In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

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The Last of Robin Hood

A title as good as "The Last of Robin Hood" deserves a better movie. In fact, it deserves a good movie.

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As Above, So Below

It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

National Society of Film Critics falls for "Amour"

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Michael Haneke's "Amour," which won the Palme d'Or last May at Cannes, was voted Saturday the best film of 2012 by the prestigious National Society of Film Critics. The award, coming on the eve of voting for the 2013 Academy Awards, confirms "Amour" as a Best Foreign Film frontrunner. Other NSFC winners will also draw welcome attention.

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Skyfall: Hey kids, let's put on a show!

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"Skyfall" is a theatrical film in the same way that its director, Sam Mendes, is a theatrical filmmaker. That is, its approach to organizing space for an audience (the camera lens) is noticeably stagey. I mean that in a "value-neutral" way. I just mean the frame is frequently used as a proscenium and the images are action-tableaux deployed for a crowd -- whether it's the designated audience surrogates in the movie (bystanders or designated dramatis personae), or the viewers in the seats with the cup-holders. That's not to say it's uncinematic (it's photographed by the great Roger Deakins!), but many of the set-pieces in "Skyfall" are conceived and presented as staged performance pieces.

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Growing up with James Bond

I find it mind-boggling that something as trivial as an action film series could become such a constant presence in my life but that's been the case with the James Bond movies. It's not so much that their span happens to equal mine (to the very week, by the way) as I didn't start following them until I was 9 years old -- but ever since, they've always been around one way or another: from big theatrical openings to re-re-releases in the beat up movie houses of old; from Betamax tapings of network T.V. broadcasts (pausing the machine to edit the commercials), to the great looking discs of today. Every couple of years or so they have made their appearance and I've watched each one dozens of times regardless how good or bad they were, an odd fact for which I've had no reasonable explanation.

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"Passion Fish:" A struggle of wills

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When I watched "The Intouchables" (2011) at the local movie theater several months ago, I got a nagging dissatisfaction with that crowd-pleaser, which was about the warm friendship between a disabled man and a caregiver hired by him. The movie was surely a pleasant drama with two amiable lead performances, but I found it too mild and superficial; it merely loitered around thin stereotypes and worn-out clichés and it went no further than that.

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A Master Emerges: Conrad Hall and "The Outer Limits"

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• "The Outer Limits" (original series) is available on Netflix (DVD), Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. • "In Cold Blood" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "Cool Hand Luke" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "American Beauty" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray) and Amazon Instant Video. • "Road to Perdition" is available on Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray).

by Jeff Shannon Eyes Wide Open: A Single Artist's Vision

Ask anyone who's devoted their life to the study and appreciation of movies and they can probably tell you exactly when they were "bitten by the movie bug," that moment of personal epiphany that sparked an all-consuming passion for what is arguably the greatest, most powerful medium of artistic expression.

In my case, it was Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" that literally changed my life. That's an influential milestone I share with many cinephiles who came of age in the 1950s and '60s, especially those "movie brats" (among them James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) who were drawn to imaginative visions of the future. Because I'd spent most of my childhood outdoors or casually enjoying Disney films and other kid-friendly fare, I didn't see Kubrick's visionary masterpiece until it played a return engagement at Seattle's glorious Cinerama Theater, in 1971, when I was nine years old.

(With its huge, curved Cinerama screen, the Cinerama is still the only theater in Seattle capable of showing "2001" as Kubrick intended. It exclusively hosted the film's original 77-week Seattle run beginning in April 1968, and the fully restored 70-millimeter print of "2001" had its world premiere there, appropriately enough, in 2001, two years after the aging cinema was purchased and beautifully renovated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It's now one of only three theaters in the world -- along with the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles and the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford England -- equipped to exhibit three-panel Cinerama, requiring three synchronized projectors for the only seven films created in the three-strip Cinerama process, including 1956's "This Is Cinerama" and 1962's "How the West Was Won." Starting this week [Sept. 30th] and running through mid-October, Seattle's Cinerama is hosting a "70mm Festival" of 15 films, including "2001," that originally premiered there.)

Like no other film before it, "2001" opened my eyes to the power of a single artist's vision and led me to understand the supremacy of a great director. I didn't know it then, but I'd discovered the basis of auteur theory, and while it would be foolish to deny that film is (to echo that award-acceptance cliché) the most collaborative of all art forms, it's no contradiction to embrace the Kubrick quote that greets all visitors to kubrickfilms.com, Warner Bros.' authorized Kubrick website: "One man writes a novel. One man writes a symphony. It is essential for one man to make a film." (Disregard "man"; Kubrick would've been the first to include female filmmakers in his statement.)

