(On TV, August 2017) I think that Miller’s Crossing is the last film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography that I hadn’t yet seen, and it’s quite a treat. A self-conscious take on Prohibition-era noir movies, it plays gleefully with the elements of the genre in a dense and complex feat of plotting. A young Gabriel Byrne stars as a criminal advisor who ends up trying to manipulate multiple factions when a mob war shakes the city and his own relationships. The characters rarely stop talking, and much of the rapid-fire dialogue is highly entertaining (although you may need subtitles given the pacing and accents—the closed captioning had trouble keeping up!) Albert Finney is also remarkable as a crime boss, but perhaps the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Hayden, whose sexy femme fatale character here is completely at odds with her contemporary persona as a matronly shrew (e.g.; The Mist). Otherwise, it’s tommy guns, crooked cops, beatdowns, faked deaths and double-crossing fun galore in a warm bath of genre elements. I suspect that Miller’s Crossing is more fun the more you know and like noir films, but even casual fans of the genre will find a lot to like here. I have, over the past few months, had an unfortunate tendency to multitask while watching (some) movies, but Miller’s Crossing hooked me back in the moment I tried to take my attention elsewhere. Now that’s viewing pleasure.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) I won’t actually claim to be a mature film critic, but there’s certainly been an evolution in my capacity to appreciate Coen Brothers movies even when they flat-out refuse any conventional appreciation. I didn’t set anything on fire at the end of A Serious Man, and while I think that No Country for Old Men is overrated (oops, there goes my credibility), I don’t deny that it has some fantastic moments. So it is with Hail Caesar!, which I expected to like a lot more based on its premise: After all, doesn’t the idea of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer running around solving problems sound fantastic? Especially if that gives us the opportunity to re-create the kinds of movies (biblical epics, overwrought dramas, western comedies, musicals of both the sing-and-dance and aquatic variety) of the time? Seems like a target-rich foundation for a comedy, and Hail Caesar! does manage to hit a few targets along the way: Taken in five-minute scenes, there’s more than a few good moments in the film. Channing Tatum has a great dance number, George Clooney effortlessly plays a dim megastar, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes a great first impression (especially in doing lasso tricks). Unfortunately, those bits and pieces aren’t necessarily part of something bigger: The plot is haphazardly assembled, listlessly developed and more or less cast aside toward the end. Character moments don’t add up to dramatic arcs, and in-between too-short cameos and sudden/meaningless plot revelations, there’s a feeling that a lot of connective material has been left aside: This may have worked better as a miniseries than a film. In the meantime, we’re left with a few set pieces and a lot of wasted potential. As with most Coen movies, it’s worth looking at critical commentary piecing together the symbolic meaning of the film—there’s certainly a lot of material here revolving around systems of faith, including economic and spiritual ones. But at the most basic level, Hail Caesar! isn’t much of a success as a plot-driven film, and considering the amount of talent assembled for the occasion, we’re not wrong in expecting more.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) My current life circumstances mean that I usually see movies 6-9 months after their theatrical release. In order to “stay current” and understand much of the ongoing conversation regarding movies, I often spoil myself silly on movies I haven’t seen but eventually will. This usually works pretty well and doesn’t ruin movies as much as you’d think. But there are exceptions and Inside Llewyn Davis shows the limits of the spoil-yourself-rotten approach in tackling plot-light interpretation-heavy movies. Having read many descriptions of what made Inside Llewyn Davis so interesting a while ago, I now find that most of the theories about the film are more substantial than the film itself. A ramble through 1961 Greenwich Village before the folk-music explosion, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a talented but prickly musician who may be at the end of his moribund career. The film follows him during an eventful week, but don’t expect much in terms of plotting or conclusion: As with many of their previous movies, the Coen Brothers don’t settle for neat dramatic arcs, fully-tied subplots or self-contained screen characters: they hint, leave plenty to the imagination, play with chronology and cut to the credits five minutes before other directors would. It’s maddening and yet in my encroaching old age, I don’t find it as frustrating as I would have years ago. (But then again, if you follow the Coen Brothers you’ve already seen No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man) The music is great if you like folk (I don’t, but the artistry is remarkable and then there’s “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” to amuse us uncouth barbarians.), and as a look at a specific time and place, it’s fascinating in its own right. The cinematography is remarkable, as this is a cold winter movie and there’s no visual comfort for anyone here. Oscar Isaac is fascinating as the titular protagonist while Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan have short but striking roles. While I like individual elements, themes and sequences of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m not sure I like it as much as the idealized version I had made up in my head while reading the chatter surrounding the film. You can probably figure out that this is a problem with me rather than the film itself.
