"Stoker" dir. Chan-wook Park, 2013

Stoker is Korean director Chan-wook Park's English language feature debut, and as with a lot of transitional works there are few aspects that seem to get lost in translation.  Given the tremendous accomplishments of his last feature, 2009's Thirst, this comes as no surprise.  Thirst is a difficult one to top, marking a plateau in Park's career that was built to through his popular "Vengeance Trilogy" (Sympathy For Mister Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2005).  Oldboy seems to have emerged as the most enduring of Park's films with fans (among them Spike Lee, currently producing a remake), but for me Thirst most completely displays the auteur's capacity for reinvigorating genre with a perverse sense of humor and character.  The title of Stoker alone lets us know that Park hasn't shaken his predilection for vampire fiction, though the tropes of the genre only occasionally waft through the scenes, encountering cross breezes of the Gothic, as well as the psycho-sexual tendencies of Hitchcock.

So what type of movie is Stoker?  And, does Park himself even know (or care)?  The film has been somewhat tossed aside critically as a case of "style over substance," but when the style is this engaging it's difficult to be dismissive.  Of course, this isn't always the case with directors who like to indulge their tendency toward stylistic excess (though worlds apart genre-wise, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind), but Park's endless cinematic flourishes seem to compliment a script that at times becomes leaden in its implications.  In one scene the budding flower of evil at the center of the film, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowsa), is questioned by her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) about what type of ice-cream she prefers.  Uncle Charlie has come to "visit" after the death of India's father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), and seems to hold a thousand strange secrets behind his slick countenance. As the camera negotiates the emerging sexual tension between the three Stokers at the heart of the film (the third being Nicole Kidman's recently widowed "Evelyn"), India's announcement of her distaste for both chocolate and vanilla--she likes "the swirl kind"--is endowed with an almost laughable weight. The following dinner scene continues in the same vein, with each plodding reference to the food, the wine, and the music striking the same persistent note.  The pace and tone this scene establishes might threaten to sink a film of this type were it layed at the hands of lesser talent, but Park and his central trio of exceptional actors allow the film to exist both on a level of dramatic engagment and a sort of beautiful camp.  Ultimately, Stoker is a coming-of-age tale, albeit of a young pyschopath.  As such, we pretty quickly understand that we are fairly confined to India's psychological space, which elevates the film beyond the tedious Pop references of so much recent Horror/Thriller fair and allows us to enjoy the playful way in which Stoker (as in Bram), Cinderella, and a bit of Blue Velvet/Twin Peaks-era David Lynch are all lovingly swirled in together.  

In fact, the few moments that do evoke Lynch may hold one interesting key to what Stoker gets right, but also the way in which it ultimately fails to reach similar heights.  Where Lynch's films are always, inevitably about immersion in the world of the story, Stoker seems too submissive to a particular strain of Thriller mechanics, and our understanding of it too occupied by questions of both symbolism and plot.  In this sense, Stoker also evoked for me Darren Aaronofsky's Black Swan (2010), which similarly applies horror and suspense tropes as a way of symbolically evoking repressed female bodies and sexuality.  Although I appreciated much of Black Swan, I much prefer Park's take, similarly obvious in its visual metaphors, but more successful in the end and less ponderously tragic.  The way in which India comes into her own is more "gleeful corruption" than "tragic plunge."  Like Lee Daniels' recent piece of artful trash The Paperboy (also featuring Kidman in another excellent performance) there is a sense that in an alternate universe these characters might have existed in a John Waters movie, where sexual liberation combined with violent rampage are unabashedly designed to make the viewer a bit giddy.  

It's difficult to tell how much of what Stoker gets right is intentional or not, evidently having experienced some major alterations during production that included mass re-casting and the replacing of a Phillip Glass score.  Though one might wonder why you would ever replace a Phillip Glass score, the final decisions made in regards to the film's soundtrack (including one remaining and astonishing Glass composition titled "Duet") are undeniably effective.  In a scene where Charlie's seduction of Evelyn is spied by India, the Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood duet "Summer Wine" is haunting and perfect as we witness through the drapes India fleeing the vision of betrayal.  As with all of the music, these choices are far from mere stylistic flourishes, but rather neccessary components of the character and psychology of the film, perhaps most notably in the finale which features the perversly triumpant groove of Emily Well's "Becomes the Color." The final shots of India are among the most rich and indelible frames in a film that is full of gorgeously rendered flights of imagination.


