Murder and Magic 

Reviewing The Man Who Wasn't There and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The Man Who Wasn't There, the new Coen Brothers film, is a tasty piece of pitch-black candy. It is a perfect '40s-style noir that is, in many ways, the victim of its own perfection. In it, the Coens explore the "uncertainty principle," whereby merely looking at an object or an event forever changes that object or event. As the film's shit-slick attorney says again and again, "The more you look, the less you know." And this, it would seem, is the Coens' confession and open apology for having looked at too much noir. Their tough, street-real story is not as dark but is certainly more fatalistic than Double Indemnity. It's more soul-numbing than Scarlet Street, with a loveless pedophilic twist that would make Jim Thompson giggle in his grave. But we are never content to watch the film as a film. We must watch it as a specific kind of film. We must watch it as a noir because every audio-visual cue is like an unsubtle nudge reminding us that The Man Who Wasn't There has gotten every detail right. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed, a man so tight-lipped he makes Sergio Leone's stable of nameless cowboys look like a pod of self-actualized telemarketers. He's not an ambitious man but hard-working: the competent second-chair cutter at his brother-in-law's barber shop in the just-this-side-of-bucolic Santa Rosa, California. There are no flickering neon signs here. No seedy hotels, femme fatales, or dark stormy nights. The environment is placid, sanitary, and as hypnotic as a spinning barber pole. Thornton, his hair oiled and molded to Glen Fordian proportions, is the exact mirror of his community. He's strong, decent after a fashion, and non-violent: a sort of proto-northern Californian. He is also impotent. One might say cursed. The chain-smoking Thornton manages to do the astounding: He is entirely the nebbish and entirely magnetic. It's like he stepped from a Hemingway story fully grown. His most unsavory actions are, considering the circumstances, rather conservative and are motivated, it would seem, less by greed or jealousy than by a sense of quiet justice. And then there are Thornton's voice-overs. Though stylistically indispensable, the unrelenting voice-overs are painfully self-aware and bordering on the cutesy-pie. They are more akin to Nicolas Cage's disembodied banter in Raising Arizona than a solid Mike Hammer narration. They are the whistle-clean but just over-the-top "tell" that pulls down the curtain on the Coen Brothers' confidence game. They remind us most of all that we are standing outside a genre looking in. Coen heavy-hitter Frances McDormand is cinderblock-hard as Doris, Ed's career-gal wife who's sleeping her way to the not-exactly-glitzy top of Nirdlinger's department store. When she's eventually implicated in a murder she didn't commit it's hard to blame Ed for not trying harder to save her. The film's real crimes are not the ones brought to justice but the ones caused by justice: Doris' suicide and Ed's execution. Two counts of murder are pinned on the wrong people. One murder was undeniably an act of self-defense. The only federal crime is that of blackmail. A film where four people end up dead, two the victim of unfair prosecution, should leave an audience feeling violated. It is the very essence of noir. But somehow The Man Who Wasn't There only leaves the audience with a sense of completeness. It's an ending that says, "There you have it, the most perfect of its kind," and by saying so, sets it apart from its kind, and diminishes it. As to the much-debated U.F.O. subplot, I ask, "What subplot?" It's more of a dangling signifier to be wondered at than a plot to be followed. It's completely out of place but it doesn't feel particularly intrusive. Like the fantasy dance scenes in The Hudsucker Proxy, it's just one of those beautiful things the Coens sometimes do perhaps for no other reason than because they can. Longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink) has outdone himself in terms of cinematography. The black-and-white world of The Man Who Wasn't There is gorgeously photographed in that wonderful way that early critics of the genre always called "mannered." It's like Fritz Lang (Scarlet Street, Metropolis, The Big Heat) never went away. -- Chris Davis Having doubts about that young wizard Harry Potter and his new movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Don't worry. Though Hollywood has rarely paid enough attention to the fantasy genre (Dungeons & Dragons is a recent example of yet another big-tech, little-story adventure with a dragon thrown in and imagination left out), Harry Potter, based on the wildly successful childrens' series by J.K. Rowling, takes a step forward. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan, living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who discovers he's a wizard. His life sucks. He has no friends, his so-called family treats him badly. No one has Harry's imagination, courage, or curiosity. Radcliffe, looking eerily like a cross between the Harry of the bookjackets and John Lennon, embodies these traits well. Whether he's calmly surveying an ogre or relentlessly pursuing a bad guy on a broom, Harry is a talented boy destined for great things who only wants to be a touch more normal. Maybe with a family all his own. That's not to be. Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts castle, where he begins his training as a wizard. The transition from Harry's world to the world of Hogwarts is magical. Whether it's the subtle difference between a London train station and the Hogwarts Express or the less than subtle difference between the relative safety of a wizard's mess hall and a trap-door guarded by a gargantuan three-headed monster named Fluffy, director Chris Columbus does a good job playing the dynamic between reality and imagination, imagination and dream, and dream and nightmare. Those transitions, however, are sometimes spotty. This movie employs a huge variety of sets and stages, so the film is necessarily episodic with few overall themes, except, of course, Harry. But keeping up with those episodes almost necessitates reading the book just to know the significance of each element. Supporting Harry in this world is a large cast of characters, few of whom are treated in depth. To be fair, the movie is two-and-a-half hours long, but that's still not enough time to capture the full range of characterization found in the books. Still, caring for any character but Harry is difficult, with the exception of Harry's two friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson). But however episodic or overrun with characters, this film at least shows a respect for Rowling's work by faithfully working with the events and complexities of the original book. The result is a good movie with huge scope and imagination. Columbus' goal now is to translate the next seven (longer) books into manageable films. That might be a bigger magic trick than anything Harry or friends could ever perform. -- Chris Przybyszewski

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