Archive for Tommy Lee Jones

Marvelous Hairy About the Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by dcairns

Lincoln-movie-shot

Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

LincolnJames-Spader-in--jpg

The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

lincoln-2

Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

Schnooks on a Plane

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2011 by dcairns

In-flight movies — perhaps these are the ultimate justification for Hollywood pabulum. Anesthetic for the tense traveler. When you’re cramped in your seat and anxious about your untenable position hurtling through the stratosphere, it would be nice to be rapt out of yourself by dramatic catharsis, but it AIN’T HAPPENING (although I would welcome with keen interest and incredulity any stories of mid-air catharsis you have to offer) so you settle for the numbing tedium of badly thought-out genre bullshit –

PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF

Not only have they made a Harry Potter rip-off based on a rip-off novel, they’ve got Christopher Columbus who made the first two HARRY POTTER films to direct it. That’s just like stamping the word SAP on the forehead of every child who buys a ticket, isn’t it?

Terrible dross, and all I can say in my defense is that I’m working on a project with some mythological elements so I wanted to see what the kids are thinking about myth these days. Some cute moments — using an i-phone camera to observe the Medusa without getting petrified is neat. Uma Thurman has gone from Venus in BARON MUNCHAUSEN to Medusa in this — a pithier charting of the leading lady’s career arc than even Sondheim has given us.

There’s something irresistibly hilarious about the idea of Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, something the film is completely unaware of. None of the actors playing gods make much impression except Steve Coogan, doing what he does. Zeus is Sean Bean, who made Tolkien sound credible but is screwed when he has to say “You have done well,” as opposed to “Well done.” Look, it’s Kevin McKidd — as with 300, you can’t do ancient Greeks without casting a Scotsman. Now, I’ve never seen a real ancient Greek but I’ve seen the modern variety, several times, and none of them looked like Scotsmen. “It’s the magic of the movies!” you cry.

CAPTAIN AMERICA THE FIRST AVENGER

Perfectly adequate up to the two-third mark: this Chris Evans fellow is quite sweet, and the wimp-to-ubermensch narrative is engaging, the action lucid (oh, you mock Joe Johnston, don’t you, but in his fight scenes you can SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING — feel the nostalgia!) and the supporting players mainly do what they’ve been contracted for. Tommy Lee Jones is gruff, Stanley Tucci is solemn, Toby Jones is short. For a while, Haley Atwell is suitably prim, but when called upon to restage the start of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, her inability to pull off anything else except pulchritude punctures the pathos. Hugo Weaving provides the entertainment with a Werner Herzog impersonation and hilarious little facial reactions, soon subsumed in a splurge of CG as he rips his own face off to become The Red Skull.

THE INFORMANT!

Continental Air likes to provide a couple of oldies and a couple of indies to its transatlantic clientele, so we get this recent-ish Soderbergh (it was this or GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? and I was actually up for that, but then I felt that I wanted to actually do it justice). Matt Damon always seemed kind of a schlub-in-the-making, and here he gets to play an actual Philip Seymour Hoffman role, and he’s splendid. I haven’t followed Soderbergh religiously — asides from his Spalding Gray bio last year, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, I haven’t seen anything since half of THE GOOD GERMAN (it wasn’t good) and bits of OCEAN’S TWELVE. I should catch up sometime, this was funny and clever. Soderbergh’s ludic side (cf SCHIZOPOLIS) is allowed just enough room to breath by the quietly demented voice-over, a calm recitation of delusions, non-sequiturs and stray pub facts.

The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2008 by dcairns

Chig

So — am attempting to find something to say about every film I watch, so that puts a little pressure on to react to the Coens’ latest offering, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

There are three broad kinds of reaction folks can have to the Coens’ oevre:

1) Liking the films. I was basically in this camp until INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS, which seemed to mark a colossal decline, and which incidentally were the first films the Coens had made using other people’s source material, a process which has continued with NCFOM, a fairly faithful adaptation, by most accounts, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. (An earlier adaptation of James “Deliverance” Dickey’s To The White Sea failed to find backing, leading to the present cycle of films.) Previously, I had tended to find that I liked each film a little less than the one before, the decline starting after RAISING ARIZONA. So I am now in category 2 –

