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True Grit (2010)

With the impeccable sense of timing for which I am rightly famous around the world, I chose to see True Grit on the day that, despite its ten nominations, it failed to win a single Oscar. This unfortunate coincidence does, however, give me the chance to think about why there should have been so much expectation and then so much disappointment.

 

Well, I start with the admission that I paid to see the original version with John Wayne when it first came out back in 1969. Despite being an avid reader, I never have bothered opening the novel on which both film versions are based. I guess Charles Portis did a good job since it not only rode high on the best-seller lists, but also paid off in the cinemas. But reading Westerns has never been my thing (although I do confess to ploughing through several — as a Will F Jenkins completist when I was younger, I did try one or two just to see how awful they were). The one thing you will always remember from the original film version is John Wayne’s star quality. He was unbeatable as the old, optically challenged and overweight marshal (notice how they changed the eye when Jeff Bridges stepped into the role). That said, the film itself wallows in sentimentality. Here’s this fourteen year old girl out for vengeance who not only get the chance to draw a bead on the man who done for her father, but also gets bit by a rattler and has to be rescued by the curmudgeon with a heart of gold, John Wayne. For the record I never liked Kim Darby’s performance and was less than impressed by Glen Campbell, a singer moonlighting as an actor.

 

All of which leads to the question: what in tarnation was those Cohen boys thinking, remaking True Grit? Of all the films seen in all the towns, in all the world, they have to pick a classic John Wayne film. My first reaction when hearing the news was that this was another unnecessary film. It was never the greatest film in the world and saved from oblivion only by Wayne’s performance — nominated the last time only so that the Academy could give a final recognition to Wayne for all his years of service. But curiosity got the better of me so I paid out my money to see “it” again. I suppose I was daring it to be as good.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld

 

Well, I will give credit where credit is due. The cast is a mile better than in the original. Jeff Bridges manages not to be John Wayne in a positive way and Hailee Steinfeld is a real find as Mattie Ross. The frontier would always have thrown up precocious children like her and the chance to see her at the end is wonderful confirmation of how she will come out of the mould when turning into an adult. Matt Damon does well in the thankless role of LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin’s cameo as Tom Chaney is as good as they get. This rebalances the film. The original is a star vehicle for John Wayne with the others tagging along in his wake. In some senses, this is Mattie Ross taking the lead. She frames the beginning with her horse-trading and at the end. . . Instead of Wayne making that final victory jump over the fence, we have the self-righteous spinster walking off into the sunset. And, in a sense, that’s the key difference between the new and the old. This is significantly less sentimental. We see the girl’s burning desire for revenge with Cogburn nothing more than a marauder with a badge. The change is signalled early on. The first version is full of sun-dappled landscapes. This has snow falling and bitter temperatures. This is the difference between a slight feeling of romanticised fantasy in the original, and a more unforgiving and threatening landscape where people who do not pay attention find death waiting for them.

Matt Damon and Josh Brolin

 

Having taken a moment to think about the new, I offer reasons for its failure to secure any Oscars to go with the nominations. Firstly, this always was a rather slight story. In both cases, it’s the acting that lifts the plodding plot. Except, without the feel-good sentimentality of John Wayne’s final performance to inspire the voters, we are left with the same old problems. LaBoeuf remains a convenient deus ex machina who looks to be leaving only to magically reappear when the time comes to save the other two. And why the natural survivor, Ned Pepper played by Barry Pepper, must be a villain who has a sense of honour when it comes to Cogburn and the girl has always baffled me. Any self-respecting outlaw, shoots the girl and rides away as fast as possible in the opposite direction. This four-on-one shoot-out always was pure hokum for the set-piece at the end. Seeing it stripped down with the snow falling takes the romantic edge away from the original meadow scene with the camera getting elevation to show the showdown at its most inspiring angles. In the real Wild West, it would all have come down to who could bushwhack whom first. Cogburn was always Quantrill’s man and would never have acted with such reckless disregard for his own safety unless he had read the script first.

 

Finally, the character of Mattie Ross is redefined as an almost totally unsympathetic vigilante. She’s as wantonly vicious and cruel as those she chases, being prepared to shoot to kill when given half the chance. It’s slightly ironic the Cohens show her at the end. This frames her as a cold-blooded killer walking away into an empty future. Despite her smug self-righteousness, I hope she punishes herself. Not everyone can live comfortably with the lie of self-defence when they have chased so hard after their victims. In their defence, Cogburn and LaBoeuf want to save her from herself and send her back. But, with her horse’s help, she’s able to demonstrate her absolute determination to be in at the kill. What can they do but shrug and let her become a killer like them?

 

So I was less than impressed by the remake. It was a good try and stripping away all that sentimentality makes a big improvement. But it remains an unnecessary film about murder. With all their talent, it’s a tragedy the Cohens, Ethan and Joel decided to forget everything that has made their films so consistently watchable over the years. Hopefully, they will go back to what they are good at with an original story that fits their inimitable style. I wish them better luck with the Oscars of the future.

 

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

October 16, 2010 3 comments

Sometimes I think it’s just as important to understand why a film fails as why it succeeds. This assumes, of course, that people are prepared to learn from their mistakes. In this case, it’s somewhat unlikely the director would ever admit to any errors of judgement. He has “Hollywood power” so need not bow his head unless his latest effort makes so little money that no-one will back another venture by him. So here I am going up against Oliver Stone — only the winner of three Oscars and numerous other awards. Fortunately, my mother christened me David, so it’s OK for me to go up against big guys.

