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No Country For Old Men (#110 of 20)

Review: Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies

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Review: Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies
Review: Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies

Douglas Brode’s newest book, Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies, isn’t just an impressive panoply of discussions across a breadth of westerns from the entirety of the genre’s cinematic existence, but also a fascinating political inquiry, meant to question precisely “the belief that bygone Western texts offer a ’red-state’ vision.” Unlike many an academic survey monograph that gets bogged down by reveling in hundreds of film titles without providing any substantive examinations to excuse the unchecked cinephilia, Brode deftly allows his text to double as both an introduction to the genre and a rigorous explanation for numerous westerns as progressive or, at least, ambivalent texts. He specifically questions why Tea Party members seek “the charming fabrications of the 20th century in which artists and entertainers of varied creative gifts rewrote the American experience from the nineteenth century in romanticized terms” and why they believe this “ought to be the source of our daily political and religious lifestyles in the twenty-first.” Viewed in tandem with Russell Meeuf’s recent John Wayne’s World, these texts provide the means to begin understanding the classical Hollywood western less as a conservative genre and more as one actively seeking to understand and define contemporary American life.

Oscar Prospects: The Master

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Oscar Prospects: The Master
Oscar Prospects: The Master

Time will tell if the Academy’s newest rule adjustment will throw off the mojo of latecomers like Les Misérables, but it’s sure to benefit a movie like The Master, which has graciously offered voters several months to see it before casting their ballots. Often, such an early-season release would carry the risk of a loss of steam, and that may well be the fate of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, but it seems there are too many Oscar-friendly factors at play here to doubt the movie’s long-term clout. The cast is smack-dab in Oscar’s comfort zone, the Scientology parallels are present enough to offer some baity relevance, and with critical champions like A.O. Scott, the film has the reviews it needs to make it a veritable must-see, even if it’s not being gushed over quite like There Will Be Blood. There is the consideration that the Oscars aren’t what they were in 2007, when critically adored fare aligned with Academy favorites, and a curio like the saga of Daniel Plainview could go toe-to-toe with the elliptical nihilism of No Country for Old Men. But, then, The Master isn’t in the same key as its predecessor either, and if anything, its rather straightforward narrative makes it Anderson’s most accessible film since Boogie Nights. Though likely not a top-five contender, the movie’s Best Picture nomination chances look fairly solid at the moment, boosted by a very impressive box-office performance.

Poster Lab: Savages

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Poster Lab: <em>Savages</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Savages</em>

It’s probably not a good sign that the poster for Oliver Stone’s Savages makes a perfect column subject for Easter Sunday. By most evidence, this isn’t a movie that wants to be associated with jelly beans and Marshmallow Peeps; however, the egg-dye color palette of one-sheet number one would beg to differ. Cut this image along the lines that divvy it into seven slices, and you’ve got instant sleeves for the hard-boiled beauties you dunked in vinegar last night. This isn’t the first time a poster for an Oliver Stone film used vibrant hues to herald something largely dark (the ads for The Doors and Natural Born Killers went that route at one stage or another), but it is the first time the poster seems wildly out of step with what it’s selling. Yes, Blake Lively’s hippie-ish character, O, is prone to snorting coke, but that’s not exactly the sort of candy this glossy collage appears to promise.

Based on Don Winslow’s lauded 2010 novel of the same name, Savages is a crime-filled, drug-loaded drama unfolding across sun-soaked California and Mexico. Its cast? A bevy of ’90s megastars who dabbled on the pulpy fringes (John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro), and a smattering of camera-ready, pore-free, in-demand hotties (Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Emile Hirsch). On second thought, perhaps that color scheme isn’t so off the mark after all.

