A Thanksgiving Weekend of ’07 Films

This weekend, other than spending some quality time with gf, her family and my beloved , turkey-loving dog, and spending an unhealthy amount of time discovering the bottomless diversions of Facebook, I managed to watch four new films. I rate them all about the same – each are solid and recommendable, though none would make my top 10 for the year – but between the four of them there’s a world of emotional responses covered.

Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)

screened Thursday, November 22, 2007 in Exton PA IMDb

I liked this somewhat more than The Squid and the Whale. Editing is still too choppy and rushed at times for my tastes, the embarrassments and family dysfunction heaped upon with excessive preponderance, and yet it comes together. It’s much better paced than its predecessor and as such it helps the dystopia-on-the-Hamptons congeal into a credible-if-hyperbolized world through which flow constant streams of neurotic lava. Performances are first rate – Nicole Kidman ably takes the mantle of bitch-goddess like a 21st century contemporization of Davis/Crawford, and a game Jennifer Jason Leigh her hapless foil. Not to everyone’s tastes, it may seem to some that Baumbach still has an ax to grind against his family let alone humanity as a whole – but somehow I don’t disbelieve that such people as these exist. In fact with each year I live it becomes easier to see it.

Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

screened Friday, November 23, 2007 at the Regal Cinemas Downington IMDb

Came into this one hearing both raves (i.e. Todd McCarthy for Variety) and razzes (Robert Wilonsky at the Village Voice).  Easily the most entertaining film of the weekend, it’s a lot of fun for the most part, with revisionist fairy tale twists more clever and less slight than in Shrek (the “Happy Working Song” number with cockroaches, pigeons and rats doing cleanup work a la Snow White on a posh Upper West Side apartment is the highlight for me).  As far as substance, the film takes as many of its cues from Pretty Woman (girl with heart of gold redeems callous knight in business suit) as any of the old cartoons.  And as with Julia Roberts’ winsome hooker, if it weren’t for Amy Adams I suspect the proceedings would be unbearable; it’s her unironic relish as the irrepressible storybook heroine that carries the proceedings.   The film’s last act doesn’t quite hold up to what precedes it; Adams’ arrival at a costume ball in an elegant modern dress doesn’t have quite the stunning effect it aims for; and the expectedly climactic showdown between Adams and evil stepmother Susan Sarandon (who doesn’t get nearly enough screentime) is uninspired; as a result the film as a whole doesn’t linger much afterwards.

Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelley)

screened Saturday, November 24, 2007 on DVD in Astoria, NY IMDb

I was chiefly interested in this film after reading a couple of accounts that this was the feminine corrective to Knocked Up – so it surprised me that this film gives even less consideration towards abortion as a viable option for unwanted pregnancy (and I don’t buy that the film’s Southern milieu has anything to do with it, since the characters seem pretty removed from any Bible Belt pro-life influence).  That aside, the film is a winning portrait of a woman’s coming into her own, endowed with Shelley’s direction, not dissimilar from her old mentor Hal Hartley in its boxy dialogues (Nathan Fillion seems to be Martin Donovan reincarnate), though with a touch more warmth emanating from the fine ensemble, offsetting the cold diffidence of Kerri Russell channeling Kelly McGillis of yesteryear.
No Country for Old Men (2007, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)

screened Sunday, November 25 2007 at the City Cinemas 1,2,3 in New York, NY IMDb

“This may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it left me feeling rotten.”  This is what Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Fargo, and while I don’t agree with him on that film, I’m apt to  say as much about this comeback effort from the Coens.   I wouldn’t rate this film as low as he does, and I find his theory that American audiences embrace psycho killer characters during times of war more provocative than persuasive (personally I think these movies have a perennial appeal, like it or not).   All the same I share his concern that this film is as morally empty as it is exquisitely crafted.  Viewers can make their own mind up as to whether the impeccable detail realized by the makers – visual, aural, dramatic – serves in its own way (not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s prose) as a redemption via aesthetics to the horrors they recount.  Geoffrey O’Brien’s article in Film Comment is as good an argument for this as any I’ve read so far.  I had a good conversation with Ed Gonzalez before Thanksgiving (as of now it’s on his top ten list) where he was casting doubts on the many  ideological readings that have already sprung up on the internet, whereas he thinks it’s a masterpiece of style and genre execution (no pun intended).  I agree with him that the Coens probably don’t intend any more deep reading into this film as they have with any of their previous works (I think Raising Arizona is as deliberately symbolic as you’ll get with them); at the same time, I’m uncomfortable to chalk this up as a exemplary genre piece, as it’s clearly taking delight in burning some crime genre mainstays to the ground.  For one thing it seems like a rebuttal to the justice wins out, salt of the earth prevail sentiments that concluded Fargo.  But in relinquishing those old comforts, the Coens leave nothing left but stylized death and bleakness.  For god’s sake, even Salo had a happier ending. Fascinated with scenario and surface and nihilistic to the core, there’s something about this film that’s as rotten as the trail of corpses it leaves behind.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

