No Country for Old Men

November 28, 2007

The first thing you notice is the quiet. You forget how crucial, how instrumental (pun, I admit it, intended) a movie’s score is, until you barely hear one. Would Jaws have been nearly as scary without those thumping beats? Is Darth Vader as imposing and intimidating without John Williams’s triumphant, lordly intro?

Thrillers and horror in particular make use of music’s impact – telling you when to feel worried (that crescendo of anticipatory sound), and when to realize it’s over through the film’s score. In fact, the only silence you usually get in these film genres is that heartbeat before something attacks, the crescendo and then the hush before the blow.

Yes, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men does have a score – it says so in the credits (and it’s apparently composed by Carter Burwell, a Coen staple) – but I can’t for the life of me think where it was. Fortunately for my sanity, I’m not the only one; The New Yorker calls the score “little more than a fitful murmur.”

The lack of sound does something both freeing and frightfully disturbing: it makes you feel for yourself. The score doesn’t tell you when the implacable, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (a darkly humorous and impassive, walking undead Javier Bardem, with that now infamous head of hair) is going to attack – there is no build up, no musical signals to warn you about what is going to happen. Just like Chigurh’s odes to Two-Face (he too sometimes flips a coin to decide a victim’s fate), just like life, the musical score, or lack thereof, lets you feel the full impact of randomness, helplessness, and the petrifying nature of an unknown future, whether that future is one second or one lifetime away.

The score also has an accomplice in No Country‘s dialogue and cinematography. There is no real shouting, no screaming for blood or mercy. Lots of grunting though, accompanied by some knowing smiles and measured talk. There are also barely any camera shots that anticipate what’s going to happen, no panning out to show you that there is probably something or someone lurking just out of sight, in that dark corner of the garage. It shows you what’s happening, the faces of the people involved and the lifeless, stretching scenery around them, and that’s about it. What comes, comes.

And that’s the soul of this disquieting (sorry, just couldn’t stop myself) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It’s quiet, deliberate, direct, unflinching; an unguided tour of flat, dispassionate reality. Well, almost unguided, anyway. The closest thing you get to a guide is the sheriff, played with deep sadness and one eyebrow raised by Tommy Lee Jones. But even as he narrates portions of the tale, the sheriff, on the trail of Chigurh and that killer’s own target Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), doesn’t know what’s coming any more than you do. As he himself says, he’s “outmatched.”

The story of a man, Moss, who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad (it’s so bad even the dog is dead) and thinks he can get away with its left-behind spoils of 2 million bucks, No Country coolly states that this is the way things are, or can be, take it or leave it. As Moss runs from Chigurh’s relentless hired killer, you sometimes think he’s in (way) over his head, but sometimes not. You are sometimes sure Chigurh is going to attack with that cattle gun, and sometimes not. You sometimes think Moss and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) will maybe, just maybe get to enjoy the money in the end, but often not. It’s bleak, but it’s not apologetic. It just is.

Which is why the appearance of Woody Harrelson’s cocky hired gun (Carson Wells) in a sleek, big city office, sitting before Stephen Root’s sleek, big city desk (he probably has 50 red staplers in there) seems so out of place. Wait, is this a movie again? Nothing against Woody, or certainly cult fave Root as a drug businessman, but their polished Hollywood demeanor, with Woody’s cool drawl, feels like a whole different movie. From the silent tumbleweeds of reality to the glossy halls of a Hollywood drug man is a bit of an unsettling leap for this darkly murmuring film.

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Holiday Gift Guide 2007: the movie edition

November 27, 2007

By now, you’ve probably seen at least several hundred of these (I could be exaggerating – but sadly, or disturbingly, I don’t think so). But hey, what’s one more to add to the pile?

See, I like to wait until the web is totally oversaturated with exactly the same content to publish my own contribution to the excess. Or for the precise moment when many people don’t even want to think about shopping for a whole ‘nother week after spending six hours standing outside of Best Buy in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving (you know who you are) – and then walking home, uphill, hopefully in the snow. In any case, I find it much more thrillingly extraneous that way. Or so I tell myself.

With that said, here are some of my own recommendations for what to get that incurable movie fanatic you know and love. I mean, there’s bound to be at least one in every family, right? Or am I just writing my own holiday wish list? Well, either way – hopefully my family is paying attention…

(all prices are retail, and thus pre-any sort of discount, such as the standard Amazon deductions)

Stocking stuffers

Or gifts for the other seven nights. Or, well, whatever the case may be. You get the idea.

