Archive for the ‘coens’ category

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 18, 2018

buster If the movie studios no longer want to handle wonderful sketchbook exercises like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s good that Netflix is stepping up. It wasn’t very long ago that you stood a fair-to-decent chance of catching something like this in the theater, but the theater is increasingly inhospitable to the audience for something like this. Ballad is structured as an anthology of six unconnected stories “of the American frontier,” as follows:

– “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” appears to be a nod and wink to the singing-cowboy subgenre, which is about as dusty now as the American frontier, except that its titular hero (Tim Blake Nelson) is both a crack shot and a cheerful sociopath who likes to start and bloodily finish trouble wherever he goes. Despite Buster’s body count, his name only precedes him as mockery, which he enjoys silencing. This story — which, like the five that follow, is immaculately shot by Bruno Delbonnel and scored by Carter Burwell — seems to interrogate the lone gunslinger from a crazily farcical perspective. It also creates the impression that the rest of the movie will share this existentially goofy tone, which it doesn’t.

– “Near Algodones” kind of sustains a similar tone, though. It’s the narratively skimpy tale of a bank robber (James Franco) who picks the wrong bank to rob, then finds himself on the wrong end of a noose not once but twice. At this point I started to think the Coens were using the muddy, racist, violent birth of our nation as a way to comment mordantly on the human condition in general. It’s funny but not funny.

– “Meal Ticket” is a hard, pointy thing to swallow. In it, an impresario (Liam Neeson) drives from town to town, carting around a man with no arms or legs (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling, who in life has all his limbs, thus denying an actor with tetra-amelia syndrome this role) who recites poetry and famous passages from plays, speeches, and the Bible. The impresario looks at the decreasing number of coins dropped into his hat at the end of each performance. What is he to do? The story’s ruthless logic shows the Coens’ continuing love-hate relationship with the movie business. Despite considerable competition, Neeson probably does the film’s best turn.

– “All Gold Canyon,” based faithfully on a Jack London story: How has Tom Waits never been in a Coen film until now? Anyway, here he is as a prospector on the lookout for “Mr. Pocket,” a large gold deposit he suspects lies buried near a stream. For whatever reason I enjoyed this episode most freely and purely, maybe because it’s such a perfect marriage of performer and material (you should look up the London story, too).

– “The Gal Who Got Rattled” — that’s a title that seems to mock its subject but actually says a lot about the abrupt, pitiless language of the American Old West and the concepts that language struggled to describe. The gal in question (Zoe Kazan) has a hard time of it as part of a wagon train heading inexorably towards Oregon. This segment has the most old-Hollywood and thus problematic treatment of Indians As Marauding Savages, though all of that is simply to set up the sick-joke tragedy of the ending.

– “The Mortal Remains” finds the Coens visibly jealous of how much time Quentin Tarantino spent inside a moving stagecoach in The Hateful Eight. The story itself feels the most as though it unfolds inside Tarantino’s particular version of the Western, and not within the same Coen reality from which sprang their crack at True Grit. It involves big honking stereotypes (Saul Rubinek’s Frenchman may as well twirl his mustache and blurt “Aw, oui”) telling stories while trying to avoid consciousness of literal looming death. It’s also cast (Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross) pretty much like a Tarantino movie might be.

I enjoyed leafing through this volume, though my watch beckoned a couple of times. The stories that involve the least efflorescent Coen dialogue — the ones driven by stark silences or old coots talking to their mules — come off the best; they remind the viewer that the Coens excel as directors, makers of pure cinema, as well as writers. We know the Coens love words and love characters who love to hear themselves talk; that’s why the movie kicks off with, and is named after, the loquacious Buster, and ends with a mystifying enclosed-space chin-wag that feels almost like a ghost story. The meat in the middle of this sandwich, though, is the unforgiving soil, the blood spatters that warm it, and the folks who live on both. No words required.

Advertisements

Unbroken

December 21, 2014

20141221-162826.jpg
“If you can take it, you can make it,” says the helpful brother of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) early in Unbroken, giving us, though not Louis, an idea of what we’re in for. What does it take — what fortitude, what inner reserves of strength or patience — to make it to the end of Unbroken? The first hour cuts back and forth between Louis’ pre-war life as just the fastest, bestest runner you ever saw, and Louis as a bombardier in World War II, before his plane goes down in the ocean and he and two fellow soldiers survive on a raft for forty-seven days. Then the raft bumps into a Japanese warship. From there, you will spend the next sixty-five minutes with Louis in a POW camp and then a colder POW camp.