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Top secret leakage from my 2010 Muriels ballot!

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It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)

You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:

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Outguess Ebert: It's not over till the king speaks

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On the day the Oscar nominations were announced, I made some quick guesses and toyed with the possibility that “True Grit” (2010) might sneak in. I've changed my mind and now agree with the conventional wisdom that “The King's Speech” will be the year's best picture winner. Still, “True Grit” or “The Social Network” could pull off an upset. You might want to consider that when entering the $100,000 Outguess Ebert contest this year.

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The really important Oscars

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There are two of them that matter most to me, I think -- and not in the Best Picture category. ("The King's Speech" over "The Social Network"? Really? I can only shrug. Forget it, Jim -- it's the Academy...) I'm much more interested in seeing Roger Deakins and Skip Lievsay get their due recognition. DP Deakins, unquestionably one of the handful of great cinematographers working today, is nominated for "True Grit" (2010) -- his ninth nomination in 16 years, and he has yet to win. How can this be? For the record, here are the films for which he has been nominated by the Academy: "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," "Kundun," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Man Who Wasn't There" (black-and-white widescreen, my favorite format), "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (both in the same year!), "The Reader" (co-nominated with the also-great Chris Menges, who should have won for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") and now, "True Grit." (What? No nomination for "A Serious Man"?!?!) He also photographed "Sid and Nancy," "Stormy Monday," "Mountains of the Moon," "Homicide," "Barton Fink," "The Secret Garden," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Big Lebowski," among many others.

Watch the impressive featurette/interview above for a few examples of Deakins' brilliance (and, for once, that term is actually intended to refer to the intensity of light!).

The Carpetbagger has a short interview with Deakins today, too (which contains spoilers, although this excerpt does not):

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Oscars: The king vs. the nerds vs. the Rooster

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The 2011 Oscar race seems to be shaping up among the King of England, two nerds, and Rooster Cogburn. "The King's Speech," about George VI's struggle to overcome a stammer, led all nominations with 12. The nerds won eight nominations each for "The Social Network," the story of the founder of Facebook, and "Inception," about a man who hacks into other people's dreams. "The Fighter" followed with seven.

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Can you Outguess Ebert for $100,000?

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Like all film critics, I wait until the last possible moment to make my annual Academy Awards predictions. I ask around, I read, I ponder. I'll do that again this year. But today I'm making my Early Guesses, so you can get a head start at outguessing me in our $100,000 Outguess Ebert Contest.

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National Society: The last best critics awards for 2010

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Above: Best supporting actress winner Olivia Williams, "The Ghost Writer."

"The Social Network" has swept the major critics' groups honors (following NY and LA) with its best picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. From the NSFC website:

The Society, which is made up of 61 of the country's most prominent movie critics, held its 45th annual awards voting meeting at Sardi's Restaurant in New York City. 46 members voted. Scrolls will be sent to the winners.

BEST PICTURE *1. The Social Network 61 2. Carlos 28 3. Winter's Bone 18

BEST DIRECTOR *1. David Fincher 66 - The Social Network 2. Olivier Assayas 36 - Carlos 3. Roman Polanski 29 - The Ghost Writer

BEST ACTOR *1. Jesse Eisenberg 30 - The Social Network 2. Colin Firth 29 - The King's Speech 2. Edgar Ramirez 29 - Carlos

BEST ACTRESS *1. Giovanna Mezzogiorno 33 - Vincere 2. Annette Bening 28 - The Kids Are All Right 3. Lesley Manville 27 - Another Year

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LA & NY crix love The Social Network and Carlos

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According to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, the two best films of 2010 are David Fincher's "The Social Network" and Olivier Assayas's "Carlos." I've no quarrel with that. In fact, those two movies are at the top of a list I made for a critics' poll that will be published any day now because they're both masterful, multi-layered works that I found as stimulating to think about as they are engrossing to watch. Both the LA and NY groups chose "The Social Network" as best picture and "Carlos" as best (and most) foreign-language film -- all five and a half hours and 11 languages: English, French, German, Spanish (with a Venezuelan accent), various dialects of Arabic, Russian, Hungarian, Italian... LAFCA left no doubt about its esteem for both movies, with "Carlos" coming in as first runner-up for best picture and Fincher and Assayas sharing the director's prize. (Both groups also gave "Black Swan" their best cinematography prizes.)

