Beat Breakdown #4: No Country for Old Men

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the grand tradition of Coen Brothers films, the story revolves around an average Joe whose avarice overpowers his common sense. Upon inexplicably stumbling across an inordinate amount of money that doesn’t belong to him, our protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is beset by Mexican cartels, the inescapable reach of the law, and the relentless, unstoppable pursuit of a cold-blooded hitman. 

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 5-12) While hunting in the desolate Texan desert, Llewelyn Moss discovers the aftermath of a brutal shootout between members of a Mexican drug ring. A payoff, Moss presumes, went spectacularly awry, leading to a collection of dead bodies and an unattended leather case containing two million dollars. Naturally, Moss snatches the goods, setting the stage for a brutal tale of retaliation and greed. 

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 50-55) The first major plot point actually occurs fairly late in the script. Moss, in one of his rare moments of forethought, flees his home with the money in tow. He rents a motel room in the next county over and hides the case in the air vent in his room. Unbeknownst to Moss, the case is outfitted with a tracking device which leads the hitman, Anton Chigurh, right to his doorstep. After slaughtering some Mexicans in pursuit of the case, Chigurh attempts to confront Moss directly, only to find that he has escaped with the money during the confusion.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 60-65) A gunfight between Moss and Chigurh serves as the film’s midpoint. What we have here is a battle of wills; Moss perhaps represents the futility of defying fate, or maybe blind greed and the inevitable consequences thereof, while Chigurh represents the physical manifestation of death, coming irrevocably to execute cosmic retribution. Moss wounds Chigurh and escapes, succeeding only in buying himself a little more time. Both Moss and the audience know, however, that nothing can really stop the predator Chigurh from eventually catching his pre

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 80-84) The second plot point wraps up a sup-plot involving another hired operative, Carson Wells, who claimed that he could offer Moss and his wife protection from Chigurh and the cartel in exchange for the money. Moss, apparently determined to continue making phenomenally poor decisions, declines Wells’s offer. Though Wells insisted that he was the only one who could be relied upon to offer protection from Chigurh, he’s easily eliminated in his own hotel room. During a brief telephone exchange between Moss and Chigurh, the assassin promises not to harm Moss’s wife as long as the money is returned promptly. 

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-100) The climax of this particular film is an interesting one, as we end up in a sort of bait-and-switch situation. The protagonist, whom we’ve mostly followed since the beginning, is killed-off without ceremony. Llewelyn Moss is thus revealed to be what is generally referred to as a “false” or “decoy” protagonist, meaning that the emotional core of the film also changes, in addition to the main thrust of the message. It’s revealed that the true protagonist is the beleaguered Sheriff Bell, whose town has been shocked by the violence wrought by Moss and his ill-gotten wealth. 

DENOUEMENT 

(Pages 112-118) After the subversive reveal of the true protagonist, we’re left with Sheriff Bell as he tries to make sense of the slaughter that he’s been witness to. In his own gruff, unsentimental way, Bell seems to find some strange solace in the fact of the inherently uncontrollable and senseless savagery that seems to saturate the starkly binary, law-and-order world in which he lives.

Inherent Vice

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Besides being nuttier than a fruit cake, Frank Miller has established a reputation for penning some of the most brutal yet silly comics around. He hit it big in 1986 with his four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, and has more-or-less been riding off its success since then. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a pretty unremarkable and loosely adapted take on Miller’s comic of the same name, published in 1993. As one might expect, the Sin City franchise has struggled to maintain relevancy in this post-Avengers world.

Rodriguez’s wildly over-the-top action sequences and Tarrantino-esque, blood-squirty fight scenes are here in abundance, but frankly, that’s kind of the problem. The film literally can’t go five minutes without someone being beaten, shot, or otherwise maimed, and it really strikes me as a production that is afraid to take a deep breath and pace itself, lest it lose the attention of the audience. When there isn’t any fighting going on, you can bet the Rodriguez is busy flashing Eva Green’s boobs up on screen, which of course isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I’m left wondering what the point of it all is. I’m tempted to posit that Rodriguez and Miller don’t think very highly of their audience; ‘distraction’ really seems to be the operative word here, as the semi-monochrome palate, breakneck pacing, and even Miss Green’s ample assets are strategically used to shift the audience’s attention away from the sub-par story.

