Saturday, January 19, 2008


Friday Movie Reviews (Catch-up Edition)

Saw Cloverfield just now and No Country for Old Men and Charlie Wilson's War a bit ago. Here are the 8 word reviews followed by longer ones below for true fans.

Cloverfield--Blair Witch Project meets Miracle Mile versus Godzilla.

No Country for Old Men--Intense and well-made, exciting, violent, but ultimately pointless.

Charlie Wilson's War--Good movie but not history, Reagan loosed Stingers.

Let's start with Cloverfield. Loved it. LOVED IT! And I would have hated another remake of Godzilla. The use of the video camera, no name actors, no music until well into the credits, no explanation from a scientist or a voice over, created a very easy suspension of disbelief (if I can use that phrase without rancor after Hillary Clinton used it to insult General Petraeus) which suspension is absolutely key to enjoying this flick. I was so with those SoHo yuppies as they entered a nearly surrealistic world where an alien looking giant monster is attacking New York City. It is an exciting amusement park ride.

The team that brought it to the screen is producer J.J. Abrams (who has done a lot in Hollywood, including writing Armageddon and Mission Impossible III and creating Lost); second tier director Matt Reeves, who directed The Pallbearer 12 years ago and retreated into TV thereafter and writer Drew Goddard, who wrote for Josh Whedon stuff (not Firefly) and also for Lost and Alias. Abrams has said the monster is a deep sea baby which as 'slept' for a 100,000 years. Not a chance. For one thing, it is too dense to be aquatic (a direct hit from a ton bomb on its back does nothing, absolutely nothing but piss it off). Second, in the final scene on the tape (not recorded over by Hud) when the two lovers were at Coney Island, something large pretty clearly falls from the sky and lands in the ocean way off to the left. There was a 'viral' internet publicity project which utilized two of Abrams' 'creations' Slusho and Tagruato, but I think those were head fakes, just as the name of the movie was a concealing code they apparently decided to stick with.

Besides the overwhelming mystery of the monster, there is the mystery of the parasitic crab monsters. What, in fact, does their bite do to you? Everyone says it's a rip off from Alien, but I saw it as an execution by military in hazmat suits. Something nasty happens from the bite for sure. The first 20 minutes were there to let you know the characters who will try to survive, but I didn't care for any of them. I admired the pluck of Rob Hawkins but that was about it. Marlene showed some grit but was too much a sour girl to like; the other good looking ones were uni- dimensional. They and the video camera (with an atomic battery I conclude) could take an awful lot of punishment and not be hurt at all, much like the monster. The movie was about perfect length, that is, short, but you ought to stay for the credits--is it 'Help us!' of 'It's still alive'? I couldn't tell. Of note to local types is the fact that Hud was played by an East High School grad (following in the footsteps of Pam Grier and Don Cheadle).

The idea that the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan both brought down the Soviet Union and caused the rise of Muslim extremism is tenuous history at best. It's pop psychobabblehistory. Although, it certainly did not help the creaking old empire to lose big to the wily Pushtun and we should have been doing a lot more to help the Mujaheddin from the beginning. Mike Nichols directed and Aaron Sorkin developed (60 Minutes producer) George Crile's book of the same name into a screen play. With those three lefties at the creative helm, it's no wonder that President Reagan isn't mentioned once in the film. Sorkin, you might recall, wrote A Few Good Men, Malice and The American President before going to television with Sports Night, The West Wing and his personal Waterloo, Studio 60 which barely lasted a season. Many of those created the alternate reality of a Democrat president where there actually was none. This movie is in that same alternate reality where the Carter failed presidency apparently lasted until 1989. It is true that we didn't take care of our good will in Afghanistan but the Afghans themselves destroyed the part of their country not destroyed by the Russians with a brutal civil war that only ended with the rise of the horrible Taliban (still extant, unfortunately). Not our fault (or our problem absent Osama bin Laden). Tom Hanks, as the title character, is good, but not great; Julia Roberts is pretty good but her character is not a stretch for her, I believe. However, it is homely actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who, as usual, steals nearly every scene he is in as CIA 'maverick' Gust Avrakotos.

Here's the straight dope on the Stinger missiles, et al. Reagan first mentioned using Stingers against Soviet aircraft a few weeks after the Soviets invaded, in late December, 1979. He suggested early on that we funnel the weapons through Pakistan. He also signed the document (still fully redacted), NSDD 166, which released the Stingers into the arms pipeline to Afghanistan--not Charlie Wilson (one of the dying breed of Scoop Jackson Democrats) nor President Carter, but Ronald Reagan and his administration including, importantly enough, CIA head Bill Casey and NSA Bill Clark. Close watchers of this film might well go "who?" That's the film's major and lasting failure.

Still, it is a funny, well paced pleasure, testimony to the skills of Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin, but not their politics. See it and then read some real history.

I've saved the best for last. Like a lot of the Coen brothers' efforts, No Country for Old Men is a serious movie and one that should only get better with time and repeated viewing, unlike Fargo, which was best once, but more like The Big Lebowski, which really grows on you. It is all about guns and killing. I should have loved it, but I didn't. I had instead an empty feeling, and not a good empty feeling at that. I think the main source of the emptiness is the writer of the book on which the film is based, Cormac McCarthy, who is a bit overrated in my book. Is this just a mythical story of the wild west lawlessness of the drug trade in west Texas in 1980? Is it an exegesis on violence itself? Is it a deep meditation on the human condition? Is it, as my son suggested (out of left field) an allegory about United States foreign policy? I don't know. That's not a good thing.

There is a major mystery before the dream descriptions which end the thing. We know that evil incarnate Bardem kills the wife (why check his shoes for blood if he spared her like one of the gas retailers?) and gets the money, but how does he escape from Tommy Lee Jones in the hotel room where Josh Brolin bought it? I have no freakin' idea. Some people don't believe he was actually in there but it was Jones' nightmare that he was. Then why see Jones' reflection in the metal of the lock if it is just an idea from Jones? My eldest suggested that he hid under the bed. I'm willing to believe that, but I have no reason to. Why not just kill Tommy Lee? He's killed about 20 guys already, some of them for no apparent reason, none at all.

I'm not happy about the car accident either--is it a fate versus chance thing made real or karma for the killer? Again no idea. I'm still feeling bad, after nearly 30 human deaths, about the gutshot pronghorn Brolin failed to follow, so the violence apparently hit me like a feather pillow. That can't be good either. There were a few things I thought were difficult to believe: The silenced shotgun; the idea Bardem's ass was so narrow he could get the cuffs in front of him with no visible problem; and why Woody didn't fetch the money as soon as he found it--what, did he want to change his shoes? Really dumb. I don't know why Bardem kills the two guys at the 'mess'. I don't know who they are. I don't know why Stephen Root (from Dodgeball) sends Woody to kill Bardem. And I especially don't know what the two dreams Tommy Lee narates to Molly, at the end of the film, mean. The redeeming fact is that I want to.

It is a disturbing, gritty, tense, real and surreal film with big aspirations and possibly the substance to fulfill them. A must see movie, even if you don't like it.


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