2) Liking some and not others. Since some Coen Bros films have been big box office hits and some have been flops, maybe most of the film-viewing western world is in this category. But it always puzzled me, since the sensibility on display is so consistent. If you liked FARGO, why wouldn’t you like THE BIG LEBOWSKI? (Up until this current release, Coens films with short titles have consistently done better than ones with longer). There is a recognisable Coens attitude (they like to appear smarter than their characters) as well as a set of self-conscious motifs (which the brothers like to point out, helpfully: weird hair, blustering titans, vomiting, fat men screaming) and a self-conscious visual style (toned-down slightly in FARGO and NO COUNTRY). But it’s now clear to me that not only are a couple of the Coens films markedly inferior, compromised works, but that I am becoming slightly less enamoured of the whole Coens vibe, leading my position ALMOST to border on category 3 –

3) Those who don’t like the films. While Coens detractors may admit that the films are well-made, even stylish, and the brothers certainly have some flair for dialogue, the argument against tends to centre on a certain lack of feeling. The Coens like to write about dumb people doing dumb things, often with a high mayhem factor in the outcome. At the same time, the writing-directing-producing-editing team are keen to show off how smart they are, with showy film technique, extravagant dialogue and cultural references — several Coens films are overt pastiches, almost amounting to plagiarism, of the styles and stories of James M. Cain (BLOOD SIMPLE), Dashiell Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING) and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), while OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fuses various scenes and satiric approaches from Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS onto the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.

fugitives from a chain gang

This tendency to set themselves up as superior to their characters is quite objectionable to some, but while I detect its presence and admit that’s what’s going on, it never bothered me too much. Whether the Coens have contempt for their characters, or love them, *I* like H.I. and the Dude and Marge, which is enough for me. I also see the Coens as working primarily in a comic register, even in an apparently serious flick like BLOOD SIMPLE or MILLER’S CROSSING, so the use of slightly dopey characters is a genre convention and comedy device that I can’t particularly object to. It’s apt that the Coens finally referenced Preston Sturges, who has a similarly aloof relationship to his characters, although I think it’s clearer that he sympathises with them (and also, he doesn’t inflict gory violence upon any of them, except in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the imaginary sequences of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS — come to think of it, he’s gorier than any contemporaneous comedy director).

Capitalism and Labour destroy each other

Seeing the C-Bros as comedy filmmakers may reduce the obnoxiousness somewhat, but it perhaps becomes a problem in their latest, which isn’t overtly hilarious at any point. Despite its dramatic surface, as David Ehrenstein has argued, the film more or less continuously puts the spectator at an advantage over the characters: we generally know they’re going to die long before they do. Using dramatic irony or poignancy is a standard thriller device, but it’s unusual to see protagonists as continually predictable as this. The film generates surprise more by throwing in random plot developments (a car-crash from out of the blue) and violations of genre and narrative conventions (major characters eliminated off-screen, villains unpunished) than by interesting character psychology.

So, if the film is not consistently funny, what is the point of this God’s-eye view of the characters? The ironic distance seems more a matter of habit or compulsion than a necessary approach to the story. The Coens have never cared for theme, or making a point, or teaching a lesson, or even putting over a world view: their films are too filtered through books and other movies to comment directly on any form of reality. They are interested purely in story, in tall tales which feature surprising twists, tone shifts and genre-bending — the films are fairy tales, devoted to the plot and nothing but the plot.

(Javier Bardem’s unpronounceable psychopath in NO COUNTRY is a near-supernatural monster, implacable and seemingly impervious to pain. Tommy Lee Jones’ dream of his approaching death at the end seems intended to turn the story to some kind of semi-baked allegory, with J.B. as Death Incarnate in a page-boy haircut. The Coens’ fairytale world has made earlier use of such folkloric figures: an angel and demon in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA, and just about everybody in OH BROTHER…?)

snow country

It’s not surprising that NO COUNTRY, like FARGO, comes to centre on a suitcase full of money — the ultimate empty MacGuffin, a motivating object that require no explanation at all, and can disappear from the story once it has inspired enough carnage. The film, like previous Coen Brothers projects, is essentially about nothing.*

SO — if I’m starting to like the Coens less, it’s not because I object to their tone, it’s simply because, with each stylish, empty film, they seem to repeat themselves a little more, and it doesn’t feel like they can become more interesting unless they take a giant step and actually engage with something in the real world that they care about, if such a thing exists.

*

Footnote: Kelly MacDonald is really good in this film. Hardly anybody has mentioned her in reviews, but I think her journey as an actress has been considerable: barely acceptable in TRAINSPOTTING, frequently mis-stressed her lines. Gradually rising to full adequacy, she has now surpassed that status with a rather strong, touching performance. She deserves more recognition for it, since it’s been achieved (after her first lucky break) through sheer hard work. (Plus I’ve met her and she’s really nice.)

*See also: most of John Hodges’ scripts for Danny Boyle. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY all revolve around cases of cash!

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