The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998) movie poster

director Joel Coen
viewed: 04/01/2016

Kind of interesting that the Coen brothers followed up what is potentially their most deftest and least ornate films, Fargo (1996), with one of their most rococo and labyrinthine efforts, the now legendary cult hit, The Big Lebowski.

Actually, it’s so replete with disparate elements, from German nihilists-cum-electronic musicians through Busby Berkeley-inspired bowling-themed dream sequences, the Gulf War, pornographers and pedophiles, all wrapped up in washed up stoner comic interpretations of Raymond Chandler and modern Los Angeles.

When I first saw it in 1998, I honestly didn’t get it.  It seemed like a bizarre mixture of things that simply failed to pan out.  But it wasn’t more than a year later, on a second viewing on cable that it became clear what a comic gem this film is.  So I didn’t sit unenlightened for too long.  Nowadays, it’s not just a cult film but a classic and Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski is a transcendent icon of cinema.  And line after line of the movie is quotable enough to crack up the guy next to you.

I watched it this time, the first time in more than a decade, with my 14 year old son, who is developing an interest in cinema.  He liked it a lot.  So he’s up on me for first time through assessments.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996) movie poster

director Joel Coen
viewed: 03/25/2016

The Coen brothers movie that gave the North Dakotan/Minnesotan patois to popular culture.

As iconic as it has become (the Library of Congress added Fargo to the National Film Registry in 2006, one of six films inducted in the first year of eligibility), I hadn’t seen the film since it was released in the theaters in 1996.  It’s one of those films that you don’t have to have seen it over and over to have its images and lines embedded in your brain.  They get there on the first pass.

Frances McDormand and William H. Macy are perfect.  “Funny-lookin'” Steve Buscemi is tops too.  The comedy and horror of the contrast of the brutality of crime transposed with the implacability and straight-forwardness of the people of the Upper Midwest is poignant.

Possibly the deftest film that the Coens have made.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 02/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Before the turn of the millennium, the Coen brothers filmography was pretty much pure gold.  The 21st century, though, has been far less consistent.  I would posit that it’s garnered them two very good films, No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), several middling but interesting films, and one out-and-out stinker, The Ladykillers (2004).

As many have noted, with the Hollywood period setting, Hail, Caesar! echoes of Barton Fink (1991) and its apparent genre as a comedy, flecks of Intolerable Cruelty (2003) or Burn After Reading (2008)?

Increasingly, as I walk out of the theater from their latest picture, I am trying to sort out my reaction, which is often less than enthusiastic.  I don’t know how I feel, about Burn After Reading, about A Serious Man (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), about Hail, Caesar!

Politics and Communism, the Studio System, Church and Religion, genres, genres, genres.

All the actors are good, playing glib cartoons on the whole.  There are a few great scenes, particularly  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich — a stand-out) battling director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), “Would that it were so simple?” and Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” dance number.

But I don’t know.  It hasn’t jelled yet for me.  Time will tell if it will.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) movie poster

directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 06/14/2015

As my kids are getting older (currently 11 and 13), I’ve been introducing them to a broader variety of films.  I’ve been delving into my cinematic mind, pressing for things that I think will appeal to them.  And interestingly, there is a lot from the past fifteen years or so that interests them, which hasn’t been the top of my list of things to share.  Maybe it’s all too recent, or I still have it pretty well in mind.  I’m more prone to the things more traditionally considered “classics”.  Whatever the case, it’s given me a different perspective on the movies of the more recent past.

I always liked the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?.  I was an avowed Coen Brothers fan by the time it came out and it seemed like one of their most enjoyable.  Starring a George Clooney still out to prove himself as real leading man material despite his inherent leading man looks, this film was from his ripest period, I think, probably one of the films that convinced me to like Clooney.

Of course, the other big star of the film is the soundtrack.  Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack was a phenomenon in 2000 and afterwards, leading to a huge growth in interest in the “old timey” music of the film, roots country and blues and gospel and all the many things that comprise the soundtrack.  In fact, I probably listened to the music many times over more than ever seeing the movie.  The movie, did I even see it more than once?

The movie is a hoot.  In materials shot at the time of production, the Coens referred to it as a Ma and Pa Kettle meets the Three Stooges epic.  And it’s hard to do it better simplification than that.  It also has it’s weird Odyssey parallels (though with the Coen brothers it’s always hard to know exactly where the truth starts and stops in reference to such things).  And the name of the film, borrowed from and inspired by Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) (which would actually make a great double feature with this film.)

