Archive for the ‘Coen Bros.’ Category

LAWLESS is a couple weeks old now, but it’s still way worth talking about.  It’s not to be confused with FLAWLESS, the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-in-a-dress movie, nor is it to be confused with the upcoming DREDD movie, which as we all know is guaranteed to have a surplus of law.

Here’s what I said about LAWLESS before I saw it

WETTEST COUNTY was on my list of 50 most eagerly-awaited movies of the year.   But it’s not called that anymore, though.  Now it goes by the handle LAWLESS, a much more generic title which sounds a little cooler after knowing it was generously bestowed upon the movie by none other than Terrence Malick.  Whatever it’s called, it’s a John Hillcoat movie, which after THE PROPOSITION and The ROAD, promises good things.  I’m definitely getting a less-artsy, more-mainstream PUBLIC ENEMIES vibe from the new trailer, but that doesn’t strike me personally as a deterrent.

Check out the trailer, it made LAWLESS travel that much higher on my want-to-see-now meter:

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Now, to read what I had to say about LAWLESS after seeing it (spoiler warning: it’s a lot of very nice things), you’ll have to click over to Daily Grindhouse:

>>>LAWLESS!!!<<<

And make damn sure you check out that soundtrack:

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And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

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And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Big Lebowski.  To watch it once is sublime.  To watch it twenty times is sublime twenty times.  To watch it with a full crowd is probably about as much fun as is legally possible within city limits.  I’ve seen it with small groups many times, but I’ve only actually seen it with a crowd once, back in 1998 when it was first released.  As the credits rolled, my buddy and I turned to each other and both said, “I could’ve watched that all day.”  The rest of the world has since come to share in our enlightenment.  In the intervening years, the Lebowski legend has only grown, and pretty much everyone with a brain and a soul and a sense of humor is in agreement.

It’s actually really hard to write about The Big Lebowski because it’s such well-trod turf and because it’s such an individualistic piece of work that its primary charms are in watching it, not having it described to you.  Of course, if you know your film history, you know that The Big Lebowski didn’t spring up out of nowhere — it’s a fairly direct takeoff of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (a distant relative of yours truly, for the record).  I was lucky enough in 1998 to have just chanced to watch The Big Sleep for the first time about a week before I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time.  I can’t possibly understate how
much funnier The Big Lebowski is when you’re in on the joke:  The pointed difference between 1940s Los Angeles and 1990s Los Angeles, the jazzy past versus the country-Western present, the labyrinthine mystery plot that one suspects even the screenwriters couldn’t decipher (and in The Big Lebowski at least, treat as almost an afterthought), and most of all. Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.

In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart tries to get a vital clue from running a pencil over the indentations of a notepad.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges attempts the same trick, only to find that his adversary has been idly doodling penises while on the phone.  That joke is incredibly hilarious on its own, but once you realize that it’s a spoof of a deadly-serious source, it becomes transcendently funny.

The Coens’ brilliant inspiration was to take a Chandleresque noir set-up, and then drop two amazing and ridiculous characters into it to see how they’d handle things.  First there’s Jeff Bridges as The Dude, about which plenty has been written and said but not as often the fact that the character is based off a real person the Coens know.  And then there’s John Goodman as the bellowing and verbose gun nut Walter, who again is a stroke of genius even if you don’t know that he is playing a real person with very little exaggeration.  John Milius is a writer and filmmaker who was an early confederate of Steven Spielberg and the 1970s film-school generation, who had a hand in the writing of the Indianapolis speech in Jaws and in one of the Dirty Harry sequels, and who made the vastly misunderstood and thoroughly awesome 1982 adaptation of the Conan The Barbarian pulp stories.  If you’ve ever listened to the incredible DVD commentary for Conan The Barbarian, you’d know that what John Goodman is actually doing in The Big Lebowski is a pitch-perfect John Milius impersonation.

Goodman.

Milius.

Like I say, The Big Lebowski is funny enough without knowing these little factlets, but it becomes a new level of comedic achievement when seen in that light.

Another great joke of The Big Lebowski is that for a movie about confused bowlers of conflicting political ideologies solving mysteries, it is as impeccably crafted as any prestige picture.  The photography by Roger Deakins is typically beautiful, the editing by the legendary Roderick Jaynes is crisp and sharp.  Just think back on those elaborately-choreographed and inventive Busby Berkeley dream-sequence numbers.  This isn’t lazy filmmaking by any stretch.  It’s as smart and as artistic as any so-called “Best Picture.”

