The Coen brothers get Cormac McCarthyâ’s bloody crime thriller just right
by Mike Gibson
Bringing the work of Knoxville-raised neo-Faulknerian savant Cormac McCarthy to the big screen presents a not inconsiderable set of challenges, as evidenced by Billy Bob Thorntonâ’s largely unsuccessful directorial stab at All the Pretty Horses back in 2000. The problems derive largely from the fact that McCarthyâ’s novels constitute not so much stories as literary panoramas, sprawling quasi-scriptural records of bent rural and western misadventure; their strength lies not so much in plot device as in the power of his elegant, auguring prose.
That the celebrated Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have scored an unqualified success with their just-released adaption of McCarthyâ’s No Country for Old Men (2005) shouldnâ’t surprise, however. The source material, in this instance, is arguably McCarthyâ’s most plot-driven effort to date, a fatalistic neo-noir the basic template for which weâ’ve seen on film a few dozen times since Reservoir Dogs seismically shifted notions of indie filmmaking back in 1992. Itâ’s the sort of territory the Coens have already demonstrated considerable facility in navigating, both with the Academy Award-winning Fargo in 1996, and in Blood Simple, the brothersâ’ riveting Jim Thompson-esque 1984 debut.
Whatâ’s more, the Coens are among the most literate screenwriters working in moviedom today, as capable of pulling off wry and laconic as they are of perpetrating a certain screwball erudition. You might almost consider them the McCarthies of screenwriting, albeit with just a tad (but only a tad) less bloodlust and a taste for occasionally sidesplitting surreal humor.
Not much room for the latter here, though, as No Country opens directly into a world of uncompromising violence. The first scene, set in a bleak slab of scrubby and sun-beaten Texas countryside, sees local yokel Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), out on a hunting trip, happen upon the gruesome remnants of a heroin deal gone horribly wrong. Sifting through the bloodied corpses, he takes a satchel filled with $2 million from the scene, leaving behind a dying Mexican whose gasped plea for water he summarily ignores.
Conscience-stricken, he returns later that day to help the dying man, only to find himself the target of gunmen who have since overtaken the sceneâ"and subsequently of the Nietzschean hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is hired to recover the money. Llewelyn puts his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) on a bus ride to mamaâ’s and sets off on a lethal game of cat-and-mouse with Chigurh.
Tommy Lee Jones, as local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, is dependably strong as the filmâ’s nominal narrator, the lawman in dogged pursuit of the principles, but No Country for Old Men belongs mostly to Brolin and Bardem. The latter, especially, makes a bravura showing as a seemingly soulless killer whose actions are governed by a rigidly nihilistic personal code. Brolin is a more than able foil, to be sure, but it is Bardemâ’s enigmatic presence that inevitably rivets our attention to the screen.
Shrewdly, the Coens appropriate the moody flavor of McCarthyâ’s brilliant but sometimes convoluted verbiage with a light touchâ"the vivid scene-setting is accomplished mostly through stellar cinematography, and the potent but sometimes long-winded philosophical soliloquies to which some of his characters are given are succinctly reduced to their essence.
More scrupulous is the brothersâ’ appropriation of the conversational aspects of McCarthyâ’s dialogue; the author has a near-uncanny feel for backwater dialects, and for capturing the simple wisdom of simple men. The Coens inject huge swaths of McCarthy (or sometimes remarkably McCarthy-like) dialogue directly into the script. The result: Whereas the writerâ’s novels alternately surge and decelerate, the weighty passages of thick prose counter-pointing the sections of swift, bantering verbal exchange, the movie version of No Country adheres to an even, brisk, more film-suitable pace.
If No Country for Old Men has any flaws, they are largely attributable to the source. Many critics consider McCarthy, with his virtuosic and highly idiosyncratic prose, to be a genius; but genius is infrequently paired with ready accessibility. No Country is tense and visceral and even witty, after McCarthyâ’s own wry, understated fashion. But it offers none of the easily figured conclusions most of us expect when we watch a modern crime filmâ"a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the authorâ’s work. For the rest of you, be forewarned that No Country for Old Men is easier to take in than it is to digest.
Movie Guru Rating:
Poor Shaun. Heâ’s 11, he lives in a crap town in the gray British Midlands, his dad just died in the Falklands War, his mum doesnâ’t have the money or a clue to dress him in the right clothes, and he has no friends. When he runs into a bunch of skinheads in a park, the average viewer is likely to tenseâ"shaved heads, Doc Martens, and flight jackets pretty much signify violent neo-Nazi thugs now. But they didnâ’t, necessarily, in 1983, and thatâ’s where This Is England takes off.