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  • Joe

    “No Country” seems to me a variation on the themes of “Fargo,” not a “rebuttal” of them. I wouldn’t characterize the theme of “Fargo” as “justice wins out, salt of the earth prevail”; Marge solves the case pretty much by accident and after the damage has been done. Her decency doesn’t “prevail,” it persists, which the directors see as admirable in itself. I think their attitude toward her is more ambivalent and complicatd then the Coens are usually given credit for: they respect her goodness while finding her kind of comically naive in the face of the world’s randomness and cruelty.

    Tommie Lee Jones’ character is a similar figure in “Old Men,” and I found his character’s groping for consolation at the end of the movie really moving. The final dream, in which he receives the illusion of solace only to wake up to the cruel world, sums it up perfectly, and I don’t find the film “morally empty” or “nihilistic” as all, just very weary and very sad. There’s a difference. I’m not sure if that’s the “deep reading” you’re looking for, but it’s enough for me. If the Coens were really “nihilistic,” Jones’ character wouldn’t exist at all, or would be just another jackass out to get his share. The issues his character raises would be totally irrelevant.

    I find that Rosenbaum review pretty much worthless; he probably had most of it written in his head before he even saw the movie. I think that’s probably true of a lot of critics in this case (I really liked that Geoffery O’Brien piece; he is such a good critic). I think it’s a shame that the Coens’ critical rap for “condescension” follows them around so mercilessly. Most critics (I’m not talking about you) don’t seem to understand the fact that an artist can present a character with respect and fondness and also find him kind of comical too; I mean, I love my family but sometimes they do some funny stuff, you know?

  • http://shooting.alsolikelife.com alsolikelife

    Hey Joe – those are very astute distinctions you make on Fargo. What I am saying is that the Coens seem sympathetic to the middle-class simplicity of the Gunderssons, their modesty prevailing – or persisting, to use your word – over the avarice of the ill-fated people around them. In No Country, Ed Tom is as you say a carryover of Marge, and this time you can forget about goodness and decency prevailing, much less persisting.

    “If the Coens were really “nihilistic,” Jones’ character wouldn’t exist at all, or would be just another jackass out to get his share. The issues his character raises would be totally irrelevant.”

    I’m not sure if we aren’t supposed to feel that way towards the end – much of his attitude seems to get questioned as so much irrelevant nostalgia, especially in that scene where his brother(?) recounts their father’s violent death. There’s something about this ending that itself feels quaintly pat, that just by unnerving us the Coens had done their job. Honestly I think I got more creeped out by the ending of Fincher’s Seven, insofar as it does more to implicate the everyman’s own participation in the evil in the world he sets out to vanquish.

    I think I get more out of reading O’Brien than I do any regularly published critic these days. The only criticism I have about his piece was the paragraph about philosophical assassins – there are quite a few of them out there (I’m surprised he didn’t mention Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter) and personally I find these types a pretty unsavory strain of antihero.

  • Joe


    Yeah, Ed Tom’s particular take on the world is seen as “irrelevant nostalgia,” but his torment is taken seriously. His inability to articulate his position or pinpoint exactly what is wrong doesn’t make him easy to dismiss. At least I didn’t get that feeling.

    You probably think I’m giving the Coens too much credit, but I also think that Ed Tom is quietly implicated in the evil that surrounds him. The Coens are critical of his institutional staidness, I think (there’s a lot of that quality in Marge from “Fargo” as well). Anyway, I think it’s a complicated character, and can’t be dismissed with the usual charge of “condescension” (not that you did that, I’m just using this space to complain about those critics who did).

  • alsolikelife

    If anything, I think Ed Tom and Marge are the closest onscreen correlatives to the Coens themselves. Not that they intend to implicate themselves outright. So I agree with you that the rap they get for being condescending is perhaps undeserved – my problem is the fatalism (perhaps there’s a more accurate word for it) inherent in their worldview that smacks of a certain defeatism towards effecting positive change in the world. If we’re to take them at their film’s title, all the same it seems to breed an old man’s ineffectual worldview.

  • Joe

    you wrote:
    “my problem is the fatalism (perhaps there’s a more accurate word for it) inherent in their worldview that smacks of a certain defeatism towards effecting positive change in the world.”