The Coens are such an interesting case.  They work in two distinct modes: madcap and noir.  The first mode is exemplified by their comedies, a la Raising Arizona.  The second mode is the Miller’s Crossing mode, which dates all the way forward to their recent triumph No Country For Old Men.  (There’s actually a third, far more esoteric and personal mode, which includes movies like Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but that’s a subject for another day).  The Big Lebowski comes down stronger on the side of comedy, though it’s an intriguing blend of madcap and noir.  The stakes, as far as The Dude and Walter know, are real:  A young woman could be killed if they don’t deliver a ransom.  But the fact that these two guys are the world’s least-qualified messengers, who spend their private-dick downtime at the bowling alley, is what makes the movie so fresh and so funny.

For having said up front that The Big Lebowski is hard to write about, I sure have found plenty of words.  I guess it IS fun to write about.  But I’d still rather go watch it again.

The Big Lebowski is screening tonight FOR FREE in Central Park.

And I’m 24-7 over here: @jonnyabomb

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?

Bear!

Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 

@jonnyabomb.

True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.

  

  

As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)

 

  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.

 

  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.

 

  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.

 

  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.

 

  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)

 

 

  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.

 

  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.

 

  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.

 

  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)

 

  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.

 

  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.

 

  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.

 

  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.

It seems a lot like outright perversity on the part of the Coen Brothers to follow the comparatively dour No Country For Old Men with the lightweight Burn After Reading.  Lest anyone think that the universal acclaim for their recent masterpiece went to their heads, the insanely prolific Coens churned out their next project, an entirely disposable comedy starring a couple of the hugest stars on the planet, right quick.  That’s just perverse.  I mean, these guys are legitimate rascals, which has to be admired.  But a moment of pity for the unfortunate layman who wanders into the theater looking for the next No Country For Old Men, hoping to get a jump on their office Oscar pool by handicapping this fall’s prestige pictures.  This is so not that.

Summarizing the movie’s set-up and follow-through is headache-inducing and ultimately pointless, even irrelevant, but nonetheless here it goes: 

John “Malky” Malkovich plays a less-than-brilliant CIA analyst who is fired for being a drunk, and decides to write his memoirs.  George Clooney plays a less-than-brilliant agent in a different department, a dinner-party-acquaintance of Malky’s.  Tilda Swinton plays Malky’s uptight wife, with whom Clooney is having an affair.   Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, and Richard Jenkins play less-than-brilliant health club employees.  McDormand loves Clooney; Jenkins loves McDormand.  McDormand and Pitt find the CD containing Malky’s memoirs and decide to blackmail him. 

Wackiness ensues.

In my humble opinion, the entire thing is just a two-hour set-up for a big ol’ cosmic joke, the punchline of which is matter-of-factly delivered by the wonderful character actor J.K. Simmons.  Think it all sounds like one long riff on the impenetrability of the plots of modern-day spy thrillers, like The Bourne Ultimatum?  That’s my take on it, at least.

So no, an essential addition to the Coens’ filmography, it may not be.  Worth your two hours, I think it is.  Worth your fifteen bucks, maybe wait.  Worth a single Oscar, probably not.  However, Burn After Reading is very much in the Coen tradition.  Actually, they seem to have a couple different traditions going.  Here I’m referring to the tradition wherein they mischievously wreak anarchy all over a specific movie or even an entire genre.  Take arguably their greatest movie, The Big Lebowski.  There’s almost nothing that hasn’t been said or re-said about that movie, except I haven’t heard the following observation too often:  The Big Lebowski is a full-on wedgie leveled upon the classic boxer shorts of The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is of course the Raymond Chandler adaptation of a Phillip Marlowe mystery, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and if you haven’t seen it already, you would be far better served watching that for the first time than even by reading my words (hard as it is to believe!).  Why watch such an old movie?  For one thing, the Coens obviously did!  What’s the connection to our beloved Lebowski?  Hmmm, a story about a Los Angeles outsider who is hired by a questionable rich gent to serve as a private investigator in a case that gets more labyrinthine by the chapter break – along the way getting involved with his crafty daughter, running afoul of the proper law, and so on…  The Big Lebowski emulates and then departs from the model of The Big Sleep.  With both movies, the twists and turns of the story are hard to follow, nearly impossible, but the dialogue is so enjoyable that you hardly notice.  The mystery itself is basically incidental – it’s all about the characters.  I was so lucky when I first saw The Big Lebowski in 1998 – by chance, I had just seen The Big Sleep two weeks before.  It’s really worth doing, just to get all the film-nerd in-jokes that those rascally Coens obviously intended.  For example, the bit in The Big Lebowski where the Dude shades in Jackie Treehorn’s notepad and gets a surprise is so much funnier after seeing a similar detective tactic used to much more straight-faced effect in The Big Sleep.