These epics (usually singing the praises of the Greatest Generation) that make a virtue of endurance always make the mistake of demanding endurance of the audience as well. There’s an element of shaming in this: If Louis Zamperini could spend years of his life being tortured in a POW camp, you can spend two hours of yours watching him being tortured, you non-Greatest Generation sissies. Based on a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken has attracted a lot of intelligent talent: a run of screenwriters (William Nicholson, then Richard LaGravenese, then Joel and Ethan Coen) and director Angelina Jolie, and it’s hard to say what enticed any of them. The movie is about a man who suffers and perseveres and survives, and it isn’t about anything other than that.

Well, maybe it is: it’s also about homoerotic sadism, a theme that most every prison yarn is good for, even after Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour made it explicit in 1950. Louis draws the eye of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a POW sergeant who takes out his career frustration on the allied prisoners and especially on tough, attractive Louis. This sadist looks and acts feminine and sometimes seems to be leching after Louis; after a while, nobody else in the camp interests Watanabe — he only has eyes for Louis. This all is drawn crudely, with none of the formal tension of something like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t read the book — did the born-again Louis make as much of Watanabe’s fixation on him as the film does? Jolie, good liberal that she is, presents the dynamic but mutes it. As it is, Watanabe represents nothing but grinning sadism, as Louis stands for nothing but stoic American Christian resilience.

After the CIA torture report has come to light, it’s amusing that an epic about the spiritual value of enduring torture should become the country’s big Christmas Day release. Is Louis meant to be our very own American Christ, suffering for humanity’s sins and then forgiving his tormentors (as we’re told at the end, in some onscreen text that might’ve made for a more interesting film than the one we’ve just sat through)? Jolie straight-up turns Louis into Jesus at one point, when Louis, carrying a heavy plank over his head, casts a cruciform shadow on the soil of the prison camp. Louis hefting the plank is also the central image of the marketing. What’s actually going on here? Those who made this long, grinding tribute to The Passion of the American may find the question hurtful, but I say if you make it, you can take it.

Inside Llewyn Davis

December 8, 2013

Inside-Llewyn-Davis“Talented” is death, a waffle-word to describe the never-was, the artist distinguished enough to get on stage and not stink up the joint, but not exceptional enough to soar and to take the audience with him. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singer at the center of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented. Llewyn used to be someone, part of a folk duo called Timlin and Davis, until Timlin jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewyn drifts from gig to gig and couch to couch. The movie definitely takes the romance out of living in Greenwich Village in the old days; it’s set in 1961, not even a decade after the events of Paul Mazursky’s wistful memoir Next Stop, Greenwich Village, but the winter air is thick with the desperation of the “talented” to break out. Llewyn is decidedly not Larry Lapinsky, munching on an apple strudel at the end of Next Stop and thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a plotless, week-in-the-life character study, following Llewyn from New York to Chicago and back, often in the company of a cat who seems as restless as he is. The musical backdrop works here the way it worked in the Coens’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the songs of Americana born of strife and poverty yet transcending despair by the purity of their sound. “If you’re singing,” the songs seem to say, “you’re alive.” The saturnine Llewyn doesn’t transcend anything; he’s down, and he seems to want to take the audience down with him. He’s a bummer, and Oscar Isaac plays him that way, but with an angry edge; Isaac is uningratiating but compelling. Llewyn is a dick who knows life is passing him by, and knowing it makes him more of a dick. He doesn’t even have the redeeming musical grace that Sean Penn’s even more loathsome guitarist had in Sweet and Lowdown.

As always, the Coens get the external details precisely right. I don’t know how much it cost to reproduce the Greenwich Village of 1961, complete with period cars that are only seen glancingly enough to identify them as period cars (maybe those were done with CGI), but it was worth it. And as always, the filmmaking is gorgeously controlled, no mess, nothing extraneous. The lead character is heavy but the movie isn’t; it’s full of lively, immediately readable people, except for Llewyn himself. The title (also the name of Llewyn’s solo album) is ironic: we never really do get inside Llewyn Davis.

