Early on in No Country for Old Men there is a wide-angle shot of an open field in border-town Texas. Gorgeous but menacing it is the very snapshot of “calm before the storm.” One of the men who will momentarily be in the storm’s epicenter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is actually providing us with this view through the scope of his rifle as he stalks the unsuspecting antelope. Even further in the distance a cluster of bullet-ridden trucks catches his eye and so he walks that distance for a closer look. What he finds is a drug deal gone awry and $2 million with his name on it. He scurries away with the cash and without the knowledge he has just turned the devil onto him. Enter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who some know as the devil or as a ghost or as the bogeyman or not at all and whose blood money Llewelyn just intercepted. There are crazy-serial-killer types and then there is Anton a murderer whose blood is so cold that he derives only apathy from taking a life—which has afforded him a very successful career as a hitman. Once word gets out that Anton is after Llewelyn a third man enters the fray—an aging policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) loath to draw his gun in the small town he has manned for years let alone hunt down a lunatic. So the tango begins with Llewelyn unwittingly carrying a transponder through which Anton can track him and Anton wittingly leaving a path of bodies through which the lawman can track him. It takes a cast like the one in No Country to pull off what the Coen brothers demand of their actors—which is to say acting that transcends dialogue delivery. Take Bardem’s villain for example a man(iac) of few words. The Oscar nominee whose Anton is fear-inspiring on first look says as much with his impassive demeanor and lack of swagger as he does with his terse literal dialogue. But when he does speak it makes the words stick that much more; a scene in which he introduces the word “Friend-o” into the cinephile lexicon will have you sweating and chuckling—nervously. His is the type of psycho that’s as entrancing and potentially iconic as Hannibal Lecter. As the guy on the run so to speak Brolin is this movie’s version of the good guy though that doesn’t exactly compel you to root for him. Brolin instead like Bardem conveys what isn’t spoken--in his case logical fear that is stupefied by virility and money hunger. It marks another great performance for Brolin whose 2007 has been full of them. Jones meanwhile could not have been a more perfect casting choice to provide No Country’s voice of reality its Mr. Righteous. His aging overmatched cop doesn’t even get harmed but still might be the movie’s lone true victim thanks to the eloquent but stoic performance of Jones who also serves as narrator. And Woody Harrelson in a small speedy role shows zest we haven’t seen in a long time. Joel and Ethan Coen have always worked best in the dark be it comedy or drama. With No Country they’ve reached their peak darkness in both genres. The movie is often something of an exercise in subtle pitch-black comedy—perhaps the only way in which it strays from its source material a wildly beloved novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy—detectable only by those who pay close attention to and/or are familiar with the Coens. But it’s the suspense here that differs from their entire oeuvre and all of their contemporaries. With virtually no music long periods of silence and positively nothing extraneous the directors create tension via minimalism: Chase sequences are done mostly on foot and conclude intimately and gruesomely with one scene featuring Brolin and Bardem separated by a hotel-room door proving especially suspenseful damn near Hitchcockian. But No Country isn’t all about the chase; in fact it's about the Coens' originality and how they inject it to keep this from being a “chase” movie. It's an instant classic—a horrifying funny suspenseful masterpiece that could only have come from these two filmmakers.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
This is one of those stories you want to keep vague for fear of giving away too much. It starts when photographer Matthew (Josh Hartnett) sees dancer Lisa (Diane Kruger) for the first time as she passes by his video shop in the Wicker Park section of Chicago immediately captivating him. He follows her they meet and soon fall deeply in love. All things seem to go perfectly until Matthew asks her to move in with him--and she up and leaves on a dance tour without a word. Two years later Matthew has moved on with his life has a good job even a fiancée (Jessica Pare)--but he still has completely gotten over Lisa and the nagging torment of the "what ifs?" Then suddenly he thinks he catches a glimpse of her in a bar. Not sure if it was she all the feelings come rushing back nonetheless and Matthew begins a twisting obsessive search for the woman who captured his heart years ago. But as Matthew's search intensifies it leads him deeper into a mystery which now includes his best friend Luke (Matthew Lillard) and Luke's newfound paramour Alex (Rose Byrne). Facing deception at every turn Matthew quickly learns that obsession can go both ways--and that indeed you can love someone too much. Fuzzy enough for ya?
