starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr.
screenplay by Steven Zaillian
directed by Ridley Scott
I'M NOT THERE
starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere
screenplay by Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman
directed by Todd Haynes
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
'08 BD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
CE - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald
screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
by Walter Chaw Consider the moment when an overly enthusiastic police search results in the demolition of a replica dresser commissioned by Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) for the Carolina plantation he's bought to house his extended family. In one canny instant, there's the suggestion that nothing ever changes: the things we lose in time we will always lose. The image Ridley Scott provides for us as he moves the Lucas clan into their new digs is loaded and dangerous, with a group of African-Americans walking up the lush green lawn of an antebellum plantation--usurpers of a corrupt American Dream that, American Gangster posits, is still corrupt and in essentially the same way. True, there's a cartoon bogey in a New York cop (Josh Brolin) erected as the straw man for all of New York's Finest who's profiting off French Connection junk (gasp, he shoots a dog, and probably also smokes)--but the real villainy in the picture is the idea that the path to true status and achievement in the United States is on the backs of not just others, but entire groups of others.
The measure of virtue, on the contrary, is the extent to which one turns his back on material gain in favour of life as an aesthete of sorts. It's the increasingly gauzy grail of Walden Pond reconfigured as the increasingly insubstantial Constitution and requiring of the same level of superhuman sacrifice and isolation. The pulse of 2007 will be measured in time to (ironically) be a resurrection of the first explosive years of the New American Cinema (and by that yardstick, American Gangster is more than a bit Serpico); and it will be fed with a desperation, unique to our time, to give up, if more to run away than to escape. 2007 is a call to leave the lies that are our lives behind in favour of older, more familiar lies: nature (as in Into the Wild), spirituality (The Darjeeling Limited), morality (No Country for Old Men)... No accident, to my mind, that a new, allegedly definitive version of Scott's own Blade Runner--a film in which half-formed people, promised an opportunity to "begin again" in some never-seen "off-world," attempt to construct identities from fake memories and fabricated photographs--is coming out concurrent to American Gangster. In the exceptional films of this year (of which American Gangster seems the most survey in nature and hence the one destined for awards recognition), there is a unifying thread that things are only as bad as they ever were and, worse, that there's no life preserver left that's not taking on a dangerous amount of water.
Garden State gumshoe Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), studying for the New Jersey Bar and battling a bad case of stage fright, is pilloried by his peers for turning in almost a million dollars in unmarked bills (the most dangerous thing for a police force rife with corruption is an honest cop) and earns his way into an anti-organized crime task force assembled to uncover the source of a new, purer heroin flooding the Mean Streets. The source, we know, is Lucas, who's discovered a way to cut out the middleman (the cops, the Italian mob) by importing his smack directly from the jungles of Indochina in the caskets of dead servicemen. A sequence in which Roberts and his do-gooders perform the French Connection mambo on a planeload of dead patriots is queasy, to say the least, a not-subtle conflation of the way that our fighting men have always been cynically misused by businessmen looking to make their fortunes in war. Haliburton, Blackwater USA--just the latest war profiteers in a proud national history of them; has our wealth ever spouted from a more fulsome well than aggression abroad? If we carry the metaphor far enough, it's worth wondering whether there isn't some race/class comeuppance here as well: Lucas taking back by using the aluminium caskets of the disadvantaged, drugged-out, disenfranchised, predominantly disadvantaged youth sent to fight a war against insurgents in a foreign land. He's taking back the same way he took back a southern plantation--the same way he evaded capture for a time because he was perceived as to be too black to be a good businessman.
The secret history of American Gangster is written in the way that Washington's Lucas is venerated by black celebrities, Joe Louis in particular. Complaints that it celebrates a sleazebag vice merchant responsible for countless destroyed lives--those of his own people, no less--ignores the fact that the hip-hop culture of bling and general misanthropy has its roots in essential offense. No question that Lucas is not only a superstar, but also the hero of American Gangster (it's named for him, after all, and we salute that flag); the better question is how much rage and inequity does it take to make criminals and sociopaths (until his most recent transgressions, OJ Simpson--am I right?) acting out against the entrenched patriarchy the heroes of an entire culture? That transforms spontaneous, mass outpourings of fury into acts of self-abnegation and abuse: Why burn Watts when Beverly Hills beckons? There's no reason in my mind there shouldn't be a hagiography about Lucas, any more than there shouldn't be a hagiography about Jesse James or Martin Cahill. We are what we repress; let's give our shadows a little time on the proscenium. What remains of American Gangster once the reactionaries have left the battlefield is the melancholy assertion that the only places left pristine are our past (and the unexamined unconscious that we use to allegorize our past)--and the trouble is that Eden is the only escape, Eden was a long time ago, and Eden was a lie.
