From the Archive — Miller’s Crossing

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There were few actors who could take full command of a film like Albert Finney. Immediately intimidating, Finney was a bull among fawns. But he was also nimble, cunning, authentic, and playful. He didn’t work all that often, yet racked up accolades that he gladly rejected, refusing to be knighted and steadfastly bypassing the Academy Awards, though he was nominated five times. I didn’t review many of Finney’s films over the years (he was far more prolific as an actor before I started trying to express my movie affection in words), but I did write this for the old radio show. This early Coen brothers effort was released within our first few weeks on the air. I believe it represents the first time I tried to pen a full-on rave.

With only two prior films to their credit, Joel and Ethan Coen have already established quite a reputation. Both their first film, Blood Simple, and their follow-up, Raising Arizona, gained them significant critical acclaim. With their latest, Miller’s Crossing, that reputation should only grow, and deservedly so.

In Miller’s Crossing, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, the right hand man to mob boss Leo, played by Albert Finney. As the film progresses, Leo gets into a turf war with Johnny Caspar, played by Jon Polito, which is sparked largely by Caspar’s desire to see a small-time hood named Bernie killed. As the turf war develops, Tom finds himself thrown out of Leo’s organization only to ally himself with Johnny Caspar. We see the conflict and the manipulations through the eyes of Tom as he deals with his involvement with Leo’s moll, the repercussions of the turf war, a gambling debt he must pay off, and, in one of the film’s most effective scenes, carrying out Caspar’s orders to kill Bernie.

At the center of the film, Byrne plays Tom perfectly. Tom is cool as ice and hard as nails. When a thug asks him about a fat lip he’s sporting, Tom responds, “It’s an old war wound. It acts up around morons.” The supporting case is uniformly excellent, particularly J.E. Freeman as the Dane, one of Caspar’s tough guys, John Turturro as Bernie, and Polito as Caspar.

The script by the Coen brothers is outstanding. The plot has an amazing amount of detail, and the dialogue is smart and terrific. Joel Coen handles the directing chores and has turned in a job equal to the screenplay. Each scene is so well-crafted that the film is always a true pleasure to look at. At a time when mob and gangster pictures are coming out at an incredible rate, Joel and Ethan Coen can be very proud. They’ve created one of the standouts.

4 stars, on the 4 star scale.

Playing Catch-Up — Z for Zachariah; These Wilder Years; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). Based on a Robert C. O’Brien science fiction novel published in the nineteen-seventies, Z for Zachariah takes a somber approach to post-apocalyptic storytelling. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is living alone on a farm, maintaining the land well enough to eke out an existence. Her solitude is disrupted by the arrival of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an engineering suffering from a mild case of the radiation poisoning that wiped out the rest of the populace. Ann nurses him back to health and they forge a caring partnership that’s about to take a turn into romance when a third figure, a man named Caleb (Chris Pine), strolls into their lives. Once the triangle is formed, the film becomes overly familiar, proffering a gentler version of expected conflicts of jealousy and suspicion. Before that, its an effective dual character study, as director Craig Zobel affords the performers the space to deeply explore the roles, showing their tentative shifts. Robbie is especially good, finding the dignity in her religiously devoted, wisely cautious character.

 

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These Wilder Years (Roy Rowland, 1956). This drama casts James Cagney as Steve Bradford, a wealthy industrialist who seeks out the son he gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. More accurately, he shunned any responsibility for the boy, forcing the young mother to seek refuge in a orphanage run by Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck). Steve is accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and Ann is firm in her refusal to give up the information he’s after. He charms, he cajoles, he bullies. Still, she won’t budge. Cagney is sharp and engaging in the role, and there’s a nice, typically sly turn by Walter Pidgeon as a lawyer Steve recruits to play a few more angles for him. Roy Rowland’s direction is workmanlike, which actually works for the story. In the best way, the movie feels like a lean stage play that’s been brought to the screen faithfully. If it lacks in cinematic inspiration, These Wilder Years is solid in its fundamental storytelling.

