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.

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Classic Review: Deliverance

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  Not for the faint of heart, this movie about an ill-fated wilderness trek takes you to philosophical peaks and dark depths before you’re through.

Choose golf.

Choose golf.

Review:  Nowadays when I think of this movie, I’m reminded of that Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”.  You know, the one where a man, choosing between two paths, ends up taking the one less traveled.  “And that has made all the difference.”  What struck me at the end of this poem was that even though this choice was monumental to the man’s life, he never said whether it was good or bad, and I always imagined him, perhaps, being sad at the end at having made the wrong choice.

Well, that’s pretty much how ‘Deliverance’ is.  An outdoor enthusiast and his three suburban friends drive up to the rustic backcountry of the south for a weekend of canoeing on a soon-to-be-dammed river.  Their trip soon turns sour, though, after running into unexpected confrontations, both from the river itself and from some very disturbing natives, sending them down a spiral of violence, confrontation, and bloodshed.  As the film progresses, all four of these men get pushed to their breaking points as their once recreational trip turns into a fight for survival.  They too took a less traveled way, and by the end of the film we see what a difference that has made.

I could discuss in detail why I think the casting is brilliant, including the standout performances of Burt Reynold’s and Jon Voight; or why the musical score, with its twanging banjoes and famous guitar/banjo duel at the beginning, is so appropriate for this movie.  But really, what I think really drives this film into landmark territory is the philosophy and ideology that it implements.  There’s a kind of nihilism, I feel, backing this movie.  The nature of law, order, and even morality itself are questioned throughout this movie, as are the common conceptions of nature and civilization.  When these sort of issues aren’t implied in the movie, they’re directly addressed to us in the form of speeches and conversations had by the four men, usually by Reynolds.

Its not that I particularly agree with the sort ideology this film hangs itself on, but all the same, I find it interesting food for thought as well as a great influence on many other films.  When watching the 1999 cult-classic ‘Fight Club’, I couldn’t help but feel the same sort of philosophical challenge of our common beliefs on the world we live in, or choose to live in rather.

In short, I find this film to be a highly thought provoking and entertaining film.  The acting was solid, the canoe sequences provided a legitimate source of action, and the story was thought provoking.  Some of the scenes are famously disturbing but feel altogether necessary just the same.  The only thing about this movie that I did not like was the ending, which gave me a sad, empty feeling.  It’s not your typical outdoors movie, but then again, what did you expect from the road less traveled?

Classic Review: Alien

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★☆☆

Inside that egg theres a facehugger even a mother couldnt love.

Inside that egg there's a facehugger even a mother couldn't love.

The nineteen seventies was a dark time for many.  The economy was bad, morality was degrading, and the United States had been cursed with a string of sub-par presidents, not to mention several global wars and conflicts.  In this dark and grim decade, therefore, it is no surprise to find a string of pioneering horror films, including ‘Jaws’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘Halloween’.  These films were darker in tone and more serious than previous horror films, and they are largely responsible for helping to modernize and reinvigorate the horror movie genre.  The last entry in this line of horror films is ‘Alien’, in 1979.  Despite praise from many a critic, this cosmic odyssey lacks the elements which make it truly great, and more importantly scary.

After the title assimilates across a panorama of outer space, we are shown the Nostromo, a rather gothic looking mining ship slowly drifting through the cosmos.  Its seven crew members are suddenly and abruptly awakened from long-term hibernation by the ships computer, dubbed MOTHER, and are ordered to investigate a strange S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet.

Upon landing on this strange, dissident sort of world, they discover the ruins of a gigantic and long crashed alien ship with an enormous chamber of eggs inside.  One of the eggs unleashes a strange hand-like creature that attaches itself to a member of the crew, putting him into a coma.  After bringing him back to the ship and unsuccessfully attempting to control or even understand this life form, the “hand” all of the sudden falls off, and all is at peace.  That is, until another creature bursts out of the man via chest in a now iconic movie scene.  The remaining part of the movie chronicles the crew as they attempt to combat and kill “the eighth passenger”.