I used to like to condense Modernism as the search for God that culminates in the discovery that God is a series of broken monuments and chaos and that Post-Modernism was therefore the gradual acceptance of God as a manufactured construct. Facile, but good in a pinch; apply it to Todd Haynes's fascinating I'm Not There and suddenly there's the thought that the film is an autopsy of film-as-history to this moment--an analysis of how the moving image has become in this century the only real way we access history as a people, as well as of how the image, eternally malleable within the image-maker, has now become malleable within a mainframe. Arguably, the aggregate of Nineties cinema deals with the evolution from filmic to digital reality (from 1989's sex, lies, and videotape on through to the end of the following decade's American Beauty, The Truman Show, Dark City, The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Blair Witch Project), but it's here in 2007, six years post-9/11, that the phrase "it's just like in the movies" gains the kind of existential dread it deserves. I'm Not There is a chronicle of the many faces of ace provocateur/de facto post-bellum American Poet Laureate Bob Dylan that recreates album covers with the same facility as it does eras, film stocks, genre patterns, and other stylistic imitations. The picture enlists seven actors to portray Dylan (reminding of the similarly agile Palindromes), the best of whom is Cate Blanchett, plugging in and tuning out as mod Jude and insinuating in a brief dialogue with spaced-out Allen Ginsburg (David Cross) that Dylan has indeed shored up his fragments with a deep bow to the fruitlessness of representation.
The Dylan of I'm Not There is a free-floating sign with a multifoliate comet tail of signifiers--none of them cultivated by the man himself, the movie implies: he's just an Aeolian harp, letting the zeitgeist gust on through. The songs make better sense that way, as do the musician's mad vacillations between Woody Guthrie acolyte and Lead Belly devotee. Haynes zooms in and out of/to the artist's rhythms, suggesting in his electric Kool-Aid acid test of a flick that we're all post-modern automatons, tuned like an instrument to the creaks and bellows of our cultural tapestry. Without much effort, you can imagine this Dylan's piano to be covered with Deckard's desperate photo menagerie (the signature montage in the picture is a series of mug shots one part David Bailey, many parts Andy Warhol); Haynes has given us a picture that identifies humanity as machines looking for Truth in knowledge when the only Truth, baby, is Beauty. That's all ye need know.
There aren't any heroes in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men save author Cormac McCarthy. His The Crossing is probably the best American novel since Faulkner was writing in high heather, and Blood Meridian, due as a picture in 2009 with Ridley Scott at the helm, is the most exhilarating, devastating read against that same bellwether. With this film, the Coens have distilled the essence of McCarthy's gash-deep nostalgia for the illusory, ephemeral past--complete with his sparse language and uncompromising way with violence--and packaged it in the very best moments of their own well of extraordinary visions: the hotel Hell of Barton Fink; the folksy voiceover and panoramic shots of the dying West from Blood Simple; the failed assassination attempt of Miller's Crossing; and the procedural (sans mercy) of Fargo. Each of these tried and true tricks is redeployed in a year of redeployments to create something that's not of the past, but rather very much of the present. No Country for Old Men is about what one character late in the piece calls "the dismal tide." This picture I have now in my head is of our moral universe digging a hole in the sand: You stop and it fills, and you're left with a smooth surface made up of countless little compromises and failures. Elsewhere, an old sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his wife of a dream of his father, riding on ahead on a cold night with a fire in a horn to make camp somewhere in the black. Whether it's a dream of Heaven or Hell, the certainty is that it's a dream of death--and in this world, there's nothing left to hope for but the dead faith that men of fibre can hold fast against the blood-dimmed tide.
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin, shooting another dog) does a dumb thing--at least, that's what he tells his wife--and ends up with a suitcase full of money and psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on his trail. Others will follow: the sheriff, Ed Bell (Jones); a bounty hunter, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson); and bands of random Mexicans looking to reclaim that which they consider theirs. Chigurh is one of the great screen bogeys. When he engages a gas station proprietor in a conversation about fate (see: Raising Arizona), flipping a coin for "everything," the sense of menace is almost unbearable. It's pivotal, this idea that life is nothing more than a coin flip (Chigurh: "I got here the same way as the quarter") and not worth much more than two bits in any case. Where Se7en ends with Somerset's assertion that the world is a beautiful place and worth fighting for, this season has already seen Morgan Freeman in another cop role (Gone Baby Gone) offering that the world is a sty beyond saving--and now Tommy Lee Jones, in his best performance ever, hangs up his gun because the solution to the problem is that there's nothing to solve. The world as we know it is ash--it was always ash. Not a thriller despite resembling a particularly well-constructed one, No Country for Old Men is a reverie for the loss of the dream of security, for the death of a benevolent, active Christian God scant weeks before The Golden Compass' Christmas bow. I think it's interesting that McCarthy's follow-up, The Road, is set in the post-apocalypse--in a broad sense, all of his books since All the Pretty Horses have been roughly chronological, making No Country for Old Men (and the film of it, and all the great films of 2007) a chronicle of Armageddon: all whimpers and no bang; I hardly noticed it happening, and now it's done and there's no helping it. No Country for Old Men is a fucking masterpiece. Originally published: November 9, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN ('08 BD)
by Bill Chambers Heresy, I know, but thanks to dodgy projection, No Country for Old Men looks better to me on Blu-ray than it did at the cinema. Not just better, though: almost unfathomably good. The 2.35:1, 1080p presentation is so rich in texture that even in wider shots, you can tell the characters are wearing finely-woven straw hats to combat the scorching temperatures. Blacks reach down deep but never crush detail while whites evoke the heat without ever getting "hot." And although the image is crystalline, the baby (i.e., grain) has not been thrown out with the bathwater. It's a first-rate transfer that could not have happened to a more deserving film. Similarly astonishing is the DD 5.1 audio (640 kbps), an outstanding showcase for Skip Lievsay's intricate sound design; every thwap of buckshot makes you wince and the dialogue is remarkably clear. Hard to believe there's any room for improvement, but an attendant PCM 24-bit option, inaccessible to yours truly for the time being, implies that such is indeed the case.