Really, what makes this movie work and shine is the total amalgamation of all of its elements.  Tim Blake Nelson is so good as Delmar, John Turturro as Pete Hogwallop.

The one critique I had this time through was the digital coloring that Roger Deakins employed in the film to give it its sepia tone.  It’s said to be one of the first feature films that underwent a frame-by-frame digital re-tinting.  I don’t know if that is the case or not, but it’s become a more and more common stylistic trick.  And I don’t know if I’m correct in casting such a supposition, but I want to say that this sameness of tone has an artificiality that is somewhat nagging.  Would I have had the same complaint if the effects were done through non-digital modes?  Would it have been nearly as overwhelming or consistent?  Is this a fair complaint?

Overall, I think this movie is a classic of its own time.  It’s a great movie.  The kids both enjoyed it.  So at least I was right on that point.

Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink (1991) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 03/29/2015

You know when I learned who the Coen Brothers were?  It was 1991, when Barton Fink came out.  I had just moved to San Francisco and was an undergrad student at SFSU and I was reading the SF Weekly or Bay Guardian, waiting for a literature class to start, thumbing through the free weeklies and reading about what was new and what was hip and the article caught my eye.

I’d seen Raising Arizona (1987) and Blood Simple (1984) but I don’t think I really knew who Joel and Ethan Coen were, would have remembered their names, whatever.  But reading about Barton Fink and recognizing those other movie connections, I was interested to go see the movie and did, I think at the Kabuki, and confirmed them for myself as major filmmakers.

Oddly enough, though, I don’t know if I’d ever seen Barton Fink again since.  I’ve watched many of their films over and again but not Barton Fink.

Set in 1941 and starring the nearly Eraserhead-haired John Turturo as the titular New York Jewish playwright-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter, the film dabbles in the self-reflection of the movie-making industry and the crises of creative sparks.  Or does it?  The film is also possibly another great amalgam of Coen-esque red herrings.  What is it really about?  It’s kind of hard to say.

John Goodman is terrific as the charming, insurance selling possible serial killer who shows up in the next room over from Fink’s in the rat trap hotel in which is sets up shop.  The film features a lot of bit parts for interesting character actors to pull some very funny over-the-top performances bulging with weirdness.

More than anything the film has a wonderful aesthetic and cinematography.  I remember reading about them doing 100 takes to get a shot right where a marble-like bauble rolls perfectly into frame for a close up.  Back in 1991 this seemed a real hallmark of their filmmaking.  Original scripts, amazing cinematography, high level strangeness and quirkiness.

Tuturro’s Fink is a pompous, self-loathing liberal artist who believes in social change but has no connection to “the working man” to whom he assumes such affinity.  Goodman’s affable neighbor is both the real deal, a genuine working man who “has some stories” but also a dark figure whose stories aren’t probably the ones one might have assumed.  Does the blurriness of his character offer any redemption for Fink or just show him all the more what a sham he is.  Or is he a sham?

They succinctly send up the WPA style of writing that was the American voice of the 1940’s-1960’s in its glib literacy and high-feeling.

It’s strange to not see a movie for so many years, to have such specific memories of it, still.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) movie poster

director Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 12/21/2013 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is set in early 1960’s Manhattan, amid the burgeoning folk music scene.  But it’s less a study of the period and music than it is a study of the dark nights of the soul of the self-loathing, well-loathed, loathsome main character,  Llewyn (not Llewellyn, as I often misread it), played by Oscar Isaac.

Frankly, I don’t entirely know what to make of it.  Tonally, it most reminded me of their 2009 movie, A Serious Man, which, four years later, I don’t know if I have come to know much of what I make of it either.  Both films are set in the 1960’s, and while A Serious Man is explicitly about a Jewish man in a crisis of life, it’s not as clear that Llewyn Davis is meant to be Jewish or read as Jewish or meant to perhaps just be mistaken as Jewish.  But both protagonists are in their own universal hell.  Davis’s hell seems entirely brought upon by his own unpleasant being.

The folk music setting has often been compared to the “old timey music” of their 2000 film,  O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also featured a soundtrack produced by T. Bone Burnett.  The O Brother soundtrack went on to make a ton of money, quite the surprise in the music industry, but was a certain watershed for all involved.  I’m tempted to contrast those two films, but it’s been years since I’ve seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I don’t know that the point is all that germane. 

