saw things so much clearer, once you... were in, my... rearview mirror.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No Choice for Anyone: "No Country for Old Men"

What makes "No Country for Old Men" a masterpiece is the way in which the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, are able to balance - or rather marry - a riveting plot with an underlying existential conundrum. The film conjures the same feelings of despondency as does for instance Albert Camus' pop success, The Stranger (the story of a man who's fate and ultimate demise is beyond his control). Yet, No Country is also undeniably a brilliantly suspenseful thriller, full of nail biting narrow escapes and brutally violent stand offs. Of course, one may like to credit Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel the film is adapted from. Yet in this case, while I doubt anyone would deny him credit, the Coens' have achieved something that transcends the original work anyway (which I must admit I haven't read). No matter the quality of an adaptation, as in for instance the recent Truman Capote novel based film, "In Cold Blood", the keen viewer is still left feeling as though there may be have been something missing; a desire to go back to the source material. Not in this case, No Country stands firmly on its own.

No Country takes place somewhere in southwestern Texas straddling the Mexican border, sometime before now, for no particular reason at all. Well actually, I'd like to think there was a reason it isn't now, namely that it doesn't matter when - probably one of the main points of the film. The Texan country is wide and barren, a hot dry place where all sorts of mischief might freely pass under the watchful eye of the law - and it does. The plot revolves around three men, one whom has the good fortune [sic] of discovering just such mischief, which brings him into possession of quite a lot of money and quite a bit more trouble, another who represents the law in them those parts and the last who's a little more complicated or um, insane.

Llewelyn Moss, realized by Josh Brolin, is the (un)lucky jackpot winner. While on a hunt and tracking a wounded animal, he stumbles upon some unexpected blood, then some unexpected bodies, then some unexpected millions. Too soon for Llewelyn's own good, the sociopathic bounty hunter Anton Chigurh is on his trail to retrieve those ill gotten goods. Anton is a beast of man who kills men like beasts, with a method of slaughter preferred by cattle ranchers, a bolt to the brain - or if the subject is out of reach, a large silenced shotgun that’s probably used to stop charging rhinos, quietly. Javier Bardem, who's previous brilliant achievement was a gay poet in "Before Night Falls", brings Anton to life, if one would consider Anton to be alive at all. Lawman Tommy Lee Jones, er... Ed Tom Bell certainly doesn't when he aptly describes Anton as a "ghost". Sheriff Bell is a little late on the scene of the crime - at least for Llewelyn's sake that is - but it doesn't take long for him to catch on to what's happened. In his own reserved and all too relaxed Texan way, he too joins the fray. From there, No Country steamrolls along its inevitable track towards a disturbing conclusion.

There are of course several other characters that populate this country or rather, fine acting talent that rounds out the cast. There’s Llewelyn's pretty, little subservient wife Carla Jean played perfectly reservedly by Kelly Macdonald, and the big man in charge of all these dirty dealings, played by Stephen Root (who's acting credits are extensive to say the least, remember Milton from Office Space); he's the guy who hires Anton and later Anton's replacement, Carson Wells, played by the great Woody Harrelson. I mention these characters because for one thing, while minor with respect to the plot they are still fabulous. But also because another trait that makes No Country such a great adaptation is the purposeful use of characters. There isn’t a superfluous one in the film. As brief as his appearance may be, Carson, for example, plays the crucial role of Anton's foil. Not in the sense that Carson is some nice guy, he's a bounty hunter too. It's just that unlike Anton, Carson is a man of reason, a man you can cut a deal with. He's also one of the few people who knows who the hell Anton is. In one of the more comical moments in the film, Carson visits Llewelyn in a Mexican hospital and asks Llewelyn if he knows who's after him. Llewelyn admits to having seen "him" to which Carson replies, "You've seen him? And you're not dead? Huh." Even in this somewhat minor role, Mr. Harrelson's character is responsible for providing the viewer insight into Anton's character, an insight that is nearly impossible to attain otherwise. Carson makes the viewer properly scared of Anton.

