Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for This Man...

What level of pain, fear, and guilt would you be able to suffer in order to keep two million dollars? Would you be willing to be chased by a pit bull, shot at by a gang of angry drug dealers, be separated from your spouse, or stalked relentlessly by a homicidal psychopath armed with a pneumatic cattle gun? This is the question that brothers Ethan and Joel Coen ask of us in their latest movie No Country for Old Men, and it is a question that is answered so candidly, so brutally, that the dream of stumbling upon a satchel full of cash has gone from being a dream come true to one of my worst nightmares.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a poor man who lives with his young wife in a trailer in the no-man's land sector of west Texas. While out hunting, he stumbles upon a crime scene that could only be described as a big drug deal gone bad. Dead bodies, bullets, and vehicles litter the dusty landscape, and a few hundred yards away, on the lap of a dead man, lay the money that no one got. Moss examines the scene carefully and views the stacks of $100 dollar bills with the air of a man who knows what kind of trouble he'd be getting himself into if he took it, but can't resist his human reaction to the sight of so much cash.

His story is but part of this highly-woven tale. Anton Chigurh is a hired gun out to recover the 2 million dollars for the business man overseeing the botched heroin deal. Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem in a way so convincing and terrifying in his almost robotic lack of humanity that I am hard-pressed to think of any cinematic psychopath who is more memorable. Bardem is a Spanish actor best known for his breakthrough, Oscar-nominated role in 2000 in the film Before Night Falls, but he's been in several films since, and his versatility is striking. Here he is nearly unrecognizable, with watery, merciless eyes that absorb all light. This is a man who does not bargain; although, if he is on the fence about killing someone, he may flip a coin so one may spare oneself the fate of having a small spear driven through one's brain. Early in the film, when he chokes the life out of a police officer who briefly apprehends him, his facial expression evokes the only sign of life and emotion we ever see in him.

Tommy Lee Jones is as stalwart as ever as the town Sheriff, Tom Bell, who is chasing the blood trail that Chigurh is leaving in his wake. Bell is a man who is worn down by the cruelties and stupidities of humankind, of which he has undoubtedly seen much in his neck of the woods, where the border between two very different countries becomes incredibly blurred. When things start turning ugly, and it becomes clear that Chigurh has no intention of returning to the money to his employer (should he recover it from Llewelyn Moss), a smooth-talking bounty hunter by the name of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is quite familiar with Chigurh, also gets involved.

This is not a simple tale to talk about, however. There are twists. There are turns. There are subtleties that may downright confuse you or that you may mistake for plot holes, but trust me when I say that such nuances are ultimately irrelevant to what this film is about. It is a penetrating character study on evil. It is a glaring look at the follies of human nature, on how nothing in this life comes free of strings. It is about the breathtaking cinematography of the stark Texas landscapes, the spellbinding performances, the emotive score, the tiny, human details like the sweat in people's armpits, and perhaps most importantly: the pitch-perfect dialog that plays in the ears like an intricate piano concerto and could only be found in a Coen brothers film. Every single ingredient these filmmakers needed to best their masterpiece Fargo is here, and the final product is every bit as outstanding and demanding of repeat viewing.

Although there is still over a month left in 2007, I'm going to go ahead and make the call. This is the best film of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A+

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf 3D

Ray Winstone as he likely looks in his wildest dreams...

How does one describe in words something that is more than "over the top?" I suppose it would suffice to say that a movie like Beowulf has traveled far beyond the summit that most movies in its class (300 is the first to come to mind) have attained and is still trying to find a place to land. I have never seen a movie quite like Beowulf, with its striking dichotomy of brazen audacity and comedic irony, and I doubt I will again.

The story of Beowulf is a legend of old, usually told in the form of a poem, about a hero who travels to a Danish kingdom to slay a monster that is terrorizing its residents. The monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), is the byproduct of a love affair between the grizzled King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and a sultry, gold-plated, perpetually almost-nude water demon with stilleto heels for feet played by Angelina Jolie. Apparently Grendel's mom was getting a little impatient with Hrothgar's deadbeat dad ways and allowed her boy to wreak havoc on daddy's newly-built mead house and its drunken patrons. The carnage is as great and ugly as Grendel himself. In fact, if the Grendel scenes had been done in live-action, Beowulf would have likely received an NC-17 rating. Beowulf later goes to slay Grendel's mother and instead finds himself seduced by her promises of power and wealth, and likely her hot bod. Later on, after Beowulf inherits the kingdom and an overwhelming burden of guilt for not doing as he promised, his demon spawn comes looking for papa. I detected an underlying theme throughout this movie: Guys, keep it in your pants.

