From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home the table is quickly set: There’s a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It’s a hefty sum and as we’re then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) interested in collecting the “reward ” a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine Kevin Durand Maury Sterling) a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys Taraji P Henson); a ruthless knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan) himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator’s two buddies (Martin Henderson Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds but they’ll also have to survive Aces’ henchmen (Common Christopher Michael Holley) and each other’s lust for the (blood) money. Not that he’s the proverbial “lead”--no one really is--but Piven in his first true Entourage-afforded role is the story’s central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered Piven’s performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters’ high-octane arcs. Reynolds ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime Liotta who was a perfect fit in the director’s Narc just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun’s at. It’s fine that Affleck’s role is extremely short but out of his crew for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman’s performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys both essentially making debuts simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa especially Keys who plays totally against the pop-queen image she’s built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed and hell you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released too with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair and truth is the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director who burst onto the scene with ‘02’s aforementioned Narc doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but he’s not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional “hero” also has its pluses because you’ll never be able to look at someone’s face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately Carnahan’s spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however you get the feeling he didn’t quite want it to be so forgettable.
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.