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Wednesday, July 24

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No Country for Old Men

I knew this one would be different, special even. There's something to like in every Coen Brothers movie. Put two rabid fans together in the same room, and they will fight to the death over what film is the Coens' finest work. A lot of people choose Fargo or Miller's Crossing or O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I will never forget that feeling of discovery and blood lust I acquired watching Blood Simple for the first time (and every time since). But from the first time I laid eyes on the trailer for No Country for Old Men (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy), I knew this one would be different. I'm not sure if it was the towering figure of Javier Bardem in his Dutch boy haircut, or Josh Brolin covered in dust and carrying a bag of money, or Tommy Lee Jones being Tommy Lee Jones, but I got a vibe that the ferocity of this film would penetrate my soul. In so many ways, I wasn't quite prepared for what I got.

This is a film in which the hero (for lack of a better word) Brolin and the villain Bardem are two sides of the same sharp sword. The only thing that separates them is their need to kill, not their ability. Brolin's career-defining performance (in a year when Brolin's work in such films as American Gangster, In the Valley of Elah and the Grindhouse offering Planet Terror has been spectacular) as Llewelyn Moss is also changed by the presence of a good woman, as is often the case. Kelly Macdonald plays Carla Jean, a simple woman who knows a little bit more about what her husband is capable of than she ever lets on. When we first meet Llewelyn, he's hunting and stumbles upon the aftermath of a massacre that appears to be a drug deal gone horribly wrong. The Coens relish in doing this to us a couple times in No Country; they drop us in to a blood-soaked scenario after the blood has mostly dried and the bugs and heat have turned the crime scene into an even uglier landscape. When Llewelyn finds a man still alive at the site, we discover just how cold-hearted this man can be. The sequence sets the tone for many to follow; it is essentially dialog free as he finds a substantial sum of cash next to the body of a dead man under a tree.

Jones's Sheriff Bell is more of an outside observer and pursuer. At various times, he's not even sure who he's after. Sometimes he's chasing Llewelyn, and other times he's after a stone-cold killer named Anton Chigurh (Bardem), who is hired to find the missing money and drugs. Jones and his co-star Garret Dillahunt ("Deadwood"; The Assassination of Jesse James) provide the film with rare moments of humor (and dialog) as they deduce the limited clues left behind by both Moss and Chigurh. We've seen Jones play a man chasing another man before; he won an Oscar for playing such a man, as a matter of fact. What's fascinating about his character and the film in general is that the three leads don't really share any screen time together, despite the fact the one is chasing the other, who is chasing the other. Yet none of the drama is undercut. There are even shoot outs between characters, but you can never see more than one at a time; it makes the suspense unbearable.

But years from now, the character people will talk about is Chigurh, who might be one of the most cold-hearted, evil men ever to occupy the screen. He makes a coin toss terrifying, even when the person calling heads or tails has no idea what the stakes are. His weapon of choice makes air an instrument of death. Top that! He pursues Llewelyn like a famished wolf, and when the two men get near each other, all hell breaks loose. The first time we see him kill somebody (he chokes a cop with his handcuffs), the Coens don't focus on the officer's last moments. Instead, the camera zooms in from above on Chigurh's face as the blood from the dying man's throat widens beneath them. The look on his face is ecstatic and horrific at the same time.

The Coens have chosen to make a film that has a cold heart. Good feelings don't have a place in this work or in most of these characters. As if to prove that point, when Chigurh realizes he probably won't ever catch Llewelyn, he forces Llewelyn's hand by threatening the man's wife, one of the few warm people in this movie. When Woody Harrelson shows up late in the film as another assassin, his character has almost too much personality and charm to exist in this universe. As a result, his fate seems almost certain.

Many audiences are going to squawk loud about a sudden time shift toward the end of the film. Remember what I said earlier about certain acts of violence not shown on the screen? There's an instance of this near the end of the film that many will find unforgivable, and if you do, you're missing the point of the story entirely. We don't need to see this particular moment to understand its impact on the bigger picture. More importantly, what does your call for showing this bloodletting say about you? The Coens throw the moment back in your face, and say, Why do you need to see this? The handling of this material (from what I understand, the book handles it exactly the same way) might be the single bravest sequence I've seen in a movie all year, and it may divide reactions to this film for a long time to come.