But I digress.  The Big Lebowski may have started out as a satirical exercise, but it became transcendent.  The Marlowe riff is only part of its appeal.  As I thought as I first watched those bowling-alley-neon end credit rolled ten years ago, “I could’ve watched that all day.”  Ten years later, I’m still not tired of the joint.  The idea of Burn After Reading, I suspect, had similar origins – to do to the spy thriller what they did to the film noir, i.e. to bugger it raw.  But I didn’t sense the same spark of invention.  It’s nowhere near as quotable, and why couldn’t John Goodman have played one of those Russians by the way?  Anyway, if I’m still re-watching Burn After Reading in ten years, I’ll recant.  But I’ll probably still be chuckling at Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.

Look, I think any true student or practicioner of film is well-served by checking out everything the Coens do.  But impeccably staged and acted as it is, Burn After Reading is hardly essential, and probably even plays more than a little annoying to the casual viewer.  And I sincerely doubt that the Coen Brothers care one bit about such sentiments, and are instead already maniacally, awesomely, at work on their next project.

[October 9, 2008]

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

The following intro is what I wrote the second time I watched A Serious Man.  The main piece after that is my original review.  A little bit maddening, isn’t it?

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I watched A Serious Man again the other night.  It’s weird to call a Coen Brothers movie underrated at this point, especially one that was nominated for Best Picture, but this one still feels that way to me.  When I’m feeling argumentative (which seems to be a lot of the time), I’ll argue that its underrated status is directly because of how Jew-y it is.  Really, it’s the Jew-y-est movie since Munich, and truthfully, it’s way Jew-y-er than that one was. 

But really, it’s because of how weird the movie is.  Even for the Coens.  It’s out there.  The rhythms are unconventional and the situations and performances are occasionally maddening.  (All purposefully so, of course.)  I still love A Serious Man tremendously, but I understand how it’s probably not for everyone.  And I think it’s also saying some things about the universe that a lot of people just don’t want to hear — although I do believe that my initial writings on the movie, back in December (two months after I first saw the movie), got it a little bit wrong.  When I scribbled out that piece, I didn’t account for an important plot point that affects the reading of the ending.  (I also just plain made a mistake or two — Alan Arkin appears in three scenes, not just one. He’s still great, though!)  I stand by my original reaction, because most of it still makes sense to me, but I wonder how I’d write it differently today.              

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I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about A Serious Man for over a month.  Deliberation?  Procrastination?  Does it matter? 

That last question is more meaningful to what I’m about to write than it may initially read.

Honestly, I feel pretty much the same when I think about A Serious Man now as I did when I first watched the credits roll.  I think it’s pretty great.  I think for what it’s trying to achieve, it’s just about perfect.  Weirdly, the most comparatively under-recognized movie of the year is my current pick for the year’s single best.  Even more weirdly, it’s the [roughly] annual entry from the Coen brothers, who at this point are a national institution and who were not too long ago crowned by the Oscar gods.  With all that universal acclaim under their belts, you’d think that more people would be talking more about this movie.  Doesn’t seem to be the case.  Is that where I come in?

For those who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a spoiler-free recap:  A Serious Man is set in the suburbs of Minneapolis, forty years in the past (presumably to distance it from Prince and his purple Revolution.)  In this drab setting, a Jewish college professor with the hopes of tenure is undergoing a crisis of faith, a crisis of marriage, a crisis in all areas of his life, really – your proverbial existential crisis.  He seeks out three separate rabbis for advice, and incidentally, none of those three are the one with whom he most wanted to speak.  There’s also a lengthy prologue scene set in 19th-century Europe, in which an unlucky couple are visited by an old man who may or may not be a dybbuk, which is a demonic spirit from Jewish folklore.  In retrospect, this scene doesn’t turn out to have much at all to do with the story of the Jewish professor.  Or does it?