As far as the acting is concerned, performances are serviceable but bland. Mickey Rourke seems like he’s having fun as tough-guy Marv, though, and Powers Booth returns as the wonderfully fun-to-hate Senator Roark. I particularly enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s depiction of Johnny, a charming drifter looking to try his luck in Sin City’s speakeasies. In some ways, he reminded me of his character Brendan Frye in the 2005 film Brick, which is still one of my personal favorites.

The thing about the Sin City franchise is that it is, and has always been, a thing for children, and I mean that in the same way that the 300 franchise is for children as well. At its core, its a mindless, juvenile celebration of fantasy ultra-violence that seeks to corner the “eighteen to twenty-five year old male” demographic with the promise of blood and tits. That being said, in the end it succeeds pretty well at what it sets out to do. No, the plot isn’t great, and while I can’t say the prospect of watching people get punched in the face for an hour and a half really thrills me, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For holds the interest well enough.

I’d like to bring up Sin City’s trademark visual style again briefly, because while it’s certainly a gimmick, at least it’s unique. Personally, I’m of the opinion that a film needs at least one special idea of its own—a unique selling point, if you will—even if it’s just a monochrome palate. The important thing is that when I see that black and white fight scene with vibrant spurts of crimson blood flying across the screen, I know that I’m watching a Sin City movie, which is more than I can say for a lot of films.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Joe’s Top 5 Films of the 21st Century

These films were selected because of their cinematic significance, watchability, skill of production/direction, and strength of the cast. We’d love to hear your opinions as well!

5. The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s unquestionable skill as a director shines in 2012’s The Master. From its compelling visual style, to its remarkable performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, to the enigmatic yet fascinating storytelling, every moment of this film brings something new to the table. It’s most certainly the type of film that requires multiple watches: and I’ll be more than happy to do so.

4. No Country For Old Men (2007)

2007’s No Country For Old Men presents the viewer with something few have been able to achieve in cinema: true suspense. Tension is, for most of these films, the reason they’ve earned their places on this list, and no film is a better example of it than this. Arguably one of the greatest villain performances in recent cinema comes from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh, the relentless assassin who often embodies Death itself. Themes of fate, absurdity, and greed are all explored in what will surely become an American landmark in cinema.

3. Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

While all of the credit for the creation of Lord of the Rings goes deservedly to legendary fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s no doubt that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation set the standard for the modern epic film. In many ways, Lord of the Rings became to mainstream audiences in the 2000’s what Star Wars did for the 1980’s: defining the hero epic for a whole generation of people, young and old. And Jackson’s unwavering faith to canon will leave even the most hardcore of Hobbits satisfied. The cast is overall excellent and Jackson’s three year struggle to adapt the classic novels resulted in smashing success, both in the box office and in cinematic quality.

2. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Few war movies have broken new ground in terms of storytelling since the landmark Saving Private Ryan. But in 2006, Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima brought Americans a new perspective: that of the enemy. The heart wrenching tale of several Japanese soldiers and their struggles between their strict code of honor and their desire to survive the horrors of Iwo Jima and return to their homes, the exceptional acting and fantastic direction by Eastwood make this, together with its companion film Flags of Our Fathers, the must-see war movie of the modern century.

1. There Will Be Blood (2007)

What can I say about 2007’s There Will Be Blood that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? It’s little surprise that Paul Thomas Anderson makes this list twice, and that he’s achieved my utmost respect as the director of what I firmly believe to be the most fully realized film in twenty years. There Will Be Blood is one of the few films I’ve seen that I would call a masterpiece without hesitation. Daniel Day Lewis’ greatest performance of his utterly remarkable career comes as Daniel Plainview, one of the most compelling and definitively human characters in recent film. So much is told in the film’s opening sequence without dialogue that the first time we hear Plainview speak, it’s almost shocking. Every second is calculated, planned, and executed in utmost style; there are moments of directorial brilliance that still bring me something new with every watch. Truly, There Will Be Blood is a landmark in modern filmmaking, and for that, it has earned its place as my top film of this century.