What I can say about the film is that the music is good (not as much my cup of tea really, but I still enjoyed it).  The film has some good performances, namely that of John Goodman as some crippled jazz musician with whom Davis catches a ride to Chicago.  Justin Timberlake shows up as a successful folk musician and continues to prove out a point that I was very hard pressed to realize some years back, but quite simply: that man is talented!  Seriously talented!

More than anything, though, the film is a slog.  It’s a comedy to an extent, with a few laughs, but it’s mostly a real downer of a trip.  It’s not much fun.  And then there is this weird semi-twist at the end that seems to suggest either that most of the film has been a flashback or a premonition.  I really don’t know what to make of that.

When I first saw The Big Lebowski (1998), I thought it was a muddle and a mess and didn’t really like it.  Of course, I saw it on television shortly after and quickly came to see it as the great cult film that it’s become.  I say this because it’s a precedent for watching a Coen brothers’ film in the theater and not liking it, though eventually coming around.  Like my comment about O Brother, Where Art Thou? I really don’t think that is an apt comparison.  At a certain point, all the Coen brothers films were great.  We’ve past that point now.  We’re at a point when considering their work, it’s a mixture of films, approaches, styles.

That said, I never think that they would craft an original film without some depth of intent.  Right now, I leave the analysis for time to tell.

Overall, though, I certainly didn’t love it.

True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 11/30/2013

Movie night with the kids has been a staple for many years for us and we’ve watched all kinds of movies.  More recently, I’ve been interested in opening up the Western as a genre with Felix and Clara.  We watched Stagecoach (1939) earlier this year, which of course is a great film and then only last week we watched She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).  But I think for a while I thought that they might enjoy the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, which I’d seen when it came out in 2010, not so much because it’s a contemporary Western but because of the center on the 14 year old character of Mattie Ross, avenging her father’s murder.

It’s funny.  At this point, the kids ask me what we’re watching, rarely asking for me to pick something in particular, though I do open up to them questions of what they feel like watching.  In this case, they asked me and I told them that it was the movie about the girl whose father was murdered by a farm hand and how she hires a US Marshall to hunt him down in Indian territory.  And that was that.

Interestingly, this is the first film in several weeks that Felix made it all the way through.  They both liked it quite well.

What I found interesting on this viewing was the tone of the film in comparison to the John Ford Westerns that we had been watching.  There is a laconic quality to this film, instilled in the pacing and the music, the longer shots of the countryside and town.  It’s far more meditative overall.  Perhaps that is part of the framing of the story as it’s narrated in retrospect by an older Mattie Ross.

Clara noted that she didn’t like narration, not just in this film but in general.  And Felix said that he didn’t care for the film’s denouement, the ending sequence where the older Mattie appears, attempting to see Rooster Cogburn once more after years and years.  I would say that is definitely how the book is written, and that the film certainly winds up taking this laid back tonality through this.  I don’t know.  I didn’t have a problem with it but I think I understand what the kids meant.

They were also rather shocked by the flash of gruesome violence, when the man gets his fingers cut off and stabbed and shot.   Also when Matt Damon’s tongue gets bitten and Jeff Bridges jokingly offers to pull it out for him.  You never saw the like in a John Ford film.

I say it still.  Great movie.

Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona (1987) movie poster

(1987) directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 01/01/11

I’d been sort of toying with the notion of watching Raising Arizona with the kids for a year or so.  It’s PG-13, but I couldn’t recall anything overtly offensive about it.  Not that it’s a kids movie or anything, but it’s so visual, so funny, and it’s got a cute baby in it.  Still, it wasn’t until New Years Day 2011, getting rained out on a trip downtown, stranding us at my house with nothing really to do, that the opportunity really offered itself to us.

I’d picked up a copy of the film when a local video store was going out of business.  Since I’d first seen it in 1987, on its initial release, it was pretty much a favorite.  Really, it’s part of the core essence of getting into the Coen brothers’ films was all about.   But in ’87, I think that the main reason I went to see it was for Nicolas Cage, who was still at that point an unironic favorite of mine.  And frankly, Raising Arizona is definitely one of his best movies.

I had actually sort of considered taking Felix at least to True Grit (2010), also PG-13.  But when it came down to it, introducing the kids to the Coen brothers is, though possibly premature, nothing to be ashamed of.