Pure fun miscellany – If you’re in New York, buy a can of EVIL, some powdered antimatter and other superhero stuff at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store. If you’re in San Francisco, buy pirate goodies at the Pirate Supply Store. Seattle: space travel necessities at the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. LA or Ann Arbor: time travel essentials (Echo Park Time Travel Mart) and monsters-in-your-closet supplies (The International Monsters Union) respectively.

Sound far-fetched? Fortunately for kids at heart everywhere (and, of course, actual kids), it’s not! For more information on these real life stores, click here.

Gift cards – If you don’t live in any of these cities, or don’t have easy access to one of them, there are, of course, many alternatives.

A Netflix gift subscription is always a fun option (and addictive, I’m on my, um, 23rd month or so past the three I originally got as a gift), and a gift certificate for a movie theater chain is easy, affordable and flexible. Almost all movie theaters have them, even the most staunchly independent ones. With ticket prices soaring to $11 (and no matinees) in cities like New York, and that’s not including the $4.50 small popcorn, your friend or family member will thank you.

And of course, finally, an iTunes gift certificate will let them download their favorite movies onto that new iPod nano you caved in and got them.

The book Cinescopes: what your favorite movies reveal about you – One of those “laugh over after opening and then forget” presents (we’ve all gotten them), it’s nonetheless the type of gift we all need during holiday bonding time with the family. $14.95 at Kitson.

DVDs – Basic, yes, but certainly not the easy way out. Individual DVDs are the fun, simple item that many people want but don’t want to actually spend the extra cash on to get themselves. I mean, really, you’re doing them a favor.

Solid

Candy Princess Kit – If you just can’t deal with one more Disney Princesses toy in your home, but someone you know is desperate for something royal after seeing Enchanted, try this fun gift basket ($50) from the famous Willy Wonka-esque candy store, Dylan’s Candy Bar. Sure, you won’t be able to drag the recipient from the walls, but most of it will probably be gone by the next morning. It includes pretty much everything you could ever think of that involves a Disney princess and sugar.

Film journal – I think we can all agree that no one actually uses these, apart from that diligently filled out first entry, of course. But if you have a Phoebe Cates fan on your list, you can cleverly point out that this elegant film journal ($45.00) came from her boutique in New York. That’s practically 3 degrees of separation!

Books and graphic novels – Sure, books that have recently been turned into films make great gifts, but if you understandably want to avoid the “Oh… Great… A book… Thanks…” response, check out these bound alternatives.

Stardust – The fairy tale (but not, I repeat not, with Disney’s G-rated fairies) graphic novel on which the Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer special effects flight of fancy is based.

300 – Before it was an ultraviolent, testerone-fueled box office heavyweight, it was an ultraviolent, testerone-fueled graphic novel about the historic battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece (it’s almost an educational book, really…). Other novels by Hollywood golden boy Frank Miller that have been adapted into film: Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns (not directly, but still very influential; see Tim Burton’s Batman)

Scott Pilgrim – Get a jump start on this 2009 film by reading the indie graphic novel on which it’s based. A boy must fight off his new girlfriend’s 7 evil exes – tongue-in-cheek, martial arts video game style. Vol. 4 just came out, but for you newbies, start with – what else? – Vol. 1.

Pretty much anything by Alan Moore – Disgruntled Hollywood golden boy Moore has written the graphic novels that inspired The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and the upcoming Watchmen (2009).

If books are in the cards, however, try these:

His Dark Materials – Controversy or not, these elegant, and at times emotionally wrenching, tales for young adults are a must for fantasy fans. The first book in this three volume series by Philip Pullman is the basis for the new Golden Compass epic film.

No Country for Old Men – It has certainly been Cormac McCarthy’s year. Between the Pulitzer and Oprah’s Book Club selection for his bleak The Road and the critical acclaim for the film adaptation of No Country‘s disturbing tale, McCarthy is having a good holiday.

Beowulf – Lure them in with Angelina Jolie, keep them (for a time at least) with Seamus Heaney’s actually intelligible translation of the classic English poem. And no, this is not just my own revenge for having to read this in high school – after all, my class didn’t just read it. We had to listen to it read to us in Old English, with a lyre, for hours. Well, maybe I should take back that revenge comment…

Why not?

“Ultimate” DVD collections – They’re hefty, pricey and they’ve got that “cool, lots of stuff” factor. As a very early collector of the comics, I’m partial to the Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition ($99.98 – but phew, not $100!), which comes with 14 discs (including the Richard Donner version of Superman II and loads of extras) and total non-portability.

But perhaps your gift recipient is a Bond fan? Check out the James Bond Ultimate Collector’s Set ($289.98) with its whopping 42 discs (Never Say Never Again and other “unofficials” not included).

As for me, I’m actually hoping for the collector’s set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – was that too subtle of a hint? Mom?

