Art Vs Commerce: Trilogies! Of Terror? (2000s)


And so did the Academy think “Okay, that was good, finally giving Marty the win felt good… let’s keep that train going. Who else is overdue for the big trophy?”

And a familiar pair of siblings said “Well, since you asked…”

And The Oscar Goes To…

The Coen Brothers had been on a streak of quirky comedies, but it had gone from the much-beloved Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou to the enjoyed-by-me-at-least Intolerable Cruelty and the ill-regarded The Ladykillers, enjoyed almost solely for Tom Hanks saying “We must all have waffles, forthwith” in a ridiculous drawl, and that’s in the trailer. So they clearly decided to go a different way.

Adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from the novel by Yukmaster General Cormac “Soulkiller” McCarthy, No Country For Old Men sees a deer hunter named Llewelyn Moss (The Goonies’ Josh Brolin) come across the remains of a drug deal gone very wrong. He helps himself to the money, which puts him in the crosshairs of mob enforcer and human terminator Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to get on top of the situation while the bodies build up. Also featuring Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s wife, Woody Harrelson as a fixer named Wells sent to reign in Chigurh and reclaim the money, and the delightful Stephen Root as The Man Who Hires Wells. That’s his actual name in the credits, don’t give me that look.

The central theme seems to be that you can’t stop what’s coming. No prepping or planning can stop what’s inevitable. Whether that’s age, consequences, Chigurh, or even the car crash that’s as close as Chigurh comes to comeuppance. Only Ed Tom accepts this, and perhaps that’s why he’s the only one to walk away intact, if a little morose in his retirement, describing a dream that we’ve argued about ever since but to me says “Anton didn’t kill you, but death is still out there, it’ll be waiting down the road.” What’s also interesting is that this movie is a subtle condemnation of mercy: Llewelyn’s undoing isn’t stealing the money, it’s returning to the scene to bring a man he must have suspected had already bled out the water he’d been begging for hours earlier. That’s when his truck is identified by the Mexican cartel and Chigurh, and from that moment he does not know peace. The closest Chigurh comes to mercy is giving people a 50/50 chance through a coin toss, as we see in a scene with a gas station owner that annoys Chirgurh, which is a masterclass in suspense.

A lot of this movie is masterfully suspenseful, as Llewelyn tries and frequently fails to stay a step ahead of his pursuers. One early confrontation, we barely see Anton, just a series of muzzle flashes aimed at Llewelyn. And Bardem, as you may know, is excellent, raking in every Supporting Actor award with a chilling performance that makes you think “Where has this guy been (Spain) and why hasn’t he tried to kill James Bond yet (took five whole years from this).” Brolin, Jones, and Harrelson are also all good, but nobody was beating Bardem for Supporting Actor, and nobody was taking a Lead Actor award from Daniel Day-Lewis’ cartoonish supervillainy in There Will Be Blood.

The lack of score from the entire movie save for the end credits adds to the suspense. There are no music cues to tell us when anyone is safe or at risk, meaning danger could hit at any time. Which it often does. And I can respect the Coens’ approach to never giving us the story we might expect: Anton and Llewelyn never have their final confrontation. Ed Tom Bell pieces a lot of things together but retires rather than chase a deadly opponent. The biggest character death happens offscreen. And maybe don’t get attached to Wells.

It’s a strong opening salvo for the Coens’ “The universe doesn’t owe you explanations or tidy conclusions” period, whose nadir is A Serious Man. That the story isn’t interested in a satisfying or cathartic experience, which seems to be very Cormac McCarthy, works in this case. And it’s excellently scripted. Multiple great exchanges, some absolute classic scenes.

It’s not traditional Oscar bait by any stretch, which at this point in the project is nice to see (Oscar bait’s about to get intense). Honestly nothing was overly Oscar bait-y this year. Maybe Michael Clayton, or possibly Atonement? Atonement’s the only one I haven’t seen, it did not sound like a good time. There Will Be Blood was a blatant acting showcase. Juno got in for being clever, just not as clever as No Country. The Coens had been doing great work for years, then they stopped being silly and got dark, so yeah, I can see why this is the moment the Academy picked to hand them a pile of Oscars.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at 31, over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but under… Marty? What the– no.

Which Fellowship Member Are You? It doesn’t always make sense, it won’t always go where you’d prefer it went, but you’re glad to have it around. No Country For Old Men is Gandalf.

Okay. That was good. Love me some Cohens.

Now let’s talk disappointing threequels.