(On TV, June 2013) Barton Fink’s reputation as a mystifying piece of cinema precedes it by years, and after watching the film I’m no wiser than anyone else in trying to explain what I’ve just seen. It starts simply enough, as a New York playwright moves to Los Angeles to write scripts for Hollywood. The initial satire of the industry can be amusing at times. But then the film moves in another direction entirely with a run-down hotel, a threatening next-door neighbor, a brutal murder, more symbolism than anyone can use, and enough references to other things that one can profitably mine the film for endless analysis. John Turturro is compelling as the title character, while John Goodman is surprisingly menacing as his neighbor/id. What Barton Fink does not contain, however, is a simply digestible experience: It’s a hermetic film that seemingly delights in throwing off its audience and multiplying contradictory interpretations. As such, it’s kind of fun: The Coen Brothers’ skill in putting together the film mean that individual scenes are compelling to watch, even as it’s maddening to piece them together in a coherent whole.
(On DVD, March 2012) I must be mellowing in my old age, because I can imagine a younger version me wanting to burn stuff after the whopper of a non-conclusion at the end of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. It’s a necessary spoiler to state that, after an entire film showing a man’s life getting worse and worse, the film shies away from a third act and snaps to a black screen at the moment where the crises are at their worst. While the Coens have a certain track record of doing this (and being rewarded by Oscar for the trick), careful watchers will note that the move isn’t entirely gratuitous: It’s a wrath-of-God reaction to the protagonist’s final C-grade moral decision, and the film does announce, earlier, the notion of a story without a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s a maddening move after a generally successful black comedy in which a multitude of sharply-drawn characters are introduced and sent careening off each other. You would think that there would be a bigger payoff… but just accept that it isn’t so. As for the rest, there’s a lot to like in the film’s not-missing part, from the atmosphere of a 1967 Minnesota Jewish suburbia, to many lesser-known actors doing good work to a certain cruel sense of humor in which everything steadily gets worse and worse… even in the protagonist’s dreams. This certainly isn’t a major entry in the Coens filmography, but it does carry their usual brand of expectation-defiance and unconventional artistry.
(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing. The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild. While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue. This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen. Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own. At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy. It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.
(In theaters, September 2008) Dark comedies are a tough, tough assignment, and if the Coen Brothers have been able to do the genre full justice before, they’ve also had a few misfires along the way, and Burn After Reading skirts particularly close to that edge. Among the film’s biggest problem is a sudden turn for deadly violence after a first half that promises nothing more serious than bloodied noses. It’s a jarring misstep in what is otherwise an absurd story of adulterous urban professionals who just happen to work in intelligence operations. The rest of the film is hit-and-miss, more often amusing rather than frankly funny. All of the actors, from Brad Pitt to George Clooney to Tilda Swinton to John Malkovich, seem to have a lot of fun inhabiting seriously flawed characters. (Indeed, one of the film’s highlight is the precise way Malkovich’s characters enunciates his colorful threats and insults.) The film’s two funniest scenes both star J.K. Simmons as an Intelligence Director completely mystified by the accumulation of transgressions and violence that characterize the film. Otherwise, though, the film ends quickly and with a succession of off-screen developments. There’s little satisfaction here for those who like well-wrapped narratives, nor those who prefer more conventional comedies.
(In theaters, November 2007) One of the least-useful conflations out there is the idea that familiar genre structures go hand-in-hand with inferior work. That ignores the lengthy tradition of genre storytelling, the centuries of experimentation to find out that yes, audiences are happier when the story ends with a nice bow and flourish. Mess with these expectations at your own peril and cranky comments. So it is that for 90% of its duration, No Country For Old Men is crackling crime drama film-making, up to the Coen Brother’s own best standards. The pace is measured, the story takes interesting twists and turns, the cinematography is almost perfect and the characters are interesting enough. As one character tries to escape with a suitcase full of money and an implacable killer decides to grab the loot for itself, there are a few terrific suspense scenes, and the film itself is simply mesmerizing. But then there’s the ending. In an effort to stick as closely to the Cormac McCarthy novel as possible, the Coen Brothers deliberately send the film spinning out of control, leaving the plot threads dangling loose as the conclusion dissolves in ever-less-relevant scenes. There are several points at which the film would have been better had it stopped there: hope for equipment malfunction at the right moment. Which is a shame, because otherwise No Country For Old Men ranks as of the the better Coen films. Oh well; nothing perfect.