Take Two #14: The Ladykillers (1955) & The Ladykillers (2004)

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Take Two #14: <em>The Ladykillers</em> (1955) & <em>The Ladykillers</em> (2004)
Take Two #14: <em>The Ladykillers</em> (1955) & <em>The Ladykillers</em> (2004)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

True Grit has been rightfully celebrated for the last few months, though few critics have expressed the appropriate surprise at how well this remake turned out. Lest we forget, the last time the Coen brothers remade someone else’s movie, they churned out their unquestionable worst, a juvenile reimagining of Alexander Mackendrick’s scabrous Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Technically, True Grit is less a movie remake than a second try at filming the wonderful Charles Portis source novel, but the irony here is that the Coens’ Ladykillers is a more ambitious, clever concept for a film than their admittedly beautiful western. Alas, the movie itself is utterly half-assed, the only time that can be said of a Coen brothers picture.

The Mackendrick film’s plot and imagery both rely on the timely, English steam trains that always seem to be within earshot of the action, and the Coens found a wonderful cultural-historical parallel by setting the new movie along the Mississippi River. It was equally thoughtful to cast Tom Hanks, a kind of American Alec Guinness, to play the Guinness role, particularly since both actors clearly relish every ludicrous line of dialogue as they play scheming villains against type. And the occasional performance scenes of a black gospel choir are some of the most purely joyful, documentary moments in any Coen brothers film. But the filmmakers apparently made a few excellent artistic decisions and then phoned everything else in.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions Sound Mixing

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

Conventional wisdom says that one film wins both sound awards only about half the time. Which means betting on double ups makes only a little more sense than betting on a Picture-Director split. Since nearly everyone this year is doing just that, we feel a little safer presuming that Christopher Nolan’s moody, pretentious apparatus is the frontrunner for both Best Sound Editing as well as Best Sound Mixing. Do we wish a musical had somehow found its way into the mix here to make our job easier, even one as nontraditional as, say, the fluttering Black Swan? You bet your ears, especially since it’s difficult to tell when exactly voters will clean out theirs and back superior, if less showy, mixes like those accompanying The Social Network and True Grit. They heard beyond the sound and fury last year when they awarded The Hurt Locker, but were deaf to the positively terrifying environment of No Country for Old Men. Which goes to show that the only barometer less reliable than worrying about what’s going on over in Best Sound Editing is to consider the dynamics guiding Best Picture. Not that that’s going to stop us, especially not this year when we’re looking at maybe the biggest sweep since Peter Jackson’s hobbits stormed the Kodak. When Ed and I were comparing notes the other day to see just how many awards we had The King’s Speech penciled in for wins, we realized the projected tally had ballooned to eight. We weren’t including this category in that count because, well, aside from its reasonably impressive simulations of early microphone technology, the movie’s focus is on the sounds that don’t happen than those that do. Still, Harvey Weinstein turned The English Patient’s dozen nominations into nine Oscars, and the ninth…was in this category. Consider us nervous.

In Anticipation of True Grit

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In Anticipation of <em>True Grit</em>
In Anticipation of <em>True Grit</em>

Charles Portis, the author of the original incarnation of the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a one-eyed U.S. Marshal to avenge her father’s death, started his writing career as a journalist in Arkansas after serving as a sergeant in the Korean War. The novel, entitled True Grit, was his second, but it wasn’t until after a fruitful career with the New York Herald Tribune at their London desk that Portis returned to his home state and started to write fiction. Despite leaving his foreign correspondent’s post, Portis retained his beat reporter’s precise attention to detail, as the book is filled with accurate period parlance, historical allusion, and “research” done by the narrator, Ross. In fact, True Grit saw its first publication in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968, which is fitting considering the heroine’s own penchant for journalism and the field of reporting.

Mattie’s attention to detail and use of newspaper clippings to back up her tale is pleasurable, even as she tells the tale from a quarter century down the road. We are introduced to her avenging Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, through a partial transcript of a court hearing, which she managed to dig up from old newspaper archives. The adult Mattie concedes that she did this while researching an article she wrote, entitled, rather verbosely, “You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.”

You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

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You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade
You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

[Editor’s Note: This article is cross-published at Directorama.]

