From The Lookout to 1408: Thanksgiving Capsule Reviews

Over the holidays, we wound up seeing a ton of films, both on DVD and in theaters. Here’s a quick run-down of all of them, from the best to the worst.

(1) The Lookout (DVD) – A stunning directorial debut by the screenwriter of one of our all-time favorite movies, Out of Sight. A slightly brain damaged ex-highschool hockey star tries to pick up the pieces of his life and gets involved in a bank robbery while trying to figure it out. Beautifully shot, perfectly edited, and with stand-out performances from everyone from Jeff Daniels in a supporting role to Joseph Gordon-Levitt amazing job in the starring role. Packs a real emotional effect by the end, without seeming contrived.

(2) Hoax (DVD) – Richard Gere deserves an Oscar nomination for his outstanding, multi-faceted performance as Clifford Irving, who fooled the whole world into believing he was writing Howard Hughes’ authorized autobiography back in the 1970s. A strong script and strong direction from Lasse Hollstrom give Gere the space to create a signature performance. Like The Lookout, nothing in this movie feels forced or simple.

(3) The Mist (in theaters) – I never thought I’d be putting a remake with no stars this high on the list, but The Mist has a few unexpected things going for it. First, the dialogue is largely intelligent and the actions of the people caught in the mist rarely devolve into the usual cliched stupidities. Second, the cause of the mist is portrayed in a way that is much more intelligent than usual. Without giving away too much, the beasties in question aren’t specifically out for human blood–humans are just kind of in the way. Some of the mist-shrouded shots of the creatures are awe-inspiring. Third, the movie has what we would consider a controversial and hard-edged ending that we felt may not have been totally earned but definitely got us thinking and talking about it. Yes, in some ways this is still a B-movie, but in others it was provocative, unsettling, and savage.

(4) Paris: Je T’aime (DVD) – This series of short films shot in various sections of Paris by respected directors and featuring actors from Nick Nolte to Natalie Portman focuses on relationships in mini-portraits that sometimes link up and sometimes don’t. Over all, a very enjoyable viewing experience, with some stupid entries, like a vampire sequence with the guy who played Frodo once again giving us his anguished and his happy faces, which are really all he can do. But if you edit that one out, or fast-forward, this really does give a good flavor of Paris.

(5) Daywatch (DVD) – The sequel to Nightwatch is somewhat confusing if you haven’t recently watched the earlier movie, but the marvelous images, ingenious situations, and Russian flavor make up for that. Ann enjoyed this one more than I did, but it’s still recommended. (Ann would probably have this in the #3 or #4 position.)

(6) No Country for Old Men (in theaters) – If not for one of the most retarded endings in the recent history of cinema, this would have been right under The Lookout on our list. The character of the sheriff is quite simply never integrated into the movie in the ways necessary for the ending to work. Instead, it feels as if the movie ends in mid-frame. I haven’t read the novel this Coen brothers’ movie is based on, but I’m pretty sure the emphasis in the novel creates the context and space necessary for the movie’s ending to work. I’m just guessing here, of course, but the ending scenes and the rest of the movie seem like they’re not from the same book. So all I can assume is that Coen brothers didn’t take all of the right things from the book to make that ending work. I’m all for subverting genre expectations, but if you don’t set up that subvertin’ correctly, you get the reaction everyone in the theater had: “What the f—-?!” Followed by rampant laughter.

(7) 28 Days Later (DVD) – This dog of a sequel not only features enough coincidence to fill three movies, but coincidence in the service of cruelty. Honestly, as long as it made sense, the virus could’ve been introduced into the UK any number of ways. It really didn’t matter. However, after a brilliant prologue showing the Carlyle character’s abandonment of his wife during the initial zombie virus, the movie just falls apart. From people getting free from the containment zone unrealistically to Carlyle’s building supervisor pass key getting him into high-security military areas to a lapse in the logic of the zombies themselves, to a US military strategy that includes snipers picking off zombies in crowds, this movie is just too stupid to live. Like most of the people in it. But, again, the worst thing about this movie is the cruelty of it. Instead of working with some of the complex emotional issues set up by the reappearance of Carlyle’s wife, the movie goes for cheap thrills and a really disgusting series of situations.

(8) 1408 (DVD) – The Jumanji of horror films, 1408 features a confused-looking John Cusak navigating his way through a series of cheap thrills induced by an evil room. At one point, the paintings come to life, dumping salt-water into the room, and it really is like watching a horrific Jumanji. Cusak literally has to chew the scenery in this pointless, vapid movie. Which is a shame, because for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, it looked like it might be decent.