But let's talk more about the medium in which Beowulf was made, which is motion-capture animation that uses real actors overlaid with heavy artistic embellishments (hence Ray Winstone's six pack abs). Robert Zemeckis seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with this style of movie-making, and I have to admit that I've never been much of a fan of the technique. While I think both The Polar Express and Monster House (the two previous movies made in this style) are wonderful movies, the animation has always been something of a distraction for me. The characters don't look "live" enough to look real, but they don't look "animated" enough either. It's some strange middle-ground between reality and fantasy, and I find it a tad unsettling to watch, which in effect removes me from the story. Seeing the movie in 3D, although thrilling, tended to enhance this problem for me.

Speaking of story, Beowulf was a victim of more than just a problem with its format. It has a tendency to wow the audience into wide-eyed, shocked laughter in one scene and bore them into a stupor the next. The fact that this movie was as long as it was suggests an air of self-indulgence on the part of Zemeckis, something of which he has been guilty in movies past.

But I really enjoyed the lively, tongue-in-cheek spirit of this film. Laughs were plentiful, and I don't think this was unintentional. The makers of this film knew they were telling a fantastical story and made the film mirror those sentiments through and through. Beowulf most certainly has the heart of a dragon. The heart just suffers from a little arrhythmia.

Gouda's Final Grade: B-

Saturday, November 10, 2007

P2

You might not want to turn around...

P2 opens like a classic horror buffet spread with all of the trimmings. Meet Angela (Rachel Nichols), the driven career woman working late into the wee hours on Christmas Eve in an ambiguous law firm in an ambiguous high-rise office building in New York, who is trying to rush out the door to be with her family for the holiday. Meet Tom (Wes Bentley, maintaining the same creep factor he wore so well in American Beauty), the overnight parking attendant who, with his vicious rottweiler Rocky, is appointed to the post of supervising a deserted garage on a night when most people are off sipping spiked eggnog before a toasty fire. He also, from what we eventually gather as the night decends to a certain level of hell for our heroine (a level that is undoubtedly labeled “P2”), has had an eye on Angela for quite some time and has been waiting for an opportune time to introduce himself and maybe invite her to dinner. What Angela doesn’t realize is that such an invitation would come laced with chloroform, handcuffs, and skimpy lingerie. What I realized as the credits rolled was that this ended up being a much better-crafted film than I originally anticipated.

Based on its premise, P2 was a film that was begging to be bad. As with most horror films involving a woman in peril, we expect nothing less than sheer stupidity from our protagonist--the kind that would have us almost rooting for the killer to just put her (and we the audience) out of our misery. Not so with P2, where Angela is actually a pretty smart woman. She is resourceful and strong, and Rachel Nichols plays her at a perfect pitch. While she makes clear that she is most unhappy with her unexpected “date,” she also acts with a sort of self-preservation that is quite convincing. We don’t have to yell at the screen to tell her everything she “should” have done, because in most cases she’s already done those things. Just unsuccessfully. And when her endeavors to escape her captor fail, we feel a little bit of the dread that she must have felt. Tom, on the other hand, is not a cunning, sadistic psychopath. That’s not to say he isn’t a psychopath at all, because he wears that particular badge quite clearly. But aside from a slightly unpredictable temper, the lonely security guard just wants Angela to love him. He deftly tunes out the woman’s terror and attempts to charm her instead. He makes her a nice dinner, pours her wine, and doesn’t even get mad when she stabs him in the shoulder with a fork, reacting like a loving parent would with a wayward toddler. Although it is clear that his patience is on borrowed time, Tom is really just kind of a sad guy. If he weren’t a mentally ill stalker-type, he would actually make a pretty decent boyfriend.