DOUBLE FEATURE (Young Cass Edition): "Edge of the City" dir. Martin Ritt, 1957 + "Saddle the Wind" dir. Robert Parrish, 1958

John Cassavetes is primarily remembered as the director who changed the face of independent production and film performance with his actor friends and a shoulder-slung b/w 16mm Bolex, creating a new breed of dramatic exploration with Shadows in 1959 and Faces in 1968.  As an actor, Cassavetes came to fame through the TV Series and Live Playhouses of the 1950's (Kraft Theatre, The Elgin Hour, Goodyear Playhouse, etc.).  What he went on to achieve as an actor and director in his own films stands in illuminating contrast to the system that incubated the technique and reactionary fervor of one of the most influential and singular directors of all time.  As a sort of follow-up to the ECSTATIC discussion of Cassavetes' Opening Night, I thought I might recommend a couple of films that feature Cassavetes the actor on the brink of beginning his directorial career:

Expanded from the 1955 Philco Television Playhouse production A Man is Ten Feet Tall, the Martin Ritt feature debut Edge of the City manages to make some significant expansions to the scope of mid-50's live TV production.  Essentially a tale of the tragic friendship between two men, the film pulls the working class racial tensions of New York City into the light.  The script centers around the character of Axel Nordmann, a drifter with an alias (North) who cons his way into a job as a dock worker.  Cassavetes captures the sort of youthful desperation called for to keep Nordmann's somewhat thin dramatic arc aloft, though ultimately Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler (T.T.) is the star here.  As Nordmann's only confidant and protector (with the original piece evidently written to showcase the young Poitier's talent), Edge of the City occasionally plays like Poitier simply giving young Cass an acting lesson or two. Both Poitier and Ruby Dee (as T.T.'s wife Lucy) breathe a life into their characters that leans toward the kind of spontaneity and naturalism that would define Cassavetes' directorial signature from the beginning.    

Director Ritt would go on to helm the Faulkner adaptations of The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959), as well as shoot one of the landmarks of black-and-white cinematography with James Wong Howe, Hud (1963).  Edge of the City shows the beginnings of those cinematic achievements in a parallel fashion to Cassavetes' emerging talents.  The young actor's sensitivity to the camera is evident throughout, no doubt refined through his numerous live TV roles.  But, it isn't until the final violent climax that we truly see the spark of what we now associate with the Cassavetes' school of acting to come, relentlessly striving to capture a moment of rage/passion/humanity at any expense.  

A year later Cassavetes would step into the role of hotshot rancher Tony Sinclair in Robert Parrish's surprisingly novel western Saddle the Wind.  Here Cassavetes plays the younger brother of Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor), and, not unlike Poitier in Edge of the City, the secondary character proves the meatier role.  Particularly, Cassavetes gets to show his sense of range and story, as the younger Taylor goes from a likable yet instantaneously hopeless presence in the film's opening, to an irretrievably hopeless villain by the film's brother-vs-brother finale.  This is aided significantly by the casting of Julie London as Sinclair's bride-to-be, Joan Blake.  Even though Cass and London share a romantic moment where she serenades him with the titular theme, we never get the sense that she could actually belong to the kid.  In fact, the song itself is such a Western lullaby that the moment is less romantic than it is a reminder of Tony's need for a Mother figure, a presence unfulfilled by his relationship with his brother.  The performances and casting are sharp here; from their first scene together we understand this imbalance in the film's central love triangle, which makes the downward spiral of young Tony even more tragic to witness.

Saddle the Wind features a number of great supporting performances, including a tense opening scene featuring Charles McGraw as a gunfighter who has come to town to let his intentions be known, and Royal Dano as the "squatter" who has come to claim his piece of the Sinclair's land.  With each encounter Tony digs a bit deeper hole for himself, and Cassavetes maps the increasing desperation of the character with fine detail.  It's a performance that would have been easy to push over the top, but Cassavetes knows the ego of his character well, and lets the circumstances slowly envelop him.  This trajectory is not only aided by the casting of Taylor, London, and Donald Crisp (as patriarchal ranching baron Dineen), but also by a tightly wound and unconventional screenplay by then first-time feature writer, Rod Serling.