Once considered the "It" boy especially after a string of films including Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor Hartnett took himself out of the heartthrob equation by slowing down to one film a year. His last two efforts--2002's 40 Days and 40 Nights and 2003's Hollywood Homicide--didn't do so well at the box office so in a way Wicker Park is a coming out party for Hartnett. It deftly brings the actor back into the spotlight as a romantic lead as well as taps into some of that talent we all know he has (remember
The Virgin Suicides?) His Matthew is a rather intense fellow but his emotions about the love that got away ring true even when things turn dangerously towards obsession. In one telling scene after Hartnett finds out he's been played he registers his anger through those penetrating brown eyes. As for his female co-stars Kruger and Byrne (who starred together in the epic Troy) also play well off the situation. Kruger has the easier job of being the sweet object of affection while Byrne turns in the more complex performance as Alex who has hidden agendas of her own. As the best friend Lillard (Without a Paddle) delivers in his usual high energy goofy shtick but at least this time it's with real human beings instead of CGI dogs named Scooby-Doo.
Director Paul McGuigan (The Reckoning) describes Wicker Park as a "love story told in a very non-linear way." Boy he isn't kidding. Although Park is a remake of the French film L'Appartement it takes a wholly original spin on staid themes which in this day and age is getting harder and harder to do (and usually only comes in the form of a Charlie Kaufman script). Through McGuigan's guidance Park toys with your emotions--and your expectations. Jumping back and forth through time and seen through varying perspectives the film starts out very slowly--almost too slowly-- setting up what you think is a sweet love story but then having things quickly turn darker. It's plodding and confusing at first but then it begins to pull back the layers and as you fit the pieces together you're hooked. And as cheesy as it might sound you want to the two lovebirds to find each other; you're on the edge of your seat urging Matthew to hurry up and get to Wicker Park to meet Lisa before she thinks he's never coming and gets on a plane to London forever. Run Matthew run!
The Recruit wants us to believe the film's main thrust revolves around the Central Intelligence Agency's old maxim "nothing is what it seems." Had they stuck with this framework perhaps the film would have been more compelling. Instead it lapses into the expected and the implausible where you can pretty much guess exactly what's going to happen even if it really makes no sense. Our hapless protagonist James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is hustled by CIA recruiter Walter Burke (Al Pacino) who believes himself to be a "scary judge of talent" and sees James as prime CIA meat. When James hesitantly accepts the offer to come to The Farm he does so motivated less by helping his country and more by trying to find out what happened to his father who died mysteriously several years before and whom Burke alleges he knew. Once at The Farm James proves his mettle and is told again and again "it's in his blood." Ah then should we believe James' father who supposedly worked for Shell Oil really worked for the CIA as an NOC or Non-Official Cover agent one of the Agency's more prestigious--and dangerous--positions? The plot thickens. James also falls for fellow recruit Layla (Bridget Moynahan) but during an intense interrogation set-up he makes a serious error trying to save her and "washes out" of the program. Just when he thinks he's out forever James gets pulled back in by Burke who tells him all his trials and tribulations were just a test and that he is really NOC material and needed to root out a mole. Is it what it seems? Heavens no.
You'll be seeing a lot of Farrell in the coming months. Along with The Recruit this year alone he'll be in three major feature films including the upcoming comic-book actioner Daredevil; S.W.A.T. yet another feature based on a TV series; and the sniper movie Phone Booth. How has this 26-year-old Irish hunk risen so quickly in the ranks you might ask? Maybe it's because he has an uncanny ability to make the parts he plays completely believable. He slips easily into the Clayton character the quintessential CIA recruit with a daddy complex and fuels the film with the right amount of acting skills and smoldering good looks. Unfortunately his co-star the high and mighty Mr. Pacino is becoming a caricature of himself. Playing Burke is certainly no stretch for the actor and the film would not be complete without the requisite ranting scene where CIA veteran Burke tells the world all about it--voice booming words punctuated. It seems this has become the standard in any Pacino performance and frankly it's getting tiresome. Where's the quiet but powerful Michael Corleone when you need him? Moynahan (The Sum of All Fears) is somewhat bland as Clayton's love interest Layla. Word of advice: if Colin Farrell is making eyes at you go for it immediately. Don't waste any time.
For all its obviousness The Recruit does some things right. No stranger to the inner workings of our government agencies director Roger Donaldson who directed the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days and the Pentagon thriller No Way Out gives us access to the CIA training program or The Farm as its lovingly referred to--and it's one scary place. Obviously when making the film things had to be handled delicately as not to divulge too much so the film does take some creative liberties in showing the intense training the eager recruits have to face. That's fine with us--if we can't rely on death-defying stunts and car chases then outrageous mind games are generally good enough. But once The Recruit takes leave of The Farm the movie begins to fall apart. The inherent action set up for us in the first part--James finding out about his father the blossoming relationship between Layla and James who will be the NOC and the whole mole plot--just isn't as convincing to carry the film through its fruition. And being able to guess the next move isn't much fun either.