Tommy Lee Jones

No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.

The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.

I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).

They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.

When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis) and Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells).


Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher)

Joel Schumacher once commented he was first credited with saving the Batman franchise (with Batman Forever), then destroying it (with Batman & Robin). I think I’d watched his second venture (or tried to watch it) more recently than I had seen Forever… anyway, it isn’t like Schumacher made one good one and one bad one. He made two bad ones and the second one just happened to be worse, but Batman Forever is atrocious in its own right. When Drew Barrymore gives a film’s best performance, it’s trouble.

The problems with the film are a list of its cast (with the except of Barrymore, Val Kilmer–who isn’t good but isn’t bad either, it’s not like he could do anything with the role–and maybe Alfred Gough), its crew (whoever did the composites should be blacklisted and Elliot Goldenthal’s score is an offense to the ears) and particularly Schumacher and the writers.

I’ve long been under the impression the Batchlers worked on “Batman: The Animated Series,” explaining some of the more cartoon-like elements of the plot (particularly the Statue of Liberty stand-in), but I can’t find that credit on IMDb so they’re probably just Warner Bros. in-house writers… Forever’s other credited writer, Akiva Goldsman, is, of course, the guy who has somehow gotten respectable in modernity, though it’s probably because he helped dumb down theatergoers so much in the 1990s… I’m not sure who is responsible for each of the terrible scenes–Batman Forever’s most interesting in its inability to have a single honest frame of celluloid, and it might be my new candidate for the turning point of Hollywood, when everything started its descent into garbage (I need to admit, right now, I used to like Batman Forever, but I was a teenager and apparently a dumb one).

Another possible reason for a genial defense of the film is Jim Carrey. People used to love him, though it’s hard to remember those days. He’s absolutely terrible, as is Tommy Lee Jones (Nicole Kidman and Chris O’Donnell are as well, but no one should expect anything from either of them). But Jones… it’s painful to watch him. I thought he took the role for his kids (but, again, can’t find any online citation of it).

Schumacher’s direction of the film is both incompetent and incredibly interesting. Besides the terrible composites (I sort of remember them always looking poorly lighted), Schumacher appears to have been shooting unfinished sets. Or it was stylistic–a bad style–never shooting any establishing shots, never setting up anything in the film (with the possible except of Wayne Manor) as believable. But, it’s still interesting how he can keep up such a visually unintelligible film.

Schumacher got a lot of crap for making the next one as a toy commercial, but this one is just the same… it even looks like an old toy commercial, the kind with the toys shot as though they were life-size, which pretty much sums up Batman Forever… It’s so bad, I’m surprised I–as the teenager who thought it was good–was literate.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, from a story by Batchler and Scott Batchler, based on the characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Dennis Virkler; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Tim Burton and Peter MacGregor-Scott; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Val Kilmer (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face / Harvey Dent), Jim Carrey (The Riddler / Dr. Edward Nygma), Nicole Kidman (Dr. Chase Meridian), Chris O’Donnell (Robin / Dick Grayson), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Pat Hingle (Police Commissioner Gordon), Drew Barrymore (Sugar), Debi Mazar (Spice), Elizabeth Sanders (Gossip Gerty), Rene Auberjonois (Dr. Burton) and Joe Grifasi (Bank Guard).


Under Siege (1992, Andrew Davis)

I suppose, if there were a quiz or something and I thought about it real hard, I’d remember Under Siege brought Tommy Lee Jones… well, not back exactly, so I guess just brought Tommy Lee Jones. Looking at his filmography and the dates, someone could wrongly argue Oliver Stone tried championing him–but it didn’t work out. Under Siege kicked off the unending deluge of bad Tommy Lee Jones movies and signaled the end of Steven Seagal’s career in a way. Seagal ruined the success it gave him.

Watching the film, which I haven’t seen since in twelve years or so, I was surprised at how passable a job Seagal does acting in much of the time. He has absolutely no chemistry with female “actor” Erika Eleniak, but she’s so terrible, it might not be Seagal’s fault. The only reason I thought he might be contributing is how bad he is in certain scenes–like when he has to play the character in a verbal, not physical fashion. Seagal’s first few scenes in the film, when he’s hanging around with the familiar-looking 1990s action movie supporting cast–he’s good in those scenes, he’s visibly having some fun. When he’s alone, he’s fine too, but once he and Eleniak are going on adventures throughout the ship, it’s painful to watch her performance.

