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

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

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.

But I’ve got no home, nowhere to roam, don’t even have a place to sing my songs

This might seem like a strange observation, but it’s a reaction I can’t quite shake: I think Inside Llewyn Davis is the gentlest film Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. There’s a lot of aggression across the shared filmography of the brothers, and not just because their penchant for blood-soaked crime stories (or at least bumbling kidnappers). There was a time when they were known–and occasionally dismissed–for their especially dynamic visual style, which made even their lightest efforts into bounding, madcap experiences. And then they had a special talent for putting their characters through dilemmas that were simultaneously mundane and pitched towards extreme anxiety, perhaps best manifested in recent years in the exceptional A Serious Man. The Coens have certainly set Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) up to endure a dispiriting series of setback in the movie that bears his name, but there’s no evident glee to take from his travails, no sense that the brothers are darkly amused by seeing how much their character can bear. Instead, there’s a rueful quality that suits the stark, lovely folk songs that Llewyn sings. There’s no tornado bearing down, metaphorical or otherwise. He’s just stuck in a life where they skies are unlikely to lighten from perpetual gray.

Drawing inspiration from the life of musician Dave Van Ronk, the Coens set the film in the Greenwich Village of 1961, when there was a prominent though hardly lucrative circuit of folk clubs allowing any number of troubadours to intone earnestly while accompanied by the instrument strapped across their shoulders. Here, Llewyn plies his craft with little discernible possibility of upward mobility. He’s released an album with a rundown little label and spends his time pleading for a couch or floor to stay on, circulating around a small contingent of friends and supporters. At his core, he’s clearly haunted by the absence of a former partner, which only adds to his melancholy view of life. He’s got no real plans for the future, a disappointing past he’d rather not revisit, and his present isn’t looking so hot either. With this setting–perfectly realized, thanks in no small part to support in the conception of the music by the invaluable T Bone Burnett–the Coens create a piercing, wryly funny character study.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the Coens’ storytelling is their dedication to mirroring the stasis and dashed promise of their lead character. Throughout the film, there are plot points that are clearly set up and yet not quite delivered upon. This isn’t sloppy construction, but clearly a very deliberate choice. Someone like Llewyn doesn’t suddenly turn himself around to confront his own history and shortcomings, and looming problems don’t always fully manifest in time with the expected beats of a story. There are clear hints of future success that Llewyn will forever stand outside of, either because of a rushed, compromised choice on his part or merely bad timing. The Coens don’t need to turn every morsel of plot into a feast. They have the confidence to allow implication to carry the film.

The filmmakers also have the assurance that their actors are capable of giving the the work the heft that might otherwise need to come from spelling out the emotional turns of the story. Isaac is terrific as Llewyn, reacting to his challenges with a quietly expressive face. On the other side of the acting spectrum, there are nicely colorful performances by Coen regular John Goodman (as a unpleasantly egotistical jazz musician Llewyn travels with) and Carey Mulligan (as a fellow folk fixture on the Village scene with whom Llewyn has a complicated relationship). Even F. Murray Abraham, with essentially one key scene, is as good as he’s been in years, somehow implying his characters whole professional existence with the simplest of gestures and reactions. If the Coens have sometimes been clearly enamored with the riotous possibilities of a popping, complicated plot, Inside Llewyn Davis gives them the welcome chance to cinematically explore in a different way. They develop a place, a time, a series of precariously interconnected lives. The make a whole, convincing world, set to a plaintive tune.

Spectrum Check

Spectrum Culture eased back into operation after a holiday break this week. Even though we had a very limited amount of content, I still squeezed some of my high-falutin’ words in there. On the film side, I wrote about the new film from director Miguel Gomes, which has been turning up on some of the more esoteric year-end “best of” lists. It’s not quite at that level for me, but I certainly see the appeal.

This week also marked the return of a regular yearly feature in which the writers collectively look back at the albums and films from five years ago to provide a fresh, hindsight-enhanced tally of the finest achievements in each form. We actually wrote these blurbs several months ago, so I’d completely forgotten which works I’d written on. As it happens, I was assigned a film for which I’ve already established some pretty significant admiration. As for the music side, I didn’t get to write about my clear-cut choice for the best album of 2007, but the release that was assigned to me was still a helluva record.

Greatish Performances #9

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#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1994)
To the degree that Jennifer Jason Leigh is pigeonholed, it’s as the dark, damaged character whose rolling displeasure probably helps drive the plot. It’s certainly served her well over the years. Even though she may be one of the most appallingly overlooked actresses by the most significant awards-giving bodies (her name was bandied about a potential contender for around a half-dozen performances, but she’s never received an Oscar nomination), she has a weighty body of work that, taken together, could fuel an especially depressing weekend movie marathon. The overwhelming dourness of her filmography is especially notable given that her first significant movie roles were in early eighties’ comedies, although, as if providing career foreshadowing, her character notably got an abortion in one of those. While many of those darkly dramatic performances are flat out sensational, they do wind up unfortunately obscuring her range.

Of course, there are always the Coen brothers around to push into unexpected corners. Given a sizable budget for the first time–thanks largely to the involvement of Joel Silver’s production company when he was still the fattest of Hollywood fatcats due to the overwhelming success of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises–Joel and Ethan Coen constructed an elaborate tribute to the screwball comedies of decades earlier, albeit dressed up in a level of stunning design that Howard Hawks couldn’t have conjured up in his booziest imaginings. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Tim Robbins plays a small town schmoe who’s placed in charge of a major corporation as part of the devious machinations of a gruff executive played by Paul Newman. Both of those actors fit into the quirky, comic Coen brothers mold with different degrees of comfort. Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other hand, absolutely owns it.