Writer/director Shane Meadowsâ’ latest film is a dual coming-of-age tale. Shaun (newcomer Thomas Turgoose) finds himself welcomed by Woody (lanky, likable Joseph Gilgun) and the other skins, then mostly a dead-end-kids subculture that worshipped black style and included black members. Shaun adopts the haircut and the uniform and, petty vandalism and minor vice aside, flourishes in his adopted family. Cue Combo (Snatchâ’s Stephen Graham), fresh out of jail and bristling with barely contained hostility. He elbows easygoing Woody out of the way, takes over the more easily led half of the gang, including Shaun, and starts taking the skins to speeches by members of the National Front. Petty vandalism evolves into assault, and worse.
This Is England is semi-autobiographical and Meadows captures all the nuances, from the gritty streets and their boredom to the political tenor of the time. Turgoose and Graham work subtle wonders with their parts, but in a way the filmâ’s not big enough for the both of them; while Combo is necessary in depicting how skinheads became a racist army, the character takes over the film as well as the gang, shoving Shaun aside and tipping a finely observed drama toward the melodramatic. Itâ’s flawed, but fascinating nonetheless. â" Lee Gardner
The death-metal band from Adult Swimâ’s Metalocalypse rawks hard â" really
by Dave Prince
Once upon a time, a TV network aired a program about the wacky everyday misadventures of a fictional musical group created specifically for television. This fake band proved to be something of a sensation, spawning merchandise, albums, and tours, launching careers, and eventually gaining the grudging respect of various Big Names in the â“Seriousâ” Music Business.
If you think Iâ’m talking about The Monkeesâwell, youâ’d have a point. The rise of Dethklokâ"collectively, the main characters of Brendan Smallâ’s Adult Swim series Metalocalypseâ"from the semi-parodic focus of a late-night animated program about â“the biggest entertainment act in the universeâ” to a legitimate musical production already happened on a much larger scale in the case of the Pre-Fab Four over four decades ago. The similarities, however, end there, if only in terms of body counts.
Metalocalypse is largely the work of Small, previously the creator of Cartoon Networkâ’s 1999-2004 series Home Movies. Small composes the showâ’s musical score and provides voices for three of the showâ’s main characters, with co-creator Tommy Blancha assisting on writing duties and voices. The show asks a simple question: What happens when the worldâ’s 12th-largest economy just happens to be a death-metal band whose antics have the capability to bring about the end of the world? (PROTIP: Brutality.)
Metalocalypseâ’s success has borne fruit in two recent releases: the now-standard Season One DVD collection, and the less-orthodox Dethalbum, a full-length CD collection of 13 adaptations from Smallâ’s first-season score and two new tracks.
Metalocalypseâ’s Season One DVD Collection at first glance looks sparse. All 20 episodes of the first season are included, but in what is becoming typical Metalocalypse fashion, none of the expected extras are included when they would give a nod to the â“realâ” people behind the scenes (creator commentary, deleted scenes, etc). Instead, extras consist of first-person Easter Eggs from the band itself. Examples include interviews on subjects ranging from politics (â“â‘Rock the Vote!â’ Pff.â”) to the future of Dethklok (Skwisgaar is most worried about who is going to get his mail when he is cryogenically frozen), an excerpt from the Skwisgaar Skwigelf Advanced Fast Hand Finger Wizard Master Class instructional course (featured in the episode â“Skwisklokâ”), and various behind-the-scenes videos.
The deadpan insistence that Dethklok is real is what makes this collection work. Watching Nathan Explosion recite Shakespeare for 20 minutes wouldnâ’t fly if the creators were snickering in an accompanying commentary track. The silence caused by its lack, however, impels the viewer to laugh that much harder.
The Dethalbum continues in this vein, presenting a spot-on caricature of the death-metal genre. Smallâ’s greatest achievement with The Dethalbum is the savant-ness of his idiot savant charactersâ"Dethklok may only do metal, but they do metal well. The albumâ’s lyrics, be they a tribute to the â“brainless mutantsâ” who listen to the bandâ’s songs, a â“new national anthemâ” for Finland, or a birthday song written for nihilist bassist William Murderface, are fine-tuned to provide the most brutal experience possible from an album which can be sold without breaking obscenity laws. The Dethalbumâ’s nods to the industry proper are generally too well-executed to be outright insulting. The one-trick pony nature of the metal beast is explored in â“Murdertrain â‘a Cominâ’â”, a track which begs the listener to believe that itâ’s an old-school Louisiana blues song despite having no similarity to blues whatsoever. The result is a skillfully tongue-in-cheek presentation which genuinely adds to the collective body of work of the genre while simultaneously skewering it. On the Spinal Tap 1-to-11 scale, Dethalbum clocks in around 87.
Metal fans are notoriously serious about their music, and they arenâ’t known for taking kindly to parodies. But The Dethalbum peaked at 21 on the Billboard Top 200, taking the number one and three spots on Billboardâ’s Indie and Hard Rock charts. Not bad for a death-metal album performed by five cartoon characters.
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