    Yeah, absolutely. I tend to see it as a tough-minded refusal to console, which is just another spin on the same attitude. Come to think of it I tend to gravitate toward directors that critics like to call “cold”: Kubrick, Bresson, Bunuel…

    Is a faith in positive change necessary for a filmmaker though? This is a big can of worms to open, and it’s cool if you think this is too abstract a discussion for this blog post, but you’ve written so eloquently about Ozu, so this question comes to mind: don’t you sense some of that fatalism in his work? Certainly Ozu works in an overtly humanist mode, there aren’t any psycho killers in his movies, but honestly I don’t see much of a faith in “effecting positive change in the world” in his pictures. (And I don’t mean that as a criticism, I like Ozu a lot).

  • alsolikelife

    Very fair questions to ask, Joe. I wonder myself if I am holding the Coens to a double standard in light of the four other directors you name, all of whom are among my favorites. Perhaps one distinction I could make is that all those filmmakers you name, especially Ozu, leave you caring a lot more about the world and how you see it and move through it than you did before you watched their films. With the Coens it seems to invite escapism into the cinematic world without much of a life-changing effect afterwards. Bresson’s films announce their filmic qualities first and foremost but they reflect back on a world beyond itself and its dilemmas with engagement and urgency. The Coen films feel content to be delighted with their own invention than to make any connections to a real world. At least that’s how it’s long seemed to me for much of the Coens’ career – now No Country may bring this issue to a new light, given that from chatroom discussions I’ve observed the ending has really disturbed a lot of people about the world they live in – but I think that feeling of disturbance is bred from conveniently conventional/conservative views of society than from anything observed firsthand, and dealt with in hyperbolized extremes.

    Thinking on it further, I suspect I might also harbor some distrust towards the Coens because both stylistically and tonally they tend to be all over the map compared to the other filmmakers in question, such that it becomes hard to get an honest read as to just where they are coming from. Of course much of the same can be said for Bunuel or Kubrick (esp. early Kubrick). As I’ve gotten older my appreciation of Bunuel’s perceptiveness towards the downright irrationality of human behavior has grown immensely, and my esteem for Kubrick has shifted away from his stylistic mastery to his slippery views on the unknowability of human nature.

    Perhaps one thing that distinguishes the Coens from the others we’ve mentioned is that their observations of the world seems more derivative of movies, tv and literature than what feels like genuine human experience. i am somewhat uncomfortable making that assertion as one of the true pleasures of No Country for Old Men is its remarkable, hyperrealistic attention to detail, like those scuffmarks on the floor of the police station, the precision placement of every single gunshell, and all those wonderful ambient noises throughout the soundtrack. (I wonder how much of this is taken from McCarthy’s descriptions). Maybe I am being wrong-headed for putting them in a lower standing because they deal most explicitly in genre – that said Kubrick’s proto-Coen crime capers are my least favorite in his oeuvre, so in the end we may just be dealing with my own prejudices.

    All in all I could just be rationalizing my own gut feelings, but there you have it. It is interesting to think about why these people affect me one way and other directors another when they seem to share similar qualities.

  • Joe

    Thanks for the thoughtful answer to an open-ended question. It is interesting to reflect on why particular filmmakers move us, and why we chalk up certain films in the “accomplished, but not for me” category. I think a larger percentage of criticism than most of us are willing to acknowledge involves rationalizing out own gut feelings; ever since I’ve learned to accept that I get less worked up about differences of opinion. “No Country for Old Men” happens to fall into my own aesthetic wheelhouse. It was overdetermined that I would like it. (It felt to me like the kind of film one of my household gods, David Lynch, would make if he decided to turn out a straight action movie; those ambient noises you mention seemed particularly Lynchian, as did the at once menacing and absurd villain.)

    Anyway, I find your comments on the Coens’ lack of connection to the real world interesting. I see what you mean about their insularity and artificiality. I feel that way about some of their films more than others (one of my favorites of theirs is “The Big Lebowski,” which goes all out and revels in artificiality). As for their use of genre, I’d argue that the Coens at their best use genre the way a lot of other good artists do: they find something in the conventions of the crime film that they find especially resonant and “real,” a form which can be used to say something about the world outside the film. And at this late date it’s impossible to use the old genres without being self-reflexive about it.

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  • Marcus

    Though all the points are valid in it i can't accept the point that viewers can make their own mind up as to whether the impeccable detail realized by the makers – visual, aural, dramatic – serves in its own way as a redemption via aesthetics to the horrors they recount..
    Miniature Schnauzer

  • Sarah Day

    offsetting the cold diffidence of Kerri Russell channeling Kelly McGillis of yesteryear.