Leigh plays Amy Archer, the bold, bright, brash lead lady reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Shooting out words like a over-caffeinated blackjack dealer dishing cards, Leigh is in the rapid-fire territory of the legendary Rosalind Russell or Kate Hepburn when she was occupied with chasing down leopards and stammering suitors. She faces every challenge with a withering putdown sharper than a spinning saw blade, and is quick to remind anyone who dares tangle with her that her talent and smarts have been certified by no less than the stuffed shirts who hand out the Pulitzer Prize. It takes a marathoner’s endurance to get through the dense scenes that the Coens hand over to her, and Leigh delivers in spades. She’s terrifically funny and effectively gives a sense of a person whose motoring mouth and whirring brain are taking turns trying to keep up with one another.

If that were it, though, the performance could be more easily dismissed as little more than homage to the sort of whirligig wonders seen on Turner Classic Movies on the happiest showcase nights. Since the Coens are at the helm, there’s also a little trickery afoot. In order to get the scoop on the lunkhead being roundly celebrated as a great idea men by a compliant press, Amy poses as a sweet girl lost in the big city, and one who just so happens to be from his hometown to boot. In keeping with the era that the film is set in (and simultaneously paying tribute to), Leigh slips into the slip of another classic Hollywood archetype in these scenes, that of a dewy, innocent ingenue. She’s playing Amy playing a role and doing it with expert care, giving just the right little hints of the person behind the artifice. Watching her exploit the earnest joyfulness of Robbins’ character while simultaneously disarmed by it is one of the great joys of the film. Her deft interplay with Robbins’ enthusiasm in these scenes is also hugely important for the softening of her steely, chilly heart that, by the necessities of the transplanted old genre, is sure to come. Leigh, inherently incapable of delivering falsehoods, manages to honor the bang-bang stylization of the film and the character, while also extracting real emotional value.

I’ve already name-checked a couple key actresses who were stalwarts of the genre The Hudsucker Proxy ingeniously apes, and they were certainly the ancestral performers I though of when I first saw the film. Since then, though, Leigh herself helped me realize to whom the performance is most clearly indebted when she provided the narration for a TCM bumper celebrating Barbara Stanwyck. Though she did it all during her lengthy career (and I do mean all), Stanwyck brought a special zest to her own forays into screwball comedy. Like Leigh many years later, Stanwyck operated with truthfulness as a genetic necessity. Punchlines never intruded on an inner veracity to the characters she played. What’s more, Stanwyck had a gift like no one else for playing the smartest person in the room, surveying all others with a mix of amusement and kind-hearted pity. Remarkably, this was even true when she was playing a character who was supposed to be a bit of a dim bulb. Stanwyck simply channeled her fierce intelligence into a totally appropriate mixture of street smarts and common sense.

Leigh carries a comparable strength. She commands a scene and, in turn, commands the screen. Over and over again in The Hudsucker Proxy she verbally topples everyone around her like they were ill-set bowling pins. She’s not visibly trying to win any of these battles, either; that’s just who she is. She walks in, counters every argument, leaves a major dent in the collected psyches present and strolls away with a primo stogie as a prize. Leigh plows through the atypical role with such assurance that it becomes evident that she’s one of those actors who could have actually benefited from the old Hollywood system, when studios made a big investment in a star and then threw them into absolutely everything, trying to get the best bang for their buck. She’s a great character actor who too often got stuck playing variations on the same character. The Hudsucker Proxy proves that great work can result when filmmakers have the inspiration to let her subvert expectations.

    Previously…

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Two

Twenty years ago, I thought of the Coen brothers as cheeky titans of upending genres. They started their mutual career with a crime film, a broad comedy and a gangster picture, each of them adhering to the tropes of their respective genres while also spinning them around like they’d been tossed in a turbine. Joel and Ethan Coen were obviously impeccable cinematic craftsmen, but they also laced just enough satirical meta-commentary into the work to make sure the finished efforts were held at a certain remove. Much as I love those films, they operate with a slight lack of conviction, a hint to the audience that the filmmakers might be a little above it all. That aspect of their art has almost entirely slipped away, and their new version of True Grit stands as the latest, strongest evidence of that fact. Not a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne an Oscar (though at least one scene pays direct tribute to that predecessor), but a fresh adaptation of the Charles Portis novel from a couple years earlier, Ethan and Joel Coen’s film is as sturdy and stolid as many of the classic Hollywood westerns churned out by studios when tales of weathered cowboys ruled the box office. The Coens embrace the classic narrative style with an inspiring confidence, generating the thrills in their film from beautifully constructed interplay between characters and an expert unfolding of the plot. They also create verbal pyrotechnics by adhering closely to the original dialogue penned by Portis in his book, a shrewdly mannered and buoyantly intelligence bundling of marvelous words that admittedly hews closely to the style the brothers have perfected across their fourteen previous films. The work of the performers is crucial to the effectiveness of that language, and the Coens have assembled a game cast, including Jeff Bridges, a paragon of muttered discomposure as Marshal Rooster Cogburn; Matt Damon, oozing comic vanity as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf; and the film’s largely unsung but completely vital actor, Dakin Matthews as the horse trader Colonel Stonehill. It’s his scene with actress Hailee Steinfeld, playing the headstrong teenage girl out to avenge her father, that establishes her unyielding, impenetrable authority. After watching her talk circles around Stonehill, I believed this girl could get anything she wanted and turn the most grizzled souls to her side. The Coens have said they cast Steinfeld from a pool of thousands of contenders largely because she could handle the difficult dialogue. That’s readily apparent, but she also imbues Mattie Ross with a forcefulness that’s pure and compelling. The Coens could have taken all sorts of eccentric liberties with their film and still made something entertaining. But by being as true as their heroine, they’ve made something that can stand with the revered classics of the form.