P2 was a pleasant surprise. I was surprised by how smart all of the characters acted. I was surprised by how well the suspense and the effects were staged, and how the movie didn’t go too far out of its way to shock us with sheer cruelty. I was surprised that the only things I could find to really complain about were the weak dialog and the shallow character development. Sure, there are infinitely more superior films to choose from this fall, and P2 won’t be garnering any Oscar nominations, but horror/thriller fans have a decent reason to go to the theater right now, and whatever money this movie makes will actually be justified.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster

American Sociopath

Watching a movie like American Gangster, I always walk away with the impression that the world was much uglier and dirtier 4o years ago than it is today. I mean, cops don't appear to be as depraved and corrupt as they were in this movie, and they certainly don't own wardrobes or hairdos nearly as horrific as those prevalent in the early 70s, but then again, I've never ventured very far from suburbia and something tells me that the seedy underbelly of places like Manhattan or Harlem never quite recede. They just dig deeper to stay hidden.

Frank Lucas (played here by Denzel Washington in his typical stunning form) was a man who was king for a time in this seedy underbelly, and by virtue of following what I like to refer to as the "Wal-Mart" formula, managed to become one of the most powerful drug lords in the Northeast during the late 60s and early 70s. By the "Wal-Mart" formula, I mean that he bought decent product (in this case, heroin) direct from an Asian supplier and sold it on the American streets at discount prices. By doing this, he put many of his competitors (namely other organized crime families) out of business. This feat was made easier due to the Vietnam War. With so many soldiers returning home in coffins, there were plenty of places to stash the drugs and get them into the country. What customs official was going to actually search a fallen soldier's coffin? Exactly.

But it's not merely Lucas' clever business practices that skyrocket him to the top of the drug chain. He makes a point to not stand out in a crowd. He is able to carry on his business for so long while escaping the attention of the authorities because he doesn't make ostentatious displays of his wealth, and he avoids what he refers to as "loudness" in his choices of dress and lifestyle. But while he manages to maintain a quiet, smooth-talking facade, beneath lurks a deadly form of ruthlessness. Intolerant of anyone making the slightest deviation in his very disciplined protocol, he strikes at his own business associates with the speed and brutality of a rattlesnake. His money goes to furnish a beautiful new home for his mother and buy Thanksgiving turkeys for families in Harlem, but Lucas doesn't do this to be humane. He does it to curry favor and goodwill in his neighborhood. And he'll eventually need it, because even the most well-built empires weaken over time.

This is where New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in an equally Oscar-worthy performance) enters the picture. In demonstrating the topsy-turvy world of moral turpitude that was the law enforcement community during those times, Roberts' possession of ethics was nearly his downfall with his police brethren. Because he turned in a million dollars worth of unmarked drug money that found its way into the trunk of his car, he was deemed too honest to be trusted. His troubles are compounded when his sights are set on taking down Frank Lucas, whom his law enforcement colleagues deem a "cash cow" they don't want to see end up behind bars. When asked by a New York cop why he would want to arrest Lucas, Roberts responds: "We're crazy on this side of the river. Over here, police take down the bad guys." And with tireless patience, he does just that.

But American Gangster is not exactly a "gangster" movie. It parallels the lives of these two vastly different yet intelligent men and it brings them together in the end not to shoot it out, but to talk it out. The dialog and chemistry between Crowe and Washington, when they finally get together, is stellar. Actually, therein lay the problem. We do not see enough of these two great actors together. In fact, we are over an hour and a half into the film before Roberts even realizes that Lucas is the one he needs to apprehend. While this movie is marketed as a cat-and-mouse sort of plot, it is anything but that. The film gets so mired down in the laborious pursuit of fleshing out these characters individually that we don't get nearly enough of the magic that happens when they interact. This is particularly problematic with Roberts, with whom we have to sit through yet another tired cliche of "nagging wife who feels ignored and neglected by husband's noble pursuit." Sure, it's nice to know that Richie Roberts, for all of his professional integrity, has some personal stumbling blocks, but it detracts from the story of Frank Lucas and what went into bring him down.

As a movie with a runtime of 160 minutes, it suffers from the problem of going from 0-60 in 1.34 hours. Because of this, American Gangster falls just shy of achieving greatness, but it is still a very solid execution.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+