No Country for Old Men (Miramax)
No Country For Old Men is, probably,
the single most critically lauded film of the Coen Brothers’ career.
It’s also a departure, especially in that it largely subjugates their
own exhibitionist hallmarks of style and characterization to those
established in the source material – in this case an expertly grim
genre potboiler by Cormac McCarthy. No Country gets great benefits
from the outstanding performances at its center – Javier Bardem’s
cold-blooded killer the kind of outsized stereotype that
self-identifies as a Coen creation, but paying dividends in
counterpoint to Josh Brolin’s quiet desperado and Tommy Lee Jones’s
mournful good-ol-boy sheriff. I was yanked out of the story when
vibe-busting reminders of the old-school Coen Brothers’ schtick
appeared on screen, especially the straight-out-of-central-casting
types who inhabit the film’s smaller speaking parts – the motel
clerk who woodenly insists Brolin select from a menu of room choices,
the mama who dodders through her scenes like a Spike Jonze Jackass
parody of the elderly, and even the gas-station proprietor whose
highly directed performance almost wrecks that crucial early,
mood-setting scene with Chigurh. In a broad comedy like the wonderful
paean to country folk and bluegrass O Brother Where Art Thou or the
bountiful ode to stoner lifestyles The Big Lebowski, they’d be
welcome, maybe even show-stealers. But juxtaposed with No Country‘s
sad-eyed hero performances, they feel forced, inauthentic, even
(here’s that accusation so often lobbed at the Coens) crudely
condescending. That’s not to say that the Coens’ style is a
liability; they make consistently smart decisions in condensing and
adapting McCarthy’s novel, especially when it comes to packing the
gist of Ed Tom Bell’s lengthy monologues from the printed page into
snatches of dialogue on screen. They work the story for suspense,
fully exploiting the conventions of crime drama in a narrative
(McCarthy’s) that, eventually, deliberately flouts genre convention
to terminate in a meditation on aging and mortality and maybe
nostalgia. And they invent a scene that has the sheriff and the
killer coming almost eyeball to eyeball across the portal of a
motel-room door with a blasted-out lock cylinder, their simultaneous
proximity and distance a necessarily cinematic expression that vaults
beyond the source material. But the irony remains: two of our
greatest cinema stylists have made the most critically lauded film of
their career by ruthlessly corseting their formidable drive and
vision into the literary strictures dictated by a great American
novel. Seeing it a second time, at home, the melancholy grandeur of
the film’s final cut to black became even more apparent —
reassurance that I wasn’t simply bowing to conventional wisdom by
placing it on my top-10 list. No Country For Old Men is a triumph for
sure. But for the Coens, it’s also something of a capitulation.
Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage)
I guess I like this more than No Country For Old Men partly because it’s markedly more personal in its execution. While No Country‘s exacting genre mechanics can feel overly mechanical, Into the Wild has a relaxed, freewheeling energy and a sensuousness that’s rare enough in contemporary Hollywood to seem noteworthy when it occurs. The performances are uniformly dedicated — sure, old guy Hal Holbrook deserved the end-of-year love he got, but not any more so than overlooked co-thesps Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, and even Vince Vaughn. The cinematography is a marvelous example of its type, and skillful editorial work helps Penn keep the momentum going throughout an expansive running time. Here’s what I wrote at the time: “As accomplished as the photography is, what’s even more glorious about Into the Wild is its essential messiness.” It’ll be reduced on a small screen, but undoubtedly worth the sit — maybe it’ll find the wide audience on DVD that eluded it in theaters.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Into the Wild or Into the Wild (Two-Disc Special Collector’s Edition)
Lake of Fire (Thinkfilm)
I was scheduled to see a press screening of this last summer but had to cancel at the last minute. I was a little disappointed. Word had been long swirling about American History X director Tony Kaye’s nigh-obsessive, nearly exhaustive documentary on the long-running debate in the U.S. over abortion. Now that it’s ready for home viewing, it’s time to reconsider the question of queasiness — just the description of one scene in the second paragraph of Manohla Dargis’s review gives me the fucking creeps. Seeing it in a screening room would be one thing, but do I really want to burn this image onto my retinas in my own living room? Of course, that makes me a hypocrite, because if somebody made a documentary aiming to cover both sides of the sometimes brutalizing argument over abortion without including appropriately disturbing footage of said procedure, I’m sure I’d be accusing said filmmaker of ducking the issue. But it’s an important issue, with an argument rarely given its due by simple-minded TV and newspaper coverage. And reviews were uniformly positive, citing Kaye’s painstaking attempt at balance, with even the New York Post’s Kyle freakin’ Smith giving him (reluctant, it sems) props. J Hoberman, in the Voice: “This surprisingly fluid and continuously engaging two-and-a-half-hour
movie, which Kaye shot himself in luminous black-and-white and almost
entirely in 35mm, is at once monumental and ghostly, further
dematerialized by Anne Dudley’s ethereal score.” The reliable Scott Tobias (scroll down to the comments): “I really can’t recommend this film enough.” Some things I suppose you really do have to confront.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Lake of Fire
TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2 (Warner)
The first volume, featuring Baby Face, the 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge, and Red-Headed Woman was lots of fun. I’ll get to this — which contains The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Three on a Match (1932), and Female (1933) — sooner rather than later.
My Kid Could Paint That (Sony)
This documentary considering some of the issues surrounding the career of a celebrated abstract painter, age 4, has its fans, including Mike D’Angelo.
Buy it from Amazon.com: My Kid Could Paint That
Daisy Kenyon (Fox)
This heretofore-minor Otto Preminger film (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda) showed in repertory in New York last year, which earned it some new fans, including Mike D’Angelo.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Daisy Kenyon (Fox Film Noir)
Sisters (Image Entertainment)
As if it makes a lick of goddamned sense for a movie as crazy — and kinda great — as 1973’s Sisters to be remade by anyone less brazen and stylistically assured than Brian De Palma. (Ian Pugh, writing for Film Freak Central, says the remake filmmakers even dicked around with De Palma’s famous narrative twists.) I suppose anything that secures a paycheck and some health insurance for Chloe Sevigny can’t be all bad, but I’d be very, very surprised if there’s much in here that’s good.