Gangster Squad Review

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Welcome to the post-New Years cinematic dearth, when many people are looking for a convenient way to relieve stress, no doubt after having been subjected to WAY too much ‘family time.’ It is in this social climate that the therapeutic powers of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad may be welcomed with open arms.

Featuring the considerable talents of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, Gangster Squad, in many ways, was already sure of its success before filming ever began. By that, I mean I’m almost certain that more attention was deliberately given to action sequences than to character development, and Fleischer knew that we would still go see the movie anyway. And indeed, there is something undeniably cathartic about watching Josh Brolin (who is apparently an absolute bear of a man) as Sgt. John O’Mara beat the ever-loving stupid out of various flavors of thug with his bare (bear) hands. Likewise, the sight of Ryan Gosling in a three piece suit holding a shotgun might make many people, including myself, weak at the knees, but I simultaneously can’t help but feel that there’s a kind of underlying hollowness to it all.

Set in a beautifully stylized depiction of 1940’s Los Angeles, Gangster Squad incorporates outstanding density and attention to detail to create a surprisingly immersive experience. Expertly paced, action sequences are nicely varied with character building, and the soundtrack was filled with all the 1940‘s splendor that you could ask for. You could’t help but smile as lovable, semi-crooked cop Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) put the moves on Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Stone). Then, unfortunately, you frown again as their relationship drifts towards the arbitrary and what was supposed to be a powerful moment passes by, almost without emotionally registering.

Inconsistencies in plot can generally be overlooked, although some niggling doubts remain. For example, why is it established early on that Jack O’Mara (Brolin) is supposed to be an expert in guerrilla warfare while he consistently attempts foolhardy, not to mention suicidal, frontal assaults on formidably armed enemy hideouts? In reality, Wooters seems to be the real brains of the operation while everyone else is along for the ride.

Thematically unchallenging, the essential conflict revolves around the fight between good versus evil, with only vague stabs in the direction of more complex subjects, such as the ethics behind it all. An interesting rift between O’Mara and his wife is ripe for development, involving his professional duty versus his familial duty, but in the end nothing really comes of it.

Gangster Squad uses the plot device that I will henceforth refer to as “fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome,” the employment of which involves the assemblage of a team of various ‘specialists’ to help combat some otherwise unstoppable evil. This time around, that evil comes in the form of MIckey Cohen (Penn) and his rapidly expanding criminal empire. The problem often times with the use of fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome is that the introduction of so many central characters naturally means less thorough characterization for each. I got out a kick out of the inclusion of the blatantly token Latino character who quite literally is included into the ‘gangster squad’ because no one knows what else to do with him, as well as the only slightly less token black character, both of whom were presumably included merely to represent a nice spectrum of diversity. My real problem, strangely enough, was with the characterization of Cohen. I heard another critic refer to his character as more of a Batman villain rather than an actual person, and I wholeheartedly agree. Penn no doubt did the best he could with the material he was given, but I was nevertheless disappointed because he was forced to play a caricature rather than a character, and his talent was squandered, as fans of Milk, Carlito’s Way, or Dead Man Walking can attest.

In the end, Gangster Squad is a fast paced, visceral celebration of boyish, fantasy gangster-violence. Overall it works, considering what it’s actually trying to accomplish and I certainly enjoyed watching beautiful people fight to save what they loved amid a beautiful backdrop. Characterization leaves something to be desired, but the action compensates, as it should.

Director Ruben Fleischer won some good will with Zombieland (2009) and almost immediately lost it again with 30 Minutes or Less (2011). Fleischer probably has a long career in front of him and, come what may, I look forward to seeing more of his work. I say remain cautiously optimistic for the future.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Note: As you may or may not be aware, after the Aurora massacre, a scene in the film was cut depicting the ‘gangster squad’ shooting up a movie theater. The ethics behind this choice are interesting, and there’s really no right answer as to whether or not it should have remained. We’d love to hear your comments on the subject.