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Ad Astra (2019)

I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.

Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.

My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.

The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.

Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.

It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.

Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason-Bourne-movie-posterAfter the indifferent reception of its 2012 spin-off, original super spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) are back and it feels like everyone is falling into familiar paces. The titular fourth film in the franchise (excluding Bourne Legacy) is easily the weakest (excluding Bourne Legacy) and the seams of the formula are starting to show. Once again an ally has intel to expose some sort of secret and illegal government conspiracy that ties into a revelation about Bourne’s past, and once again this ally is killed as the Act One break to spurn Bourne onward, and once again there’s a secondary assassin working for the morally murky government agency head, and once again there’s a signature car chase sequence, and once again there’s a final choice Bourne needs to make about what kind of person he wants to be given his new perspective on his old killin’ ways. The frantic Greengrass staple camerawork and editing can make just about anything bristle with some energy and suspense, but rarely was I fully feeling what was happening onscreen (except for the caveat of admiring how attractive Alicia Vikander’s face looks on the big screen). Short of the final car chase through Vegas with a SWAT truck barreling through traffic, the action sequences are pretty routine and unmemorable. The foot chases and fisticuffs, a hallmark of the franchise, feel slightly blasé in their development. The action isn’t bad but it feels more than a bit staid. The stakes aren’t as high and maybe that’s because it feels like there is little more to reveal about our hero’s hidden past. Is the next movie going to divulge the long lost secret that he never paid a parking ticket? Tommy Lee Jones makes an enjoyably crusty adversary. Vikander has just enough of an angle to provide more substance as a character than the typical agency analyst reciting exposition. The film ends with some promise of looking forward rather than back, and I hope that further adventures with Jason Bourne (excluding Bourne Legacy) stray a little more from the well-worn formula and provide better reasons for this spy to come out of his hiding.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Family (2013)

The_Family_2013_Movie_Poster_convertedThe most impressive thing I can credit The Family, an otherwise adequate action-comedy with identity issues, is that it makes each member of its titular family worth watching. Robert De Niro is the patriarch of a family on the run from the Mob, who used to serve as De Niro’s chief employer. They’re hiding in Normandy, France, and trying to blend in, with very mixed results. I was worried that everything was going to be too obvious, but the movie does a fine job of rounding out its cast, giving each family member a personality, flaws, and a reason you want to keep tabs with them. I enjoyed the son’s single-minded manipulation of his school, able to suss out everyone’s needs and how to turn alliances. De Niro starts writing his memoirs as a therapeutic exercise, but really nothing comes from this obvious plot catalyst. The nagging problem that dogs the movie is an inconsistent tone. The violence can be rather brutal and much of it is meant to be silly, but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, most of the film’s laughs are tied up in over-the-top, and often, bloody violence. But the movie isn’t dark enough to work as a twisted comedy, holding back to become something of an uneven mob cartoon with plenty of hoary Italian stereotypes. As a result, when the third act is all bloody mayhem, it feels like The Family is three half-baked movies badly stitched together. I laughed enough and was passably entertained but The Family is too dark to work as a lark, too juvenile to be substantial, and too predictable by half.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Emperor (2013)

1943When you’re tasked with retelling an interesting part of history, a story that few are familiar with, it’s best to get out of the way. You don’t need to gussy it up if the history, itself, is interesting enough to warrant a movie. Such is the case with Emperor, a drama set in Japan weeks after their surrender to Allied forces in WWII. General Douglas MacArthur (a stodgy, scenery-chewing performance from Tommy Lee Jones) will rely upon the advice of one man (Matthew Fox) whether to try the Japanese emperor for war crimes for his possible involvement in the Pearl Harbor attack. The country is still recovering from the shock of nuclear bombs, its people could rebel against foreign occupiers, and the future of the country feels precariously on the brink. All of this makes for a good setting for a story, but Emperor doesn’t stick this out. It keeps falling back to a lame love story about Fox’s college days when he was smitten with a Japanese woman. So, now in Japan again, he desperately looks for her, having amber memories to times where he chased her around wooded areas (they must have done this a lot as a couple since it makes up the majority of his flashbacks). You keep thinking, isn’t there a bigger story at work here than one guy’s failed college romance? The rest of the movie is treated so cursory, with stiff-lip TV procedural attention, so that the details are all we get and the people get lost. Ultimately, Emperor is a movie that crushes us with the wrong history, misses out developing all the meaty stuff, and thinks what we truly want is Fox chasing after his lost love. It’s a shame the movie is so boring while the history is not.

