No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.

Classic Review: The Godfather

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A beautiful, terrible tragedy, a prescient cinematic masterpiece.

Review:  If there is a perfect example of the modern tragedy, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s epic ‘The Godfather’.  As of 11/20/10, it stands at #2 on the IMDB.com top 250 movies; a biased, transient list, to be sure, but a testament to its power over the past two generations of filmgoers.  The film is oft-cited, especially to amateur screenwriters, as the pinnacle of the dramatic craft.  What makes this story so effective?  What sets it, and other films we call “classic”, apart from the rest of the bunch?

The beautiful thing about ‘The Godfather’ is that it is brutally honest about the nature of evil.  The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; and hell, it seems, would be best defined as that state in which one has imprisoned one’s conscience in a cell made of excuses.  The conscience will kick against the walls and make the soul most uncomfortable, but the person will survive, perhaps wondering why every day has such a nagging sense of loss.  It’s a state that, despite what we like to think about ourselves, we are all familiar with, and this makes the protagonist, Michael Corleone, a person with whom we deeply sympathize.

‘The Godfather’ is about the true villains of the world, and they seem awfully similar to its heroes.  Michael, the youngest son of a Mafia don (or “Godfather”) initially keeps his distance from his beloved family, knowing full well the darkness inherit in the business.  After his father’s gunned down by order of rival Dons, Michael’s love for his family overcomes his moral qualms and he deeply, personally makes their survival his business.  It’s the Aristotelean tragedy; a man drawn to a terrible conclusion by a series of plausible, relatable events.  Michael could have chosen to take the moral high ground and refused a life of murder, vengeance, and generational manipulation, and we would have understood and agreed with him.  That he chooses his family over his own soul, we also understand, even if we wouldn’t necessarily agree.  He even loses his ability to be intimate and honest with those closest to him, making the tragedy complete.  It’s a complex dénouement for a complex problem, a bittersweet dish worth chewing on.  We’re forced to examine ourselves.  That’s the ideal function of cinema: clear reflection.

So we understand that its bittersweet flavor makes it a potent and prescient film.  Contrasting triumph and tragedy is a hallmark of many great films, especially modern epics, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Star Wars’, and the much disputed ‘Matrix’ trilogy.  Here, that dramatic contrast exists in one life, much like our own.  We’re confronted by a flickering silver mirror, and we’re forced to ask: “Is the image of Michael my own?”

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

The Hurt Locker

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  …Dude.

How about a spot of tea?

Uh... How about a spot of tea?

Review:  Whoa.  ‘The Hurt Locker’ is killer.  This is not a product of hype, here; it really is that good.  The fact that it defeated the big, bad ‘Avatar’ is awesome, and is a testament to a simple fact:  3-D is (until proven otherwise) an irrelevant addition to cinema.  Seriously.  You might as well install smell-o-vision, water sprayers or dynamic, vibrating chairs in cinemas.  Theme Park rides are cool, and are indeed a kind of art, but they are not the same as cinema.  The heart of cinema is the characters and their universe, not eye-candy.  If you can buy the characters, it really doesn’t matter if the film is dead silent or extravagant in every way.  Music is also integral to cinema, and not in any way superfluous, but 3-D definitely is.  It has yet to prove itself as its own art.  Even the beautiful ‘Avatar’, I believe, was hurt by relying too much on it.  If 3-D is going to be respected, it can’t be a crutch.  But I digress.  Let’s talk ‘The Hurt Locker’.

The premise of director Kathryn Ann Bigelow’s opus is a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  After this quote fades away, we’re thrown into war-torn Iraq, focusing intently on a small U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit.  In the first scene, they try to disarm a bomb — and it ends with the unit leader running from the explosion.  What happens next shows us that the rules are much more realistic, and therefore harsher, than your typical thriller.  He dies.  You can’t just run from a bomb, here in ‘The Hurt Locker’.  They either explode and kill you, or they don’t, and chances are not good.  The unit gets a new leader, who quickly shows himself to be reckless and ruthless in his bomb-disarming tactics.  These “disarming” sequences are anything but that; they scare the hell out of you.  Hitchcock would be proud.  Music, performances, cinematography, etc… it’s all perfect.

This is a movie about all-consuming addiction in the form of war, or more accurately, in the form of adrenaline.  It affects us all, in some way or another.  Some people get their buzz from arguments, from gossip, from politics, from purposefully fed paranoia, from natural danger, or from dodging bullets and disarming bombs.  What happens to Sergeant James is what could happen to any of us adrenaline addicts; He loses his love of life and of people to his thrills.  As in the classic sci-fi film ‘Forbidden Planet’, the animalistic base nature, the ‘id’, is what threatens the protagonist.  In this case, he gradually loses his higher ambitions, indeed his humanity, to it.

In contrast to ‘Avatar’, this is how a moral message should be told in a story.  It should be organic, not overbearing.  I’m awfully glad this won Best Picture.  It has restored my faith in the Oscars.

Slumdog Millionaire

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.

D. Thats my final answer.

D. That's my final answer.

Review:  Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks.  It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading.  I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize.  Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’.  For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’.  ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death.  ‘Slumdog’ is about life.

Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema.  ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors.  Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side.  As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists.  The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy.  There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate.  The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.

Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing.  Yet it is never gratuitous.  What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves.  I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.

As I said, the film was shot on location in India.  Entirely.  The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel.  We are immersed in the culture from the get go.  When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera.  I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot.  While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.

The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible.  I believed.  The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted.  It all played very nice.

This film won Best Score, as well.  That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it.  The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better.  So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated.  But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable.  It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.

I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it.  I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year.  I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.

What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism.  Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life.  I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power.  Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written.  I believe God looks out for the everyday man.  He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are.  ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe.  It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we?  If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire?  Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope?  I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.