Once again, there are only two films opening locally on Friday, Dec. 7, which makes my life easier. The Golden Compass, the first installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, stars Nicole Kidman, the most recent "Bond Girl" Eva Green, Daniel Craig and Sam Elliot in a fantasy tale involving alternate universes and kidnapped children, all helmed by writer/director Chris Weitz (About a Boy). Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. 123 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a crime thriller where the crime is a family affair. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a broker without money, so he persuades his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him rob their parent's jewelry store. Of course, things go horribly wrong. On top of that, Andy's wife (Marisa Tomei) is having an affair with Hank. As much a morality tale as crime story, this film, with its fine cast, looks promising. Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language. 127 m. At the Minor.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium" begins with the line "That is no country for old men," which provides the title for Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel now made into an impressive film by Joel and Ethan Coen. The second verse continues, "An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick." Indeed, the stark, terrifying and violent universe that McCarthy creates in his novel is no place for old men or for hardly anyone else, including dogs.
The novel is told primarily in a dispassionate third-person voice with intermixed passages of the sheriff's reminiscences of his past. What is remarkable about the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men is that, more than most films, it recreates the voice of the novel not with dialog but with precise and effective composition, editing, lighting and sound. Any film, of course, operates with images, but seldom have I seen a film where those images are so artfully employed in the service of capturing the essence of the original material.
Set in New Mexico near the Mexican border, the narrative follows three interconnected stories: that of hunter and Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin: Melinda and Melinda, Grindhouse), about-to-retire Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and the eerie sociopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem: The Sea Inside, Love in a Time of Cholera). The event that connects these three lives is a drug deal gone bad.
While hunting, Moss comes across the dead bodies from the attempted drug transaction and discovers two million dollars, which he takes. The sheriff investigates the crime. The wild card, though, is Anton, who is hired to recover the money and it is his chillingly implacable hunt and the path of destruction he leaves in his wake that animates the story.
Bardem, with a very strange haircut, utilizes a voice for his character that is totally devoid of feeling; he could be dryly reciting an encyclopedia entry about the effect of gamma rays on cell growth. The effect is calmly scary and the people he encounters in the story only realize their danger when it's too late.
Brolin and Jones are equally effective. Brolin's Moss is a man suited to the harsh country where he lives. Sheriff Bell is a man caught between the present and past; Jones nicely humanizes a person who thinks he's seen it all.
The film's initial images, unadorned shots of a bleak landscape, nicely set the narrative tone. Individual scenes are quietly effective. When Moss waits in a darkened motel room holding a sawed-off shotgun while Anton lurks in the hall, the viewer hears the quiet creaking of the floor and nothing else, a scene reminiscent of one in a classic film noir.
The Coens seem to have a particular affinity for crime stories (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller's Crossing) on which they put their individual stamp of mixing horror and humor. That style continues in No Country for Old Men, and in McCarthy they have found their perfect literary counterpart.
Not everyone will enjoy this film, as I discovered when I had a breakfast conversation with my favorite Alibi film-fan waitperson. The film is violent, slow-moving and lacks traditional closure. But if I were voting right now for Best Direction for the 2008 Oscars, it would be the Coens, hands down. Few directors know their craft as well, and fewer still can use that craft to create a work of art.
When Sheriff Bell leaves the courtroom for the final time in the novel, there is this observation: "He'd felt like this before but not in a long time and when he said that, then he knew what it was. It was defeat. It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death." The film perfectly captures this feeling. Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. 132 m. At the Broadway.
AWAKE: There's nothing quite like the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. The not-previewed-for-critics Awake uses the condition of "anesthesia awareness" as its plot device and, indeed, there are websites devoted to this apparently very real phenomenon wherein a patient is actually awake during surgery but can hear and feel everything although the anesthetic renders the patient unable to communicate this fact.
The viewer is informed of this information in a title at the beginning of the film but, in fact, it's just an excuse for a poorly written and executed thriller. Perhaps the fact that nothing else in the film makes much sense, medical or otherwise, prompted the information title. Young, rich Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen: Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Warstrilogy) has everything except a healthy heart. Among the things he has is his controlling mother Lilith's (Lena Olin) fetching secretary Sam (Jessica Alba), although this is still on the sly.
He is also on the heart donor list and is set to go with his surgeon and friend Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard, who manages to maintain his dignity in this sorry exercise) as soon as an appropriate heart can be found. Lilith, however, wants a world-class surgeon to perform the transplant, a suggestion Clay resists. Even more unwisely, he marries Sam on the eve of his operation.
Most of the film consists of Clay's spirit, or whatever, wandering around the hospital during the procedure unable to communicate to anyone what is happening in the operating room. Along with this film, being awake but paralyzed during heart transplant surgery has got to be a viewer's worst nightmare, and that's only the half of it. The ending is so absurd that it's beyond laughable.
I suppose it would be mean-spirited to suggest that some of the Hollywood writers now on strike might beneficially use their down time to improve their craft. At any rate, this film did confirm one thing for me: I'd rather have Olin's heart than Alba's body any day. Rated R for language, an intense disturbing situation and brief drug use. 94 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
3:10 TO YUMA: Remake of the 1957 Western that made "yuma" universal Cuban slang for "America." Stars R. Crowe, C. Bale. Rated R. 117 m. At The Movies.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.Love story set in the 1960s amid war protests, mind exploration and rock 'n' roll.Rated PG-13. 134 m. At the Minor and The Movies.
AMERICAN GANGSTER.True, juggernaut success story of cult crime hero from the streets of 1970s Harlem. Rated R. 157 m. At the Broadway.
AUGUST RUSH.A street musician in New York that was orphaned by circumstance, August Rush uses his talents to find the parents from whom he was separated at birth. Rated PG. 113 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
BEE MOVIE.A bee, disillusioned with the prospect of never-ending honey collection, breaks bee rules and talks to a human. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
BEOWULF.The mighty warrior Beowulf slays the demon Grendel and incurs the wrath of its monstrous yet seductive mother, in a conflict that transforms king into legend. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
DAN IN REAL LIFE.Advice columnist is expert on relationships, but struggles to succeed as brother, son and single parent. RatedPG-13. 98 m. At The Movies and Fortuna.
ENCHANTED.A fairytale princess changes her views on life and love after being thrust into present-day New York City by an evil queen. Rated PG. 108 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
FRED CLAUS.Saint Nick's rabble-rousing big brother Fred jeopardizes the jolliest holiday of the year, Christmas. Rated PG. 116 m. At Fortuna and the Broadway.
GAME PLAN. Superstar quarterback (T. Rock) discovers he has a daughter. Rated PG. 110 m. At The Movies.
HITMAN.Agent 47, a professional assassin, gets caught up in a political takeover and is pursued across Eastern Europe by Interpol and the Russian Military. Rated R. 100 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
INTO THE WILD. College grad abandons his material possessions then hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wild. Rated R. 149 m. At the Minor.
MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM.Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a strange, fantastic and magical toy store where everything comes to life. Rated G. 94 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
STEPHEN KING'S THE MIST.A small town comes under attack by creatures prowling in a thick, unnatural mist said to be originating from a nearby, top-secret military base. Rated R. 127 m. At the Broadway.
THIS CHRISTMAS.The Whitfield family reunites for Christmas with emotional baggage in tow. Rated PG. 119 m. At The Movies.