I saw No Country for Old Men about three weeks ago, and it haunts me as often as it has forced me to rethink (although never change) my feelings and reactions to it. I only have about a month to go before I can start putting together my list of my favorite films of the year, and I fully expect this one up near the top. This is a troubling and astonishing work that almost requires that you view it repeatedly. I know I plan to, if only to watch Bardem's presence on screen cast a dark and fearful cloud over an audience.

To read my interview with No Country for Old Men star Josh Brolin, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34724.


Lions for Lambs

The latest work from director Robert Redford (Quiz Show; A River Runs Through It; Ordinary People) is part acting workshop, part debate and part conversation instigator. On all three levels, the film succeeds, although not always in equal measure. Telling three loosely interconnected stories, Redford targets not the politicians and corporate giants that have long been the target in many films about the current war in the Middle East. Instead his mission is, in many ways, more interesting: he's going after those who are doing absolutely nothing (in his eyes) to stop the war they allegedly are against. Redford calls to task the media and young people (particularly college students) to rise up the way they did when he was a younger man during the Vietnam War. He has no use or reason for hiding his agenda, but he still manages to avoid preaching to his audience about right and wrong. If anything, the lines are even more blurred as a result of this film.

My favorite story is the most deceptively simple. A young, rising star senator in the Republican party (Tom Cruise) invites a journalist (Meryl Streep) to his office for the day to give her an exclusive story about the next stage in the war. She was helpful to him early in his career, and he is returning the favor in spades. The scene is well written, to be sure, but putting these two powerhouse actors in a room together and watching them navigate is a rare treat. Streep is a master of mannerisms and under-the-breath comments; Cruise is earnest and so certain what he's doing is the right thing that the answers to her questions flow from his lips like gospel. This is the best work like this I've seen Cruise do since Magnolia, and it reminds us that he should focus more on dramatic acting and less on being a major action hero. The scenes between Cruise and Streep are a dance that become a dare for her not to run the story. More than that, the storyline is a bigger dare for the media to dig deeper every time the administration or the military issues a press release or has a new conference. Don't simply take their word for it just to get your story on the air faster. Confirm, verify and investigate, is the message.

The second story is also largely about two people in a room. Redford plays a political science professor, while Andrew Garfield plays a one-time prize student whose interest in the class and in making a difference is waning. Redford grills the poor kid for what seems like hours (although I'm fairly certain the three storylines are supposed to take place in the same time frame, about 90 minutes), digging for what exactly in this boy's mind has changed. This intriguing back-and-forth is perhaps the most damming of its intended target: young people who don't see how this war influences their lives in any way since there's no draft. Somewhere in them, they know the war is wrong, but they aren't driven to protest against it. Redford wants to know why. Performance wise, the segment isn't quite as strong as the Cruise-Streep one, but it will probably provoke the most discussion among the younger people who see this movie.

The least interesting sequence involves two former students of Redford's (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), who have decided to change the system from within by enlisting in the war. It just so happens they are in the first wave of soldiers carrying out the very plan that Cruise is briefing Streep on. When their plane is hit, the two men bail out and land in the thick of it. Luke's leg is embedded in the Afghani snow, while Pena's body is so broken, he can barely roll over to shoot oncoming enemies. This race to see who will get to them first — the rescue team or the evildoers — just isn't handled very well. I never felt the sense of urgency or suspense I know I was supposed to, perhaps because the entire sequence is handled so conventionally. Flashbacks showing the two men in Redford's classroom are more vital to the overall theme of the film, but the battle scenes aren't nearly as compelling as the war of words in the other two sequences.

Of all the current films about the war in the Middle East, Lions for Lambs does the best job of asking the most important questions as directly as possible. It's an interesting, if not entirely convincing, snapshot of America today, and I hope it does succeed in its mission to spark discussion and debate among those that agree with each other as well as with those that don't. What works in this film, works very well. What doesn't can easily be pushed aside to make room for the far more thought-provoking ideas at work here.

For my interview with Lions for Lambs co-stars Michael Pena and AndrewGarfield, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34707, and for my interview with director and star Robert Redford, please visit: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34711.


Fred Claus

So here's the premise: Santa Claus has an older brother who, since they were kids, always resented the way young Nick was coddled and adored by his parents for all the good deeds he did on behalf of the less fortunate everywhere. He resented him so much that he left home at a young age and moved to Chicago, where he grew up to become a shifty, thoughtless businessman named Fred (Vince Vaughn). Fred is dating a Chicago cop (Rachel Weisz), whose very presence in the film is confusing (more on that in a second), and is on the verge of opening the only OTB in Chicago's Loop. The only problem is, he's broke and so is forced to contact his brother for a loan/early Christmas gift. Easily swayed by people in need in general and his brother in particular, Santa (Paul Giamatti, inspired casting, I'll admit) agrees to give Fred the money, but Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson) forces Nick to stipulate that Fred come to the North Pole to help with production to earn the cash. Fred agrees.

