24 June 2011

Movies: True Grit vs. True Grit

True Grit (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/
True Grit (1969) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065126/

The Coen Brothers film is not so much a remake of the John Wayne True Grit as it is another film from the same source book.

When I first heard True Grit was going to be made again my initial reaction was, "why the hell are they remaking films that don't need to be remade? True Grit is an established classic and untouchable. Any attempt to make it again is doomed to suck." The 1969 True Grit is an iconic western film and won John Wayne his only Oscar.  Why mess with success?

Then I heard it was the Coen Brothers were remaking it. With Steven Spielberg as an executive producer.
At that moment I shrugged away my remake concerns. There are very few things the Coens do wrong. Seeing their name on anything means automatic watch to me.  So I went from "this is doomed to suck" to "best of luck to the Coens I hope it doesn't suck."  I even developed a serious case of edge of the seat anticipation excitement waiting on its arrival.

Well, it doesn't suck. Not one bit.

Acting is top notch. Young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is amazing. Bridges as Cogburn works in ways I didn't imagine it would. I even appreciated Damon's LaBoeuf interpretation.  Josh Brolin's performance as Chaney is distinct from any previous performance he's given. I am so glad he didn't repeat his Jonah Hex for this film.

Locations, dialog, effects, stunts. No complaints. A great movie born from a great production with a great crew.

Concerning a comparison with the 1969 version of True Grit. 
I saw the differences in the films as far as story details. So I did a little search to see if anyone had compared the book to the films. Based on what I read it seems the Coen True Grit (CoenTG) is a bit more faithful to the book than the Wayne True Grit (WayneTG).  I don't want to go into some of the difference details because they would actually be spoilers to the CoenTG film, that is, spoilers for the folks who've already seen and remember the WayneTG film.  I will say I like and even prefer the changes from the 1969 film.

Performance-wise John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn is still John Wayne. After you've watched enough of his movies there isn't a whole lot of difference in how he plays characters. That's fine, there are other actors who are the same way and are effective in the roles they are given. However Wayne almost over-plays Cogburn, almost hammy about it. In comparison Jeff Bridges plays Cogburn straight up, unapologetic and in some ways subdued. Thankfully he doesn't try to channel the Wayne performance. He leaves being The Duke to The Duke.
The CoenTG keeps the attention more on Mattie as the central character through the whole film,  the WayneTG shifts focus from Mattie to Cogburn once Cogburn is introduced to the story.
Glen Campbell's LaBoeuf performance is a bit wooden and unpolished, then again he is a singer not an actor, and he comes off more as a goof in a hat and spurs. Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf much better. He is boastful, but as you learn more about the character he isn't quite the idiot that Campbell's LaBoeuf seemed to be.
As for Kim Darby's Mattie in the WayneTG - she's obviously older than 14 yet dressed to try to appear 14. She plays her with spunk, but her voice gets annoying at times. She constantly carps on Cogburn, which makes her voice that much more shrill.  Whereas Hailee Steinfeld is 14, just like the character Mattie, plays her just as spunky and strong, but loads less annoying. She has her say, she doesn't pull punches, is capable of admitting if she misjudged, a fierce negotiator, and doesn't incessantly nag either.
The WayneTG is played a little looser with winks to the audience when something is supposed to be amusing. Ok, not literal winks, but certainly let in on the jokes. The CoenTG is played as a straight up drama, anything amusing comes off as such naturally. The audience is treated as a quiet observer of events, not as another person on location participating in a lightly comedic drama.

There are a couple of other character encounters in the field that are new in the CoenTG.  And we never get to actually see the Lawyer J. Noble Daggett. We do get to hear his voice. He's voiced by J.K. Simmons, who you would recognize as that dude wielding a flamethrower vs. giant lint ball in the Farmers Insurance commercials (bum ba bum ba bum bum bum).
The WayneTG did have some 'bigger' landscape shots, whereas the CoenTG seemed to keep the camera tighter for most of the film.
I actually preferred the way dialog is spoken in the newer True Grit too, it doesn't have modern American English speech patterns or embellishments. This is especially evident when you listen to Josh Brolin's dialog as Tom Chaney.  It sounds a little unnatural to the modern ear, yet evokes a sense of the distance in time between then and now.

In comparison I think the newer True Grit has quickly become my favorite version of the two, and IMO is the better film to tell the story. I still like the 1969 True Grit, always have, but I think the Coens really outdid the original. What I don't know is if this preference is due to perception of a film colored by today's film sensibilities vs. those of a 1969 viewer.  Regardless, this film is one great example that yes, today's Hollywood can still make good western films.

Well worth watching. Lives up to the expectations set by the press  coverage.

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