So what is it that makes Anton so damn scary? Well, he's a sociopathic killer, and he's a big dude with a weird haircut, and he doesn't talk much, but that’s not it. What makes Anton so frightening is actually something that perhaps we’d all like to be, he’s principled. Anton is not a passionate killer, he’s a very discriminate killer. He seems to believe in some sense of justice and comeuppance, albeit in a way that seems completely inaccessible common reason, and in the execution of his business, Anton is completely unwavering. Whatever the motivation for his actions, that is perhaps the most frightening aspect of his character, his abandonment to fate. Using an analogy popular in eastern philosophies, Anton is like an arrow released from the bow. He has been aimed then fired and now sails in direct path with no other thought or motivation but the eventual arrival at his target. People, places, cars, rivers, pleading victims, they’re all simply obstacles or a means to an end. In this respect Anton almost reminds one of a movie monster, like Michael Myers from “Halloween”, slowly stumbling towards the hapless victim who wriggles away in a futile attempt to escape his fate.

Of course fate is the notion that lies just beneath the surface of the plot. Each of the three main men in No Country seem to represent different relationships with fate. While Anton runs around playing grim reaper, embracing fate and wielding it like a weapon, Llewelyn seems to be completely oblivious to it if not outright fighting against it, and Ed Tom seems to be - after many long years – finally coming to terms with it. From the start of the film Llewelyn is at fate’s mercy, stumbling upon the money and entering a conflict that is completely out of his control. When he finally meets his fate, it’s in a way that, like the money, comes unexpectedly.

For Ed Tom, fate isn’t so much a matter of destiny but rather what is par for the course. Ed is the third generation of lawmen in his family, trapped by fate to follow in the footsteps of his forbearers. Ed Tom is approaching retirement both due to his age and it seems also due to a growing disillusionment with his role in life. He is the character most poignantly suffering from the aforementioned existential conundrum - what’s the point of fighting all these evils when they only seem to pile up all the more? During the film, he repeatedly shares stories about freakish criminal acts he finds amusing or his wonderment at the absurd violence he sees around him. Ed Tom, like many older men, finds himself astounded at the savagery of the times and romanticizing the good old days. He finally comes to terms with these feelings though, realizing that while times have changed, they haven’t for the better or the worse. All the lines may different, but the song remains the same. At the close of the film, Ed reluctantly shares a dream with his wife over breakfast that completely captures these feelings. In the dream he follows his father through a sparse cold country in the dark of night but looses sight of him. At the end of the dream, he’s not concerned though; instead confident that he’ll find his father waiting for him before a lit fire.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Best of Both Afflecks: "Gone Baby Gone"

It's always a pleasure to discover one's hidden talents; to this effect Ben Affleck must be elated. After starring in such iconic films as "Jersey Girl", "Gigli" and "Daredevil", Mr. Affleck has finally settled into the role he was clearly born to play, director. Those aforementioned films were indeed iconic - for their abysmal showing at the box office, utter banality or pathetic casting and performances. Mr. Affleck's current work "Gone Baby Gone", in which he smoothly steps behind the camera and takes the reigns, is iconic as well - for it's brilliant acting, masterfully crafted scenes and earnest self-awareness and sincerity. Moreover, as he retreats from the limelight, Mr. Affleck propels his younger brother Casey right into the heat. With remarkable skill, the younger Mr. Affleck doesn't so much as flinch under the bright light, but rather charges straight into it amongst a supporting cast of seasoned veterans and downright masterful actors. This film truly spotlights the best of both Afflecks.

"Gone Baby Gone", adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also penned the Oscar darling directed by Clint Eastwood, "Mystic River", revisits many of the same themes developed in the latter work. Gone is a complicated story touching on sensitive and complex issues of child welfare, urban social conditions, the meaning of home, the nature of justice and the role of one man in delivering it. The plot revolves around two Boston private investigators called on to work the case of a missing child - a toddler girl, Amanda McCready. Amanda is already all over the news after apparently being abducted from her bed while her mother left her sleeping to watch TV at a friends home; and what a mother! It's not even she who comes calling for help; it’s her brother and his wife, Amanda's effective surrogate parents. The two investigators they seek out, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, normally don't handle this kind of work; they enter the case reluctantly, in spite of Angie's almost prophetic resistance. Patrick and Angie share both a professional and personal relationship - the kind we all know can spell trouble. They're a young couple and to paraphrase Angie, don't need to find the baby girl abused and dead. After all it’s already been several days since her disappearance.