We know so little about him; he doesn’t say much about himself, and we don’t know whether he mourns Mike Timlin or just mourns the fact that his own career hit the water along with Timlin. The only people who seem to like Llewyn are a sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), and Llewyn repays them by losing their cat and then insulting them. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t work if it were about a kind-hearted go-getter who doesn’t make it. It would be too depressing. It plays as a deadpan comedy in which a has-been or perhaps never-was tries to be as objectionable and as annoyingly unyielding as, say, Bob Dylan (seen briefly here at the end, as if showing Llewyn how it’s done) without having Dylan’s genius. Yet when he tries to sell out, as when he gigs as a session musician on an inane novelty ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” he can’t even sell out right — he opts to take a fast paycheck instead of waiting for his agent to approve it, thus cheating himself out of the song’s royalties.

So the Coens surround their central blank with more enjoyable company, like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz player, or F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner, or Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a husband-and-wife folk duo, half of whom Llewyn may have impregnated. I also appreciated Stark Sands as a soldier/folk singer who speaks fluent Coen-ese. They all have enough life to sustain their own films, but we stay stubbornly with Llewyn as he mopes and schleps the cat around and tries to scrounge money or couch space. Why make a movie about Llewyn (or Barton Fink, or Larry Gopnik, the mathematician non-hero of A Serious Man)? Why not, especially since American cinema tends to want to dismiss or forget any protagonist who isn’t dynamic and aggressive and, well, American, particularly now in the era of the superhero blockbuster? In a world of iron men and supermen and Norse gods, Llewyn is actually an exciting novelty.

True Grit (2010)

December 19, 2010

John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had that American-eagle presence that stood him in good stead until the ’60s, when the eagle’s feathers began to molt. In 1969, with America’s indignity approaching its peak, Wayne made True Grit and played a fat, one-eyed drunk who could still get it together to be noble. The denuded eagle had been restored, at least temporarily. Cut to 2010: the eagle has not soared for quite some time, and politicians on both sides are plucking its feathers one by one. The time may indeed be right for another True Grit, another fat one-eyed drunk showing us that redemption is hard but not impossible. And this time, there’s a real actor involved.

Jeff Bridges steps into the muddy boots of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (sharp newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) to chase down the no-account thief who killed her father. Cogburn normally can’t be bothered to make his speech intelligible — most of it is disgruntled mumbling — but Bridges, a precise actor even when playing layabouts like Cogburn or the Dude, lets us hear the sentences that matter. Cogburn drinks all day and drags himself painfully out of sleep in the morning, but he snaps into cold proficiency when he has to.

True Grit has been adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen to hew closer to the tone of Charles Portis’ well-loved novel, which is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross. The baroquely formal language has been preserved, as has the rather eligiac epilogue: this time it’s Mattie who rides off into the sunset, not Cogburn. The obvious comparison is to the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (that film’s desperate protagonist, Josh Brolin, here gets to play a slyly tongue-in-cheek Anton Chigurh figure), but I think it would make a better double feature with the Coens’ Fargo. In both, a plain-spoken female, innocent of sin but unafraid in the face of evil, pursues her quarry across grim expanses of snow. They’re both essentially comedies of persistence, weighed to the earth a little by the heaviness of violence.

The original True Grit got an M rating in 1969 (the equivalent of today’s PG-13), and the new version pushes the PG-13 envelope with chopped-off fingers, an assailant shot off his horse and pitching bloodily head-first into a big rock, and a nicely tense sequence involving a pit full of rattlesnakes. Still, the Coens have aimed for a holiday-season entertainment here, wrought with their usual fastidious style. (If cinematographer Roger Deakins, heretofore stupidly overlooked by the Academy for past gorgeous work, doesn’t win the Oscar next February for his work here, I’m sure I won’t be alone in throwing something at the TV.)

Why did the typically sardonic Coens want to make this film? A glance at the Portis novel yields a simple answer: Why wouldn’t they? It offers terrific set pieces, a great ear for dialogue, and an outsize hero, a sodden eagle burping on his horse and failing to shoot cornbread in air but firing true when it counts. It’s clear from such farces as Burn After Reading that the Coens don’t really believe in American exceptionalism. But perhaps they would like to. In the wide panoramic compositions of the filmmaking, the eagle soars again.

