Movie of the Week: No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Coen Brothers direct Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones in this western neo-noir thriller where a Vietnam vet with a case full of money, an assassin with a nihilistic code and a cautious lawman find themselves in a deadly chase.

One of the finest films ever made – expertly cast, right down to the one line characters, and somehow looking like both a comic book fantasy and a mundane reality in every shot. Thank you Roger Deakins… master of twilight cinematography and roadside dryness. The stalk and kill sequences have a compelling beauty to them. They click over with a well oiled mechanism’s certainty and precision, kinetic set pieces in fatalism. Carter Burwell’s atonal score scrapes all hope from the proceedings – one pause or wrong move and there’s nothing but cruel nature and fate out there. Cormac McCarthy’s dark musing on mankind is given room to breathe – the third act is one of the strangest yet most memorable in mainstream cinema. Leaving a simple plot abandoned full of questions, maybes and unseen grim certainties. Blackly hilarious too. When you aren’t glued to the screen in danger, you are chuckling at the poor gormless side characters just trying to get on with their day, oblivious to the maelstrom we are in. Perfection. “Call it, Friendo!”

10

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Birds of Passage (2019)

Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego direct José Acosta, Natalie Reyes and Carmiña Martinéz in this crime saga where a Colombian lad drags his traditional tribe into the international drug trade so he can raise the dowry for his beloved.

Takes you to another world, exotic yet fully realised. Guerra & Gallego’s movie can be approached as a straightforward entry of the rise and fall of a drug kingpin sub-genre or a hauntingly nightmarish trip with a group of people abandoning their principles through greed and ambition. It works as both and proves a beautiful experience studded with bold character work, surreal bursts and violent extremes.

7

Bastards (2013)

Claire Denis directs Vincent Lindon, Chiarra Mastroianni and Julie Bataille in this Parisian neo-noir where an uncle ingratiates himself into the world of the people who destroyed his niece’s life.

The comforting boundaries of genre force Denis to make a watchable film while retaining her arthouse sensibilities. This goes down some extremely dark paths and isn’t exactly in a rush to reach a satisfactory conclusion but as a one watcher, cinematic tale of revenge it works.

5

The Core (2003)

Jon Amiel directs Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Stanley Tucci in this sci-fi disaster pic where scientists tunnel to the centre of the Earth to let off a nuke that will get our planet spinning on its proper axis again.

Just guff. Weak unpolished CGI. Vomit plotting. Zero personality. Unconvincing peril. One of the worst blockbuster I’ve ever seen. Irredeemable.

1

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Alan J. Pakula directs Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington and John Heard in this John Grisham thriller where a grad student accidentally hypothesises the true reasons behind a conspiracy and becomes a target for assassins.

I read The Pelican Brief in a tent and on the backseat of my parents’ car on a summer holiday in Dorset. I was gripped by the twists and turns, the corridor of power plotting and the near miss escapes. None of that intrigue and constant threat translates well on the big screen though. Roberts and Washington have no chemistry and share little screentime together even if they did. The occasional dashes around carparks and fairgrounds seem random and perfunctory. The conspiracy doesn’t even register – lots of boardroom and oak bar stool chit chat in hushed tones. Glossy yet slow – this has aged poorly.

4

Butterfly on a Wheel (2007)

Mike Barker directs Pierce Brosnan, Maria Bello and Gerard Butler in this yuppies-in-peril thriller where a kidnapper forces a couple to break the law to win back their daughter.

I get bored typing how unlikable a lead Butler often proves to be. This is a nadir even for him. The better actors don’t make much out of their stock roles either. The stakes never really get raised high enough that you worry they’ll not survive. Brosnan’s puppet master is way too forgiving. A nasty little thriller that isn’t nasty enough to thrill… and therefore deathly pointless.

3

L’une Chante, L’autre Pas (1977)

Agnes Varda directs Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard and Ali Raffi in this musical drama focussing on two women who follow divergent lives during the Womens’ Movement.

A radical feminist who drops out to sing in a travelling band and a single mother who rebuilds her life cross paths again and again over a decade. Enriching each other’s happiness while sharing different outlooks on feminism. The artistic hippy Pauline / Pomme becomes an increasingly annoying caricature as time marches on (some scenes are almost spoofs to modern eyes) but I know that isn’t Varda’s intention. Liotard’s Suzanne however has a far more appealing journey – shifting from near destitute cautionary tale to a practical force for positive change in other womens’ live. Liotard’s story and role is so attractive you kinda grow to hate Pomme’s warbling bullshit and selfish romances that keep interrupting the more captivating subplots.

7

Damage (1992)

Louis Malle directs Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche and Miranda Richardson in this sex drama in which a Tory MP starts a near wordless affair with his son’s enigmatic fiancée.

Of interest only for the unappealing rough bonking between two prestigious actors… so silly that it actually scuppers the film. Outside of those rhythmic contortions there’s very little heat. It is very much a cold fish. Inevitable tragedy strikes and it is brutal. Natalie said it reminded her of the first few minutes of an episode of Inspector Morse stretched over two hours and that’s on the nose. You meet the posho players, get a vague idea of their relationships, watch their opulent yet boring lifestyles, a cruel death… but then no sleuthing. Miranda Richardson shines as the betrayed wife getting a hell of a final shot in. So much care and craft has gone into this, that is should be better, sexier and entirely more gripping.

5

The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

John Huston directs Kirk Douglas, George C Scott and Dana Wynter in this mystery where a master of disguise bumps off various big name stars also in disguise.

A dated Hollywood con job. There are some of the decade’s true titans of cinema hidden under latex, only revealing themselves in a post credits bow. You come for the stellar cast but only Robert Mitchum really puts in anything more than a sniggering cameo. You do get plenty of toplining Scott and Douglas though… so what more could you ask from a movie? The detective plot works fine, although I never really got truly involved.

6

Salome (1953)

William Dieterle directs Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger and Charles Laughton in this biblical epic where the princess of Galilee returns to her homeland a sexy adult… stirring up lusts, plots and insurrections.

Stodgy but colourful. Hayworth looks fantastic but her character is fatally softened from the head demanding shrew of history to a sympathetic pawn in a political game. A pawn who eventually performs a lovely dance of the seven veils.

4