While Fred is trying to lend a hand, an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey, who will be utterly embarrassed that he was ever in this movie in about three days) shows up at Santa's Village to find out why production can't seem to keep up with demand and threatens to shut down Santa's workshop if things don't improve (wasn't this storyline used in one of the Santa Clause movies?). Shockingly enough, Fred is so selfish that he doesn't seem to care that the world's children won't get their toys if he doesn't perform his job correctly, which he doesn't.

Where to begin? I literally only laughed one time during this entire weak-ass production. There's a scene in the final third of the movie where Fred goes to a Siblings Anonymous meeting populated by some interesting faces. I was laughing more at the fact that these people even agreed to be in the movie than at any of the jokes being told, but funny is funny, so I'll give them points for inspiration. The rest of the film is an abysmal mess. We get it. Fred doesn't like his brother or his parents for paying such special attention to his brother. The film does nothing more than take this tired sibling rivalry storyline and beat it into the ground until it resembles week-old ground beef that's been sitting in the sun. The film stinks about as bad, too. Vaughn is trying so hard to make us laugh, but in the confines of this PG-rated mess, his comedic options are limited.

And what about the women? Elizabeth Banks shows up as one of Santa's few full-size helpers in a low-cut top and heaving bosoms. I think Ms. Banks is just swell, and she looks darling in this movie, but my initial reaction to having this young, pretty thing in the movie was that Santa was cheating on Mrs. Claus with a woman who is essentially his secretary. None of this is even hinted at in Fred Claus, but these are the places my bored mind wandered to while watching it. As for Rachel Weisz, arguably one of the most beautiful women on the planet, I couldn't figure out why she was even in this film. She's only in the movie for a few minutes, and when we do see her, she's in a bulk Chicago cop's winter coat and a hat with earflaps. Sexy! She reappears in the film later on, but by then we've forgotten her and quickly realize she has no relevance to the main story at all.

There are a couple of visual gags involving making full-size actors look like workshop elves, but that novelty wore off after about 30 minutes. We're about to get hit with a whole host of potentially truly shitty holiday films, and if Fred Claus is any indication of what we're in for, I may be changing religions, or even jobs, soon.


Rails & Ties

This film has been out on the coasts for a couple weeks now, and it's finally getting a wider release today, and I'm really happy to see that happening. Although not a flawless work, Rails & Ties is a solid effort from first-time feature director Alison Eastwood, the actor daughter of Clint Eastwood. It's probably unfair of me to drop Clint's name in so early in my review, but the fact is that this film probably would not have been made without his long and successful history for Warner Brothers. Still, the film succeeds on its own merits and the strong sense of integrity that Alison Eastwood brings to the work, which in no way shies away from weighty subjects like suicide, terminal illness and the heartbreak that both of these things bring to the heart of a child.

Kevin Bacon stars as Tom Stark, a train engineer who is driving his train when a suicidal mother parks her car on the tracks in front of him. Unable to stop the train in time without possibly derailing, Tom plows into the car killing the woman, who leaves behind a son named Davey (Miles Heizer), who was also in the car and managed to leap out when he realized what his mom was doing. Tom is suspended from the job temporarily until an investigation can be completed, and this forces him to spend time with his terminally ill wife (Marcia Gay Harden). Their relationship is strained and rather than spend time with her in her final months of life, he's been taking extra shifts to avoid the issue. Being stuck at home is torture for both of them, especially with Tom's guilt about the woman's death heavy on his head.

In a strange twist, Davey runs away from his foster home and seeks out Tom, thinking he might kill him. But when the three of them meet at Tom's front door, the childless couple take the boy in and let him stay with them secretly. You may think this odd plot twist might be hard to swallow, but it kind of makes sense in the context of this film. These are three damaged people who all seem to gain strength from their collective existence together. Eastwood deals with all of the awkward and uncomfortable areas of this arrangement and with Harden's illness. In one surprisingly funny scene, Harden fakes the severity of her illness to discourage a social worker looking for Davey to look around their home too closely. It becomes clear that Harden's agenda in having Davey stay with them is that she's hoping these two men in her life will connect and take care of each other after she's gone. The process begins when Bacon discovers that Davey has as much of an affection for model trains as he does.