A Serious Man

October 2, 2009

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been predictable in their unpredictability. They followed their bleak Oscar-winning drama No Country for Old Men with the star-studded goof Burn After Reading, and now they have made A Serious Man, an unclassifiable, vaguely apocalyptic tragedy-farce with hardly any name actors. The film’s closest antecedent in the Coen portfolio is probably 1991’s Barton Fink, another bizarre, deadpan-surreal account of the nightmares of a hapless, bespectacled Jew. This time, though, the Jewishness is right out front — the movie is about man’s insufficient understanding of the unknowable God. “Accept the mystery,” advises one character.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesotan physics teacher circa 1967, seems to have taken on the modern version of the suffering of Job. His wife is dumping him for another man (and kicking him out of the house); his teenage kids are obnoxious; his brother (Richard Kind) sits around working on some incomprehensible mathematical theory when he’s not draining his sebaceous cyst. (My first thought: pus was also a motif in Barton Fink. My second thought: only in the Coens’ work would pus be a motif.) Larry wonders why all this is happening to him. His (and others’) agonized refrain is “I haven’t done anything.” Visits to various rabbis bring no relief. Neither does a brief, fruitless flirtation with a next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude and offers iced tea, pot, and maybe herself.

The title is, naturally, ironic. The slick old man who’s cuckolding Larry is referred to as a serious man, and Larry says he’s tried to be one. But truly, nobody can be serious in such a capricious universe as the one the Coens present. The atmosphere and milieu — the bland furnishings, the usual razor-sharp sound design and immaculate photography by Roger Deakins — are gracefully evoked. Even here, in their mystical-obscure mode, the Coens work cleanly and rigorously. The cast, mostly unknown to moviegoers, blends into the slightly heightened reality. We get a sense of fragile order barely holding off disaster. Sometimes, like Barton Fink, the style is like nothing so much as a high-toned intellectual horror movie.

The prologue sets the tone: an old Jewish fable (made up by the Coens) involving a dead man, or dybbuk, who comes calling one snowy night. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but thematically it prepares us for the uncanny. Later, a rabbi tells the supposedly true story of a dentist who discovered “Help me” engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s teeth. Larry briefly takes that admonition to heart, for all the good that does him. In A Serious Man, omens appear from nowhere and seem to signify nothing. So why are they there? It’s probably no accident that Larry teaches physics and is first seen lecturing on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous quantum-mechanics paradox illustrating the uncertainty principle: the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead. So is Larry; so, maybe, is God, or at least the God in the movie.

Burn After Reading

September 14, 2008

Burn_After_Reading__01In the universe of Joel and Ethan Coen, people will do the stupidest and most dangerous things, often for money. “And for what?” asked police officer Marge Gunderson at the end of the Coens’ Fargo. “For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?” That role won Frances McDormand a well-deserved Oscar, and here she is again in the Coens’ latest, Burn After Reading, as Marge’s polar opposite, Linda Litzke, who works at a gym and needs four cosmetic surgeries to tighten up her aging flesh. When a disc seemingly containing sensitive CIA information falls into her lap, Linda of course wants to parlay it into her nip-and-tuck fund.

Burn After Reading is a beautifully inhuman spy farce in which nobody amounts to anything more than their loopy desires. Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) wants to date as many women as he can; his married status doesn’t trouble him overmuch. It’s not about the sex, primarily; he loves the process. Recently ousted CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) wants to write his memoirs. Linda’s gym coworker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) doesn’t seem to have anything between his ears other than a willingness to go along with whatever seems fun at the time. All these characters, and others, circle around the movie’s McGuffin, the disc, courtesy of Osborne’s hard drive.

It hardly matters that this candle isn’t worth the chase, nor that the events don’t resolve neatly; to the Coens, that’s part of the chaotic fun. The movie, like so many other Coen projects, fixates on the two prime film noir motivators, greed and paranoia. Those things also powered the Coens’ two Oscar-winners, 1996’s Fargo and 2007’s No Country for Old Men; the Coens find few things funnier than the hapless attempts of average dummies to make the big score and hold onto it. The characters are loosely sketched by their quirks — Harry’s preoccupation with wood flooring; Linda’s relentless effort to stay upbeat — and their obsessions. The actors, as always, respond gratefully to the opportunity to speak laser-sharp Coen dialogue and enact plot twists that tip from the absurd to the casually bloody.

