'No Country for Old Men' worthy of Oscar wins

There are precious few annual rituals left in America that bring the nation together in such a cohesive and compelling way as the Oscars, replete with layers of glamour and glitterati, designer gowns and flashing smiles, punctuated by rehearsed sound bytes. "We're thrilled to just be here."

Movies are uniquely and powerfully involving and the actors, whose images are projected on the silver screen, are larger than life and treated as if they were, indeed, heavenly stars, whose lives are publicly played out, seemingly light-years from the mundane and the pedestrian.

This year's Oscars &

featuring a bevy of nominated films, art direction, cinematography, animated features, screenplays, songs and actors &

were literally pulled together at the last minute. The writers' strike had gone on longer than anyone ever anticipated while the studios and the writers' reps were playing chicken with Oscar night the ultimate chip on the table. The entire world was waiting and watching as the days of February slipped by. No one wanted the Oscars, &

224; la the Golden Globes, to be reduced to a press conference wherein the winners were announced like the weather. Besides, as so many movie pundits opined, this year was studded with remarkable performances and powerful films.

So, it was with a deep sigh of relief that the three-month strike was settled just nine days before the Oscar night gala. Finally, lights, music and the 80 Academy Awards night began with Jon Stewart taking center stage. He smiled, seemed happy to see everyone, and said that now that the writers' strike is over, it's time for "makeup sex." When commenting on the nominated films &

most edgy and nihilistic &

he asked, "Does this town need a hug?" He added, "All I can say is, thank God for teen pregnancy," referring to "Juno," which was nominated for best picture and considered comic relief amid all this darkness.

Indeed, the four films, other than "Juno," were grim tales of existential crisis, led by "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." "Blood" delivered the best performance with Daniel Day Lewis in an over-the-top portrayal of a man obsessed with achieving his end &

bringing in an oil well &

and prepared to use whatever means necessary. It was a tour de force character study, though never, not for a moment, sympathetic or redemptive.

As stories go, the Cormac McCarthy adaptation of "No Country for Old Men" was far more riveting than "Blood," winning Oscars for best film, best adapted screenplay, and best directors &

the Coen brothers. It's worth a moment to ponder its structure and its endorsement by the Academy.

"No Country" certainly qualifies as a morality play wherein essentially decent people are confronted with an evil that is so remorseless, so unrelenting, that it renders all who come close defenseless. And so the film is framed by the laconic commentary of an old West Texas sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who opines that he no longer recognizes a once familiar landscape where most sheriffs had gone about their days unarmed.

The epitome of that observation is the carnage of a desert drug deal gone bad, with bloated bodies scattered about, a dying man sits in a pickup truck begging for water, automatic weapons and cartridges are everywhere, and a trail of blood leads away from the shootout, indicating one man was able to walk away. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes upon the scene and after a search discovers a man in the distance, seated under a tree, dead, with a satchel filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills. Moss, resilient, a Vietnam vet, filled with confidence, believes he can escape with the money unscathed. But he is completely unprepared for the ruthless drug dealers who pursue him, along with one lone psychopath named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who kills with a casual brutality which transcends anything Moss or Ed Tom Bell have ever contemplated. Theirs is an evil so burnished, so pure as to be mysterious &

mysterium iniquitatis &

existing on the dark side of the moon, an abyss most of us never encounter, hence find all but impossible to imagine.

For all of its brutality, "No Country" is a spare and powerful tale, wonderfully balanced, asking some of the most fundamental questions about the human condition. It is well worth seeing, equally satisfying the second time. Tangentially, many who saw the film questioned what seemed an abrupt ending (the book's denouement is much longer). But considering that the tale is framed by Ed Tom Bell reflecting on a life well lived, one which now seems almost anachronistic and a bit puzzling, the film's ending works nicely, a fine conclusion to an exceptional work.

The Other Boleyn Girl

Phillipa Gregory wrote a steamy novel about what she imagined happened behind the tapestries of the court of Henry VIII (Eric Bana), the King of England. "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a screen adaptation of that book. Think of it as a mid-millennium tale, a "Days of Our Lives" in costume, with intrigue, duplicity, bedding of voluptuous women by a king who would forsake the stability of his kingdom for one conquest.

In the set up to act I, Henry (Eric Bana) finds himself without a male heir. His wife of many years, Catherine of Aragon, delivers a stillborn child after mothering only daughters. It's decided that she must be moved aside as Henry searches for a young, nubile bit of sweetness who will offer herself to the king and become the vessel for his royal seed. Of course, this plan of regal adultery is predicated on the belief that a son will soon be born. So, enter the Boleyn sisters &

Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) &

both pressured by their poor but titled family to indulge the king in hopes of gaining position and fortune as a result.

Of course, Henry sees these two women, not for what they are as persons, but as objects of his desire. He must possess them. First, Mary, already married, but no matter. Then Anne, who is as Machiavellian as any back room politician, proving to be a schemer extrodinaire.

However, as we know, the best laid plans of mice and kings and would-be-queens can go awry and though a son is born to Mary and Henry, and Catherine, the established Queen of England, is soon disposed of (get thee to a nunnery), Anne, however, is moved into the king's bed. Sadly, for the Boleyn sisters nothing ends well. But no worries, Henry lands on his feet for there is Jane Seymour in the wings and there is also a daughter born to Henry whose name is Elizabeth. Not a male heir as planned, but, as history demonstrates, a force to be reckoned with.

As films go, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is well-acted and entertaining. Natalie Portman, especially, delivers a fine performance. The scenes are rich, the costuming extraordinarily wonderful, though there are moments when these people all look far too well scrubbed and healthy, with smiles that only the best dentists could create. Recall, no one brushed his or her teeth until the 19th century. So, let's assume that the torrid love scenes were surely tempered by what must have been the foulest of breaths, head lice in abundance (hence wigs) and odors born of months without even a cursory bathing. Nevertheless, people's private lives were indeed as baroque as their dress and that makes for good storytelling.

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