  1. says

    RE (6): Yes. I saw the film and read the book over the weekend. There’s a lot more of the sheriff in the book to tie his character to the title and the overall thematic thrust. I thought Jones’ portrayal was great (and the movie ends on exactly the same monologue as the film), but was still wondering what he was doing in the film. It was almost as if the Coen brothers couldn’t quite get away with cutting him entirely.

    I think the film is much better than the book. If it were possible to make a McCarthy book sparser, they seem to have managed it.

  2. says

    I didn’t mind the end of No Country all that much, and for a while thought the Sheriff’s character was, indeed, underutilized, but on reflection I thought the opening monologue set it up. Or maybe I just thought Tommy Lee Jones was better than in anything else I’ve seen him in, so I was amused. Anyway, I came over to say that the end in one of the drafts of the screenplay (available here: has the monologue become a voiceover with images from the dream underneath it. I would have liked that if they had filmed in grainy old b&w.

    The movie sent me back to McCarthy’s work, though, since I hadn’t read any despite having been hounded by people for years to do so (I’ve been given copies of Suttree and All the Pretty Horses by fervent fans). I’ve decided to read them in order, so am half-way through his first, The Orchard Keeper, right now. Damn weird, brutal, fine stuff.

  3. says

    re: No Country’s ending
    Maybe I’m biased from having read the book, but it worked for me. If I remember correctly (I shouldn’t have such a problem, having just seen the movie this weekend, but that’s my memory for ya), Tommy Lee Jone’s opens up the movie with voice-over, before book-ending the film with that ending monologue. Its easy to overlook that its him though. That might not be enough to make it work to some, but combined with the Jones monologues interspersed throughout the film, such as his story of sending a killer to the electric chair and comments along the lines of “all you can do is laugh at it,” the ending monologue was a nice wrap-up to the theme of growing old and becoming increasingly pointless in a harsh world. Even Chigurh (arguably) becomes obsolete to his old world-view after Moss’s wife makes him question the black and white rules he lives by and a random freak accident further emphasizes the point e.g. he doesn’t kill the kids or even let the coin decide their fate even though they can positively id him.

  4. says

    I wondered what exactly the Coens were going to do with McCarthy’s story seeing as McCarthy isn’t interested in the wretched “closure” which Hollywood regards as de rigueur these days. Nothing is really resolved in the book, just as nothing is really resolved in life; shit happens then it stops. The sheriff is the dominant character in the book even though he’s only following events; his thoughts punctuate the scenes and you get the contrast between his view of the world and the nightmare unfolding around him.

    I’ve not seen the film yet but was hoping the Coens would be able to get away with more than the customary resolution. So many films from the Seventies (and even the Eighties) end in a way that wouldn’t be allowed today unless the director had the power to swing it. I was even thinking that about Hitchcock’s The Birds when I watched it again this week.

  5. says

    The trouble is that Sheriff’s monologues in the book aren’t monologues in the film. They’re cut and parceled throughout the scenes that he has which detracts from their power as anchoring devices. As pure meta-commentary, we only have the first voice-over (which is dramatically trimmed from the book) and the final scene at the breakfast table. I saw the film first, and what left me confused is the sense that, in the end, the Sheriff is the protagonist, but for a vast portion of the film, it’s not clear that he is. In the book, however, you never forget his place in the story (and, really, the story is his–all the shit that goes down is almost incidental to his meandering thoughts).

    I do need to see the film again, because now having read the book, I can better understand some of the choices the Coens made. I don’t think the Sheriff is their protagonist–at least, the cuts make that argument harder to sustain–and so I’m really curious to figure out their intent.

    The Big Lebowski, as an aside, was a film that I didn’t really appreciate until I figured out that it was a Noir Crime Story with a surfer dude as the detective protagonist who refuses to hit people as a means of figuring out the crime. I think all their films (well, the good ones, anyway) do this style of confounding genre expectations and I just didn’t quite follow the twist in No Country For Old Men.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I agree with Matt–if the sheriff had really been used as a “frame” for the action, the ending would have worked for me. But, also, I think that some scenes near the end needed to be in a different sequence for the very end to work.


  7. says

    Hmm, that sounds odd but I’ll have to wait and see how it sits with me. I’ve liked all their films up to The Ladykillers, a bewilderingly pointless and bad remake. I love Big Lebowski and crime story is exactly right, it’s a Chandler plot with an ageing hippy in the place of Philip Marlowe.