 

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The Ballad of Buster Scrugss (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2018). The Coen brothers have corrected the record about the widely reported belief that their latest is a repurposed television series, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs still suffers from the common ailment of any film with an anthology format. The quality levels of the individual segments vary widely, and the constant comparison sinks the subpar further in estimation. They disrupt the specialness, setting the whole endeavor askew. When the film is at its best — “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and “Meal Ticket,” which is maybe as bleak as anything the Coens have ever dreamed up — it is truly grand. The Coens basically acknowledge the film is comprised of story ideas they couldn’t stretch to feature length, and the thinness of the ideas is the main culprit when it falters (“Near Algonodes,” and “All Gold Canyon,” which at least boasts a charming performance by Tom Waits, fulfilling his casting destiny by playing a grizzled prospector). Visually resplendent and peppered with sterling dialogue (much of the best of it gifted to Tim Blake Nelson as the title character), the film on balance succeeds more than it fails, even as it clearly slots into the Coen filmography category reserved for the enjoyable but less consequential.

From the Archive — No Country for Old Men

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It’s easy to forget now, but shortly before the release of No Country for Old Men, it appeared that Joel and Ethan Coen might have reached the end of their run as vital filmmakers. They’d delivered two critical and commercial duds in a row (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), and the ideas didn’t seem to snapping with the same frequency as early in their career. It turns out all the fretting was premature. The siblings crafted what might well stand as the best film they ever made and launched a string of consistently superlative features. As their latest feature (repurposed from a planned Netflix series) hits theaters ahead of broader streaming availability, I’ll dig out my original review of No Country for Old Men, written for and first posted at my former online home. 

No Country For Old Men is unmistakably a movie about Texas, or at least steeped in Texas, just as Fargo was fraught with the chill of Minnesota winter and the chipper attitudes of those who persevere through it. It may not be a Texas of reality (though it all feels as real as bullet piercing skin) and it’s certainly not a Texas of myth and fable. It’s a Texas of literature, the weight of decisions made and repercussions faced.

It comes from literature, of course. Joel and Ethan Coen have made many movies that felt like novels in their structure and detail, but this is the first time they’ve actually looked to a book for a story to tell. It’s not hard to understand why this Cormac McCarthy book would appeal to them. Every riveting page had to make them think of their lean, sharp debut Blood Simple. They have certainly transferred it to the screen with the care of zealots adapting their scripture of choice.

Like many films from the Coens, it is a movie about crime and a pile of money with a shadow of darkness cast across. It is stark, unrelenting, a Texas landscape. Men talk to each other about the horrors they’ve seen, the rot they can’t quite avoid. The rot they can’t quite resist. They survey the problems, the mounting inevitability. They are matter of fact. They see the world as a series of truths, even if those truths are unkind. Their words are curt and weary. The world is harsh, brutal, merciless, unrelenting. The film, with intelligence and confidence, conveys it all.

The casting is perfectly, exquisitely right. Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem all bring a fire-blasted authenticity to their major roles. The care in this aspect is so thorough that all the smaller roles are uniquely well-realized. They may have less screen time, but character actors like Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin make major impressions. Their deft work is very much a part of the fabric of the film’s accomplishment. In a film unforgivably about hard men, Kelly Macdonald finds the grace in the patient, tired logic of her character, the only one to challenge the fervent inhumanity she sees before her.

Cataloging the achievements here can exhaust the supply of celebratory words, but too many words feels like an inappropriate tribute. These most verbal of filmmakers, champions of dense, precise language, make more with less this time around and a similar discipline should be undertaken in response, especially since all these cluttered terminology can be effectively replaced by a one-word review.

Masterpiece.

From the Archive — Paris, je t’aime

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There’s no particular inspiration for extracting this old review from the archive today. It is one of the fairly random raids of my old writing. The only annotation I’ll offer is the retrospective conviction that Alexander Payne’s segment is strongest in the film. It’s the one that has stuck with me.

The new film Paris, je t’aime brings together eighteen directors (or teams of directors) to create short films celebrating the beloved city of the title. There is no through-line, no overlap, nothing that connects the pieces together. It seems everyone was given the the freedom to construct whatever they chose, with only the locale (and, more vaguely, the prompt of “love”) to guide them. The result, predictably, is not something that holds together as an individual cohesive work, but is instead a collection of short films, not remarkably different in unity or vision than a near-random assemblage of submittals used to fill a programming block at a film festival.

That’s not automatically a problem, particularly when the directors invited to the exercise are an intriguing, defiantly individualistic lot. There aren’t a lot of other project out there that make room for both Wes Craven and Gus Van Sant, much less Gurinder Chadha and Sylvain Chomet. But it puts a lot of pressure on those individual shorts; they have be quite strong to make the whole project feel worthwhile. There are few outright disasters in Paris je t’aime, but the bulk of the work ultimaately feels negligible.

