The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Lone Ranger’ – Hi-yo Silver, What the Heck?

Like so many, I grew up watching “The Lone Ranger” on television and listening to the old-time radio show as well. John Reid, whether he was wearing a mask or not, was a paragon of justice, and seeing him and his faithful sidekick Tonto defeat the bad guys was always deeply satisfying. I was reminded of how much I liked this character while watching Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” because I kept asking myself, who is this buffoon that has no business being around a horse during this movie?

Hollywood has had little luck in getting a respectful version of “The Lone Ranger” up on the silver screen, and this supposed 2013 summer blockbuster is the latest example. At two and a half hours, this film is a bloated mess which could have easily been shortened. It sticks its talented cast with a bland story, an uninteresting villain, and it can never seem to figure out if it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or a deadly serious film. Sadly, it is not until the last half hour when this “Lone Ranger” finally comes to life.

This “Lone Ranger” is yet another origin story about how this iconic character and Tonto first met and joined forces to bring justice to the American Old West. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer and former Texas Ranger who joins up with his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to recapture the ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who has just escaped. In the process of tracking Butch down, John and Dan are ambushed by him and his law-breaking friends, and he mercilessly takes Dan’s life as well as another part of his body from him. John is assumed to be dead, but Tonto (Johnny Depp) finds his body and nurses him back to health so they can avenge Dan’s life and defeat Butch before he does more harm.

Look, I try to enjoy movies for what they are as opposed to what I want them to be, but I found myself wanting to see a much different version of “The Lone Ranger” because the iconic character is not given the respect he deserves here. I came out of this film feeling sorry for Hammer who is a very good actor and was terrific as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” but he is forced to portray John Reid as a buffoon and wimp who has no business trying to bring any bad guys to justice. Hammer has some funny moments, but the screenplay by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio robs his character of many of the heroic qualities we love the Lone Ranger for having.

Come on, this is a movie about the Lone Ranger, so why not make it about the character we know him to be? Just like “The Green Hornet” which Seth Rogen and company really messed up, this is a film that blatantly forgets what makes its well-known characters so special. Regardless of the current controversies Hammer is currently enduring, his acting career has fared much better than Klinton Spilsbury’s did after he starred in ill-fated “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

As expected, Johnny Depp gets top billing even though he is playing the sidekick in this film because, well, he’s Johnny Depp. While he may be the best thing about “The Lone Ranger,” his performance is a bit problematic. Depp said he chose to play Tonto so he could right the wrongs of the past in terms of how Native Americans are portrayed in the media. While I really want to say he succeeded, I’m not sure he did. He is clearly having a lot of fun playing Tonto, but the character threatens to come off as a comical caricature than a believable Indian. I have no doubt that Depp has Native American blood in him, but it would have made much more sense to get a full-blooded Native American to play Tonto instead.

But in the midst of such comical mischief between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, we get to learn about Tonto’s backstory which involves tragedy and Native American genocide. It is at this point when the movie’s tone becomes completely erratic as it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be funny or serious. While I would never dare to gloss over the damage we did to Native Americans, this grim history belongs in another movie and not this.

“The Lone Ranger” also starts off with another side story which has a young boy named Will (Mason Cook) visiting a San Francisco county fair where he runs into an elderly Tonto who proceeds to tell him about his adventures. The movie keeps coming back to these two time and time again, and this ends up slowing its already sluggish pace down to a grinding halt. These scenes could easily been cut out of the film because they really serve no good purpose and only make us wish this was much shorter.

William Fichtner remains one of the most dependable character actors working today, but he is unfortunately saddled with portraying a bore of a villain in Butch Cavendish. The character’s makeup basically spells out how this is one very bad dude who never visits the dentist, and it’s almost like Fichtner is letting the makeup do all the work. There’s really not much to this character other than he’s just another evil outlaw, and this gives Fichtner no real opportunities to make him the least bit interesting.

As for the other actors, Ruth Wilson gets to play Dan Reid’s obligatory love interest, Rebecca, and she is given little to do other than be in constant danger. Tom Wilkinson is a welcome presence as railroad tycoon Latham Cole, but it’s no surprise to see what his character ends up becoming. And while it is cool to see Barry Pepper as U.S. Calvary Officer Jay Fuller, his character is just another one of those clichéd corrupt military characters who is just asking to get beaten up. As for Helena Bonham Carter, she is wasted in a bit part as brothel madam Red Harrington. While I love seeing Carter pop up in one role after another, this movie does not deserve her.

Verbinski runs into many of the same problems which undid “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” as it goes on for far too long, contains characters we never fully care about, and it doesn’t take long for us to give up on trying to understand the plot. While he is indeed a talented filmmaker, and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie really was fantastic entertainment, I thought after “At World’s End” he would rein things in more than he tried previously. That he did not accomplish this makes this cinematic experience all the more frustrating.  

Regardless, I have to admit that I loved the movie’s last half hour where Verbinski executes a number of brilliantly staged action sequences. Once the “William Tell Overture” music started blasting through the speakers, I found myself being immensely entertained. This was “The Lone Ranger” movie I wanted to see, the one where I was genuinely thrilled by this masked man’s crime fighting ways. This proved to be so much fun, but while this spectacle went on, I could not help but ask myself why the rest of this motion picture could not be this entertaining.

“The Lone Ranger” was not the worst movie of 2013, but it was still pretty close to being the biggest stinker of all. While it was not as boring as “The Great Gatsby” nor as abysmally bad as “The Hangover Part III,” this should have delivered far more bang for the buck. Westerns have taken a big hit over the years with poorly received duds like “Wild Wild West” and “Jonah Hex,” and this film is not going to help matters any. This was the first Lone Ranger movie in over 30 years, and now it looks like we’ll have to wait twice than long for the next one to be made.

Hi-Yo, Silver! Away from Hollywood!

* * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

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Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.