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Berlin 61 Kicks Off with True Grit

If  John Wayne is up there watching from the Great Beyond in the Sky over Berlin, he must be truly gritting his teeth to see a younger Good Ole Boy, name o' Jeff Bridges, reaping the kudos and leading the pack into Potsdamer Platz on opening night, while wearing the same black eye-patch Wayne did in the original version of this gritty All-American western. Of course, Big John did pick up an Oscar for his turn as Rooster Cogburn, the alcoholic, one-eyed, straight-shooting lawman, back in 1969 -- but he was never invited to tread the international Red Carpet here in Berlin. The Coen Brothers latest success, "True Grit", starring a truly gnarled and gritty Mr. Bridges 61 (Wayne was 63 when he did the film), Matt Damon (weird in western attire), Jeff Brolin as the bad guy, and 14 year old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the teenager out to get him, has been a surprise hit upon commercial release in The States and was chosen by a fluke  (according to Fest topper Dieter Kosslick) as the curtain raiser in competition here at the 61st Berlinale.

An advance press screening was shown this morning and the entire main cast (minus Matt Damon who is busy shooting) was on hand, plus the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan themselves, for the following packed-to-the-rafters press conference. The film itself is based on a novel and is not a remake, as such, of the earlier film of the same name. This is not a bad  movie at all, with engrossing characterizations, intriguing dialogues, highly emotional interactions, lovingly violent, and will surely be a strong contender for the Golden Baer this year, but the press conference was even more interesting.
Both directors stressed that they were not at all influenced by the John Wayne version, hadn't even seen it since they were kids -- and were simply intrigued by the story itself, and trying to give the best possible interpretation of the novel written in 1968 by Charles Portis. 
Mr. Bridges said that he did not watch the old film and was in no way trying to do a reinterpretation of the John Wayne character, but simply followed the direction of the Coens. He added, significantly, that in his opinion the Coens (Who hail from Minneapolis) are the best American directors going at this point in time, and that it was about time for them to be recognized as such.  Once thought of as "the kings of the off-Hollywood indies" using lesser known actors (Steve Buscemi, Frances Mcdormand, Wm. B. Macy, et al ) and offbeat original material (Blood Simple, Fargo, etc.)  in the past few years they have definitely made a mark in the mainstream with films such as "No Country For Old Men" and have in fact become a major force impacting on the very definition of American mainstream. 
 
Actor Jeff Brolin (a Coen Bros. regular) added that while Wayne was indeed an American icon, larger than life, in this film Jeff Bridges delivers a much more accessible Rooster Cogburn -- a more believable aging gunslinger in an era when sudden death was the order of the day.  Joel Coen added that this True Grit is not really a western, as such, but is more about the mythology of the western, and just happens to be set in the Arkansas of the 1850s.  Brolin added that he thinks the popular success of the film is due to the fact that it appeals to simple human values in a time when life was much simpler. Brolin pointed out that not so long ago the "Self Help" sections of American bookstores were quite small, but have now tripled in size, indicating that people in America with high divorce rates and crumbling vaues are really confused and desperately searching for a more meaningful way of life.  The values expressed in True Grit are simple and straight forward --  self-reliance, respect, and going after what you really want with assurance and determination.
Many questions were directed at teenage actress Haillee Steinberg seated between Brolin and Bridges in the middle of the conference table.  In a role that also turned heads by actress Kim Darby in '69, Hailee plays a teenage girl out to avenge the murder of her father who doggedly enlists the aid of an aging frontier marshal (Bridges) to help her track the fugitive down.  How she gains the grudging respect of the grizzled gunman who at first wants to shoo her off  -- with her own true grit, is really what the story is all about. Asked if it wasn't stressful having to act alongside a bevy of seasoned big name actors she said that, no, it was all a lot of fun, and all the main male actors became father figures to her in the course of the three month shoot.  The young actress was unaffected, relaxed and seemed to be taking her sudden stardom in stride.  Although this kid is an odds on bet for an Oscar come March, she is no Hollywood brat and says she had not even heard of Hollywood legend, John Wayne, until called upon to do this picture.  Moreover, she was surprised to hear young kids her own age talking about the New True Grit as if it were a contemporary story. 
 
 Kim Darby, who  was 21 when she played the fourteen year old gritty heroine in 1969 alongside Wayne and country music star Glen Campbell, was thought to have a shining career ahead of her at the time , but quickly fizzled out and never did much of note thereafter.  Actress Steinfeld, who is for one thing the right age for the role, is much more likely to go on to bigger things. An interesting moment came when a discussion arose as to what the term "true grit" really means. The conscensus was that it means something real down-to-earth no funny-stuff integrity ... with perhaps a little grit and grime worked in.
An oddity of the film is the dialogue delivery, which one press person described as ‘semi biblical'. In fact, all the characters employ a speech style which avoids contractions (such as don't and won't) conveying a feeling of old-fashionedness, but also making for very clear verbal  text -the exact opposite of the "realistic" garbled speech one used to encounter in the films of Robert Altman. Ethan Coen said this was a deliberate decision employed as a device to capture the classic style of writer Charles Portis - whom Coen describes as a modern American Shakespeare!
 
At an earlier press conference today the international jury led by actress Isabella Rossellini was introduced.  Isabella, daughter of another Hollywood legend, Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca immortality -- charmed the crowd of journalists and allowed that it was "no professional disadvantage to be the daughter of a world famous star like Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini"  --- a famous postwar Italian director -- but more about that tomorrow.  Incidentally, the seat of Iranian director Jafar Panahi --was most significantly empty at the long conference table -- with his name clearly on display, because the insanely fundamentalist Islamic regime in Teheran threw him into jail -- a six year sentence for making films "unfriendly to the government" -- as his reward for being invited to Berlin.  As a well-aimed slap in the face of the Iranian merchants of madness, all five of Jafar's completed features (mostly dealing with the oppression of women in Iran today) will be screened here on February 12 --which is the anniversary of the Islamic revolution that turned the country into a police state.
 
by Alex Deleon
Thursday, February 10, 2011

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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