It's always been a bit difficult for me to watch Cassavetes perform in films that aren't his own.  Of course, he was always a welcome addition as a supporter:  Don Siegel's The Killers ('64), Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen ('67), Polanski's Rosemary's Baby ('68). Even the skeevy late-60's biker flick Devil's Angels is more of a tolerable curiosity for having Cass around.  But, did any of those pictures really need Cassavetes?  (And, as a side note: did Brian DePalma even want Cassavetes around, taking into consideration the excessive angles he captures of his explosive demise at the end of 1978's The Fury?) 

Once familiar with the works that liberated Cassavetes from the traditions of acting and storytelling that bore him, everything else seems like confinement.  Saddle the Wind is probably one of the most significant markers that Cassavetes had mastered the traditional Hollywood vein of acting (not to mention coming off fairly at ease in a Western for a New Yorker).  Both Edge of the City and Saddle are fine pictures that exhibit some of the best traits of an era whose influence would be welcome in relation to some less-than-desirable recent commercial trends.  I don't want to draw an easy black-and-white relationship between the Hollywood and Independent Cassavetes, because they obviously both played off each other in positive and negative ways.  But, Cassavetes was most likely always thinking beyond what the studio template could offer, and, like Welles before him, had to keep those chains in place in order to finance the work to which he truly aspired.  Hold up the best of Cassavetes' directorial work next to any of his acting gigs and you can't help but see the difference:  one is art, the other product. Whenever I watch Cassavetes merely act, I can't help but wonder if we will ever see a system that solely thrives on the former, and not the latter.


DOUBLE FEATURE: "JCVD" dir. Mabrouk el Mechri (2008) + "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" dir. John Hyams (2012)

"Nothing! I've done nothing! And I might just die in this post office..."                                                               --Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD 
JCVD is not an easy sell.  Perhaps too much of an "art film" for fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme's usual fare, and too rooted in an intimate understanding and portrayal of Van Damme for those who have largely ignored (or forgotten) the career of the Belgian actor who experienced his commercial success in the late 80's with movies like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, it should be noted that JCVD is one of the great movies from the last decade.  Though not nearly as high profile/budget as The Dark Knight or No Country For Old Men, in my thinking JCVD completes a triumvirate with those films, marking a particular period of movies grappling with the identity of the post-millenial Hero.  Along with the ambiguous heroic positioning of Christopher Nolan's Batman, in 2008 alone we had Iron ManThe Incredible HulkHancock, another "Indiana Jones" movie, and the self-sacrifice of Clint in Gran Torino.  But none of those come at the Hero mythology in quite the way that Van Damme is "reincarnated" here.  Amid courtroom battles with his wife and daughter and being beaten out of roles by Steven Seagal, the hero of JCVD is primarily one of a celebrity living with the harsh transparencies of the media age.

Remember, Van Damme has been quite off the radar for some time. Though most have a sense of who he is and what he does, his survival is linked primarily to the video market; an aspect cleverly integrated into JCVD, which uses an actual video market--"Video Futur"--as a key location in the film.  When we meet the Arab proprietors of "Video Futur" they are discussing the stereotypical casting of Arab bad guys in a litany of 80's action flicks as Jean-Claude himself happens by their store, a clever cue as to how French director Mabrouk El Mechri wants to re-frame not only our perception of the hero, but of the cultural biases constructed from within his profession.  The single-take approach that tracks the encounter with the Video Futur guys mirrors the opening sequence, a lengthy single-take action sequence that propels us into the film before we have a chance to create a sense of "reality" in the world of JCVD.  From the encounter at the video store we follow Van Damme as he inadvertently talks his way into a hostage situation at the local post office, where two hapless criminals use Van Damme as their go-between in a fashion that brings to mind Dog Day Afternoon (note the John Cazale hair-do).  The media event that emerges from the hostage situation at the heart of the film's story is not new territory, and neither is the non-linear storytelling.  Stripped down to its heist-pic bones, JCVD would still be a pretty good action picture, maybe reminiscent of an early Tarantino knock-off.  And, even a movie about Jean-Claude himself might be appealing (though what I saw of his attempt at reality TV last year was not promising).  But, from those two base components, he and El Mechri manifest a recombinant genre piece with rare qualities:  an unpretentious, character-centered, meta-Action-flick.

