Movie Review: True Grit

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper ~ Writers/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen ~ Rating: 15 ~ Year: 2010

True Grit Movie Poster Coen Brothers 2010[xrr rating=4/5]

The Lowdown: The Western rides again thanks to the Coen Brothers, who’ve taken a novel originally filmed in 1969 with John Wayne and turned it into a powerful and moody portrait of the Old West, backed up by fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

What’s it About?: 14-year old farm girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) has only one thing she wants – to see runaway criminal Tom Chaney (Brolin) hang for the murder of her father. However, Chaney has vanished deep inside the Indian Nations, and the only person she can find to help her is US Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Bridges), a one-eyed shambling disaster of a man who seems more interested in whiskey than justice…

The Story: The rule is simple – never remake a classic. There’s so many elements that can go wrong second time around, so it’s often much easier to take on a film that isn’t quite so revered, as in the case of True Grit. Filmed in 1969, the John Wayne-starring version is actually a fairly good example of a mainstream Hollywood Western in the late Sixties, but it’s really best remembered for Wayne’s showboating performance, playing off his iconic status as the cantankerous, whiskey-soaked Cogburn (and netting him his only Oscar), and doesn’t always do justice to Charles Portis’s original novel. As a result, there weren’t any cries of horror when the Coen Brothers announced their intention to do a new interpretation of True Grit, and what we’ve ended up with is a very different version of the same story, taking the original novel and creating something much darker, more ruminative and violent.

True Grit 2010 Jeff Bridges Hailee SteinfeldBecause make no mistake – while there’s plenty of humour on display here, this is a story of justice, and the kind of price you pay for both seeking and defying it. Mattie Ross’ determined quest to avenge her father is brave and compelling, but it’s never framed as anything other than an extremely dangerous journey into dark territory that’s populated by dangerous men. There’s very little escapism or romance in the Coen’s portrait of the West – Mattie spends the film surrounded by death (even having to sleep at an undertakers in an early scene), and her quest eventually results in a serious price to pay, while the West itself is a spectacular but frightening place, a bleak and barren country where there’s little comfort (but plenty of room for occasional bursts of very Coen-Brother weirdness, like the bizarre encounter with a roaming wilderness Dentist).

True Grit 2010 Jeff BridgesWhen the action comes, it’s brilliantly handled and sometimes shocking, but the Coens mainly keep the pace gentle, focussing on the characters and showcasing their usual talent at bringing out strong performances. It’s no surprise that Bridges is excellent – he’s one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood – but he does an amazing job as Cogburn, buried behind an eyepatch and a sometimes-incomprehensible accent, creating a character who’s both entertaining and dangerous, riding a risky moral line and being admirable without ever seeming entirely reliable or trustworthy.

True Grit 2010 Jeff Bridges Hailee Steinfeld stillThere’s also excellent work from Matt Damon, giving Texas Ranger LaBoeuf plenty of depth and pomposity, while Josh Brolin does plenty with only a handful of scenes as Cheney, but the whole film is stolen wholesale by Hailee Steinfeld who’s simply incredible as Mattie Ross, appearing in almost every scene and matching her co-stars line for line. The early sequence where she manages to talk around a tradesman who’s unwilling to buy back a number of horses is worth the price of admission alone, and Steinfeld holds the whole film together with a realism and charisma that you don’t often see in teen actresses.

True Grit sits at the more commercial end of the Coen Brothers’ work, although it’s definitely a successful fusion of art and commerce (especially now that it’s made over $100 million in the States). While it isn’t quite as distinctive or peculiarly moving as the fantastically quirky A Serious Man, or as gut-punchingly powerful as No Country for Old Men, it’s still a fascinating and rewarding piece of cinema, backed up with a typically excellent and moving score from Carter Burwell. In a way, it also makes a kind of odd double-bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – and while it isn’t quite as determined to demythologise the West, it certainly takes the shine off the legend, showing it as a pretty merciless place that only cantankerous, morally dubious men like Bridges’ Cogburn are truly built to survive.

The Verdict: Darker and more melancholic than you might expect, True Grit contains plenty of the classic hallmarks of the Western, but it’s most memorable for the Coen Brothers’ more characterful touches, and the fantastic performances of both Bridges and Steinfeld.

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Movie Review – TRON: Legacy

YEAR: 2010 ~ CAST: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett ~ WRITERS: Edward Kitiss & Adam Horowitz ~ DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski

Tron Legacy PosterThe Backstory: In 1982, videogame designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tried to break into the system of his ex-employers ENCOM, but instead was transported into the world inside the computer – a realm of adventure and danger, where he fought against the Master Control Program with the help of a program named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner).

What’s it About?: Twenty years after Kevin Flynn vanished, his rebellious 27-year old son Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) follows a possible clue to his disappearence, and ends up inside another world. Flynn has created a self-contained digital universe – the Grid – but he’s been trapped inside it for twenty years by his alter ego, the program CLU, and now there’s very little time before the only escape route closes forever…

The Film: We are quite definitely living in strange times. The quest to re-sell and repackage the 1980s (whether it’s TV series or resurrected movies) over the last few years has been an exceptionally bizarre experience, but nothing so far has been quite so odd as Disney’s decision to do a massive-budget, 3-D blockbuster sequel to – of all things – Tron. The 1982 cult curio has built up a strong reputation thanks to its kooky story and the fantastically stylised early-CGI visuals (which, despite the technical limitations, seem to somehow get more stylish the older they get), but it was a box-office flop at the time, and nobody’s idea of a dead-cert for a major-league franchise revival.

