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Film Club: ‘True Grit’

A Coens’ Tweener Film

Above: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld star in the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit."

The Coen Brothers remake the 1969 John Wayne Oscar-winner "True Grit" (opening December 22 throughout San Diego) with Jeff Bridges taking over the Duke's role of Rooster Cogburn. Listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion.

The original "True Grit" was no great work of art but it allowed John Wayne to sum up his career in one drunken, over-the-top performance. The film, like the remake, is based on a book by Charles Portis that focuses on a young girl seeking revenge on the men who killed her father. The best thing in this remake is Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl Mattie Ross who hires Cogburn to help her track down her father's killer.

Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit."

Paramount Classics

Above: Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit."

This is almost as pointless a remake as "Let Me In." The Coens simply do not seem very inspired here. They do a solid job but little of their distinctive style comes through. It's what I call a 'tweener" film for them, one of the films they do between projects that they really feel passionate about. This is definitely not a "No Country for Old Men" or "Blood Simple." It's more like "The Ladykillers" or "Intolerable Cruelty." Plus their take on Portis' tale isn't all that different from the 1969 film. They return the focus more to Mattie but that's about it. Bridges is almost a hindrance here as he mumbles, stumbles, and sleepwalks through his role. It's not an inspired piece of work like he did for the Coens in "The Big Lebowski."

"True Grit" (PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images) is a lackluster film for the Coens but even so it still proves entertaining and well crafted. Listen to our discussion.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And you're back on Film Club of the Air, with me, Alison St. John sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh is Beth Accomando, author of the KPBS blog Cinema Junkie; Scott Marks, author of the film blog, Emulsioncompulsion.com; and Anders Wright, film critic at San Diego CityBeat. "True Grit," this is a new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, known as the Coen Brothers. And it's a remake of the 1969 John Wayne western, "True Grit." It was the role that won John Wayne his Oscar, so it's got a lot to live up to. Filling his shoes or boots, rather, is Jeff Bridges, and they're joined by another bounty hunter, by the name of LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon. Let's listen to a scene from "True Grit" of the three avengers searching for the killer, and in this scene, Jeff Bridges throws a bottle in the air, and shoots it, to prove he's still a good shot, even with an eye patch. Let's listen.

[CLIP]

ALISON ST. JOHN: Got great dialect. Anders, did you like this version?

ANDERS WRIGHT: There were things I liked about it. I wish I had liked it more. I'm such a huge fan of the Coen brothers. And I make a concerted effort with any of their films to not go in with heightened expectations. But it was hard with this one. And honestly, I liked -- I loved the cinematography, I really liked Matt Damon, I really like Hailee Stanfeld.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Steinfeld?

WRIGHT: Is that how you say it? Yeah. And actually Barry Pepper in a very small role I thought was terrific. I didn't really like Jeff Bridges, and I didn't feel like as a whole it all came together for me.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And of course, that's what everyone is comparing, is did he do as well as --

WRIGHT: Well, I also think it's also very, very hard to remake something like "True Grit." I mean, it's a legendary western for a lot of reasons.

SCOTT MARKS: Is it a legendary western 'cause it got the academy award.

WRIGHT: No, it is.

ACCOMANDO: I think it's a memorable --

WRIGHT: I don't mean to say it's a great film, but I'm saying on the landscape of westerns, it's up there.

ACCOMANDO: Well, one of the things about "True Grit" it was a summation of John Wayne's career, he was almost caricaturing himself and that's kind of why he got the Oscar. It's not that it was his best performance, but it had kind of pulled from all the films that he had done before. And it's a good story, and in the first film --

ALISON ST. JOHN: Can you sum up the story for us? Remind us?

ACCOMANDO: It's the story of a young girl, 14 year old girl, who's very self-possessed, very confident, a great bargainer. It's based on a novel by Charles Portis, and basically her father gets killed and she takes it upon herself to go after the killer. And she will do anything that she needs to do in order to satisfy that vengeance. And the book is really her story. And the first "True Grit" was really more about Rooster Cogburn. This film, at least, I think it tries to have more of a balance between the characters.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Mattie? Is that --

ACCOMANDO: Mattie. And to make it more of her story again and to follow up more of what happens to her afterwards and how this whole thing affected her.

MARKS: Which did you see "True Grit"? The original.

ACCOMANDO: Years ago.

MARKS: I watched it two days ago. I think when the Coen brothers said, we have to remake this, we have to make Charles Portis -- [CHECK AUDIO] this is the Coen brothers at their worst. They're tracing. They book a book and they trace it. [CHECK AUDIO] pretty well, all the sophomoric, sniggering sense of humor, none of that is on display here. There was nothing in this -- well there was no defense between this film and the original true grit.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So do you think it was more for commercial reasons?

ACCOMANDO: To me, this is what I call the tweener films. The films that they do in between the films that they're more passionate about. And it's just kind of like to keep them in shape. Like we need to make a film, we don't have to spend too much time. This is an easy one.

WRIGHT: They've made four movies in the last four years, the first of which was "No Country for Old Men," which was terrific, then they made "Burn After Reading," which was sort of like --

ACCOMANDO: A tweener.