If all of the above sounds like the set-up for some kind of joke, that probably makes sense.  This is a Coen Brothers picture.  The Coen Brothers are the premiere trickster auteurs of American cinema.  If you’re looking for them to explain what they’re up to, they are somewhat frustratingly cagey in the press and in interviews.  They are masters at letting the films speak for themselves, and their films are masterly.  Few filmmakers are so adept at the nuts and bolts of the cinematic process.  Their casting sense is impeccable – here Michael Stuhlbarg, a stage actor barely known on film, does a terrific job as Larry Gopnik, the hapless professor, leading up a cast of little-knowns and complete unknowns.  The biggest name in the cast is probably Adam Arkin, who is fantastic, charismatic and maddening in his…uh… only scene.

Of course, the movie looks great also – that’s thanks to the unbelievable talent of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked with the Coens on most of their most visually striking movies, such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men.  Between Deakins and the Coens, every frame of film is very specifically composed and timed, adding up to a deceptively thorough whole.  The veteran editor Roderick Jaynes also doubtlessly had much to do with the deliberate pace of A Serious Man.  Nothing about this movie is the least bit sloppy.  Everything in it happens for a reason.  More accurately, I should say, everything in it happens to make the movie’s point. 

Which is what?  The movie does end on a heavily symbolic note, which some people think is meant to be ambiguous, but I sure don’t.  Some answers are to be found in the movie’s unofficial theme song, “Somebody To Love” by Jefferson Airplane.  (You know, that crazy ‘60s song that Jim Carrey does karaoke to in The Cable Guy.)  That song features into the movie’s action throughout its running time, and the moments when it plays are telling.  Its best and funniest invocation happens late in the film – it’s both the movie’s best joke and probably the best indication of what the Coens are up to this time around.  I’m pretty sure I get it, but I’m  going to be frustratingly vague myself at offering up any answers here.

What does help to get to the bottom of it, and what I started to see as I gave A Serious Man all these days to sink in, is to look at where it falls into the Coens’ body of work.  A Serious Man, here in 2009, follows No Country For Old Men in 2007 and Burn After Reading in 2008.  No Country, as we all know, is a blistering and crushingly bleak statement on the current state of mankind, and Burn After Reading is a gleefully nihilistic take on our current cultural temperature and on what we look to for popular entertainment.  Did I say “nihilist”?  Yeah, for a couple of guys who once very conspicuously made the concept of nihilism as an ethos into brilliant comedy, they sure do seem to be leaning more and more in that philosophical direction themselves.

Not that you’d necessarily notice from the outside.  What you see most obviously on the surface of A Serious Man is Judaism, which is a culture that the movie captures very honestly and authentically.  Between you and me, I have a strong suspicion that this is why A Serious Man hasn’t been remotely as talked-about as it deserves to be.  It’s very Jew-y.  And it’s legitimately Jew-y.  It has the single greatest bar mitzvah scene ever put to film!  It has very specific character names, and the most nimble use of Yiddishisms I’ve heard since the last time I was eavesdropping at Corky & Lenny’s in Cleveland.  That’s not the kind of Jewishness that seems to appeal to American moviegoers, however.  American moviegoers only want to see Jews when they’re in sex comedies, behaving like shnooks and nebbishes.  They don’t want to see the word “serious” anywhere near their cinematic Jews – the one exception being that one guy who celebrates a birthday around this time of year.  But that’s an entirely different and probably more heated conversation. 

I could argue that the Jewishness is what has kept A Serious Man from the commercial success and cultural currency of the more popular Coen films, but the main point is that the blatant Jewishness actually obscures the movie’s true ethos, which I expect is exactly as the Coens intended it.  The Jews, like the Catholics and the Muslims and the Scientologists and all the other religious folks of the world, have come up with all kinds of answers to explain the brutality of the universe, but it’s possible, if you are to take this movie at its word, that the answers may not even matter.  Forget for a moment the chilling possibility that there may not be any answers, and consider this even more chilling notion:  The answers may be there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can help you. 

If the tornado on the horizon is headed towards you, does it even matter if you can explain where it came from, or why it approaches?  Does having that theoretical knowledge ensure in any way that you’ll survive the inevitable storm?