That we’ve simply gotten a TRON sequel is strange and wonderful enough – but after watching the film in brain-scrambling IMAX 3D, I can’t help feeling that we’ve ended up with this generation’s version of the 1980s screen adaptation of Flash Gordon. That’s not exactly what Disney set out to acheive, admittedly, and it’s also true that TRON: Legacy isn’t anywhere near the campery or sheer unadulterated fun of Mike Hodges’ absurdly colourful 1982 spectacular (partly because the central concept of TRON is, to be honest, so wonderfully ridiculous that it does need to be taken very seriously in order to work).

TRON: Legacy is, however, the closest anyone’s come in a long time to the style of pulpy adventure films that were so common during the 1980s, managing to be thrilling in a way that isn’t quite the usual adrenaline rush that modern Hollywood specialises in. TRON: Legacy is absolutely an Adventure film, rather than an Action film – in the same way as Avatar, it’s all about the worldbuilding and the environment (with story and character coming a slightly weak second place), and both films also use a hefty dollop of classic Joseph Campbell-style storytelling in order to transport us to into their universes.

Tron Legacy Olivia WildeIt’s true that TRON: Legacy doesn’t manage this as succesfully as Avatar did (with one of that film’s true strengths being the fact that it is a deeply immersive spectacle), mainly thanks to some very clunky storytelling. It’s also true that Garret Hedlund largely falls into the same category as Flash Gordon’s Sam J. Jones in being a slightly engaging but mostly rather oaken lead actor. In fact, TRON: Legacy is packed full of problems, and frequently feels like it’s only a couple of scenes away from collapsing in on itself, while being as unlikely a franchise-starter as I’ve ever seen. The occasionally sluggish pacing combined with some very incoherent story choices don’t help in the slightest, and TRON: Legacy is certainly a long-way from being a top-notch blockbuster film.

And yet… it’s actually stuck with me a lot longer than Avatar did, and I’ve got the odd feeling that I actually prefer it, despite Cameron’s 3-D opus undoubtedly being the more polished and well-structured film. Much of this is that TRON: Legacy is such a tremendous visual spectacle, one that really needs to be viewed on the biggest screen available, while also being a film that does take us somewhere new, even if it’s just in terms of style and visuals. The way it expands and realises the world of TRON is never less than impressive – there’s a lush, faintly ludicrous and yet undeniably sexy style to the production design and costumes, a European comic-book visual sensibility that keeps the eye candy at a truly glorious level, from the head-whirling disc combat to the climactic air-battle. The look of the film is backed up with the sound – and again, as with Flash Gordon and its timelessly over-the-top Queen music, TRON: Legacy would be much weaker if it wasn’t for the sharp, driving and surprisingly powerful score from Daft Punk, a soundtrack that’s snapping at the heels of Hans Zimmer’s work on Inception for the ‘Best of 2010’ award.

Tron Legacy Jeff BridgesUltimately, what I really liked about TRON: Legacy is that it’s actually trying to tackle some  interesting philosophical questions about life, creation, freedom of information, and the kind of future the digital world offers us. Yes, it’s doing it in a frequently garbled and half-baked way, but the screenplay does a good job of mirroring certain aspects of the real world in the universe of the Grid, and the apparent ‘Hey kids- Piracy is cool!’ subtext in its first twenty minutes isn’t anywhere near as simplistic as it first appears. It’s true that much of the ‘meat’ of the film is thrown at the audience in a single massive flashback sequence, and there’s so much thematic material in the screenplay that I can’t help wishing screenwriters Edward Kitiss and Adam Horowitz could have managed another rewrite, or at least smoothed out some of the clumsier dialogue and exposition (especially in the extremely weak opening sequence, where Kevin Flynn explains the Grid to the 7-year-old Sam as a bedtime story).

However, for all its flaws – the occasionally hard-to-follow battle scenes, the overplayed one-liners, the fact that the CGI used to de-age Jeff Bridges to play CLU is still a few years from being consistently photorealistic – I’d still far rather see a film like TRON: Legacy aim high and fall short, than just getting another immersive yet unsurprising fantasy journey like Avatar, no matter how well-executed it is. A continuation of the saga seems deeply unlikely (and slightly frustrating, considering a couple of very deliberate flapping plot threads at the story’s climax), but despite all its flaws, there are kids out there whose minds will be blown by TRON: Legacy – and I can’t help feeling this is yet another slow-burning cult movie just waiting to happen.

The Verdict: Ignore any of the Star Wars prequel comparisons some negative reviews have thrown around– TRON: Legacy may be loaded with issues in its storytelling, pace and dialogue, but it’s also one of the strongest visual experiences to hit the screen in a long time, backed with the brilliant Daft Punk soundtrack, and a story that’s smarter than it first appears. Plus it’s got Olivia Wilde looking hot in a rubber catsuit, which simply can’t be a bad thing…

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

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