For what it’s worth, the plot is an intriguing one.  It’s sort of a 50’s B movie on steroids.  There is also an interesting implied message on workers rights in this movie, as this crew finds its life being compromised by the desires of a company-controlled computer, perhaps a nod to the tough economic years of the seventies.  There is also a kind of sexual undertone that is inferable from this movie, as much of the artwork and even the look of the alien are reminiscent of human sexuality.

However this story carries with it an inordinately large amount of shortcomings.  The most notable and most important flaw lies with the acting.  It is difficult to tell what makes for a bad performance in a movie, whether it be the performance itself or the writing.  It seems that a little bit of both is at fault here in ‘Alien’.  For the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, nothing anybody utters possesses a trace of emotion.  It’s all bland scientific terminology and company policy.  This is only worsened by the actors, who evidently were told to deliver every line in a lifeless manner.  Unfortunately, this is not good for creating horror.  I cannot feel much fear for characters who don’t seem human.  When they did start showing real emotion, a whopping hour into the film, I could have cared less if they lived or died.

There are other problems with plot.  There are inconsistencies or questions left unanswered at the end of the film.  For instance, why show literally thousands and thousands of eggs if only one of them proves to be a threat.  Or why show a bizarre alien skeleton in the old ship?  Just so the characters can spend one minute examining it before proceeding onward and completely forgetting about it?  Or why bother to let the audience know halfway through the movie that MOTHER wants the alien unharmed without telling us why.  It feels unfinished, unpolished.  Sure, some of these questions are answered in the sequel, too bad it took seven years to make.  Lastly, this movie is just too slow going.  An early trailer for the movie indicated a rather frantic pacing for this movie, but that’s really not the case.  It’s close to 45 minutes before the audience actually sees the eggs and about another 30 minutes before the true Alien makes its appearance. Even after that, the creature just makes short cameos interspersed by boring dialogue.

Other aspects of this film are hit and miss.  The set designs are perhaps the most elaborate and well done I’ve ever seen.  They don’t feel like gigantic movie sets, they feel like real places, real confined spaces, which is good for making claustrophobia.  Also, this movie is notable for its heavy use of handheld camera work, which adds, at times to the lost and confined feeling of this movie.  The special effects in general are pretty good for 1979, but they tend to slump in key places.  Take the famous “chest burst” scene.  From a believability standpoint, it’s absolutely brilliant—until the creature runs across a table, fully revealing that it is being pulled across on a metal track.  This sort of flaw is a disaster for this movie, because it so easily undermines credibility, which is not something that this film can afford to lose if it wants to be affective.  Another example is the alien suit.  It was wise for the filmmakers to cast a 7-foot Kenyan in the role of the creature, because it helps to make him appear less human when in full attire.  However, a man in a suit is just that, and at the end of the day it simply is a little too noticeable that this is a stuntman walking around the set.  Again, complete and total belief in this creature is crucial to making this film work, but they didn’t quite get it, and it compromises the whole premise.

Lastly there is Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It’s interesting in how unnoticeable it is.  There is no real strong theme holding it all together, and it is altogether too sedated to make much impact.  Not only that, but often at what are presumably the scariest points in the movie, the music is simply stopped.  This is a bad idea, because, coupled with the issues with special effects, it doesn’t quite pull of fear as well as it should.  It’s a shame too, because Goldsmith has proven on other occasions how capable of creating a mood he is.

In conclusion, ‘Alien’ simply does not support its own premise well enough.  Its not that it couldn’t have, but it doesn’t.  A few key rewrites would probably have saved it, but as it stands, it is simply an average film.  At times it can scare, but it’s rarely for a better reason than for shock.  However, if there is one good thing that came out of ‘Alien’, it’s the other movies it had an influence on.  For instance, the sequel, 1986’s ‘Aliens’, was a much more balanced and entertaining affair.  Also, Ridley Scott, the director, would go on to refine his bleak-future style with the classic film ‘Blade Runner’, while a group of other filmmakers would create the masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’—a much better update of science-fiction horror—just three years later, borrowing elements from this film.  ‘Alien’ serves as an important lesson to filmmakers: Don’t let a film be overshadowed by its legacy.

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.