Nate’s Grade: C

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Hope Springs (2012)

I may be 30 years removed from the target demographic, but I found the sexagenarian romance Hope Springs to be charming, insightful, and quite well developed. The idea of Meryl Streep getting her groove back and an older couple essentially learning how to be intimate again, physically and emotionally, sounds like a hard sell (no pun intended). The central couple has settled into the complacency of a long marriage, and little divisions have turned into routines. How can you bridge the divide? I was routinely surprised at how mature and thoughtful the movie was when it came to examining relationships. In between all these personal revelations of unhappiness is a curiously playful sex comedy, and you’ll see Streep engaging in certain acts you never thought becoming of the three-time Oscar-winner (no pun intended). Streep and her reserved husband, played by Tommy Lee Jones, are terrific, and their counseling scenes are the stuff of great drama, as two people who don’t really know how to communicate reveal their true feelings and problems. I’m making the movie sound like a chore but it’s really engaging and the stuffiness of Jones makes for some enjoyable comedy. This is a small movie, dealing with a weighty but recognizable subject that’s not often handled with this care and attention. Hope Springs is practically a Hollywood version of a Bergman film, and with these results, that’s not a bad thing. I foresee Hope Springs leading to a lot of patrons going home and having sex with their spouses. It’s like an AARP aphrodisiac. Good thing for menopause, or else Hope Springs would be responsible for a baby boom all its own.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Men in Black III (2012)

It wouldn’t be a Men in Black film without script problems. The first film languished for some time, originally taking place in Kansas of all places, before director Barry Sonnenfeld became attached and insisted upon a New York City location. The 1997 sci-fi buddy cop comedy was a hit, and rightfully so, and Will Smith became a megastar. Then the 2002 sequel’s climactic action sequence had to be rewritten due to the fact that it was originally going to take place in the World Trade Center. If only that lackluster sequel had gone through more extensive creative revisions. However, these past hiccups don’t seem to come close to Men in Black III, which to Sonnenfeld’s admission, started shooting in late 2010 without a finished script. It had a beginning, an ending, but nothing definite to tie together. So the whole production took eight months off to work on the meat of that movie sandwich. Hollywood movies, especially modern films of huge-scale budgets and set release dates, have routinely started production without completed scripts, including Gladiator, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Lawrence of Arabia. Naturally, those are the exceptions to the rule.

Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) has escaped from pison and out to seek revenge on the man who put him away and took his arm – Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Boris travels back to July 1969, when a young Agent K (Josh Brolin) thwarted the big bad Boris. Boris kills Agent K and alters the future. The Earth is now vulnerable to an alien invasion from Boris’ species. Agent J (Smith) has to travel back in time to save his old partner and the planet.

It’s been ten years since the spotty Men in Black II and almost four years since Smith has been seen in a movie. Where did the time go? Fortunately, this third movie hews closer to the droll brilliance of the first film. Part of that is a sharper story with a more clearly defined goal and a return of the playful exuberance that belies the franchise. Also, I must say that absence has made the heart grow stronger, because I’ve missed Smith’s effortless charisma onscreen. Agent K is such a natural fit for the guy and it’s just fun to watch him stumble through strange alien encounters (this time we learn all super models are aliens; listen good, young women of America who punish themselves to fit this image of beauty). Time travel is usually employed when a franchise seems like it’s all out of gas; it’s usually more focused on the comic fish-out-of-water possibilities, which there are a few in Men in Black III. As one characters notes, 1969 wasn’t exactly a great time for black people in America, and J combats casual racism, black panic, and ignorance with a defiant attitude that is amusing to watch. I’m glad the whole race-relations reality was addressed, though it’s also for the best that the movie doesn’t get bogged down with scenes of Agent J conflicting with bigoted authority. Men in Black III remembers that we’re here to have fun, and the screenplay by Etan Coen (Tropic Thunder) has a light-handed touch. I enjoyed the opening jailbreak sequence with Boris, though I would have thought a lunar prison would have better security. Bill Hader (Superbad) has a fun cameo as a self-hating Andy Warhol, really an undercover MIB agent, though the idea that Warhol’s Factory artists as aliens seem a tad simple. The glaring cameo omission was Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) as a scotch-drinking MIB ladies man of legend.

As evidenced from the trailers and marketing, Men in Black III is really Brolin’s movie. The guy establishes an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. The eerie brick-faced stoicism, the melodic lilt of his voice, the syncopation of his speech patterns; Brolin nails it all. Watching his interaction with K are the film’s most enjoyable segments. At this point in the series, Agent J and K have gone beyond the rookie/mentor phase and now have something of a friendship, though their arguments at year fifteen of their partnership sound more like the arguments they would have in year two (you need to “open up” and be less grumpy, sounds elementary). Still, there is a personal connection to this case that eluded the last movie, and it gives the film a sense of urgency even when the comic shenanigans seem to hog the spotlight. The personal reveal in the last act didn’t have as much emotional power for me, mostly because I did the math and realized whom a certain unseen character of significance was before we got their true identity. The end does give the film series a circuitous sense of finality.