Van Damme's acting in the film is truly remarkable, and not only in regards to what is maybe the most oft-noted scene:  a lengthy monologue delivered straight into the camera that has followed our hero/hostage into the lighting rigs above the film's set.  As Van Damme, the camera, the lights and the narrative all hover above the action, the actor indeed delivers a complex and heartbreaking monologue that is a fascinating blend of Brechtian theatrics and Straight-to-Video celebrity.  But it should be noted that Van Damme is excellent throughout the film, exacting and spontaneous in his response to each and every character he encounters.  I don't attribute this to Van Damme essentially playing "himself" here, as I don't believe that necessarily makes the job any easier.  JCVD adeptly details a number of disparate characters, large and small, each with their own distinct (and extreme) motivations, and Van Damme has the difficult job of negotiating his identity realistically within each of their spheres of expectation.

Even in the scenes that satellite the central hostage situation, each carefully placed in a way that eventually informs and complicates the central action, Van Damme exhibits an expressive restraint.  Many of the scenes that depict the professional and personal life of the actor are done in lengthy single takes, marking El Mechri's trust with Van Damme's ability to carry a scene in his reactions alone.  Of course, El Mechri sets us up for long takes in the elaborate Steadicam sequences, but his risk with the static long takes are at the heart of the emotional impact of the film.  In one of these static takes we see him in profile speaking with his agent, and in another through a backseat taxi window, the reflective rush of trees and sunlight moving across his shifting countenance as his driver relentlessly hounds him with questions and criticisms.  Ultimately, El Mechri is not only playing a shell game with the chronology of the film, but also carefully building these long takes to a final moment of static examination that places Van Damme simultaneously in a new genre context (the prison film) and the confines of his own very real struggles (or, at least, struggles we assume are real for Van Damme).  Even though El Mechri leaves us in one of the most cliched sets of melodrama, as Van Damme confronts his daughter through a prison telephone, what is captured in this moment carries both the weight of the unreal terrain we've traversed and an achingly real depth of character, which is no easy balancing act.

After 2008 the now 50+ year old actor has been going through an odd transformation in his films, most notably in the works of action director John Hyams who picked up the Universal Soldier franchise in 2009 with Regeneration and Day of Reckoning in 2012.  Hyams also directed Van Damme in a little-seen take on the "drug dealer take-down" genre, Dragon Eyes, featuring Cung Le (recently of RZA's luke-warm directorial debut The Man With the Iron Fists).  In Dragon Eyes, Hyams begins to define a role for Van Damme that uses his age and experience to a fairly effective end.  In both Dragon Eyes and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Van Damme has become a contemplative presence, equal parts warrior, sage, and celebrity icon.  If JCVD showed us an unexpected capacity for naturalism in the actor's abilities, then the Hyams' films show us an almost minimalist approach.  Both Dragon Eyes and the Universal Soldier films, though Van Damme is not the central character in either, feel as much like reflections on the man himself as they do exercises in staged violence (which, granted, is a big part of their appeal).

Dragon Eyes
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
But Dragon Eyes is just not a very good movie, barely held together by Hyam's adeptness at shooting action (which would have served RZA well in his debut) and a bit of scenery chewing by Peter Weller--or, rather, Dragon Eyes might look better in light of the significant accomplishments of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which manages to make a smart, suspenseful, and economical bloody thriller from limited resources.  I'm not the first to write about the unexpected surprise that is the 4th entry in the Universal Soldier series--for instance, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review of the film likened it less to the original Universal Soldier of the early 90's, and more to the likes of David Lynch's Lost Highway or David Cronenberg's Videodrome.  The comparison is somewhat apt, but I think US:DOR is more straightforward than either, its strengths residing in different dark corners.