Complete lists of the winners are below, but I wanted to take this opportunity to make some comparisons between these two movies. No, I don't think either of them has much to do with "realism," but both build their disputed nonfictional narrative webs around rather opaque, fictionalized central characters who are seen as heroes by some, villains by others, and neither by the movies themselves. Both "Carlos" (the revolutionary alias of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, played by Edgar Ramirez) and "Mark Zuckerberg" (the Facebook founder played by Jesse Eisenberg) are projections -- like profiles compiled by intelligence agencies or... Facebook pages. Either film could begin with a version of these words, which preface each of the three parts of "Carlos":

This film is the result of historical and journalistic research.

Because of controversial gray areas in Carlos' life, the film must be viewed as fiction, tracing two decades in the life of a notorious terrorist.

His relations with other characters have been fictionalized as well.

The three murders on Rue Toulier are the only events depicted in this film for which Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was tried and sentenced.

The Drugstore Publicis bombing is still under investigation.

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'Precious' wins as many Indie Spirits as it possibly can

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LOS ANGELES -- I wonder what this might mean. "Precious" did about as well as it possibly could have Friday might at the Independent Spirit Awards. It won for best picture, best actress (Gabourey Sidibe), best supporting actress (Mo'Nique), best director (Lee Daniels) and best first screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher). Supporting actor Lenny Kravitz was in the house, but couldn't win because he wasn't nominated.

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Favorite movies of 2009 movie: The commentary track

The first time I made a year-end list for Scanners, I did it by suggesting double-bills of 2006 films with older films (much like what contributors to The Auteurs did this year). In 2007, I made my first year-end movie, inspired by "L'Eclisse," as a tribute to the late Michelangelo Antonioni and a commentary on the WGA strike that was happening at the time. Last year, the concept was based on a shot of Hannah Schygulla, Goddess of Cinema, waking up, looking into the camera (in Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven") and dreaming fragments of the films on my list.

This year, I'm not quite sure how it came together (see opening title), but I took my cue from my favorite movie of the year, the Coens' "A Serious Man." I knew I didn't want to adhere to any rigid countdown hierarchy this time, but to let the movies converse with themselves through images. I chose the word "conversation" knowing there would be no dialog except at the very beginning and the very end, with the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love" (recurring element in "A Serious Man") in between. That gave me approximately 2 minutes and 58 seconds for the montage....

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Comedy of Doubt

John Patrick Shanley's comical film of his four-character Pulitzer-winning play "Doubt" is a flamboyantly theatrical sermon on the virtues of conviction. It should be seen in conjunction with a reading of Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling "Blink" because, no matter what the dialog may tell you, it's more an affirmation of gut instinct than an exploration of the title commodity.

You can see why all the adult principals -- Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller -- have been nominated for Oscars (but is Hoffman's a supporting performance or the male lead?). This is juicy stuff, played to the hilt as you'd expect -- and as much for laughs as for melodrama (which I hadn't expected, but which came as a happy surprise).

If it remains more of a theatrical experience than a cinematic one (despite being photographed by Roger Deakins), that's probably because Shanley's ambitions are limited to delivering the "movie version" of his own hit play. I can imagine "Doubt" working more convincingly in the abstract setting of the stage (though I haven't seen it performed that way), where it sported the subtitle: "A Parable." But there's no doubt it's a bake-sale bonanza for the movie actors, who give overtly stylized performances in realistic settings, all goosed-up with stage flourishes -- thunderstorms and balcony-pitched arias and surprise entrances and exits timed to build tension and frustrate satisfaction. (It's said Shanley added some of these devices just for the movie -- which, if you think about it, is you might expect somebody with an intrinsically theatrical sensibility to do to "open up" a play for film.)

What I didn't expect was the outlandishly broad comedy of Streep's "The Devil Wears a Bonnet" performance. I think that is probably a compliment, and I don't think she's getting enough credit for how funny she is. "Doubt" may be a work that touches on Serious Issues (sex abuse in the church, the evils of gossip, the weighing of greater and lesser sins, the obligations of that come with intuition and experience -- and the paradoxes of doubt) but it's also by the guy who wrote "Moonstruck" and "Joe Versus the Volcano." Streep attacks it with sketch-comedy gusto, and there were whole scenes, memorably the inspection of Sister James' classroom and the high-voltage showdowns between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, when I couldn't stop chortling like a schoolboy. I don't believe my laughter was inappropriate:

Flynn: "Where's your compassion?"

Aloysius: "Nowhere you can get at it."

That's a doozy of a punch line, and Streep knows it. (If I'm wrong about that, then there hasn't been a performance this misconceived since Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest.")

But where does the "doubt" come in?