For a franchise that seems like it can go anywhere at any time with limitless possibilities, the worst thing you can do is be shut off to better avenues of storytelling. Take for instance the climax at Cape Canaveral, which itself is a rather anticlimactic sequence involving the launch of Apollo 11 (don’t they know that alternative 1960s history was sooo summer of 2011?). J has his time travel doohickey that lets him travel back. He gets to use this device once during the climactic fight, allowing him to travel back one minute in time so he knows how to properly duck. That is it. What a fantastic waste. If you’ve got a device that essentially allows for unlimited do-overs, then I want this device to be an integral part of the climax. I want J to have to regularly use it to fix past mistakes and learn more and more from each time jump. Just memorizing how to duck is lame. The entire subplot with Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present, Alice Eve in the past) and her dalliance with K is so carelessly thrown away that I wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to include it. Then there’s our villain, Boris, whose name itself is even lazy. He’s just a bad dude with some sort of insect that lives in his hand and shoots spikes. That is it. He’s a guy who can fire projectiles. So what? What about that makes him interesting? An unrecognizable Clement (Flight of the Conchords) does his best but the character just doesn’t have anything about him that deserves special attention; he could have been any villain (I think Vincent D’Onofrio was undervalued in his go-for-broke physical performance as the first film’s villain). I did like the idea of Present Boris arguing with Past Boris, but like most promising ideas in Men in Black III, this space-time sparring is never fully realized. While enjoyable, there’s little you’ll be able to think back on with Men in Black III and say, “That was well developed.”

Paradoxically, I think Men in Black III has a character that might simultaneously be the best and worst thing about the film. Allow me to explain. About halfway in, we’re introduced to the alien Griffin, played by the great Michael Stuhlberg from A Serious Man and TV’s Boardwalk Empire. He’s a creature who can see nigh unlimited timelines, all the variations of choice and possibility play out before his eyes, one after another. He never knows which timeline he’s in until the moment occurs, thus he’s constantly worried about every moment to come in his life. This foreknowledge sounds like a wretched curse, and with Stuhlberg gives a forlorn edge to his character’s eccentricity. So when J and K meet the guy, there are some clever moments, like when Griffin details every peculiar aspect of chance that lead to the 1969 Mets World Series victory. The moment, and by extension the character, is a nicely reflective idea that every moment is a miracle of causation. Griffin is just an interesting character. Here’s where the worst part comes in. Rarely is he treated as a character because, you see, Griffin is really a magic plot device. He can tell the Men in Black agents whatever they need to do at any point, instantly providing a narrative cheat. When in doubt, just ask the guy who sees the future and he’ll steer you without fail to the next necessary plot point.

I saw this movie in 3D, not by choice mind you, and for the first half hour it felt like one of the better 3D conversions out there. Sonnenfeld’s camera plays a lot with depth of field and primarily forward-backwards movement, which made for a slightly elevated viewing experience. But somewhere around the halfway mark, I swear the movie forgot it was supposed to be 3D and the dimensional differences became negligent. It never really recovers, and so I advise all potential ticket-buyers to skip the 3D screenings.

With most time travel escapades, there’s going to be some plot holes. Working with a flurry of alien technology, it would have been exceptionally easy for the filmmakers to just explain away the plot holes with some magic device, much like the Paradox Machine in Dr. Who. Hey, there’s a machine that makes sure we don’t have paradoxes? Good enough for me. It’s like in Thank You for Smoking when Rob Lowe’s character explains why actors would be able to smoke in an all-oxygen space environment: “It’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’” The fact that Men in Black III doesn’t even address its biggest plot hole astounds me. If Agent K is killed in 1969, then he was never alive to recruit Agent J into the service. Let’s even assume that J’s credentials would still get him noticed and staffed with the MIB; if Boris killed Agent K in the past, then there was no reason for Boris in the future to travel back in time to kill Agent K. Again, these aren’t nit-picky gripes, these are major, easily understood plot holes, and I’m dumbfounded why no characters even address them. I could nit-pick over why Boris decides to go to 1969 when he just as readily could have gone to a time when K was a child and thus more vulnerable. Surely a child is easier to dispatch than a 29-year-old man.