For one, the film adopts a premise that would admittedly turn most people off from the get-go (yes, it involves genetically modified super-soldiers), and then proceeds to take it seriously.  That this fact is not apparent from the beginning of the film--a beautifully executed and shocking attempt to confine the viewer's perspective to the main character's POV--is maybe not to the film's advantage, as it tests our sensitivity to violence almost immediately, as well as our attitude toward witnessing Van Damme in an overtly villainous role.  But, the payoff is the unique way the film earns its violent excesses in the detailed unfolding of its premise, as Scott Adkin's "John" pieces together his peculiar existential crisis (echoing one of the progenitors of all Sci-Fi:  Mary Shelly's Frankenstein).  This measured unfolding takes us through many dim corridors, and eventually into the underground resistance presided over by a deranged, vocal Commander (series staple Dolph Lundgren) and the mostly silent, perching Luc Deveraux (Van Damme).  As John begins to discover his true nature--a constructed, hallucinatory identity--the design of the film itself begins to descend into some eerily recognizable realms of mediated reality.  The First-person perspective that initially seemed like a clever stylistic choice morphs into a chilling combination of a First-person shooter game and Apocalypse Now.

From this point on, the trajectory of the narrative behaves very much like that of a video game.  Of course, video game-to-film transpositions have a grand history of failure (as evidenced in another Van Damme vehicle, 1994's Street Fighter).  Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning reminds us, in one sense, that there's no reason for that to be so.  In fact, simple paths of action make for some of the most engaging stories, especially when it comes to genre films.  The difference here is that something is at stake.  And, this is a primary difference between what Hyams achieves and what is truly lacking about much of its Action/Sci-Fi/Hero-Cycle brethren.  Though the recent trend in criticism is to label Hyams as a "Vulgar" auteurist, in light of US:DOR it seems that label should be reserved for those who did exactly the opposite of stepping up to the plate late in a franchise.  What's truly vulgar is pissing all over an already established and beloved series in search of a bit more box office, as with Sam Raimi (take your pick:  Evil Dead, Spider Man, or The Wizard of Oz).  In contrast to the sort of production budget excess that has destroyed the creative impact of a once revered director like Raimi, Hyams' comparatively cheap production value necessitates design choices that ultimately make US:DOR unusually beautiful and theatrical in a way that most Action flicks try to actively avoid (and, once again, that still make the design and special fx of the original Evil Dead's so enduring).  A current Raimi-sized budget would never have produced the makeshift quality that makes the underground lair of the super-solders in US:DOR so perfect; like the men who dwell there, filled with constructed and abandoned aggression, the structure is a misshapen masterpiece existing in a liminal reality.

Unlike the overt meta-move of "ascending into the light" from JCVD, the numerous, angled fluorescent tubes and deliberately placed work lights that line John's final, blood-soaked path to regain his world-view and destroy Deveraux moves us more subtly from the slightly unreal video game mode to the wholly Surreal.  Deveraux's face painted half clown-white/half pitch-black suggests less the elegance of the "Yin/Yang" symbol (central to the Chinese traditions of martial arts that Van Damme has aligned himself with throughout his personal and professional life) as it does the severed consciousness of a person no longer sure whether or not he's living in a hallucination.  The feeling must be a bit familiar for Van Damme.  The stage lights have shifted, and, like Deveraux, it's time to relinquish his position, all the while wondering if it ever mattered in the first place.


"Simple Men" dir. Hal Hartley, 1992

Simple Men was my first Hal Hartley film.  In 1992 I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and was certain of only one thing after my initial viewing:  I didn't much like it.  I was around 20 and, not having a lot by which to gauge the experience, I thought maybe it was a parody of "Art Films."  But the film persisted, leaving a somewhat nagging impression.  It wasn't long before I returned to Simle Men in near-obsessive form, bouncing it off of friends to gauge their reactions (which usually ranged from slightly amused to downright bored) and soon tracked down and devoured every other Hartley film I could find.  I think this speaks to a unique quality that Simple Men retains to this day, which is the capacity to confound and delight in equal measure, as well as inspire investigation into the singular brand of auteur-ism Hartley so consistently offers up.  Perhaps not the best of Hartley's early feature work (roughly spanning 1989's The Unbelievable Truth through 1997's Henry Fool) it retains an undeniable emotional core; always the most surprising aspect of this most controlled and idiosyncratic director's work.