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Ebert's predix, Oscar's results

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In theory, if I correctly predicted every single Oscar race, nobody could outguess me, and by default, I would win the prize. Alas, that has never, ever happened, and it's unlikely again this year, because as usual I will allow my heart to outsmart my brain in one or two races, which is my annual downfall. In any event, for what they're worth, here are my Academy Award predictions in a year rich with wonderful films.

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And the best Oscar nomination goes to...

Skip Lievsay, sound genius. (photo: Mix Online)

... Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland -- and un-nominated co-conspirator, Carter Burwell -- for sound in "No Country for Old Men"! (See below.)

Meanwhile, I'm happy to see several mildly surprising nominations: Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises"; Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement"; Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild"; "Persepolis" for animated feature. No surprise, and absolutely proper: Roger Deakins for shooting both "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (though I hope they don't cancel each other out). But nothing for "Zodiac"? At the very least it should have received a nomination for its amazing visual effects. But unless you've seen the Director's Cut DVD (or some Digital Domain clips on YouTube) you probably wouldn't have known they were effects. That's how good they are.

Looking at the odds, "Atonement" is an unlikely best picture because its director (Joe Wright) wasn't nominated. "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" lack an editing nomination, which (statistically speaking) is are crucial to winning the top prize. On the other hand, "Michael Clayton" is honored in three acting categories, for George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton -- and guess which branch of the Academy is the biggest? "No Country for Old Men" didn't claim a lead acting slot, perhaps because it's an ensemble piece. If you go strictly by statistically significant nominations, only "There Will Be Blood" has 'em all -- an old-fashioned Hollywood epic built around a big performance (by a previous Oscar winner). But will its unremittingly bleak nihilism (and the bizarre ending that alienated even some admirers) prove too bitter for Academy voters? I dunno.

I just want to take a moment here to acknowledge my favorite nomination. (This is where I congratulate myself on my foresight -- hey, I predicted Tom Wilkinson, too -- even though I'm a lousy Oscar guesser.) Back in September when I first saw "No Country for Old Men" in September, I wrote:

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No Country for Old Literalists

View image Something dark and shapeless approaches in "No Country for Old Men."

"Adapted from what is generally considered a minor Cormac McCarthy novel, 'No Country for Old Men' is a very well-made genre exercise, but I can’t understand why it’s been accorded so much importance, unless it’s because it strokes some ideological impulse."

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Here's where I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum on the Coen brothers' new movie: 1) it is based on a ("minor") novel by Cormac McCarthy; 2) it is a very well-made genre picture; and 3) Rosenbaum does not understand why it has been accorded so much importance. When Rosenbaum says the only way he can account for the critical response to "No Country for Old Men" (and "The Silence of the Lambs" before it) is to assume it's "because it strokes some ideological impulse," I believe he means what he says even though I don't know what he thinks he's trying to say. [Rosenbaum responds, in comments below that "the core of my argument [is] the occupation of Iraq and the daily killings and torture that we simultaneously support and strive to ignore."]

His review is based on the assumption, stated in the third paragraph, that "No Country For Old Men," is a "psycho killer" movie like "Silence of the Lambs," which it most emphatically is not. It is a genre movie, but Rosenbaum gets the genre(s) wrong. It's a noirish crime thriller and a western and a detective story. (The Library of Congress catalogues the book under "drug traffic," "treasure-trove," "sheriffs" and "Texas.") But the motives of Chigurh (Javier Bardem's character) have nothing to do with the psychology of a serial killer like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates or Michael Meyers. There's no psychologist on the scene to explain him ("What does he seek?," as Lecter puts it), because he is not compelled to kill and he derives no pleasure from it and he does not choose his victims or his methods according to some profile or pattern.

Chigurh is out to retrieve a MacGuffin (briefcase full of cash), and he simply eliminates anything or anyone that gets in his way, using whatever means are available to him. The plain fact that he favors an efficient tool for quickly dispatching cattle (something not uncommon in Texas ranch country) reinforces how little emotion he attaches to the killing of most of his victims. He'll just as soon strangle them or shoot them. Or maybe he won't, if he has nothing to gain. He doesn't fit Rosenbaum's profile any more than he fits the ones Law Enforcement initially tries to impose upon him in the movie.

As for Rosenbaum's confession -- "I can’t understand why it’s been accorded so much importance, unless it’s because it strokes some ideological impulse" -- I can only wonder what that ideological impulse might be, but it's clear Rosenbaum does not succumb to it. Do those who accord the film importance even know that their response is based on an ideological impulse?