Other “Ultimates”:
Blade Runner Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition ($78.92) comes in one of those super spy, I’m handcuffed to this, shiny metal briefcases. Ooo, shiny.
Essential Art House – 50 Years of Janus Films ($850) might break the bank, but with 50 discs, you get a huge slice of indie film history all in one place.

Portable DVD player – A bit of a classic but always a good choice. I got one of these (plus that Netflix subscription) one year for the holidays and it was the best day (almost better than a basket of mini-muffins – sorry, in an oblique references to Friends mood) … Ah, materialism. For one that will last you beyond the next year’s holiday season, expect to pay about $150 and up.

Movie magazine subscription – Something they will literally enjoy (or at least receive) for a year. They range from mainstream (Entertainment Weekly) to humorously British (my favorite, Empire) to Hollywood (Variety). Depending on seasonal offers, a year’s subscription can run anywhere from about $20-40 (EW) to over $150 (international subscribers to Empire). For more film magazine options, click here.

Video editing software – For the aspiring filmmaker. Expect to pay around $70-$100 (from what I can tell). For help picking the right one (who can tell them all apart? capability to do what exactly?), if your budding director hasn’t given you very specific requests, go here for PC Mag’s detailed guide to buying video editing software.

The holidays only come once a year… right?

Maya and RenderMan – If you know someone who is really (really, really) into 3D animation – like, “Pixar or bust” into animation – then they are probably drooling over these computer programs, if they don’t have them already. Autodesk’s Maya software, “the current king-of-the-hill in high-end 3D animation software” (according to 3DRender.com), is the program to beat, and since you can’t get more name-brand than Pixar, throw the 3D animation king’s own rendering software into the mix as well with their RenderMan for Maya product.

Of course, you get what you pay for, and sadly, you will pay for these products: at about $4,000 and $1,000 respectively, these pricey animation gifts clearly eliminate any need for additional stocking stuffers – or any gifts for the next 10 years, for that matter.

James Bond accessories – Sure, that Ultimate DVD set is nice and all, but why just watch Bond when you can look like him? Check out Bond Lifestyle to find the stuff that the movie spy and his associates actually use and wear. Items range from the Omega watch seen in Casino Royale (about $2,500) to Brioni suits ($5,000-ish) to a sterling silver Aston Martin keychain (approx. $400).

The site also includes a list of the watches worn in the 007 films. They probably won’t shoot darts or help unzip a dress (not literally anyway), but nothing’s perfect. For a history of Bond watches, click here.

That Ferrari you’ve always wanted

Now that winning a part in a Will Ferrell movie is off the market, what gifts are there for a movie lover to dream about – or actually purchase, for those ridiculously wealthy people out there (any lottery ticket now!)?

Design your own Star Trek apartment – Although the original sold for over $800,000, get your own room, house or apartment transformed into an insanely authentic replica of the Star Trek starship by the guy who built it. No joke – if you haven’t seen pictures of what this guy did to his apartment, click here now to visit his official “24th Century Interior Design” website.

Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane Oscar – On December 11th, Sotheby’s is auctioning off the only Oscar that this über-acclaimed flick ever won (believe it or not): Best Writing, Original Screenplay. The Oscar was shared by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. It’s expected to fetch around $1 million, but $800,000 at the very least. Steep, you say? Well, there’s nothing like literally holding Oscar glory in the palm of your hand. Or at least, Sotheby’s hopes so.

Home movie theater – Sure, that 60″ flat screen is nice, but really, it’s got nothing on a full-on luxury movie theater in your own home. In the US, companies like Gramophone, Sound Image and New England’s Home Entertainment Expo will design you a seriously jealousy-enducing home theater. Think huge leather chairs, fully integrated sound system, paneled walls, high definition lowered screen, and those essential movie curtain drapes. MTV Cribs will be knocking down your door within weeks – if they aren’t busy with those Star Trek-inspired homes of course.

If you don’t want to go quite this far, check out about.com’s list of movie theater accessories (from a projection screen to a vintage popcorn maker – nothing like the smell of popcorn throughout your entire house to make you feel that the expense was totally worth it).

Or go for the sleek accent look and purchase these stage / movie – style polished steel light fixtures from NY boutique staple, Mxyplyzyk (yep, named after that dimensional Superman villain, and it’s pronounced mix-ee-pliz-ik according to the store).

** For more similar, exactly the same and not so similar gift suggestions for movie fans, see Jenny Lauck’s thoughtful list. Also check out Moviefone’s gift guide. It’s a lot less practical than Lauck’s (think “Dumbledore gay pride” t-shirts), but, as a result, great eye candy and perfect fodder for internet procrastination. I know I at least am definitely getting that voice-changing Optimus Prime helmet for a, um, friend.