Saturday, December 22, 2007

movie review, moniker spotlight

No Country for Old Men - Whiskey's review

I caught a showing of "No Country for Old Men" a couple nights ago. This is the first Coen Brothers film that I've actually seen in a theater. I had just finished reading the book (by Cormac McCarthy) a couple days earlier, so I wanted to catch the movie while the book was still fresh in my mind.

I'll watch anything that the Coen Brothers direct, but I was especially interested in "No Country" because the story is set in west Texas. If the landscapes featured in Texas-themed movies like "Giant", "Fandango", "Dancer Texas, Pop. 81", "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" or "Streets of Laredo" turn you on, you'll enjoy "No Country" simply for its spectacular panoramic views of west Texas (filmed near Marfa) early in the film.

Imagine if the movie "Fargo" were set in west Texas, and the briefcase contained drug money instead of a kidnapping ransom. In a nutshell, that's "No Country for Old Men".

While hunting antelope near Sanderson, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across the shootout scene of a drug deal gone bad ("a colossal goatf*ck", in the words of one cast member). He discovers the errant briefcase full of hundred dollar bills, and decides to take the money and run. Throughout the remainder of the film, Moss and his wife Carla Jean are pursued by Anton Chigurh, an associate of the drug runners who seek to reclaim their money. Moss compels Carla Jean to flee to Odessa and then El Paso, while he attempts to elude Chigurh in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and later Piedras Negras.

Along the way, we learn more about the botched drug deal and some of its participants. We also discover just how vicious, ruthless, and resourceful Moss's primary pursuer really is. The film's body count is high, with plenty of blood and gore (not really any great surprise considering these are the same directors who brought us the "wood chipper scene" in "Fargo".) All the while, Sheriff Bell is on the killer's trail, but he's plagued by self-doubt regarding his own capabilities as an aging peacekeeper, and is always a couple of moves behind.

The film stays fairly true to the book, with some minor alterations to allow for a smoother-flowing screenplay. The one change I'd like to have seen would have been for the film to include more narrative personal accounts from Sheriff Bell, like maybe one before every scene that featured him or someone from his department. Each chapter of the book begins with a
Bell narrative, but the movie only featured one, during the opening title sequence. This would have aided greatly in character development, which some critics (among the reviews I've read) felt was lacking.

I did have some issues with the casting. First, the good news -- Woody Harrelson was great as a Carson Wells, a sleazeball quasi-businessman and former associate of Anton Chigurh. Tommy Lee Jones was outstanding as Sheriff Bell. As I read the book, it seemed to me that McCarthy had written Bell's dialogue specifically with Tommy Lee Jones in mind. You just gotta have a Texan actor to play a Texas sheriff. Barry Corbin gave a brilliant performance as Sheriff Bell's Uncle Ellis (even though he only appears in one scene). Javier Bardem was very good as Anton Chigurh -- stoic, cold, unemotional, and unstoppable -- like the Terminator... not somebody you'd want to have trying to hunt you down.

Beyond that, I wasn't quite as impressed. The actors who played Bell's deputies did not strike me as gen-u-wine west Texans. They reminded me more of east Texans or Oklahomans. Ditto for the driver of the chicken truck from Alpine. (Aside: who the hell raises chickens in Alpine?) I didn't care a whole lot for Kelly MacDonald as Carla Jean -- too hick-ish. I thought they could have done better. Beth Grant's performance as Carla Jean's mom (her grandmother, actually) was really just a bit too much... WAY too hillbilly. I was thankful for her small amount of screen time; she would have been more at home on the set of "Hee Haw". This brings me to an interesting question: would someone other than a west Texan even realize how some of the Coens' sterotypes of "typical" west Texans kind of miss the mark? Moreover, do they miss the mark more than the Coens' stereotypes of typical Minnesotans in "Fargo", i.e., the Brainerd girls? (I must confess that the performances in "Fargo" matched MY preconceived notions of Minnesotans perfectly! But then, I ain't from Minnesota...)

Also, I had a minor complaint about some of the filming locations. Although much of the story was set in Sanderson, almost none of the scenes that supposedly took place there looked much like Sanderson; most of them appeared to be filmed about a hundred miles to the west, near Marfa. Not that I mind the scenery around Marfa -- it's one of the most beautiful areas of Texas -- but if you're gonna say it's Sanderson, then film it in Sanderson. Sanderson sits in the bottom of a canyon surrounded by steep limestone hillsides; it has a very unique look that you just can't duplicate anywhere else. Oh yeah, they must have filmed the Odessa scenes somewhere other than Odessa. HAD to have been. That town wasn't nearly ugly enough in the film.

I did enjoy the film, especially those west Texas scenes (regardless of where they were filmed). The screenplay was well-written, and I was certainly never bored. Even though I was disappointed with certain parts, I'll still give it a "Four shot glasses" rating out of a possible five. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys Coen Brothers films, Tommy Lee Jones, or west Texas.

Spotlight: freight car monikers

Look what turned up in the January 2008 issue of Texas Highways magazine, part of a feature entitled "Maverick Mystery Tour", featuring a few of the more unusual and eccentric personalities our state has known during the past 170 years or so.

Bozo Texino drawings from a new generation (an obvious tribute to McKinley) can still be seen on the occasional freight car.

I'd be just as interested in hearing the story behind the freight car artist known as "the Rambler", whose monikers (featuring a glass of bubbly champagne) graced the sides of thousands of freight cars (mostly Santa Fe grain hoppers) during the late 1980s and early '90s. Rumor has it that he worked for a switching contractor at the port of Beaumont, but I've never seen or heard anything to substantiate that. Maybe someone at Texas Highways can track him down...

BEK's top 10 of 2007

I had considered posting a small group of my favorite photos from 2007. Looks like my friend BEK beat me to it by posting his...

Nice work, BEK... I like the B&W Transcon shot and the U-haul trailers shot the best.

I still might post a few of my own faves from 2007, but readers have already seen most of them here. And they're not as AF as BEK's... not that there's anything wrong with AF...


np: "The Last Picture Show" dvd
nr: J.D. Salinger - Catcher in the Rye

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