There are fine little performances sprinkled throughout–it’s not surprising to find that it’s fun to watch Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara expertly tear up a scene as a couple on the verge of divorce, but it’s wholly unexpected to see typically dour and unengaging Rufus Sewell turn in deft, appealing work opposite the fine, fussy shine of Emily Mortimer — and I am admittedly helpless before a freshly revealed Alfonso Cuaron extended tracking shot.

In the end, there are really three films that deserve special notice. The first is Tom Tykwer’s visually witty examination of a romance remembered right after a devastating phone call. Then there is Alexander Payne’s dryly funny and warmly observed take on the allure of Paris as related by a flat-accented average American, played with wonderful little grace notes by Margo Martindale (who, between this and FX Network’s The Riches has had a very good spring). Best of all is the film by Walter Salles, which manages to tell a quietly heartbreaking story in a few lean, concise minutes, aided immeasurably by the exquisitely expressive acting of Catalina Sandino Moreno. Salles demonstrates the artistry that can come to the fore by finding the painful truth in a few well-chosen moments.

Now Playing: Hail, Caesar!

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Much as I’m a devoted disciple of the work of the Coen brothers, I can admit there are all sorts of forecastable reasons to expect that a new film they’ve made might not quite work. The susceptibility to recurring flaws isn’t an automatic outcome of having such clear cinematic voices, but Joel and Ethan Coen have committed themselves so thoroughly to a bleakly comic outlook tinged with ironic detachment, a quality often conveyed with self-consciously rambunctious visuals, that certain predictable troubles can easily reoccur. Most noticeably, their viewpoint can manifest as a lack of sincerity that sets a narrative slamming into a brick wall before long. I’d even argue this crops up in some of their stronger films, such as Barton Fink, and any individual viewer’s appreciation for the work in question will likely be determined by the ability to accept and forgive the dusting of arch disdain. Usually, I can. On rare occasions, I can’t. When it comes to their latest effort, Hail, Caesar!, I land somewhere in the conflicted middle ground.

Hail, Caesar! is set in nineteen-fifties Hollywood, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) heads up production at Capitol Pictures. In the manner of a character in one of the screwball comedies Eddie’s studio might produce, he’s constantly on the move, addressing problems that could bungle shooting schedules or create a public relations nightmare for a contract player. While his main dilemma involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star in his final days of shooting the biblical epic positioned to the be the biggest prestige picture of the year, Eddie also has to contend with a flurry of other issues, all held up against the enticement of a more lucrative and less stressful job at Lockheed, for which he’s being actively courted.

The set-up allows the Coens to go romping through the cinematic styles of a bygone era. Besides glimpses of the bible epic, they get to play around with a musical, an aquatic dance spectacular, a cheesy western, and a stiffly refined drawing room drama. The satiric instincts of the siblings combine with their command of cinematic grammar to give these bits giddy life. I might think the musical number “No Dames” (performed in part by Channing Tatum with an athletic grace that deliberately invokes Gene Kelly) goes on a few beats too long, but there are also as many as a half-dozen individual highlights within it. The Coens manage homage, gentle mockery, and loving embrace all at once.

The platforms of endearing pastiche are dandy. It’s the pathways connecting them that are wanting. The exasperating trials of Eddie Mannix never build up the necessary headlong energy, making it seem like a farce caught in an early rehearsal, before the performers have transformed complicated blocking to muscle memory in order to operate at bang-bang speed. Where it should fly, the film ambles, which only serves to call attention to the thinness of the characters. Too many elements never progress much further than their initial conceits. It’s an amusing notion to cast Tilda Swinton in the dual roles of identical twin gossip columnists, but there’s not much of a joke to it beyond that. Only the subplot involving a cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich, in a marvelous performance) being forced to stretch, both personally and professionally, develops any momentum. There’s a quiet charm to watching him perform rope tricks while waiting for his starlet date (Veronica Osorio, evoking Carmen Miranda) or even struggling as a frustrated director (Ralph Fiennes) repeatedly gives him a line reading. Somewhere in that character and performance is the film that Hail, Caesar! could have been, the one that rivals Inside Llewyn Davis in its ability to use an era as setting for a story that has its own strong sense of purpose.

From The Archive: Burn After Reading

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This is a thing I wrote a while ago that’s never been published in this space before. (I’m very ill, so the pithy retrospective commentary is truncated this week.)