It’s a cool idea to make a sequel, particularly when the original Wall Street won an Oscar and other awards. Ignoring the time delay (1987 to 2010) we can still call on Michael Douglas, even coax a cameo out of Charlie Sheen, so this project has big star-drawing power plus a title that resonates with film fans and engages current reality. Overall, this equals commercial success. I am coming to it late but, as of today, we are into a profit with around $80 million already banked around the world. Stone has delivered. Hollywood is no doubt saddened the take has not been faster, but will accept a profit in today’s recession-affected market. Except, this is a story of what might have been — of profits never realised. If only Stone had made a good film, he would have enhanced his own reputation and pleased his backers (more).

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what made the original so great. It’s a tightly focused story about a young man who, depending on your point of view, is either seduced and betrayed by the dispassionately greedy Gordon Gekko or, like the young Icarus, is undone by his own ambition as he flies too close to the sun of his own greed. What holds the narrative together is the deal to take over the airline and the relationship between real-life father and son Charlie and Martin Sheen. Indeed, it’s the accessibility of the deal and the intensity of the parental relationship on display that gave the early film its edge. As viewers, we want the son to have a chance of redemption as the reality of the Faustian deal becomes obvious.

In the sequel, Gekko is even less central to the primary narrative thrust than in the original. Here we focus on the relationship between Gekko’s daughter and a young trader played by an uninspiring Shia LaBeouf. Frankly, I never found him sufficiently hungry to be a convincing success in the predatory world of Wall Street. He’s not a hard-selling go-getter. He has principles and dreams. When motivated, he makes the right moves but, in a real fight, there’s little passion on show. When he does look for revenge, it’s always through a cowardly back door and not by direct assault. I suppose that’s why Gekko’s daughter can love this man despite the role model of her father’s obsessional behaviour, i.e. at the end of the day LaBeouf is not playing a real dealer like her father.

This nicely captures the more pervasive problem with the film which starts by intercutting a documentary-like pan across the face of buildings with Gekko’s release from jail. The mirrored glass of the office blocks are the supremely indifferent bastions of wealth, and Gekko is a fallen Titan. Note the symbolism of the painting destroyed at the end of the film. It shows the Titan Saturn eating his child. At one level, the banker shows no sense of the intrinsic worth of the painting. He is prepared to destroy it as would a petulant child. More generally, the subject matter of the painting is a metaphor for Wall Street eating one of its favoured sons to avoid more serious damage. In other words, the film is all about symbols rather than intent on telling a real story. If Stone was really investing in a strong narrative, he would set up the fall of Louis Zabel. As it stands, we are shown a very depressed man, never able to offer any kind of clear explanation of his banks’s difficulties and left with no honourable course except to throw himself under a train. Well, that’s not the way to make us care about the man and, more importantly to show us why someone like LaBeouf would have been mentored and protected by this ageing banker. Why is there nothing to show the rumours rumbling round the market, why are there no investigations into the share dealings, why does the man as victim not seem interested in defending himself? Apart from one angry word or two aimed at Bretton James, he has loser written all over him. Then Wall Street and the Feds decide not to bail out Zabel’s bank and everyone mutters darkly about the looming crisis of the collateralised mortgages. But all this is without any sense of drama. We are expected to watch and accept this view of capitalism at work. Well this may be a rerun of history but it sure ain’t riveting film-making. The only bright spark in all this is the eccentric beady eyes of Eli Wallach who is always watchable, even when asked to make silly bird noises.

Then our ethically challenged LaBeouf sets out to get revenge against Bretton James, briefly works for him, then realizes he finds the man repulsive, so quits. From this description, you can see the narrative is just drifting. There’s no real hook, no big deal we can get our teeth into and watch Wall Street at its best or worse. The only deal we are supposed to care about is funding for a blue-sky fusion project. Like that’s ever going to get massive support from a market about to go into a recession.

Interspersed is the manoeuvering between Gekko and his daughter, mediated by LaBeouf. Poor Carey Mulligan has a thankless task in trying to make this woman even remotely believable. She was supposedly a devoted daughter until her brother committed suicide while her daddy was vacationing in jail. Then she was all bitter, blaming daddy for not being there when her bother needed him. Having shed some tears, they are reconciled. It’s not at all heart-warming. Despite Michael Douglas playing Gekko with great flair, there’s nothing he can do to rescue the leaden dialogue or the pedestrian delivery by Ms Mulligan.

In short, the film lacks any kind of unifying theme. It could have been about Gekko — despite his throat cancer, Michael Douglas is wonderful when on screen — but he’s not allowed any real chance to shine. It could have been about one key deal which is properly set up and holds our interest through the machinations of all involved. But we are only offered a pallid view of Wall Street’s collapse as the mortgage tsunami washes everyone away (except Eli Wallach whose bird noises obviously work a magic hoodoo). Playing Bretton James, the only character vaguely amounting to a villain, we find a wooden Josh Brolin, so there’s nothing there to hold our interest. Thus, running over two hours, it feels boringly without direction or point — except to make money, of course. That’s how directors work. Always give the sucker fans what you tell them they want to see.

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