The Box Office Champ

Domestic: Spider-Man 3

Of all the trilogies we’ve talked about this decade, this is the one that didn’t mean to be a trilogy. Sure, Peter Parker and Harry Osborn’s story of friends to bitter enemies and back again fits neatly into three movies, and yes the Sandman plot circles back to the origin for “the story we never knew,” a trilogy trope so common that Scream 3 called it out seven years earlier, so it does seem very trilogy. And since this iteration of the character ended here, we call it a trilogy, but Sam Raimi was actively pitching a fourth movie with Vulture as the villain, and it’s rumoured that all the Bruce Campbell cameos would all turn out to be Mysterio, which could have been a fun bit. Also Peter and Mary Jane’s evolving relationship fits a three-act structure, but didn’t reach a clear endpoint and could have continued beyond this.

It’s not hard to pinpoint what went wrong with this one. It tried to do too much. Raimi had his Sandman story he wanted to tell, plus he needed closure on Peter’s brewing drama with Harry, but then in came the studio saying “You need to put Venom in this, we want a Venom movie, we need Venom to be a thing.” So now here’s the black suit and a… questionably cast Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, so now the movie’s trying to do four stories: Peter and the black suit, Sandman and his ties to Spider-Man’s origins, Peter’s crumbling relationship with Mary-Jane, Peter and Harry coming to blows over what happened to Norman, nothing is getting as done as well as it needs to be.

And worse, they also feel the need to cram in Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy, for no reason. She’s just there for Peter to use to make MJ jealous. They didn’t need a new character for that, they could have just given Elizabeth Banks some much needed extra screen time, or the skinny daughter of Peter’s terrible landlord, she was clearly sweet on Peter. It’s like someone said “We also need Gwen Stacy in this, apparently she’s a famous Spider-Man character,” then left the room as someone replied “Did you happen to catch why she’s famous?”

It was a bigger hit than Spider-Man 2 somehow, despite 2 being the best one, but less warmly regarded, so Sony decided not to go with Sam Raimi for their next Spider-Man project, but instead announce a super-secret origin that they’d spend two movies teasing but not dig into and it was bad.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 63% from critics, 51% from audiences, man you have to try to get a lower score from audiences than critics with a popcorn movie, people really hated that jazz dance sequence.

International: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

At World’s End also adds way more than it needs to, but this time it’s goofy lore stuff. It opens with Lord Beckett, the dick from the East India Trading Company who’s made himself ruler of the British seas, declaring something somehow worse than marital law and ordering mass executions of anyone connected to piracy, leading to a child starting a pirate song that everyone just joins. And the song is a magic song that everyone knows, which alerts the nine pirate lords they need to unite, and was that necessary? Was one more quaint bit of pirate magic helpful? Beckett already has an armada, and control of Davy Jones and his unstoppable ghost ship full of actual sea monsters*, and is out to exterminate all pirate kind. Feels like enough to unite any remaining pirates in the name of self-preservation. Didn’t need some magic song to make it happen.

It’s not even a shanty.

*But not the kraken. The writers couldn’t figure out how the heroes could beat it, so Beckett had it killed offscreen. Weak. Sauce.

They also take the Pirate Code way too seriously, to the point of having Keith Richards as Jack’s father (because Johnny Depp based his performance on Richards) be a keeper of the Code. This despite the first movie making no fewer than three jokes about how the Code is basically just a bunch of guidelines.

And there’s a puzzle chart that leads to magic places and things, they flesh out Davy Jones’ Locker as some sort of nautical purgatory, Voodoo Lady is a sea goddess, they throw so much extra nonsense on top of it when all we really needed was “resurrect Jack, kill the kraken, epic ship battle against Beckett and Davy Jones.”

Chow Yun-Fat as the head pirate of Singapore was a neat add, but just adds an extra layer to the constant betrayals among the core cast. Seriously, Jack, Will, Barbosa, Elizabeth, they are constantly betraying each other, it is dizzying to keep track of who’s on what side.

And yes there’s yet another “Why is the rum gone” callback, Jesus.