Men in Black III is a far improvement over its stilted predecessor, but it still ends up falling well short of the potential it flashes. It’s intermittently amusing with some fun cameos and some visual panache, but this movie should have been stronger, stranger, and more playful with its central time travel conceit. It’s hard to work up that much distaste for the movie, especially since it has such a lively, jocular feel. Not all of the jokes work, but enough do, and the movie maintains an overall pleasant sensibility, zigzagging in imaginative directions that most Hollywood movies never beckon. It’s the stuff that works that illuminates the potential left behind as it goes into summer blockbuster territory. Men in Black III is an example of diminished returns, yes, but some franchises start so high that even latter, lesser sequels will have more entertainment value than their competitors. While it won’t set the world on fire, Men in Black III exceeds expectations and provides enough entertainment that it’s worth a look and little else.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Is anyone more polarizing in the film world at this moment than writer/director Paul Haggis? He takes a far subtler approach to exploring difficult subject matter this time, and the lack of histrionics makes the message far more serviceable. The film begins as a mystery, with Tommy Lee Jones investigating the disappearance of his son who was supposed to return from Iraq. Then the film transforms into an examination on the hidden, psychological costs of a war that continues to backslide into incivility and chaos. Jones gives a terrific taciturn performance, expressing so much sorrow with his hangdog expressions and sad, soulful eyes. There isn’t a moment in the movie that feels trite or contrived, and its conclusion is surprising in how subdued it plays out, which makes it far more emotionally troublesome. The title is in reference to the location of the famous biblical battle between David and Goliath. Is America Goliath? Are we David? I can’t honestly decode all the metaphors in this solid slow burn anti-war flick. Haggis is bristling with things to say but effectively buries them below the surface so that the viewer is not beaten over the head but yet left with many significant questions. And what police investigation, even in a war away from home flick, would be complete without a visit to a strip club?

Nate’s Grade: B+

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Joel and Ethan Coen are two of cinema’s most talented oddballs. Together, they’ve created some of the most intricate, eclectic, and best movies of the last 25 years. Their last two efforts, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s remake of The Ladykillers, didn’t feel like Coen movies; they felt like they were compromised and missed the artistically deft touch. As a result, both movies were mild failures for filmmakers that have a series of genre-spanning masterpieces to their name. No Country for Old Men is the first time the brothers have adapted someone else’s work, in this instance Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. Not too shabby if I say so. Fortunately for all lovers of film, the Coens have embraced McCarthy’s blood-soaked tale and crafted an exciting, honest, and intensely provocative modern Western that stands out as one of the greatest films of the year.

In dusty West Texas, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting the lonely plains when he discovers a blood trail. It leads him to four empty cars riddled with bullet holes, dead bodies collecting flies, and a sack containing two million dollars in cash. The signs are all there that this was a drug deal gone badly, and two million will never go unnoticed, but Moss sees this as an opportunity of a lifetime and takes the money. The men in power have hired Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find their drugs and money and exact retribution. Chigurh’s preferred method of killing involves a high-pressured air canister that can blow out doorknobs and human brains. Chigurh chases after Moss all the while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is following the trail of death to try and save Moss or any future innocent victims.

What a fine-tuned, nerve-wracking, and engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller this film is. The action is brief but the buildup can be nearly unbearable to endure. The tension is magnificent. Chigurh chases Moss from hideout to hideout and some of the tensest moments are just waiting. There’s a moment where Moss is calling the front desk of his newest motel and we hear the phone ringing unanswered again and again from the hall, all the while Chigurh’s footsteps inch closer. But it’s the moments of silence that cause the most dread. When Moss is trying to recover his loot, all the while Chigurh is in the opposite motel room, it becomes a balancing act of sound and silence. No Country for Old Men is expertly orchestrated to involve the use of sound as a tool for high suspense. None of our main three characters inhabit a scene together. Sure Moss and Chigurh shoot at one another but even then it’s short and focused on waiting for response and counter response. Moss is no dummy and he sets up some traps for his would-be dispatcher. No Country for Old Men is unnerving, intelligent, near flawless entertainment.

Chigurh, as masterfully played by Bardem, is the stuff of nightmares. I was literally afraid to go home after seeing this movie and it is because No Country for Old Men fashions a villain so methodical, so cold-blooded, and so downright deadly and cunning that I felt as if he could very well be residing under my bed at night waiting. Bardem is hypnotically horrifying and the Coen brothers establish early on how ruthless their cinematic boogeyman is. The very first moment we’re introduced to Chigurh he escapes from police custody and strangles the inattentive officer on duty. He drags him to the floor and chokes the life out of him, but the Coens position the camera not on the last desperate kicks of the officer but on the face of Anton Chigurh, and it is nasty. His eyes are bugged out and his intensity comes across as sadistically jubilant. He seems like a caged animal finally let loose. It’s a scary yet fascinating introduction to a deadly character.