I remember writing something similar about "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Back to the Future" in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan presented us with "Morning in America," which meant that the way to face the present and the future was to return to an idealized fantasy version of the past. Heck, it wasn't even too late to retroactively win in Vietnam! (Never mind that John Rambo was a psychologically disturbed Vietnam vet in the first movie.)

Rosenbaum compares Chigurh to the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which is an illuminating comparison, though not necessarily for the reasons he gives: In O’Connor’s vision, perfectly captured in a mere 16 pages, the Misfit is an emblem of religious despair, but in the less considered genre mechanics of Cormac McCarthy and the Coens, religious despair is nothing more than an alibi for violence. It’s invoked as a way of covering all the bases, tapping into fundamentalist fatalism without really buying into it."Religious despair"? "Fundamentalist fatalism"? Loaded terms, but they reflect a very limited reading of O'Connor and McCarthy and the Coens, of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "No Country for Old Men." Perhaps if Chigurh needs to be reduced to an "emblem" of something, it's ruthless, indifferent force in the single-minded pursuit of any goal (religious, financial, political, genocidal). Some people would define that as the nature of "evil."

I've read two or three other bewildered reviews of "No Country for Old Men" that concentrate on the plot and/or Javier Bardem's haircut, or how the stuff they think is supposed to be funny isn't funny to them. And everybody -- even those who really don't approve one bit -- want to assure their readers that the Coens and DP Roger Deakins are technically proficient, which tells us almost exactly nothing except that they think it has "beautiful cinematography" or something equally meaningless. But, fine, if that's what somebody feels the need to write about in response to this movie, then that is evidently what they have to say about it, and that's that.

I have more to say, but I would like to refresh my memory of the movie, which I saw once last September near the beginning of the Toronto Film Festival. Here's something from my initial (preemptively defensive) response back then: "No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.Those words were written in the thrall of the movie, and I stand by them. Rosenbaum begins his review with a quote from George Orwell:The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.So... "No Country For Old Men" should be pulled down because it is a cinematic concentration camp? What of those who don't recognize a good wall when they see it, and mistake it for something it is not? What if they think they're pulling down a concentration camp wall, but it's actually a New Orleans levee and there's a hurricane on the way? What if they think it's a terrorist outpost and they bust down the walls only to discover it's really the home of an Iraqi family? What if the sturdy walls and magnificent arches of the Mezquita de Cordoba are left standing after the Moors are vanquished and the Christians build an elaborate Baroque Cathedral smack in the middle of the mosque?

Enough word games. More later...

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TIFF 2007: The Coens = the essence of movies

View image You see it or you don't.

Toronto's is an international film festival, and naturally the films are shot in locations all over the world. But one thing so many of the best films in this year's fest have in common (a thing all great films have in common) is not the places in which they're shot, or set, but the places they create, and pull you into. These aren't travelogues. The films are the places, whether the geographical locations exist independently of the pictures or not.

There's Texas and there's Mexico and there's "No Country for Old Men."

Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell begins Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" with an elegiac monologue about missing the "old times." His words are spoken over a montage of western landscapes in blazing oranges and reds (the incomparable Roger Deakins is the DP). By the end of this reverie, we're no longer in the past but in the harsh daylight of the present, and the color has drained from the images. The way Ed Tom sees it, he's outmatched in the modern world where violence is random, unmotivated, and unpredictable.

Within moments we see a shocking example of what he's talking about, as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) strangles a man on the linoleum floor of an office, his dead yellow eyes fixed on the ceiling. That's a terrifying touch: Chigurth doesn't even look at his victim, even while he's garroting the guy. And then, one of those Coen touches: a shot of the floor, covered with a mess of black heel marks from the killer and his prey.

"No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.

A moment here to celebrate the genius of one of the greatest talents in motion pictures, supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, who has worked with the Coens (and Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and others) since way back before the mosquito buzzing and peeling wallpaper of "Barton Fink." Since the bug zapper in "Blood Simple," in fact. Also, composer Carter Burwell ("Psycho III"!) has been associated with the Coens for just as long. He's credited with the music in "No Country," too, but it's to his merit that I don't even recall any music in the picture -- except for one memorably Coen-esque appearance by a mariachi band.

When I read Cormac McCarthy's novel, it struck me as a Coen screenplay just waiting to become a Coen film. Indeed, by that time it already was. And it could serve as a model of prose-to-film adaptation, choosing exactly the right moments and movements for the picture, and leaving alone others that are better suited to literature. (This is especially true of some very savvy omissions in the latter part of the movie.)

"No Country for Old Men" makes me want to echo Jean-Luc Godard's famous celebration of Nicholas Ray: "Le cinéma est les Coens!"

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