Still, Patrick can't help getting involved. It's not so much that he’s some kind of a hero, no not at all. Patrick is played deftly by Mr. Affleck as a man loath to accept his role, but compelled to by a sense of common decency and a reverential love for his neighborhood and home. Though he has never met them before, these aren't some random strangers coming for his help; these are his neighbors, old classmates, and brethren. Perhaps because of this commitment to the community, or in spite of it, he’s intimately connected to the inhabitants, the local haunts, the drug dealers and the culture. This gives him an edge that might help him reach places the cops can’t – and it does. For that matter though, Patrick isn’t exactly welcome by the police. The chief of the “Crimes Against Children” task force, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), certainly doesn’t want two young upstarts getting in the way of his investigation. Yet, when Patrick’s initial attempts to dig up some dirt prove fruitful, the lead detectives on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), give him a break. Soon Patrick, Angie, Remy and Nick are neck deep into the case as it spirals towards a conclusion that will ultimately test Patrick and Angie’s relationship and sanity.

I must add, this being as good a place as any, that Mr. Harris is brilliant in his role. The character of Remy Bressant, a New Orleans native, is absolutely mesmerizing. Remy isn’t from Boston, but as he quips at Patrick, is perhaps more a local than Patrick himself, having lived there for longer than Patrick has been alive. Mr. Harris tops himself in this film, playing to some of the same inspirations that drove his likewise brilliant performance as a mob boss in “A History of Violence” and spot on performance as a federal agent in “A Beautiful Mind”. Remy is a complicated man and a very complicated role to play. We are by turns attracted to, turned off from, scared of and surprised by him. He can be sympathetic and warm, insightful and guiding, cold and sociopathic, and in his final scene, deceptively earnest and impassioned.

Mr. Affleck’s (the younger) anti-hero, private investigator, man of the streets main character gives the movie a welcome film noir feel. Scenes that take place in dank bars, smoky pool halls, outside hospitals, and at funerals - as Patrick digs around, working his connections and pushing their limits - aid the feeling. Of course being a color film doesn’t, though there is a certain similarity the film shares with another recent color neo-noir film, “Brick”. The difference between the film lies in the conceit “Brick” takes in developing its microcosm whereas in Gone, Mr. Affleck (the senior) seemingly creates the noir sense almost as an afterthought. It’s Mr. Affleck’s knack for developing scenes that are always immersed in some intangible tension and misfortune that really does the trick.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in a local bar as Patrick and Angie work a friend of Ms. McCready’s (Amanda’s mother) for some dirt on her. The place is dank and dark, they’re not welcome by the management, they’re not welcome by the customers, and they’re being a little too obvious. Someone has enough of their nosing around, makes a threat, then makes a move… Patrick rises, a door is locked, and then another exit blocked. Patrick isn’t one to take a threat lightly; especially not one directed at Angie, we’ve already gotten a sense for this in his character. Yet when his gun is drawn you can tell it’s only as his last resort- after his words, patience and courage had already been exhausted. You can also tell he’ll use it if he has to. When they make it out the door, the sun is shining and Patrick curses aloud, but he isn’t angry so much as disappointed. The contrast between the tension in the bar and the remorse outside, the dark inside of the bar and the shining outside world seem to mimic one of the film’s themes - the contrast of this decaying neighborhood and a hope for something better.

One of the elements that makes this movie so great isn't just the heavy themes it takes on - without ever preaching might I add - but the care and affection the film takes in profiling the Boston neighborhood, Dorchester, in which the story unfolds. I'm not privy to the methods used when the minor characters were cast, but you get a sense that they’re just some random people picked up off the street, or perhaps already drinking at that bar. I’ve spent a little time in Dorchester, visiting my good friend who lived there. I incidentally, well, intentionally watched the film with him too - he was quite amused at the portrayal of his old neighborhood. It’s a difficult one to bring to the screen for that matter. Dorchester is a tough place, traditionally down and out blue collar Irish now riddled with gang violence, drugs, and a restless immigrant community drawn from such far-flung and unlikely places like Cape Verde and Vietnam. It’s a place that could easily reach the screen as a stereotype of itself but Mr. Affleck doesn’t fall into this trap. Dorchester is simply Dorchester, it’s a place like any other with problems, so just focus on the story and don’t think too much about the “how or why” it came to be this way.