Typical of a Coen Bros. title, extras are meagre and largely unsatisfying. You get three featurettes (4:3 letterboxed in 480i)--"The Making of No Country for Old Men" (24 mins.), "Working with the Coens" (8 mins.), and the less-than-Bressonian "Diary of a Country Sheriff" (7 mins.)--that all essentially say the same things, i.e., that the Coens comprise a hydra monster with a pleasant disposition and a touring company of technicians; that No Country for Old Men adds new wrinkles to the chase formula; and that setting a movie in West Texas circa 1980 is a hell of a thing. I did like one bit of B-roll where Ethan (who does most of the talking in the Brothers' interview segments) asks Tommy Lee Jones to drop "the" from a line of dialogue--it's not fussy micromanaging but rather losing a bum note, and Jones really takes to the suggestion. Blu-ray propaganda and an HD trailer for Gone Baby Gone cue up on startup. Originally published: February 25, 2008.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - 2-DISC COLLECTOR'S EDITION
by Bill Chambers No Country for Old Men returns to Blu-ray in a 2-Disc Collector's Edition. The second disc is actually just a DVD containing a digital copy of the film, but the first platter boasts a fresh batch of standard-def supplements to go with the same special features that were found on the previous release--chiefly, "Josh Brolin's Unauthorized Behind-the-Scenes" (onscreen title: "Behind the Scenes of No Country for Old Men: An incredibly unauthorized documentary.") and a "Press Timeline" that chronologically orders a grab-bag of promotional appearances all logged during the 2007-2008 awards season. The former, directed and co-edited by Brolin, is predictably tongue-in-cheek--Joel and Ethan Coen are characterized as a vicious cabal, and Javier Bardem does one interview in silhouette to protect his identity--but there's a surprisingly high volume of filler lifted intact from the relatively straight-faced makings-of, creating a weird and ultimately irreconcilable tonal dissonance.
As for the sixteen segments checkering the timeline, they inspire a serious case of déjà vu after a while. Hardcore film geeks will want to skip directly to the "Spike Jonze Q&A" (61 mins.), wherein host Jonze is joined on stage by the Coen Brothers and, variously, by DP Roger Deakins, sound guys Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland, and production designer Jess Gonchor (whom Ethan describes as a "palette Nazi") to discuss the cinematography, sound, and production design, respectively. It's astonishing to hear Deakins self-flagellate over shots in this movie, and to learn that the production exposed less than 250,000 feet of film in this era of Knocked Up exposing over a million. I also enjoyed the "Charlie Rose" excerpt where Ethan shrinks from paying Brolin a compliment because he's in the same room with him: it's the kind of recognizably human (if antisocial) behaviour that's usually pumiced away by the time a celebrity reaches the Oprah circuit. For what it's worth, those archival interviews that were sourced from radio (mostly NPR, but Elvis Mitchell's KCRW show "The Treatment" as well) unfold over a static screen that unfortunately precludes the subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing option you get with the video-based extras. Amusingly, clicking on the "Call it, Friend-o" penny icon will randomly choose something from the timeline for you to watch/listen to.
The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer of the film itself looks exactly like it did before, though a 5.1 DTS-HD track has replaced the allegedly superior PCM audio of the 2008 BD. I know this much is true: the movie's intricate mix sounds significantly fuller and clearer in DTS than it does in Dolby Digital; I had no idea how much detail I was missing. Spots advertising Doubt, Buena Vista's Blu-ray slate, and the Miramax legacy cue up on startup and join a preview for "Lost"'s fourth season under a Sneak Peeks sub-menu. Originally published: April 15, 2009.