Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999)

Bringing Out The Dead pic 2
A rambling visual feast from director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, rapidly paced to maximize the extreme nature of Nicholas Cage’s mental breakdown. There’s so much to admire in Bringing Out the Dead one tends to forgive some of the ambivalent story elements, like the repetitive supporting players and the monotonous character performed by Patricia Arquette. Schrader’s script is deceptively simple, depending on three contrasting partners to counter Cage and his decline. And Scorsese uses John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore masterfully, each serving as a potent double to the film’s conflicted hero. The film contrasts colors in beautiful ways, especially forging vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges against the dark New York City skyline which always holds a menace of mortality on the horizon. Sometimes Scorsese, like Spielberg, can get away with minor glitches more than others because he’s so damn good at directing, and Bringing Out the Dead, while mostly an excellent slice of guilt and retribution, is a prime example of a master craftsman showing his stripes over and over again simply because he can.
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The Glass Shield (Burnett, 1994)

The Glass Shield is one of those rare films that gets better with multiple viewings. Initially, it’s flashy surface felt uncomfortable complimenting the intelligent, socially conscious themes surrounding a Black sheriff (Michael Boatman) and a Jewish woman (Lori petty) working in an all white Police Department. Now, I realize that’s Burnett’s point – to show the contradictions between perception and reality within a typically standard police procedural. The Glass Shield opens with vibrant animated comic book frames highlighting a heroic police chase and shootout. This turns out to be an imagining by the film’s hero John Johnson (Boatman), concerning his new job as a Sheriff’s deputy. In his perceived battle between good guys and bad guys, it’s clear who’s who. With the film’s examples of corruption, bribery, and murder, Burnett shows how the iconography of traditional cop movies can be problematic, even simplistic when not examined thoroughly. In a modern world were sexism, racism, and cronyism still exist within the work place, no one leaves unscathed. The Glass Shield represents a great filmmaker attempting to deconstruct genre, mainly by realizing it’s complex affects on humanity under the glossy surface.

The Second Civil War (Dante, 1997)

I once heard that comedy, above all other genres can lead to the greatest truth, no matter how disturbing or uncomfortable the consequences. Whether or not that’s the case, this statement certainly describes many of the films by director Joe Dante, works that blend brutal political satire with cataclysmic reminders of drastic change. In The Second Civil War (made for HBO television), Dante explores a near-future America where the Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges) closes the borders of his state to the rest of the country. This aggressive move comes in response to the overwhelming influx of illegal and legal aliens (the Chinese have taken over Rhode Island). As the media outlet NN, the White House, and various other corporate and social entities scramble for a response, the situation turns chaotic quickly. The process, often hilarious and absurd (the Governor is in love with a Mexican reporter), shows an infrastructure crumbling under the pressure of egotistical ideologies from all sides, left and right, breaking the back of the constitution and throwing the country into war. The result is surprisingly bloody (at least for HBO’s early productions), and Dante brilliantly juxtaposes comedic moments with those of horror and death. The shear depth and range of Dante’s story is amazing, incorporating a multitude of issues into a comedic script ripe with classic one-liners and social commentary. The film is funny and entertaining, almost preposterous at times, but Dante cleverly masks his real intent with this more mainstream aesthetic. The Second Civil War wants to scare the living hell out of you, and it’s final images of Federal troops shooting at National Guardsmen accomplish just that. Dante might be the most political American filmmaker working today and his work marks a crucial dialogue between substance and content in Hollywood film. The Second Civil War, while a farce in tone, remains a staunch warning against ignorance, apathy, and closed-mindedness, something that unfortunately still rings true today.

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

A brutal, relentless novel with prose so bare and sharp one wonders if Joel and Ethan Coen changed anything for their film adaptation coming in November. McCarthy’s personal vision of the modern Western frontier descending into crime, murder, and hell makes quite an impression. With each intimate scene of violence, some so bloody I can’t imagine the Coen’s showing everything, the novel embroiders a deep pattern of psychological malaise defined by solitude, regret, and soullessness and representative of a devastating generational transition. Chigurth, Moss, Bell et. al exist in a foreboding world, where blood and dirt mix with ease, a place stained by greed and corruption in the very worst ways.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen, Coen, 2000)

A stunning work that only the Coen’s could have crafted, bleached of color, saturated with the dusty greys and browns of the South. Grows in stature with each viewing, most noticeably because of the Deakins/Burnett tandem and absurdly clever script. The two stills below represent a strategy of framing the Coen’s often use, showing the trio of Delmar, Pete, and Everett in horizontal and vertical lines (below with Tommy Johnson). Like the chain links that connect them at the beginning of the story, the blocking continues to connect them throughout their epic, some might say, Greek tragic comedy. I’m sure Homer’s out laughing somewhere.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen, Coen, 2001)

A visually impeccable and incredibly faithful Noir, as you can see by the masterfully composed stills below. Slow motion/camera movement, voice-over narration, and classical music all compliment Billy Bob Thorton’s qualms with transparency. The way lives come together, then naturally crush each other feels noticeably cold and calculated, yet strangely innocent. Not the best Coen Brothers story, but maybe the most beautiful to watch unfold. A solemn dream about a stagnant life which slowly and methodically turns into a fateful nightmare.