Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men

The greatest suspense thriller in years, No Country for Old Men also boasts, in my opinion, 2007’s best screenplay, best direction, best editing, and best ending. The drama unfolds slowly and naturally, but don’t get any wrong ideas about this film lagging for even a moment. The edge of every seat will be occupied, and no dry palm will be found within a two mile radius of the theater. As Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the film might say, “If this ain’t the year’s best movie, it’ll do ‘til the best one gets here.”

The tale unfolds near the Texas/Mexico border, 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Amidst a slew of corpses baking in the noon-day sun, Llewelyn discovers a satchel stuffed full of money. He takes the cash, thus setting off the bloodiest chain of unfortunate events since … well, since the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, I suppose. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to protect Llewelyn from whoever may be hunting him, most notably the terrifying, psychotic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The Coen Brothers’ films have been hit and miss for me. Their films are unusual and different from one another, except that they all contain a cast of colorful, memorable characters. Everyone here has a great face, accent, or both. The dialogue is made up mostly of Southern wisdom, and the simple, homespun phrasing often seems poetic. The film opens with shots of wide open plains, matched with a voiceover by Sheriff Bell, reminiscing about the old days. “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure … you can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore.”

Javier Bardem turns in an eerie performance as a man without compassion or morals. If he does live by any ethical code, it’s one of his own invention. Sporting a bizarre, mop-top haircut, he kills primarily with a cattle gun, powered by a tank of compressed air. He often seems bored, as if killing innocent people has grown unspeakably dull. He sometimes gives victims a chance to survive on a coin-toss, and there’s a masterful scene early in the film where Anton flips a coin in a filling station and tells the old man behind the counter to call it. The clerk looks nervously at the covered coin, saying, “I got to know what I stand to win.” Chigurh quickly responds, “Everything.” After more silence, the clerk says, “I didn’t put nothin’ up.” “Yes you did,” Chigurh tells him. “You’ve been putting it up your whole life; you just didn’t know it.”

The suspense in this film reaches Hitchcockian proportions. Everything blends together to make a piece of perfect storytelling. The editing and pacing are just right, the performances are all understated, and the dialogue has real purpose. No Country for Old Men respects the intelligence of its audience. There are no superfluous, explanatory lines of dialogue, because we don’t need them. We know only as much as the characters know in any given moment, and in that sense we’re along for the ride. The cinematography highlights the emptiness of West Texas, thus evoking the vastness of evil, the inevitability of fate. The film contains almost no music, so that we vividly hear every bullet, every creak, every gust of wind. The Coen Brothers took a minimalist, less-is-more approach, and anything else would have weakened the impact.

Now, about that perfect ending I mentioned earlier. I won’t dare reveal any details, except that I was sitting in the theater, completely enthralled, when the thought actually crossed my mind, “What if the film just ended right now? How fitting and courageous it would be … ” Before the thought was even fully formed, the screen cut to black, the credits began to silently roll, and I knew I had seen something great. “Perfect” is a strong word, not to be used lightly by any critic, but I have no hesitations about using it here. The Coen Brothers have made an American masterpiece.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language

The violence in this film is very, very strong. It’s not strong because it’s graphic; any two-bit horror movie can be graphic, and most horror films are more explicit (in terms of what you see) than this one. This is the story of a crazy, conscienceless serial killer, and the violence here is frighteningly, unapologetically real. It would be nightmare material for any preteen, and anyone too young to buy their own ticket should be cautious. It’s a great film, albeit an upsetting one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Juno

I have heard some critics unfairly refer to Juno as “this year’s would-be Little Miss Sunshine,” although both films are solid and really quite different. Still, if we’re going to play that game, I’d more comfortably call Little Miss Sunshine last year’s would-be Juno, for here is a film I loved even more. More than the year’s best comedy, Juno has wonderfully refreshing dialogue, characters that consistently ring true, and a full palette of fine-tuned performances. Every moment charmed me.

The title character (played to perfection by Ellen Page) is a 16 year-old high school student who discovers that she is pregnant. She lovingly seduced her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), but had no intention of conceiving. Having seen countless movies involving unintended pregnancies, I was prepared for a string of stereotypical situations. How thrilled and blown away I was when Juno remained grounded and made countless right choices. How can a movie about teen pregnancy keep it real and also be uproarious funny? Even after seeing it, I’m not entirely sure.

The dialogue itself doesn’t necessarily seem real, but it does help overall situations feel genuine. Amidst heavy moments of great emotional complexity and confusion, characters stutter and fail to find the perfect words to say. Jokes appear when you would expect tearjerkers, and vice versa. Juno and her friends use slang terms so outrageous and inventive that even though the exchanges are simple, there’s a near elegance to them. It takes tremendous effort for scenes to unfold so effortlessly, and I’m sure that this film will spawn an army of imitators that think they can be as clever. Pulp Fiction is the ultimate example of a screenplay that many misinterpreted as “simply conversational;” countless knockoffs later, the script’s true brilliance was apparent.

Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner play the young couple hoping to adopt Juno’s child. They have perfect chemistry as spouses suffering from extreme communication failures; in yet another wonderfully authentic storytelling choice, the two aren’t even communicating about their lack of communication. Jennifer Garner especially impressed me with her subtle, nearly heartbreaking performance as a woman who wants a child more than anything, and has sought parenthood even to the exclusion of her husband’s needs. So many key moments are communicated through very few words, or even just through facial expressions. Every performance here is pitch-perfect.

Even though serious themes are at work, humor constantly abounds. For instance: when Juno goes to visit Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), Vanessa tells her, “Your parents are probably wondering where you are,” prompting Juno’s response, “Nah. I mean, I’m already pregnant, so what other kinds of shenanigans could I get into?” I’ll take this opportunity to issue a cautionary warning that not everyone will love this movie the way I do. The dialogue is extremely hip and witty, almost to the point of absurdity. No one can talk the way Juno does, and yet she kept a smile fixed on my face. After the first five to ten minutes, you’ll know whether or not it’s for you. Whatever facial expression you find yourself making early on, you probably won’t change it much (I recommend watching the trailer for a good taste of the humor).

The audience I was in really loved this movie, laughing and sighing at all the right moments. Juno is provocative, sweet, hilarious, simple, heartfelt, confident, and wonderful. Ellen Page will likely receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and I’d give writer Diablo Cody a nomination as well. This teen comedy has lovable characters, uncertainty, and teens that think and act like teens; it even features loving, supportive parents. There aren’t nearly enough great coming-of-age stories about teenage girls or pregnancy, but Juno is a marvelous film about both.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, and language.

As often as I lament the mistakes of the MPAA Ratings board, I think PG-13 is a perfect fit here. If you’re thirteen or older, you’re likely old enough to appreciate the humor, as well as the themes. If you’re younger than that, then you’re probably too young.