss-fired. I saw the original casting call for Frank James and they wanted someone who could convey evil with just their eyes. The guy they cast, was just a lumpy old fart (someone my age) with a lumbering look. Could have been so much funnier when Mattie drops her line on him as she leaves. Big disappointment to me.
• The new True Grit really seemed to revere the old True Grit (Steven Spielberg is executive producer so that makes some sense), perhaps at its own peril. Many of the sets and action sequences were exact matches to the old True Grit. For example the classic shootout at the end between Rooster and the four outlaws looked like it was filmed in the exact same meadow, even though the Duke version was filmed in Ridgeway, Colorado (at a location called Debbie's Meadow) and the Coen's film was shot in New Mexico. Since the Coen's were trying to be more accurate to the book, which takes place in Arkansas and Oklahoma, why did they copy the wrong location? Much of the movie seems to have that misplaced reverance. The guy who plays the Struthers Martin part in the new film, seems to be channeling Strothers, and that is a serious disadvantage to the new film. In fact, the new TG works much better when we aren't reminded of the old one, which unfortunately, isn't often enough.
• Mattie Ross: Kim Darby vs. Haillee Steinfeld is a tough one. Both were good, although Kim was 22 when she played the 14-year-old Mattie. A draw in my book.
• Historical accuracy? Well, if we're talking about staying true to the book, the advantage goes to the new True Grit. A much more realistic ending. Still, it's not hard to see why the original movie ended as it did. Different time, different expectations.
All in all, I enjoyed the new one and want it to succeed, but I don't see a big hit.
"Remember, the farther up the flagpole you go, the more people can see your rear end."
—Dandy Don Meredith, who died last Sunday at 72