As the story weaves its way through the streets of Dorchester, and eventually far from them, Patrick and Angie are tested again and again, but in the end it’s Patrick who is confronted with a final choice. This choice is a complicated one - a focal point of themes that had recurred throughout the film - that raises many questions perhaps impossible to answer. Must the law always reign supreme? Is justice simply the blind application of the law? What is best for a child, to know where it came from and flourish despite its environment, or to be coddled and comforted in privilege? Who is one to judge the quality or importance of family? Patrick’s decision threatens his relationship with Angie, questions his loyalty to his neighborhood and home, strains his sense of justice and law, and challenges his character and morality. In spite of it all, a decision is made and refreshingly the movie ends without ever making a judgment call, leaving the responsibility to the viewer. Patrick is left to face the consequences of his actions and you are left to ask yourself, what would you do?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Notes on a Movie: "Notes on a Scandal"

"Notes on a Scandal” seems to waste no time in establishing its mood, character and intention. While it was seemingly marketed as a film about a scandalous affair between a teacher and her student, it is in fact less about the affair and more a reflection on the nature of loneliness. The film starts off strong, moving along this compelling path and had me hooked immediately - not surprisingly, given the cast - but sadly it shortly looses this clarity of purpose, betraying the bold course. As the opening credits roll, we're introduced to Barbra Covett (Judi Dench) and perhaps more importantly, her journals. Ms. Dench is at her most striking in Notes in that she looks and carries herself not like the bold, confident, and dignified lady we've become familiar with in movies like the Bond franchise films of late, but instead like a tired, decrepit, old hag. Barbra is not happy and it is no secret. It is through her cynical eyes and biting inner monologue - recorded in her journals and shared with us through voiceover - that we come to see the world she inhabits and scorns.

Barbara is a schoolteacher, or more appropriately a schoolmarm, or perhaps even more appropriately an old battle-ax, a term she uses self-referentially. She works at a public high school in England (although I don't believe it would be referred as public or high school in the UK), which she shows little respect or admiration for, believing it to be a shining example of social degradation. A new school year is beginning and with it comes a new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchette). Sheba is an obvious outcast in this world of mischievous blue-collar teens, or “pubescent proles” as Barbara so cruelly observes. She is young and faltering but akin to Ms. Dench, striking in appearance, though antithetically so. Ms. Blanchett - and thereby Ms. Covett - possesses an odd beauty that cannot be ignored in a place like this school. Instantaneously the fellow faculty, male and female alike, take interest and seek her attention. Of course this is not lost on our astute observer Barbara. Although resentful of the others and initially hesitant to admit it to herself, Barbara is soon caught up in Sheba just like everyone else.

Of course Barbara cannot see herself simply like everyone else, so she is convinced it is because she sees the subtle virtues nobody else can appreciate. Or so we are made to believe, albeit with scant evidence from her or otherwise. From the scenes of the very first encounters Barbara has with Sheba in school or at her home, there is little for us to admire in Sheba. Even more so, what little there is to admire is paradoxically resented or mocked by Barbara. At school Sheba is a poor authority figure; she dresses like a bohemian and carries herself like one of the students. Her disciplinary acts come off more like pleading than commanding; Barbara and Sheba are first introduced only after Barbara intrudes to break up a fight between two boys in Sheba's class. Sheba's home life is no more impressive. Barbara is invited over for lunch where she is turned off by the state of affairs. She is particularly disappointed by the age of Sheba's older husband (Bill Nighy), again paradoxically coming from her. She is further unimpressed by Sheba's children, the lax attitude towards discipline, and an admittedly ridiculous post-meal family dance. During this lunch we also learn that Sheba's son is mentally handicapped; the one thing someone might admire Sheba for handling with grace, but instead only invites pity and derision from Barbara.