Chigurh is a humorless and determined man, and every scene he steps into instantly changes. A gas attendant casually asks Chigurh about the weather and gets on his bad side and the stone-faced killer in the Dutch boy haircut proceeds to press the poor man with increasing agitation, yet Chigurh always speaks in such a placid tone that makes him far creepier. He’s a maniac that never raises his voice. Chigurh then corrals the man into one of his signatures, having a victim decide their fate by the flip of a coin. Before the man can say anything the coin is flipped, Chigurh intones to “call it,” and the man nervously repeats that he needs to know what he’s at stake to win. “Everything,” Chigurh responds. This scene starts off so innocuous but becomes monumentally unsettling thanks to the rising dread and Bardem’s deeply committed portrayal. Bardem is alarming, ferocious, grimly efficient, mesmerizing, and deserves an Oscar win, not just a mere nomination, for what is his finest performance to date.

There are many ways to describe Chigurh, but it seems most appropriate to speak of him as nothing short but the full-tilt vengeance of God. He’s a hired killer, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from killing indiscriminately. He murders several innocent victims, he murders his competition sent out to nab Moss just because it insults him, and even after the money no longer becomes a concern, Chigurh still plans to continue his wrath out of sheer moral principle. He made a promise of swooping vengeance and he will stick to it. This means that anyone could die at any moment while onscreen with Chigurh, and No Country for Old Men has plenty of surprises as it toys around with our baited anticipation. When Chigurh gets the drop on his competition he doesn’t shoot the man immediately; instead the scene plays out for an agonizing length even after we listen to the room phone ring several times, and then blam! Chigurh answers the phone and casually raises his boots so the pooling blood doesn’t touch his feet. This is the most memorable incarnation of soulless evil I have seen in the movies since Hannibal Lector came to iconic form in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.

Brolin is having quite a career year for himself after compelling turns in American Gangster (where he also shoots a dog), In the Valley of Elah, and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half of Grindhouse. Brolin gives the audience a figure to root for even though he never actually displays true heroism, just survival instincts. Jones serves as a wise and guiding father figure that feels out of place in a world that is becoming increasingly, shockingly violent. It’s a role that Jones has performed before but it’s a role that fits the actor exceptionally well. Woody Harrelson pops up as a charming and laid back handler trying to convince Moss to give up before things get worse. Kelly Macdonald, as Moss’ wife, cuts through the darkness in a refreshing performance.

The technical craftsmanship is on par with previous Coen excellence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is exquisite, Carter Burwell’s score barely makes its presence felt, and the editing is tight and focused. The sound design, which I’ve already discussed in detail, deserves an Oscar. This being a Coen brothers’ film, it wouldn’t be complete without some dark humor to punctuate the bleakness. They have a perfect ear for local vernacular and Texas shorthand, so the dialogue feels sharp but realistically twangy without being condescending as some had accused Fargo (I do not agree with this accusation).

What works in the favor of No Country for Old Men may perhaps be its undoing for a mainstream audience. The film works against conventions and this provides for some stellar surprises and upheavals, none of which is bigger than killing a certain character off-screen. No Country for Old Men definitely seems like it’s laying stage for a climactic showdown and then one key figure has been bumped off by a group of ancillary characters that have little overall bearing over the plot (I have read that the same gap happens in McCarthy’s novel). If this doesn’t perturb audiences then the final 10 minutes ought to do it. There’s no sense of closure for the movie and this will frustrate many, but it all fits rather nicely with the movie’s highly nihilistic tone. Like Chigurh’s coin, the film focuses much on the randomness and cruelty of fate. By sticking to this ethic, the Coen bothers are eschewing the traditional Hollywood rulebook and playing around with our expectations for characters and plot. The outlook isn’t too sunny for many involved. It works and demands an audience remain on edge for fear that anything could happen at any moment. However, don’t say I didn’t warn you if you walk out of No Country for Old Men and say, “What was that all about?”

No Country for Old Men is exactly the kind of material the Coen brothers needed to return to form. This is a lean and stirring thriller that plays to their strengths and echoes some of their most riveting and twisty work, like Blood Simple and Fargo. In many ways the film feels like a Western, a high-stakes drama, and a tragedy that takes its time to unravel. It may have taken some time but the Coen brothers are back, baby, and No Country for Old Men is fit to stand beside their hallowed pedigree of cinematic classics.

Nate’s Grade: A

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