Burn After Reading may strike some as trivial coming after the Coens’ serious-as-cancer No Country for Old Men. It’s nothing new, though; the brothers have always mixed it up, and each new film takes its place in one of the most unique portfolios in recent cinema. (No Country, after all, could be taken as a very, very deadpan black comedy.) Carter Burwell, the regular Coen composer whose music was largely absent from No Country, returns with a vengeance here, sealing each scene with a mock-climactic chord. By now, the Coens don’t need to call attention to their immaculate style or their nods to other films (there’s even a twisted reversal on a scene from Blue Velvet); the mechanisms snap together naturally. Everyone runs around, pursuing or being pursued; even the most seemingly expendable bits — a bitterly drunk Osborne crooning at a Princeton party; Harry’s trip to Home Depot — pay off later. And then there’s the great J.K. Simmons as a CIA bigwig, dyspeptically assessing the whole mess from his desk and issuing a sort of capsule review of the film he’s in. His scenes are, perhaps, unnecessary, but I wouldn’t trade them — or anything else in this darkly playful film — for anything.

No Country for Old Men

November 9, 2007

Anyone reading No Country for Old Men as a thriller about good vs. evil is a little short of the mark, I think. To me, it’s a Zen koan about life and death. The koan issues forth from the lips of Cormac McCarthy, the grizzled master who won the Pulitzer this year for his post-apocalyptic fable The Road. McCarthy’s prior 2005 novel — named after a line in a Yeats poem — serves as the basis for this film, a sharp return to seriousness for Joel and Ethan Coen after some larking around. The Coens’ movies often feature desperate men committing crimes, and also important characters perishing offscreen. McCarthy’s book has both, so it’s as if he wrote it for the Coens. They have responded with a fully alert film of quiet and considerable power that is only incidentally about finding two million dollars of drug cash and trying to run away with it.

Such a circumstance befalls Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), trying to pick off antelopes in the Texas desert when he spots a blood trail in the sand. It leads him to the money, along with much flyblown death. Llewellyn makes off with the suitcase of cash, sending his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mama’s house and dodging the bad men who want the money back. One of them is the baddest of bad men, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who travels with a captive bolt pistol, the sort used to punch holes in the hard skulls of cattle. Chigurh has an unplaceable southwestern/Latin accent, as if he emerged from the Texas/Mexico border itself, sent by the very earth to monitor the troubles of humans and occasionally end them.

In what amounts to a supporting role elevated to the status of moral center, Tommy Lee Jones walks uneasily through the movie as Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff close to retirement. Ed Tom feels social entropy in his bones: he observes that, once you stop hearing “sir” and “ma’am,” that’s when you know it’s over. The sheriff wants to find Llewellyn, to save him from certain disaster, but Llewellyn doesn’t want to be found. Chigurh will find him regardless; he always does. Tommy Lee Jones lets his voice go soft and high, almost feminine. He’s like Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, taking arms against casual savagery in defense of innocents, but without her gumption. The older Ed Tom gets, the more he feels the inevitability of Chigurh’s triumph.

As you may have gathered, No Country for Old Men is artsier and deeper than most anything else the Coens have done, with the exception of the willfully cryptic Barton Fink and the masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. Here they bring all their monkish technique to bear: there’s hardly any music, but such sounds as an air tank lightly settling on pavement and a candy wrapper uncrinkling itself on a gas-station counter dominate the soundtrack. The action begins in sun-baked majesty but eventually retreats into shadowy motel rooms. The story is set in 1980 but, less a few details, could unfold in 1880. Chigurh keeps coming, an art-house Michael Myers, and Javier Bardem instills him with a diabolical calmness. He’s not a psycho, not a monster, not the Devil: he’s a much bigger figure, Death itself, and there’s not much life around to rise in resistance to him. Nor would life, in the end, trump him anyway. Bardem’s Chigurh is patient, never showing even a flicker of anger; he’s the most frightening thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

The film left me feeling slightly fatigued and fragile, but wanting to see it again. The Coens, like McCarthy before them, use a thriller structure to cut to the heart of the big mysteries. What can life mean if it ends? Does it mean more or less? Chigurh sometimes offers people a coin toss to determine whether they end or go on. One person complies, not understanding the gravity of the offer; another refuses, perhaps on the grounds that life and death shouldn’t be a game for one man to decide. No Country for Old Men tracks various people chasing after money or security, the things that are supposed to keep us happy and ward off darkness, but which mean so little that the pursuit of these things doesn’t even guarantee you an onscreen death. This is the blackest film noir in years, and a great American movie.