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.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
We've all heard the tale: In 1836 a motley group of brave Texan soldiers aided by American legend Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) defended The Alamo to their bloody deaths at the hands of Mexican General Santa Anna's well-trained army. That's pretty much the same ground covered by the film so don't expect any surprises. What you can expect early on is some fairly convoluted political back story centering on aspiring nation-builder Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) plenty of soap opera-quality bickering between leading characters Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and knife aficionado Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and a good amount of pompous preening on the part of Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). Like Glory The Alamo takes its time (about 90 minutes) to lead up to the pivotal battle using the rest of the time to introduce major characters and conflicts; unlike Edward Zwick's masterful Civil War drama Hancock's epic wanna-be loses the audience's attention in the process.
Poor Dennis Quaid -- all of the good subtle work he's put in over the last couple of years in smaller movies like The Rookie (also directed by Hancock) and Far From Heaven could well be swept from filmgoers' minds in an instant if enough of them remember The Alamo instead. As Houston one of Texas' almost-mythic heroes he blusters orates and generally overacts his way into becoming a living cartoon. Meanwhile Wilson Patric and Thornton are all given one-note characters: Col. Travis is an uptight by-the-book goody-two-shoes (until naturally he gets his one big chance to redeem himself) Bowie is a hard-drinkin' hard-livin' man's man and Crockett is the consummate good ol' boy relying on his aw-shucks demeanor to make friends -- and disguise the true depth of his pithy insights -- wherever he goes. (Thornton does what he can with Crockett but subtlety is lost in this movie.) On the other side of the trenches Echevarria's Santa Anna might as well be Dr. Evil for all of the sense he makes or the respect he earns from his lieutenants. Screenwriters Hancock Stephen Gaghan (an Oscar winner for Traffic) and Leslie Bohem must have taken the general's "Napoleon of the West" nickname literally when it came time to craft his petulant volatile character.
Hancock -- who stepped up to helm The Alamo after original director Ron Howard wisely bowed out -- is a newbie in the realm of historical epics and it shows. For all the time and money that obviously went into the film's costumes sets and effects (the re-created fort is wholly convincing and some of the nighttime battle sequences are pretty impressive) too little was spent developing characters that were equally realistic. Just because people like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have become larger than life in the American pop mythology doesn't mean they didn't have their faults (as presented in the movie Bowie's resolutely dissolute lifestyle is almost as trite as the rest of his character). And just because these martyred heroes were so colorful doesn't mean that watching them slouch around a dry dusty fort for an hour before anything really happens can be considered entertainment--even the best true stories can use a little help from the editing fairy now and then. Carter Burwell's heavy-handed Braveheart-meets-Glory score (Crockett's catchy fiddling notwithstanding) just underscores the fact that the movie is trying to bully you into feeling certain ways at certain times; when the music swells you gear up for something exciting only to be left hanging again and again. Looks like the suits at Touchstone Pictures knew what they were doing when they delayed The Alamo's release date from Oscar-bait December to dead-zone April.