[December 9, 2009]

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If you have been reading this page for a while (thank you), then you have noticed that I tend to rhapsodize over the films of the Coen brothers.  Believe it or not, there are some Coen Bros. movies that I don’t care for very much.

Raising Arizona isn’t one of those.  I care for Raising Arizona very much.  It’s one of my favorite of their movies.  It’s one of my favorite movies.  It’s half a cartoon and half a fable, and somehow it feels more genuine than most dramatic fiction.  Maybe it’s that ending.

Raising Arizona arrived in 1987, three years after the Coens’ debut, Blood Simple.  That same year also saw the release of Evil Dead 2.  That’s no coincidence.  In between Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Coens worked on Crimewave with their buddy Sam Raimi.  Crimewave is a hard movie to track down, and one of the few movies in either Coen or Raimi catalogue that I haven’t seen; by most accounts it didn’t work and none of the principles seem particularly rushed to mention it.  That’s almost besides the point, though – it’s little surprise that the Coens were co-conspirators with Raimi early on, since they’re all pranksters at heart.  They’re also exceedingly capable and distinctive filmmakers, but even with all of the mainstream success and accolades they all enjoy today, their best movies still have that puckish spirit to this day.

But on Raising Arizona, the similarities have never been so apparent, primarily in the fluid and ingenious yet hyperactive and deranged camerawork (by eventual Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld, who also shot Blood Simple and moved on from the Coens after Miller’s Crossing).  Look at every single scene that involves the mythic Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), that whirlwind force of nature who is conjured out of a nightmare and loosed upon the world when Hi and Ed steal one of the Arizona quints – particularly the early scenes, such as the one where the camera roves off-road and into the Arizona household.  It’s pure Evil Dead 2.  It’s the famous “Dead-cam” – that point-of-view roaming from the woods to the cabin that torments Bruce Campbell so relentlessly.  Same thing here, only it’s from the point of view of a mud-crusted bounty hunter on a roaring motorcycle.

That’s the first thing I focused on during this latest viewing of Raising Arizona.  Another fascinating detail is that star Nicolas Cage was just 23 when he immortalized the role of H.I. McDunnough.  23 – six or seven years younger than co-star Holly Hunter, yet never less than totally convincing and totally capable of delivering the tricky tragicomic tone.  Whenever people crap on Nic Cage for some of his modern-day film choices, I just remember that he gave the world this, and give him a pass.  (Nobody ever craps on Holly Hunter, at least – she’s just constantly terrific, and nowhere more than in this movie.)

I also checked out some of the reviews of the day.  Some of the most important and influential critics, such as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, didn’t understand the significance of what they were looking at, and either underrated or dismissed what time has proven to be one of the more original and dynamic American comedies to date.

But really, the one thing that sticks with me more and more every time I watch Raising Arizona (which is fairly frequently) is the performance of Trey Wilson, as furniture titan Nathan Arizona.  Trey Wilson was a character actor who died at the shockingly young age of 40, two years after he totally nailed this role.  What’s so great, and so underrated, about what Trey Wilson does here, is that he needs to be a standard Coen-movie blowhard, a real loud and shouty and slapsticky-character, but then he needs to surprise with his understanding and forgiveness late in the film.  There’s one line in particular, yes the one about how much he loves his wife Florence, that the rest of the movie gives us no great reason to believe, but Wilson’s delivery makes it sound like the truest oath ever uttered.  And it’s clear that he’s not just saying it to Hi and Ed, but also to himself.  He’s getting across an entire ethos of parenting and marriage and love in one relatively brief scene.  That’s not easy business.

This is one reason that Raising Arizona has always resonated with me.  I think the craziest comedies always need that one key scene, which is almost always laugh-free and totally heartfelt.  All the best comedies have that scene.  (Ghostbusters does.)

There are more personal reasons for my love of this movie.  Longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell’s astoundingly great score, built in part on American folk music, uses some Pete Seeger cues that go all the way back to my childhood.  (My parents were big Pete Seeger fans.)  Even without that personal connection, this is the kind of score that’s impossible to forget, and it lives in your head for days after you’re done watching the movie.

Did I mention that I watched Raising Arizona this time with my three-year-old niece?  She really dug it, and later on, she reminded me of the best reason to keep on watching this movie for years to come:

“That was a really funny movie.”

One of the funniest and most quotable movies of the last thirty years, Raising Arizona is one of my true favorites, and I don’t think that anyone can now argue against this movie’s excellence.
 
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