It’s not the worst Pirates movie. That’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, or Salazar’s Revenge as Disney+ oddly insists on calling it. I mean it could be On Stranger Tides, it’s the only one I haven’t seen, but I choose to believe the fifth is as bad as it got. At World’s End has decent action beats, some good visuals, some successful comedy moments, brings back the comic relief naval men (but kills Jonathan Pryce way too soon after giving him precious little to do, that’s always a mistake), gives former-commodore Norrington a noble end, continues to make Beckett the exact over-the-top supervillain you need to make pirates your protagonists, gives Beckett and his top henchman some satisfying deaths in which each learns they have indeed (in modern parlance) fucked around and found out, provides a bittersweet conclusion to Will and Elizabeth’s story (which the fifth movie decides to correct), and puts Jack back where he’s best: an agent of chaos whose allegiance is never certain. It could have been worse (Dead Men Tell No Tales proves that), it’s just about a satisfying end, but it could have been much, much better, and ends up a demonstration of diminishing returns.

(I feel like on rewatch I hated Beckett’s henchman more than was warranted. I think it was residual hatred for Billy Zane’s henchman from Titanic.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A pitiable 44% from critics, but 72% from audiences. That’s closer to how it usually goes.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Nicholas Cage finally gets his superhero movie, for good or ill, in Ghost Rider; Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer lets down Galactus fans the world over and brings that iteration to an end.
  • 2007 really was threequels all the way down. At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, Bourne Supremacy, Ocean’s 13, Rush Hour 3, Resident Evil: Extinction, none of them the best one.
  • David Fincher’s Zodiac turns the story of the Zodiac Killer into an excellent examination of obsession.
  • Zack Snyder directs an adaption of Frank Miller’s 300, an aggressive glamorization of the Spartans. The source material is grim and a little pro-fascism but surely that’s just the source material and not something Snyder will make a theme of his work. (It’s also pretty racist but that’s on Frank Miller.)
  • Smokin’ Aces from Joe Carnahan is weird and random but I dug it. And falls into Ben Affleck’s “small roles in small movies” period in between Surviving Christmas and his bounce-back.
  • Affleck begins his career rehabilitation, from failing actor to acclaimed director, with Gone Baby Gone, starring his more problematic brother Casey.
  • Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost reunite not for a Shaun of the Dead sequel (nowhere for that story to go), but for the buddy cop satire Hot Fuzz, which I owe a rewatch at some point.
  • The Simpsons Movie is the best The Simpsons had been in years, and possibly since.
  • Shoot ‘Em Up with Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, and Monica Bellucci is a ridiculous over-violent movie that’s essentially Bugs Bunny reimagined by Quentin Tarantino, it’s pretty dumb, and I unabashedly love it.
  • Across the Universe turns the hits of the Beatles into a movie musical, and I unabashedly mostly like it.
  • Michael Bay makes Transformers, a movie that will dominate his filmography for years. There’s nothing I can say about it I wouldn’t be cribbing from Lindsay Ellis’ The Whole Plate series.
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is both the longest novel and shortest movie, that’s not a great combination. Also it introduces the franchise’s worst villain, Dolores Umbridge, who’s extra hateable for how real her racist, classist, abusive villainy is.
  • Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story should have ended musician biopics. Or at least forced them to evolve.
  • Hannibal Rising is a Hannibal Lecter origin story from the original novel’s author, and it’s the worst Hannibal movie, and is probably the reason the character moved to television. Where it led to one amazing TV show (Hannibal) and one very ill-conceived, unrelated show about Clarice Starling and whatever characters Hannibal hadn’t used.
  • Some have theorized that Eddie Murphy would have won an Oscar for Dreamgirls, if his abominable Norbit hadn’t come out right before the Oscars.
  • Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez team up for the throwback double-header Grindhouse, known post-release as the zombie movie Planet Terror and the car-violence flick Death Proof.
  • I have not seen Eagle Vs. Shark from writer/director Taika Waititi, and I should fix that.
  • 28 Weeks Later is a poor follow-up to 28 Days Later.
  • We do not have time to unpack DOA: Dead or Alive, nor the fighting game (and Sexy Volleyball spinoff) it’s based on. Suffice to say it did video game movies fewer favours than Dead Or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball did the reputation of videogames.
  • Live Free or Die Hard proves the folly of making PG-13 sequels to R-rated franchises.
  • Rob Zombie’s Halloween falls into prequel-trap territory, telling us more about Michael Myer’s childhood than anyone asked. Also nothing demonstrates what a stranglehold the Saw franchise had on Halloween like a horror movie titled Halloween coming out in August.
  • Some mad fools remake The Ten Commandments as an animated movie with Ben Kingsley and Christian Slater, and it does so poorly I feel like I’m just learning about it now.
  • The Golden Compass fails to launch His Dark Materials as a film franchise. It’s a TV show now. I’ve only seen the pilot.

Next Page: The snub that changed the rules

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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