Rails & Ties takes a great deal of pride in its stripped-down, minimalistic approach the this material. It isn't attempting to convey a greater message or tug at the heartstrings with too much force. Granted, there aren't too many surprises here, but this is a gentle work of art that feels authentic and restrained. Eastwood has selected some wonderful, mostly acoustic songs for her soundtrack (along with a beautiful score provided by her brother Kyle and Mike Stevens), and those elements elevate the work to a beautiful place. This won't be a film for everyone, but it worked for me.

For my interview with Rails & Ties director Alison Eastwood, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34703.


Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

In the same irreverent and non-typical manner he has always put together his documentaries (such as Glastonbury and the Sex Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury), director Julien Temple has structured the interviews in his detailed and quite moving profile of Clash frontman Joe Strummer as a series of campfire chats. Taking his cue from Strummer himself, how used to enjoy sitting around with friends and strangers, talking and playing all night outdoors by the light of a fire, Temple's talking heads feel more like a group of pals sitting around shooting the shit about an old and dear friend, whether the people discussing him had ever met the man or not.

Collecting childhood, art college and other personal friends of Strummer's, alongside members of pre-Clash bands and more famous acquaintances of this complicated soul, The Future Is Unwritten is a sometimes frenzied, but still wonderfully structured portrait of a man whose star rose fast, perhaps so fast that he never had a chance to figure out who he really was and what meant something to him. It wasn't until after the Clash broke up that Strummer really took the time to live, act, compose and slowly build up the nerve to record and play live again with a new band.

Temple's assembly of rare film footage of the Clash is remarkable. It seems the band were never without a camera crew of some sort around them. My favorite clip is of the band meeting with director Martin Scorsese as he reveals to them that the feel and pacing for Raging Bull was meant to feel like a Clash album. Other remembrances include words from the likes of Matt Dillon, Steve Buscemi, the Pistols' Steven Jones, Johnny Depp, Bono, Jim Jarmusch and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Temple also collects people whose names you wouldn't know (nor would I, since he opts not to identify any of the people giving testimonials about Strummer): old girlfriends, former band mates who were left in the dust when The Clash took off and late-in-life friends who knew little or nothing of Strummer's former glories. The Future is Unwritten is a fascinating collage of a powerful musician who took a long time to become a good man as well. Even though he's dead, Temple in no way sugarcoats the man's flaws and sometimes cruel behavior. Most importantly, you will come away from this film with a much better sense of who Strummer was, how he dealt with conflict and pain and what inspired him to make so much kick-ass music. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


How Much Do You Love Me?

All I needed to know was that this 2005 French offering featured Monica Bellucci as an Italian prostitute, who seems to have a really tough time keeping her clothes on (she spends about 85 percent of the film in clingy lingerie and the remaining 15 percent nude; I like those odds). A big part of the reason I adore Bellucci is that she is fearless, and not just because she tends to appear nude in her films. I also find her an actress of quality. Check her out in Malena, Irreversible or even in Shoot 'Em Up from a few weeks ago, and you'll see there's something of substance behind the curves. And she's the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth.

The film centers on Francois (Bernard Campan), who meets Bullucci's Daniela in a bar. She immediately begins naming her price, but he has something else in mind. Having just won the lottery, the desperately lonely Francois wants to buy her for life as a companion. She plays her role beautifully, and it doesn't take long for Francois to fall in love with her. Not surprisingly, she begins to have feelings for him as well. Things get complicated when Daniela's ex-husband/lover/pimp, a gangster played by Gerard Depardieu, comes back on the scene and demands the woman or the money to buy her freedom.

Writer-director Bertrand Blier (Too Beautiful for You) injects his simple story with a lot of humor, with equal amounts of truly romantic overtones. Francois becomes involved with his next-door neighbor. His co-workers begin to worry about how much time he's been out of the office, so they all come over to investigate. His doctor best friend dies unexpectedly, while Francois had non-stop sex with a bad ticker and doesn't seem to care that this condition might kill him. There's a dark edge all the way around How Much Do You Love Me?, but it's cut with a love that Blier clearly feels for these unfortunates. It's a slight film, but still worthy of checking out at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where the movie opens today for a week-long run.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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