Of course, "idiosyncratic" might be a lazy way to describe what is ultimately an impressively detailed directorial signature, built from a keen appreciation of the most influential of his line.  Part Theater of the Absurd, part revisionist Noir, Hartley's work is often read through the lens of French Art House icons such as Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard.  Simple Men is particularly evocative of Godard's work from the early 1960's, though these comparisons can be made to most of Hartley's early work, all similar to Godard in that they seem to occupy a shared "space" or "world" that is almost instantly recognizable, and are often blocked with the same deliberate sense of humor.  But Hartley is not one to wield the camera in quite the same manner as a young Godard, opting to work in the tradition of Bresson's more static attention to the face, the body, and to gesture.  After the shooting of Simple Men, Hartley noted in an interview the extent to which he was beginning to use his knowledge of Bresson more consciously:  "Bresson cuts right past everything that's superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it's meant to say."  Harltey and cinematographer Michael Spiller were certainly shooting for the same aesthetic parsimony as some of the great masters, but nothing about their work feels cheap or easy in the way it uses these influences, and is always imbued with their own comedic sensibilities.

Elina Lowensohn - Simple Men
Robert Bresson's Mouchette
With that said, the danger in critiquing Hartley's work seems to be the temptation to sum it up as a mere series of knock-offs, which it's not.  The great achievement of a film like Simple Men is that it's so unashamedly constructed of these influences, yet manages to have a personality all it's own.  Aside from the French New Wave, it seems important to mention the "Indie" late 80's/early 90's here, which was such a rich period for film makers who were working out the differences between reinvigorating forms of pastiche and simply stealing (it's the difference between Reservoir Dogs and Boondock Saints, kids).  The films being made in this period exhibit a fascinating range of post-modernist experimentation.  Think across the works of just a handful of directors working at this time--Van Sant, Ferrara, Figgis, Haynes, Soderbegh, Agoyan, Linklater, Kerrigan, Ridley, etc--and even among such distinguished company Hartley's films are some of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable.  Still, others may see Hartley as being more associated with the stylized examinations of class and privilege found in the works of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, 1990), Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming 1995), and Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket short-'94, feature-'96).

Leaving Las Vegas
Karen Silas - Simple Men
Harltey's films are first and foremost films of Dialogue, bringing to mind yet another emerging cinema presence in this period, Chicago's master of terse, idiosyncratic dialogue, David Mamet (Homicide '91, Glengarry Glen Ross, '92, Oleanna and Vanya on 42nd St., '94).  But unlike Mamet, Hartley is willing to let the dialogue swing loose from the confines of moving the narrative action forward.  In a playfully subversive scene late in Simple Men our primary players (Hartley regulars Bill Sage, Robert Burke, Karen Silas, Elina Lowensohn, and Martn Donovan) halt all proceedings of plot to get drunk and discuss the nature of exploitation in entertainment.  This conversation perfectly exhibits Hartley's tendency toward rhythmical loops of absurdist dialogue, leaving us with the questioning refrain:  "But what about the audience?" - "What about them?"  It may be the kind of scene that seemed fresher in the early 90's, but it still feels relevant to understanding Hartley's basic aesthetic proposition.  And (to loop back around to my initial comparison), the scene is particularly Godardian in a way that Mamet would never venture.

Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd St. - from Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov
Martin Donovan and Robert Burke - Simple Men
But all of this cinephilic contextualizing is to make the point that Hartley's best, Simple Men among them, are successful in a way that transcends all the reference points.  Hartley's recombinant methods are always in service of building a new product from recycled materials, so to speak.  For instance, in Simple Men he takes a small moment of character tension between two men in love with the same woman that, in the hands of many writer/directors, would be played to bland, serviceable effect, but via Hartley is transformed into an unforgettable Mamet-meets-Abbott & Costello moment:
Martin:  I gotta go.
                      Bill:    No!
Martin:  I get too emotional when I drink 
Bill:    Have another beer! 
Martin:  I gotta get up early! 
Bill:    No you don't.  Sit Down. 
Martin:  (Sits back down) I get too emotional when
             I drink.
Bill:    Will you have another beer? 
Martin   (Stands up again) I gotta go 
Bill:    Why? 
Martin:  I gotta get up early in the morning. 
Bill:    Martin, you're drunk. 
Martin:  And emotional. 
Bill:    You gotta go. 
Martin:  Why? 
Bill:    You gotta get up early in the morning. 
The pronounced theatricality of Simple Men is most likely going to be off-putting to some; even for someone like myself who loves Hartley's work, there are moments of indulgence that stretch my patience a bit.  Once situated to the idea that the film circumvents the action that most Noir or Romantic Thrillers thrive on (the heist, the break-up of Kate and the psychotic Jack, the house fire and the bombing of the Pentagon) Simple Men becomes a surprisingly resonant character-centered film, though not in the tradition of anything close to Realism.  In fact, what makes Simple Men truly indelible are the moments that ascend from the mere theatrical to a more Brechtian ideal:  the heist denouement/opening involving a broken weapon, a Vigin Mary necklace, and a classic double-cross;  the encounter with Ned that turns a struggle with a broken down motorcycle into a moment of Performance Art; the final, transcendent moment of Bill's return that encapsulates both the plight of the characters and the director, as we hear a soft voice from off-screen:

"Don't move."

 NOTE:  This review can also be seen at Marcus Pinn's excellent film blog 
               "Pinnland Empire" 
                      as part of Hal Hartley Month - check it out!


Four Frames: "No Country For Old Men" dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007

The following piece was written for THE BIG PICTURE MAGAZINE as part of their "Four Frames" series, which presents the critical challenge of isolating four frames from a film, or particular sequence in a film, in pursuit of revealing something about, well...the bigger picture.  Hopefully the precursor to a larger piece, here are a few initial thoughts about the character of Anton Chigurh:

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has become one of the most iconic bad guys in cinema history.  With his penchant for quiet weaponry and disquieting conversation, the character takes on a mythic quality that reads to both the audience and the inhabitants of the film as an unstoppable force of evil, an angel of death, or, perhaps, as Lleweleyn Moss (Josh Brolin) questions after having been wounded from battle with the fellow Vietnam vet: "the ultimate badass?"  
Visually, we are introduced to both Chigurh and Moss through their violence. In the introductory sequence for Moss, we see him sniping antelope from a distance, tracking his prey, and ultimately coming across the "drug deal gone bad" that is the narrative catalyst for the film (like Llewelen's ultimate demise, a conflict of violence we are slyly denied).  What the Coens show us about Moss in this sequence is almost entirely centered around his nature as a soldier.  
The four frames I want to display and discuss here occur much later in the film, showing us Chigurh in a motel room, tending to the gunshot wound inflicted by Moss in their confrontation. This scene seems to me the "flipside" of Moss's opening sequence, but reveals something about Chigurh that is even more unsettling, heartbreaking even. Like the way in which Moss's opening sequence may be undervalued as simple "rising action," the sequence of Chigurh, alone, shedding his distinctive outfit (a wonderfully designed, slightly off attempt at "passing") and dressing his wounds may seem one of the most inconsequential sequences of the film; merely connective tissue designed to offset the climax to come. 
Of course, the climactic confrontation never does come. Or, rather, it has already happened. And, as with the great risk of the final sequence in the film, where the Coens usurp all aspects of Story for Character, asking us to settle on the dream narrative of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)--to care about this aging, essentially ineffective witness to the violence of Chigurh--it is in this motel room that we are asked most succinctly to consider and care for Chigurh.  
Theses frames show us the trained gestures of Chigurh, and the way in which they play against his equally ingrained and subtle murderous gestures. Unlike Moss's earlier, messy attempts to clean his wounds at he and Carla Jean's trailer (or, John Rambo's macho suturing of his own wounds in First Blood), Chigurh's ability to tend to himself is not only more competent, but suggests the skill of a former medic. This reading begins with the previous scene of Chigurh's effortless looting of the "Mike Voss" Pharmacy, but becomes deeply revealing through the skill with which he creates an iodine wash bottle, and then sterilizes his tweezers to remove the buckshot from his leg.  
Chigurh then dispenses the lids of the syringe and anesthetic with familiarity, ease, and urgency; the frame holding both this telling gesture and perhaps the most vital element of his discarded costume:  his cowboy boots. Finally, as Chigurh flicks the syringe--again, a  physical action that Bardem assures us is as second nature to him as the flick of a switch--a look comes across Chigurh's face that we have not seen before. What we see in this fleeting moment is the compassion of a healer, an idea that makes Chigurh even more terrifying in the final analysis.

Call it Noir, Western, or Dark Comedy; what gives No Country For Old Men an unprecedented weight in the Coen's filmography is the way in which it emerges, quietly, as a film about men who are the products of Vietnam.