The acting has bravado, the photography is handsome, the story is tried and tested. There are guns, fights, snakes, scenery and a pretty girl. So why did I sit through the Coen brothers’ new film feeling bothered, bewildered and unbewitched? Is it – I’ll answer “yes” before I put the question – that True Grit isn’t a movie, it’s a kit for a movie?
No Country for Old Men and Fargo, the Coens’ best films, each had an unruly multiplicity of components. Comedy, beauty, terror, idiocy, intelligence, slapstick. Yet each film seemed to have passed through fire during its creation, emerging forged, fused, unified. True Grit has passed through I’m not sure what. The revamp office? The bureau of Hollywood makeover projects? It emerges like the glossy parts of an assembly toy, still lying separate on their factory conveyor belt.
The name Steven Spielberg in the credit titles is the first troubling frame. He is an executive producer. We think: “Oh-oh. Assignment to
re-do old hit.” We remember (some of us) John Wayne in the first True Grit (1969), playing Marshal Rooster Cogburn, fat, cranky and eyepatched, who ends by riding reinless at four mounted enemies – a gun in each Wayne mitt – crying “Fill your hands, you sons of bitches!”
That was iconic. The Coens film is, you guessed, ironic: a series of photogravures formed into an elegant, high-toned flip book. The tone is postmodern, yet sombre and mandarin, like the exaggeratedly literate dialogue. (No one speaks with contractions in this Old West; you are made to feel it was probably a hanging offence.)
Jeff Bridges grandstands as Cogburn, the whiskied lawman hired by the orphaned girl Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) to hunt down her father’s killer. Bridges, last year’s Oscar winner for bawling bibulously through Crazy Heart, gives the same performance here. Matt Damon shrinks like a violet as his under-characterised sidekick LaBeouf. Steinfeld’s Mattie is likable and precocious but rendered one-note by the dialogue.
We end with a sense of two gifted filmmakers lavishing their gifts on renovation instead of innovation. They last did that with The Ladykillers. Then everyone moaned; now many praise. But the Western is a sacred form. Merely to genuflect before it as filmmakers – so long as the photography is handsome and the cast averagely stellar – will ensure respect and Oscar nominations. ()
Early during Never Let Me Go I made a fool of myself by turning to a colleague and whispering: “There were no co-ed boarding schools in England in 1978!” He hissed back, having read Kazuo Ishiguro’s book: “There’s a surprise coming.”
There certainly is. The story is preposterous and unbelievable; that is the surprise. That alone might be fine, because in cinema the merely unbelievable is one thing – we don’t believe it – while the preposterously unbelievable can develop its own powers of preternatural persuasion. Spoiler-aware, I can only reveal that the school is one for pupils with special needs, or rather liabilities. The growing love between a boy and girl (played as older teens by Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan) is hindered not just by a desire-stealing rival girl (Keira Knightley) but by a common burden of – how shall I put this? – finite futurity.
Screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach) abides by Ishiguro’s decision to set this dystopic fantasy in the past, not the future. It is no use saying: “This never happened.” The good story-lover swallows the pill with a glassful of “why not”; soon the healthy signs of disbelief suspension appear all over his body. A face pale with “ah, their love is doomed”. A pulse quickened with: “Perhaps there’s hope after all?” Eyes beginning to brim with …
Well, no. Sorry. Not this time. I am told by Ishiguro fans that only stone-hearted people fail to weep at the tale’s outcome on the page. The film, by its form’s nature, puts too much reality before us. I see a girl (Mulligan) who is not quite the convincing grown-up version of her younger self (Isobel Meikle-Small). I see a boy (Garfield) not quite ill or ravaged-looking enough. And I hear music, mushy and fulsome, that tries to force me to believe everything, hoping an ambush on my ears will succeed when the evidence of my eyes fails. Nice attempt, director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and team. Now I’ll try the book. ()
My Kidnapper is a documentary made with a few ideas and a few pennies. But its privileged viewpoint is spellbinding, just like its lush mountaintop views of Colombian jungle. None of us could have made this film because we are not Mark Henderson, narrator and co-director, who was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2003 and lived to reconstruct the tale.
He and three fellow ex-captives return to the ambush point and the 100-day detention site – three huts in wildest nowhere – and even re-meet two of their abductors. Henderson has been exchanging e-mails with one for years, in which time part of the Englishman’s brain has rallied to the resistance fighter’s rationale. Simply told, at times even pedestrian, the movie is made memorable by the gymnastic mind-moves it depicts, suggesting that traumatic experience can become a trampoline for whole new thought processes. ()
Elsewhere this week, three comedies fight like cats in a sack. Gnomeo and Juliet 3D is Elton John songs and love-struck garden gnomes. () Paul is Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a faltering extraterrestrial knockabout. You want to drown both those but might extend mercy to the last. ()
Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston essay kittenish charm in Just Go With It, a Cactus Flower remake, while Nicole Kidman gets her claws out for a cameo as a catty fellow tourist in romcom Hawaii. Cheaper than a flight to Honolulu, with probably a few more laughs. ()