People who know me realize I’m not much of a list-maker. My peculiar taste is suspiciously mood-specific and based on private obsessions that are ever-evolving (just like everyone else’s, for that matter), so numbering favorites is about as pointless to me as, say, a Stephen Sommers remake of Howard the Duck to mankind. Then again… what is life but a string of silly exercises?

I started making this list just to see if I could. I do not claim to have seen every worthwhile film this decade. I do not claim to have the authority to tell you what you should like. I do not believe in objective valuation and it doesn’t think highly of me either. But I might be the guy to convince you to see something you may have dismissed or overlooked. In any case, beware of superlatives.

A Perspective on Aughts Culture

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A Perspective on Aughts Culture
A Perspective on Aughts Culture

I haven’t seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive since it was released in theaters in 2001, but I saw it twice on the big screen then, and I remember it vividly. There are some dead ends in the narrative, and these dead ends are what people seize on when they criticize the film, but there are scenes and moments in Mulholland Drive that strike me as classic: Naomi Watts’s audition setpiece, where we realize that her character is a fine actress, or maybe just dreams of herself as a fine actress. The rapture of the sex scene Watts shares with Laura Harring. The impatient look on an aged Ann Miller’s face as she stares at Watts at a party near the end. Most of all, though, I remember the face and the voice of Rebekah Del Rio as she sings Roy Orbison’s hit “Crying” a cappella, in Spanish, her voice soaring out from some deep place within her and lingering in the air like a taunt of emotional defiance. I’m not sure how Mulholland Drive would look to me now that this decade is ending, but I thought at the time that it was the best film I had seen that had been made after the year of my birth, 1977, which saw the unfortunate debut of Star Wars.

House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

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House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)
House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

[Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural installment of a new House feature compiling links to reviews of new and recent theatrical films playing in North America. It is intended as a sampling of critical opinion and not a guide to theaters because, hey, it’s a big world. If we’ve left out any titles, or if you’d like to call our attention to a noteworthy review, feel free to leave a comment below.]

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Picture

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Picture

Though we’ve kicked Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger’s teeth in when it comes to the overall number of correct predictions for the last few years, our track record has unfortunately not extended to the Best Picture category. (Not that Brokeback Mountain helped anyone two years ago; and we can’t necessarily be blamed for, after Crash’s victory, assuming the worst a year later with Babel’s stack of nominations.) Another year, another seemingly soft frontrunner in this category. But if we’re going down, we’re going down with the rest of the Oscar-fluffing bitches. So who are we to argue that, after recent wins by The Departed and Million Dollar Baby, Oscar voters might not continue feeling all 1970s about themselves, choosing yet another arty, bloody, masterfully directed anti-actioneer? (If Atonement is in the fifth-wheel slot, it’s not only because of its lack of a Best Director nod, but also because the template for a Best Picture has perceptibly shifted away from Merchant-Ivory Land, to the delight of IMDB voters everywhere.) That’s the hitch, though. This year sees two equally-nominated, equally-beloved, equally-backlashed jocksterpieces duking it out. No Country for Old Men has settled in as the Best Picture-elect, and the Coens hold a far more esteemed cachet than Paul Thomas Anderson, but their film’s implosive anti-climax can’t just be shrugged off. Atonement and Michael Clayton’s nominations suggest there are still some voters who prefer their Best Picture contenders to suck them off until the money shot, preferably if it kills off either a woman or a woman’s career aspirations. Say what you will about the “Show me the MILKSHAKE!” corniness of There Will Be Blood’s last scene, the movie does decisively not end on a question mark. Neither, for that matter, does Juno, which lamely and writerly pays off on its promise to begin and end with a chair (unfortunately not one wired for 2,000 volts). But if the perhaps more beloved Little Miss Sunshine couldn’t hustle its way to a big win last year against an arguably weaker field, don’t expect a chick flick to deflate the dickless Oscar’s hard-on for manly bluster. We can’t be wrong three years in a row. There Will Be Testosterone.