Under Siege also put Andrew Davis into the Hollywood mainstream and it’s a little perplexing. While Davis did cast a lot of his standard character actors, only some of them are good, and I’m sure the script had the structure–keep Seagal peripheral for the first act, letting Tommy Lee Jones run away with the movie and give it the pretense of some solid quality–but maybe that one was Davis’s idea. He sure didn’t coax a good performance out of Gary Busey, who’s so annoying the film loses a lot of credibility when the bad guys don’t just kill him so they don’t have to hear him talk anymore.

The action scenes are rather blah too–Seagal’s an unbeatable killing machine–he mows down fifteen guys in one part–and understanding his role as an unbeatable killing machine is part of watching Under Siege. But he doesn’t really kick any ass. I mean, the guy can kick ass, but instead he just shoots at people. It’s boring. The film never establishes itself as “real,” so Seagal’s feats are never particularly exciting.

Also, I’m not sure what the end is supposed to mean–it seems to suggest Seagal, while he doesn’t agree with it, understands why Hawaii needs to get nuked.

But it’s still mildly entertaining, if only because the first act is so incredibly well-done. I mean, the moment where I was wondering when the hostage-taking was going to start (thinking, it’s getting to be about as long as one can wait for it), it started. So it does do something significant right.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; written by J.F. Lawton; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Robert Ferretti; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Arnon Milchan, Seagal, Steven Reuther, Jack B. Bernstein and Peter MacGregor-Scott; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steven Seagal (Casey Ryback), Tommy Lee Jones (Strannix), Gary Busey (Commander Krill), Erika Eleniak (Jordan Tate), Patrick O’Neal (Captain Adams), Colm Meaney (Doumer) and Andy Romano (Admiral Bates).


Volcano (1997, Mick Jackson)

I’m trying to remember why I queued Volcano. I’ve recently been on a “rediscovering the mid-to-late 1990s” kick, so that reason is possible, but I’m pretty sure it was because Anne Heche was in it and I wanted to go back to when she was going to have a great career. Heche is incredibly good and the lack of her presence in modern cinema is going on my (new, creating it right now in Excel or something) list of what’s wrong with modern film.

Volcano is from that wonderful era when CGI wasn’t as “good” as it is now, but still expensive enough to prohibit network TV from using it in excess (which is why the disaster genre is now all network mini-series). And Volcano has some terrible CGI, it has some terrible dialogue, it has some awful moments when people realize that skin color doesn’t matter and that everyone is the same….

It also has a great cast. Besides Heche, firstly, there’s Don Cheadle. This Cheadle is the pre-(semi)fame Cheadle who pops up in all Brett Ratner’s films. This Cheadle just acts and does it well, makes you like him too. It’s the wonderful 1990s Cheadle. I don’t know if he’s lost it with his notoriety, but he certainly picks a lot worse projects (his latest LA film, Crash, isn’t fit to scrub Volcano‘s toilet). Jacqueline Kim and Keith David make up the rest of the main supporting cast, playing a doctor and a cop, respectively (I think David was also a cop in Crash). David’s practically always good and Kim is–it’s just that she’s in almost no films. Gaby Hoffmann, who’s one of those child actors who shouldn’t have disappeared, shows up as Tommy Lee Jones’s kid and occasionally spouts off terrible dialogue.

Jones is fine (this film’s still from the era when Jones couldn’t be bad), but it’s one of those roles I kept wishing David Strathairn was playing. If you’ve never seen The River Wild, you wouldn’t understand, but Strathairn as an action hero is a wonderful thing.

(I keep forgetting about City of Hope, I really need a good widescreen City of Hope).

Volcano is nicely paced–it must run around one hundred minutes and there’s about forty of setup, then an hour of disaster. I’m not so much a sucker for disaster movies–the Irwin Allen variety, with the big casts, are all right I suppose–but I do like films with a limited storytelling span, especially if they are trying to “entertain” me. I was going to say that Mick Jackson is a fine enough director and should do TV, but he already does. It’s really sad when a movie like Volcano is more interesting than 99% of films coming out today.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray, based on a story by Armstrong; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Michael Tronick and Don Brochu; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Jackson Degovia; produced by Neal H. Mortiz and Andrew Z. Davis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark), Anne Heche (Dr. Amy Barnes), Gaby Hoffman (Kelly Roark), Don Cheadle (Emmit Reese), Jacqueline Kim (Dr. Jaye Calder), Keith David (Police Lieutenant Ed Fox), John Corbett (Norman Calder), Michael Rispoli (Gator Harris) and John Carroll Lynch (Stan Olber).


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