Perhaps to her advantage later in the film, what Barbara does happen to overlook back in school is the attention paid to Sheba, not by the faculty, but by the students. It is in the aforementioned disciplinary scene that we are first made privy to this, but are as likely as Barbara to overlook it. The boys involved have had a spat and Barbara awkwardly forces them to reveal the cause of the fight. One of the students has made an explicit sexual comment about the teacher and another has been defending her honor. An honor that in fact deserves no defense; Sheba has been having an affair with one of her teenage students. When Barbara finally discovers this dirty secret, its not through Sheba. Less from feeling betrayed than seeing an opportunity to take control of Sheba, Barbara uses this knowledge to effectively blackmail her.

This is where Notes begins to fall into the trappings of a predictable thriller and I began to loose interest. Up to this point we are treated to a provocative and insightful look into the mind of a bitter old woman, a reflection on the nature of loneliness. For the first half of the film, Barbara's commentary, though often callous and cruel, evokes an empathetic response from the viewer. While we cannot forgive some of her observations, such as those regarding Sheba's family or her co-workers back at school, we can understand where she is coming from. Have we not ourselves thought bitterly in time of loneliness or out of jealousy? Still, sometimes her observations can be almost downright insightful or at least entertaining and bold, "It’s a peculiar trait of the privileged - immediate incautious intimacy - but Sheba went well beyond the tendencies of her class, she was utterly candid. A novice confessing to the mother superior." While other moments draw our sympathy and serve to dismantle Barbara's self proclaimed superiority and power. One example is right after Barbara is invited to this pivotal lunch, she proclaims, "Bliss, a merry flag on the arctic wilderness of my calendar. One must make an effort when one receives an invitation. The art of it is seeming not to." Later at the lunch Sheba's daughter, dressed down like the rest of the family, innocently asks, "Are you going somewhere? You're all poshed up!"

That’s not to say that the affair and Barbra’s use of it to her advantage aren’t important or interesting plot points. They are of course the focal points of the film about which the plot turns, but the depth of those actions is shortchanged. What could drive this beautiful woman with a comfortable life and family to do such a thing? What could drive this old woman to take advantage of this situation? These are important questions which are only half addressed. Furthermore, where do these feelings of loneliness stem from; how do people find themselves or let themselves get into such a lonely state? In the case of Barbara this is perhaps clear enough. While she is the narrator of this tale, it is not to us she is speaking - as if to teach us a lesson or to convert us to her side. No, it is made clear from her own first words in the film that, while others may seek to share their inner secrets with her – what she herself would admit to be a grave mistake - she does nothing of the kind with anyone. The only friends of Barbra Covett are her journals, i.e. herself. In the end, her loneliness is perhaps her own fault; she never seeks companionship in earnest. As for Sheba, are we simply to dismiss her actions as those of an inconsiderate and bored bourgeois trophy wife?

Given its shortcomings, in the end Notes is still worth a watch if for nothing else but to see two brilliant women play against each other on the screen. Not to mention the excellent Phillip Glass soundtrack, which keeps you tense from start to finish. The fact that the movie runs away into a predictable thriller may also have been excused - similar the descent in the second half of Nabokov's Lolita, where the novel becomes tiresome. Its as if the pace of the work itself mimics its plot. But it's not just that the film becomes predictable and tired in the end, it's more disappointing that a film with so much promise would take the safe road to its conclusion. Notes never goes as far as to really punish its misguided 'morally' loose characters for their infelicities or take the "hey, who's to judge" stance, which I honestly would have preferred. By the closing scene of the movie, Barbara is stereotypically vilified as a crazy, lesbian, control freak still on the prowl - having been shed of the sympathetic or empathetic qualities the script worked so hard to establish in the first place. Sheba's character is likewise flattened by the end, having "learned her lesson", returning to her family and receiving a legal slap on the wrist of sorts. So after a lot of moping, crying, plotting and raving, what’s the moral of this story? Statutory rape is bad - but you'll be forgiven - and stay away from batty old ladies cause they're crazy lesbians.