I doubt there was a single knowing film fan out there who figured that Joel and Ethan Coen would view their gold-plated induction into Hollywood’s upper echelon as impetus to start making bloodless (in every sense of the word), serious work which telegraphs it’s supposed importance with every dewy frame. Still, it’s oddly gratifying to find the follow-up to the extraordinary, justly awarded No Country For Old Men is such a unabashedly goofy lark. How perfect that the filmmakers that began their career with the lean noir of Blood Simple followed by the cartoonish comedy of Raising Arizona are repeating that sort of freewheeling genre-hopping some twenty years later.

The new film, Burn After Reading, is unmistakably a Coen brothers product. If the world were ever stripped of all its dolts and criminals, the Coens would be at the loosest of ends. Here they draw their favorite sorts of characters together in a simple story of a misplaced CD of data pulled from a former government agent’s computer. It becomes wildly complicated when the interlocking relationships of the characters and the accompanying collection of poor decisions begins to wreak their influence. In fact, it gets so complicated that the two most uproarious scenes contain little more than a CIA agent recounting the various twists to his increasingly aggravated superior. Quiet miracle worker J.K. Simmons plays the boss, which helps immensely in elevating these simple back-and-forth scenes to high hilarity.

All this happy praise acknowledged, I tend to find the Coen comedies agreeable-but-lesser works, and Burn is finally no exception. The tangles of the plot occasionally devolve into somewhat dull shagginess. These films are also where the Coens’ tendency towards overly broad elements come most jarringly into play. They’ve largely excised that tic from their visual repertoire, but it still shows up in the character construction and the performances. Sometimes that works (as it does with Brad Pitt’s blackmailing trainer, but then Pitt is usually most vividly engaged onscreen when he’s playing someone who’s not particularly bright) and sometimes it doesn’t (sadly, Frances McDormand’s performance is the film’s weakest). John Malkovich fits into the Coen aesthetic so snugly that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for him to be drafted into their troupe.

There were some worries before No Country For Old Men that the Coens had run their artistic course, not just because their previous couple of films were not well regarded, but because for the first time the Coens weren’t filming original material, relying on a found script and an adaptation. In fact, Burn is the first wholly original screenplay from the brothers since 2001’s underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There. The new film may not deserve mention with their best work, but it certainly ratifies the promise No Country made that the first underwhelming stretch of their joint career was a road bump rather than a permanent downturn. The dark, devious Coen sensibility is plenty healthy and the film landscape is all the better for it.

Top Ten Movies of 2013 — Number Four

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Of the many pleasures in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the one that inspires the most gratitude in me is the sibling writer-directors’ ability to be sentimental about an era while steadfastly refusing to give in to undue romanticism. Their depiction of the early-nineteen-sixties folk scene in New York City in the days before a skinny kid from Minnesota showed up and changed everything is packed with lovingly chosen details, especially the music, shaped by the invaluable T-Bone Burnett. That is the landscape of the picture, though not the soul. Joel and Ethan Coen set their film in a place and time while fully understanding the need for it to be about a person rather than the trappings that surround him. To that end, they’ve created Llewyn Davis, played with a perfectly calibrated withdrawn intensity by Oscar Isaac. A spiritual cousin to Larry Gopnik, of the Coens’ A Serious Man, Llewyn is pressing on wearily as the fates seem determined to deliver him an endless succession of problems and setbacks. Blaming it on unseen forces is misguided, as nearly every dilemma Llewyn endures is causes by his own choices, his own selfishness and stubbornness. The Coens offer no absolution because he’s an artist nor special condemnation. He is simply a flawed human being, whose flaws feed his struggles.

As usual, the Coens make the film into a feat of writing, with sharply observed characters and situation. Besides Isaac as Llewyn, there are rich roles for Carey Mulligan (as a folk singer who Llewyn has had a problematic dalliance with) and John Goodman (as a sour, imperious jazz musician who squabbles with Llewyn on a road trip to Chicago), and both performers step up with clever, creative work. Even F. Murray Abraham manages to suggest a fully-formed character with a single scene, albeit perhaps the strongest scene in the film, one that is riveting in its simplicity. Continuing a creative trend for the Coens, spare, efficient storytelling is the defining characteristic of Inside Llewyn Davis. The brothers who once seemed to be testing how much visual tomfoolery and pure mayhem they could get away with in every film have settled into disciplined masters of narrative, confident that the insights within their vision will satisfactorily give the film heft and meaning. Their guitar-strumming hero is mired in failure. The Coens, on the other hand, are in a stretch that’s as strong as any in their shared career.