(In theaters, April 2004) There’s no denying that on the heels of Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers have once again disappointed many with this lesser film. A remake that audaciously re-imagines the basic story of the London-based 1950s original in contemporary Southern Mississippi, The Ladykillers is a slight comedy that unfortunately loses interest as it winds up to its conclusion. The best two things about the film, as may be expected from the Coen Brothers, is the music and the secondary characters. While Tom Hanks gets all the flash and glory in the lead role of a cultured southern gentleman who decides to try his luck at crime, every character in the film speaks with their own cadence and idioms, a musicality of speech that meshes well with the musical background. (What O Brother, Where Art Thou? Did to folk music, this version of The Ladykillers does to gospel choirs, maybe even too much) Sadly, the relatively amusing first half of the film loses stem once the light crime comedy cedes its place to much darker and moralistic material. Suddenly, the film isn’t so much fun to watch. It doesn’t help that the lead character, a formidable black woman with a fearful sense of right and wrong, is such a dull character. While the film is supposed to revolve around her, her presence just isn’t as compelling as the dastardly villains she’s facing. Oh well; Quirky is the word, but then again quirky is what the Coen Brothers are all about, occasional misfires and all.
(In theaters, October 2003) The Coen Brothers doing a romantic comedy? Believe it… and it’s just about as quirky as their other films. George Clooney scores another great performance as a teeth-obsessed attorney who comes to be fascinated by a beautiful woman (the luminous Catherine Zeta-Jones) who’s out to get as much money as she can. Will they get together? Will it last? Will it have a happy ending? I can’t seriously answer that without spoiling the fun. Suffice to say that this is the Coen Brothers’ funniest film since The Big Lebowski. While Intolerable Cruelty isn’t particularly high on belly laughs, it’s amusing throughout and plays without too many false notes. The supporting characters alone are worth seeing. Some particularly witty sequences are built around the script’s cynical take on relationship, with the result that this romantic comedy feels rather more comedic than the usual puff-fluff rom-com. Good stuff.
(In theaters, November 2001) Most Coen-Brothers films take at least two viewings to appreciate, but even knowing that, The Man Who Wasn’t There remains a disappointment. Oh, it starts well enough, with an unremarkable protagonist slowwwly being sucked in a web of criminal acts. But then the Brothers get weird on us, and in short order we’re asked to juggle a noir storyline with elements of aliens, oral sex and ironic punishment. I know, I know; it sounds good on paper, but doesn’t translate as well on-screen. It would be foolish to deny the depth of the screenplay, what with its constant return to the conformity of the American dream. Nor would it be useful to ignore the visual polish of the black-and-white cinematography, which gives rise to some powerful imagery. But with its languid and divergent second half, The Man Who Wasn’t There tests even the most indulgent viewer and diminishes its impact. A second viewing will be useful… but can wait a few years.
(In theaters, June 2001) The problem with pictures made by the Coen Brothers is that you can’t comment them fairly after seeing them only once. Their latest, a series of adventures set in depression-era Deep South, is both exceptional and average, interesting and boring, witty and muddled. George Clooney exhibits considerable charm as always, playing a fast-talking shady character sympathetic enough to hold the film together. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before, with music you haven’t heard before and sight you’re unlikely to see again. The mixture of folk music, southern accents and gold-tinted visuals is far, far away from the current Hollywood aesthetics. As far as the story goes, however, some are bound to be disappointed; the film wanders a lot, like the three protagonists, and viewers are likely to remember individual sequences, not a common plot. As a comedy, it’s decidedly low-octane; a steady smile, a few giggles but few outright laughs. Parallels with Homer’s The Odyssey might be overstated, unless you want to impress your date.
(In theaters, November 2000) This thriller by the Coen brother takes a long, long, long time to get going, as we’re introduced to an array of increasingly unsympathetic characters who all seem to be doing their best to become even more unlikable. Eventually, though, the plot mechanics so laboriously introduced all come into play, and the film gets progressively more interesting. Already obvious from their first film is the Coens’ eye for good images, which remains interesting even when the rest isn’t.
(In theaters, August 2000) There are no easy ways to describe this film. Hilarious in an oddball kind of way, this is a film that goes places you really wouldn’t expect and does so in style. Sharing an unexpected kinship with such unlikely counterparts as The Evil Dead, Raising Arizona defies expectations and produces an ultimately endearing result. Nicolas Cage is superb, the Coen Brothers’ direction is maniacal, the script is filled with great moments and the cinematography is occasionally breathtaking. Don’t miss this one.
(On TV, November 1998) My problems with this film began just before the last commercial break, when the announcer smugly declared “Stay tuned, for the conclusion of Fargo”. That’s when I knew I was going to be definitely disappointed. To put it simply: Fargo is a shaggy-dog story without a conclusion. Now, wrapping up a movie has never been one of the Coen brother’s strong points, the remainder of their movies usually making up for it (eg: The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski). Not so here, where everything seems poised toward a conclusion that only halfway comes. No payoff for the buried money. No payoff for the ex-boyfriend. No payoff for the kid. A staggering deux-ex-machina precipitates the conclusion. Some say that the charm of Fargo comes from these real-life details. I go to movies to see a story; so I disagree. Fargo is still worthwhile, but doesn’t deserve its reputation. Yah.