For Reel


The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
February 22, 2016, 1:08 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
2.5 Stars
The Hudsucker ProxyThe Coen brothers’ fifth movie was among their most maligned and became a certified flop, a small setback sandwiched between two masterpieces: Barton Fink, which brought them to new levels of critical appreciation, and Fargo, still among their most successful mainstream endeavors. As time has gone by, The Hudsucker Proxy has developed a cult following in certain circles, undoubtedly due to its extraordinary visual ambition and as a messy homage to classic Hollywood. Unfortunately, time has not resolved all of the picture’s problems, starting with the insistence on filmic references from the 30s and 40s in a film set in the late 50s, which both reads as self-serving and indulges a needlessly convoluted sense of the period. Moreover, the Coen brothers are simply too ironic in their sensibilities to make a Frank Capra picture. While the final act descends into very old-fashioned sentimentality, it has to battle the film’s approach to satire, which is distinguished very much by its outlandishness and sense of mockery. Worst of all is that Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both terribly cast and give genuinely bad performances–Robbins has none of the “common man” appeal of even a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, and Leigh’s Mid-Atlantic accent is a handicap she never overcomes. Regardless, something should be said for the sheer scale and ambition. This is still the “biggest” Coen brothers film to date, and had their storytelling been refined enough to meet the stunning production design, the film would have taken on a very different legacy.

Advertisements


Raising Arizona (1987)
February 22, 2016, 1:04 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
3.5 Stars
Raising ArizonaThe juxtaposition of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona would set the tone for the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen, who surprised critics in 1987 by following a crime thriller with a madcap comedy. As time has gone by, it has become clear that the differences between the Coens’ two major modes of operation are mostly superficial–if their dramatic films tend to be more accomplished, the comedies similarly play with distorted, often incongruous levels of reality. Furthermore, their commitment to a gag is no less a sign of their unique authorship than their storytelling devices in dramatic films. In Raising Arizona, for example, they employ a baby’s perspective point-of-view shot to make more of a clown out of Nicolas Cage, and later indulge John Goodman and William Forsythe’s howling as they erupt from the primordial mud. Even if these decisions are so outlandish that they risk alienating some, the Coens are unwilling to compromise to a more palatable mode of film comedy–this is the very persistence that backfires in more controversial efforts like their remake of The Ladykillers. Even as Raising Arizona embraces a certain Looney Tunes aesthetic, however, the film is actually as politically-charged as any in their oeuvre, playing out as a broad satire of the state of economics (the capitalist Nathan Arizona opposed by the McDunnoughs, who are interested in the redistribution of wealth). The Coens would go on to make funnier and more pleasurable films, but Raising Arizona is impossible to ignore as a marker of their arrival, and Holly Hunter’s Ed is one of their most hilarious inventions.



Hail, Caesar! (2016)
February 7, 2016, 11:17 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
2.5 Stars
Hail, Caesar!With the oddly dissonant voice-over narration that begins Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers immediately lay their cards on the table by drawing attention to the film’s very movieness–that is, before one can get invested in the “realism” of the filmic world, the falsity of the whole endeavor is underlined. It’s probably the appropriate way of handling a story about classic Hollywood, a mythos typified by bombastic executives, eccentric stars, and nosy gossip columnists. A typical source of comedy in the film involves the barely visible distinction between where the filmmaking ends and reality begins. An Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) interrupts a water ballet by complaining about her “fish ass”, a drawing room comedy is desecrated by the participation of a star more accustomed to Western fare (Alden Ehrenreich). More complicated is an early scene in which a pair of extras in a biblical epic drug the star (George Clooney). While viewers of the film might initially assume that this action is occurring within the reality of the film-within-a-film, the drugging is actually authentic. However, if it seems like the Coen brothers can do anything, watch the way they handle a scene in which a man drops a briefcase so that he can catch his dog. It’s a lazy gag to begin with, but in the editing and camera placement, there is no sense of spatial continuity, which ultimately disrupts the action and destroys the joke’s timing. Just as disappointing is that Hail, Caesar! introduces a handful of ideas that it juggles about as tenuously as its protagonist, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). The issue of faith–which can be said to relate to religion, to the public’s belief in movie stars, to the belief in one’s work, and so on–seems muddled, a would-be connective tissue between filmmaking and existentialism that doesn’t quite land. There might be a great movie that takes 1950s Hollywood fears at face value (communism, homosexuals, unwed pregnancies) but this is not it.



O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
February 7, 2016, 4:16 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
3.5 Stars
O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coen brothers’ folkloric shaggy dog tale about three convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) on the run has not retained the same critical enthusiasm as their best works, but it nonetheless persists as an unshakable entertainment, a reprisal of Depression-era kitsch for a new generation. It showcases the filmmakers in their most broadly archetypal mode, involving supporting players like boisterous politicians (Charles Durning and Wayne Duvall), threatening sheriffs (Daniel von Bargen), and even resurrections of legendary figures like Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco) and Robert Johnson (Christ Tomas King). While these supposedly frivolous efforts are often pitted unfavorably against the Coens’ more ambitious fair, O Brother, Where Art Thou? deals with some of their more persistent themes, including Clooney’s scientific reason challenged by the seemingly mystical forces that set him on an increasingly unlikely path. For all of its lightly-amusing capriciousness, the film doesn’t miss the chance to have Clooney pause on the image of a cow on a barn roof, allowing a moment for the character to consider the mysteries of the unknowable. This climactic scene is met by at least half a dozen more memorable episodes–Roger Ebert brilliantly described the Klan rally sequence as Busby Berkeley meets Triumph of the Will–and, if the whole does not quite equal the sum of these parts, O Brother, Where Art Thou? succeeds as a pop-nostalgia portmanteau.



Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
April 2, 2015, 8:34 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
5 Stars
Inside Llewyn DavisUnlike Larry Gopnik of A Serious Man and many Coen brothers protagonists before him, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is very much the master of his fate. He’s overly-proud and resentful, a man with a limited number of couches to sleep on having burnt many bridges. If he’s imperious, at least he earns some of the viewer’s respect by the virtue of his talents and ingenuity. Inside Llewyn Davis considers the relationship between art and commerce on mostly superficial terms (culminating with a powerful scene at the Gate of Horn in Chicago), but it’s also interested in the toll that narcissism takes on many great artists, even if that very narcissism often goes hand-in-hand brilliance. The circular narrative of the film is the deeply sardonic joke the Coen brothers are telling this time around, but the tone is distinctly more sorrowful than many of their films. With the wintery palette, an array of somber folk standards played in full on the soundtrack, and a melancholic performance from Issac, it feels like the brothers’ most earnest and mature effort.