'True Grit' an exceptional western

Making full disclosure, I admit to loving westerns. A recent favorite is "Open Range" with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. But I acknowledge that I'm pretty promiscuous when it comes to this genre. Westerns are, in their own special way, mythic, even iconic, no matter that they are filtered through the imaginations of novelists and screenwriters, and often scrubbed of their burrs and harsh realities.

One of my archival favorites will always be "The Searchers" with John Wayne, Ward Bond, Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood. It was quintessential Wayne and it was the film for which he should have won an Oscar and not "True Grit." But then he was so good in so many films, Wayne doing Wayne doing whomever. If I squint a bit, I can even convince myself that "The Quiet Man" is maybe an Irish western with hearty brogues, hounds tooth jackets, the lovely, lush Innisfree, Ward Bond as the village priest, and the lovely Maureen O'Hara in a white apron and a simmering temper. Truly wonderful.

So, here come the Coen brothers, who took a great book by Charles Portis and made it their own, asking Jeff Bridges to do the heavy lifting as Rooster Cogburn, a dissolute marshal hired by spitfire, Mattie Ross, played perfectly by newcomer Hallee Steinfeld.

It's a great western. A great story, filled with interesting characters, the look of it having a certain patina, which will always be the quirky, ominous signature of Ethan and Joel Coen.

The film follows the book closely, hence the eccentric language and formalized sentence structure that is both interesting and at times sharply funny.

The actual plot is really immaterial, at least for purposes of this review. Suffice it to say that it's a kind of road trip with willful Mattie Ross — who actually possesses true grit (or, in the vernacular of the day, sand) — pushing Marshal Cogburn hard, into the Indian Territory, to track down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father.

Mattie is at the center of the film and in every way special: 14-years-old, hair parted severely, long braids, a remarkable gift of gab, who hails from Yell County, Ark., and arrives in Fort Smith alone to settle her father's affairs; she's someone to be reckoned with. There is a glorious scene wherein she bargains with a horse dealer, Col. Stonehill, played by character actor Dakin Mathews that is a treat to watch.

"True Grit" is exceptional, if you appreciate the genre. Do not expect a remake of the Coen's "No Country For Old Men" with its cruel, hard edges. This is a completely different movie, and all to the good.

How Do You Know

"How Do You Know" is another romantic comedy, the genre du jour. The difference is this comedy was written by James L. Brooks, a veteran Hollywood writer for television and film ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," "Broadcast News," "Terms of Endearment" and "Spanglish" to name a few) who is known for snappy dialogue and comedic plots.

So, does "How Do You Know" measure up? Searching for the good stuff: the ensemble does a fine job and are easy to watch. First there's Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a young woman who has spent her life perfecting her athletic ability (she is a Team USA softball player) and then, abruptly, at 31, she's cut and finds herself a bit lost and at loose ends. When she faces this existential moment, the movie showed real promise. Athletes spend their lives on the field of play, preparing to play a game well, to compete, to run or row or cycle. Because sports are unforgiving, age and the ability of the body to renew declines and for most time becomes the sword of Damocles.

But because this is a comedy and not a serious personal exploration, Lisa hooks up with pro pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson) and finds a diversion in the relationship, ignoring (a sprinkling of denial) that she is living with a well-paid, albeit charming man-child. At one point, frustrated, taken aback, she looks at Matty and says, "Grow up!" His rejoinder is, "No!"

But then Lisa has little faith in marriage or long-term relationships, convinced that couples who have been together for years, have kids and a conventional life, if they seem happy, are pretending. All of this is somewhat interesting, and then along comes George (Paul Rudd), a mid-level executive, working for his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson). George also happens to be the target of a securities fraud investigation.

That's the setup. Is it charming, even funny? Well, it's pleasant, with fine performances. Does Brooks display his nicely honed wit? On occasion. He does manage to insert lines such as, "Figure out what you want in life and learn how to ask for it." Or, "We're just one small adjustment away from making our lives work." While both admonitions sound profound in the context of the movie, they also seem nonsensical, if they mean anything at all.

Notice also that the title, "How Do You Know," is not posed as a question. The interrogatory is thrown out there by Matty to a group of ballplayers who haven't a clue and respond with an answer that detracts, for a moment, from what is otherwise a charming movie.

Share This Story