WRIGHT: -- what is this? Last year they made a movie called "A Serious Man," which I think is just phenomenal.

ACCOMANDO: And they're back to the tweener. See?

WRIGHT: And they're back to "True Grit".

ALISON ST. JOHN: Now, the clip that we just heard, the dialog sounded pretty realistic. What did you think of the spoken dialog?

MARKS: It's Jeff Bridges doing "Slingblade."

ACCOMANDO: But the script itself I don't think is bad. I think his performance is bad.

MARKS: I look at Matt Damon and I'm, like, where's Glen Campbell? I really miss Glen Campbell. His delivery about the one eye, his delivery is so bad. The one comedy -- or should I say, ONE eye.

WRIGHT: But that's basically it. He's not a funny person. I actually think --

ACCOMANDO: He's awkward.

WRIGHT: Yeah, he's got this way with language.

ACCOMANDO: He's also bitten off his tongue at this point too.

MARKS: So everybody sounds like sling blade.

WRIGHT: The thing about the Coen other brothers, is there are people who can take their dialogue and make it sound both natural and funny.

ACCOMANDO: She can, the young girl.

WRIGHT:

ALISON ST. JOHN: Tell us about her. Of.

ACCOMANDO: She was great.

MARKS: Another kid talking beyond her years?

ACCOMANDO: But that's what the character is like in the book. That's what -- the whole -- the book was about a young girl who goes through something like this, and it changes her, she doesn't want to get married, nobody ever lives up to her expectations after she's gone true this. Her life seems kind of dull by comparison. So she never gets married, and she keeps this connection to rooster Rooster Cogburn her entire life. Of and then she ends upbringing his body back to the family cemetery years later when she's an older woman. And I mean, that's -- but that's what her character was. She was this, you know, woman who was very confident, very secure at a time when that wasn't really veritivical for women. And that's what the story is about.

ALISON ST. JOHN: She's only 14 in the film.

ACCOMANDO: Yeah.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And highly Stein field, how old is she.

ACCOMANDO: I don't know, I think she's a little older than that.

WRIGHT: She holds it together. If they'd have someone who doesn't play that role as well, the movie completely fails.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Ah.

MARKS: And Bridges, I never thought I'd say this, I don't think he's good in this movie.

ACCOMANDO: No.

MARKS: He gives a better performance in trial. He walks through this, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. That's his whole performance.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And what about the cinematography then?

WRIGHT: I think we differ. I thought it was terrific.

MARKS: Considering it's Roger Deakins, I expected so much more. But then again, they didn't have the bulk turned up all the way at the ultra star cinema. So maybe that has something to do with it.

WRIGHT: Cold and sparse and spread out. It's this idea that they're going into what they call Indian territory, these cast expanses where people can get lost for, you know, lost in the wood, lost in the caves, lost in the canyons, and you get these beautiful Vistas with just dotted by people in the smallest little part of them. I thought it was beautiful.

MARKS: Will you agree that this is it an unnecessary remake?

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's a good question.

ACCOMANDO: Most are.

WRIGHT: Yeah, I guess I would say they -- what they have been saying is that it's not a remake, it's a different adaptation of the same book. All I can tell you is this. I wish I had enjoyed this movie more.

MARKS: It's not that different than the original.

ACCOMANDO: No, it's not --

ALISON ST. JOHN: Did you enjoy the original, Anders?

WRIGHT: Yeah, but again, I haven't seen it in years. But I've certainly seen it a couple times. I love westerns. And you know, you sort of wish somebody would come up with a real western today that captured what those films of the 60s --

ACCOMANDO: I think what makes remakes unnecessary to me is that either you need to bring some sort of new vision to it or -- I mean, you have to have some real reason for remaking it.

MARKS: Remake bad movies.

ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah.

MARKS: Children of the damned is a terrible movie. That thing would be sick.

WRIGHT: -- oh, they did remake that. John carpenter remade it. Of.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But for people who love "True Grit", maybe the Coen brothers thought that'll bring them in.

ACCOMANDO: But the problem with this particular remake is they neither remake the original in a way that refreshes it, nor do they make it a Coen brothers film, which would have made it enjoyable on that level.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Ah, yes. Of.

ACCOMANDO: So it fails as both a remake --

ALISON ST. JOHN: So speaking of expectations, the two films that we talked about before were about trying to live up to high expectations and it looks like perhaps this one didn't, because there were high expectations that the Cohen brothers --

WRIGHT: They didn't live up to my expectations.

ACCOMANDO: Well, and I don't think they set up high expectations for themselves and I think that's part of the problem.

WRIGHT: There's one interaction very early on, where Mattie is negotiating the sale of these pony where with this --

ACCOMANDO: Poor exasperated man.

WRIGHT: And right there, is where you're like, this is a Coen brothers movie.

ALISON ST. JOHN: All right, we'll watch for that moment.

ACCOMANDO: It's over quickly and early.

ALISON ST. JOHN: "True Grit" opens December 22. More Film Club of the Air to talk about "The Fighter." Right after this.

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