Raising Arizona is actually one of those weird films that started out as a cult film (it wasn’t all that well known in 1987) but probably between home video and cable television, is one of those pretty universally appreciated films.  Am I right about this?  Or am I projecting?

From the terrific yodelling and banjo soundtrack, to the amazingly cartoonish cinematography by Barry Sonenfeld, to the trailer-park, well-spoken vernacular in which all the characters speak, the Coens tapped into perhaps their most successfully hilarious film.  Cage and Holly Hunter, who meet in the opening voice-over narrated introduction, he H.I. McDunnough, small-time criminal (who robs liquor stores with ammunition-free guns) and Hunter as Ed, the correctional officer who photographed him, are the young couple who would do right if only a child would come to them.  When Ed turns out to be “barren”, they concoct a plan to steal one of a set of quintuplets born to a local furniture maven and his wife, figuring that “they have more than they can handle”.

Throw in John Goodman and William Forsythe as Gale and Evelle Snoats, former cell-mates of Cage’s, who “release themselves on their own recognazaence, the whole thing is a mixture of madcap, comic, and sublime.

Really, my only complaint ever about the film was the figure of the biker of the apocalypse, which while somewhat fitting, giving the film its real villain, always felt a lot more forced and concocted than the rest of the characters in the film.  It’s just that most of the film is so pitch-perfect, so verbally and physically funny, that this one (while not sour note) is the only thing that just never felt quite right.  I guess that I’ve gotten over that more over the years.  It didn’t stick out as much as it used to to me.

Actually, the kids really enjoyed it.  As far as the appropriate-ness level, well, outside of a baker’s dozen curse-words that seem to show up a lot less in the last two decades of movies that might be attended by children, it really doesn’t have anything too untoward.   Though there is the wife-swapping gag too.  Luckily I didn’t get posed the questions around that, though I’m sure that it didn’t make a lot of sense to them.

Frankly, I think I’d have to rank Raising Arizona as one of my favorite films.  Perhaps that situates me in with the mainstream, perhaps not.  Perhaps I don’t care.

True Grit

True Grit (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 12/23/10 at the California Theater, Berkeley, CA

First of all: Great Movie.

I’ve been looking forward to this film since I first read that the Coen brothers were adapting Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  Several years back, a friend of mine recommended the book, which she took to in her youth, identifying with the story’s lead, 14 year old Mattie Ross, who narrates the novel and whose “voice” defines the book.  She resented the 1969 film adaptation, for its take on the material, though she loved Glenn Campbell.  I never did see the original adaptation, the John Wayne film, for which he earned his one and only Oscar.  But the book.  The book is excellent.

With the Coen brothers at the helm, Jeff Bridges in the Rooster Cogburn role, I was pretty excited about it.  And, it lives up to expectations.  It’s a deft and adept adaptation, carrying Portis’ clever and characteristic dialogue from the novel and into the script.  It’s a great yarn, with great characters, and the cast is excellent.  Matt Damon, who plays the Texas Ranger LaBeouf, was never more likable.

Like many a Western, the story is relatively simple.  After her father his murdered in cold blood by a hired hand, Mattie Ross seeks to find justice.  The Arkansas town doesn’t have the police force to track down the villain, so she looks to hire a U.S. Marshal to bring the killer to justice.  She seeks Cogburn because she deems him to have “true grit”.  He does indeed, but is also besotted often and quite irascible.  LaBeouf is also after the same man for a murder of a judge in Texas some time before.

The Coen brothers, I’ve seen all of their films.  Like many people, I’ll anticipate any film of theirs, even though they have moved away from the pure aesthetics and weird storytelling of their earlier work.   True Grit is a very straight-forward film, including a musical score that is somewhat traditional as well (and perhaps one of the film’s few weaknesses in my opinion).  But it’s a great film, with great performances, great characters.  It’s really quite a hoot.

One of the best films of the year, for sure.

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 11/03/09 at CineArts@Empire, SF, CA

The Coen brothers, as to which they are most often referred, have long been filmmakers whose films I have sought out.  I think, of all of their films, I have managed to see all but Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Blood Simple (1984) in the cinema, and those, I believe, I just wasn’t aware of for whatever reasons.  At their best, they’ve made some of the most interesting, funny, visually clever, funky American movies in the past 30 years.  And until fairly recently, at their worst, the films were still interesting, if convoluted and unusual.

Then they made The Ladykillers (2004), and though it could be argued that even before with Intolerable Cruelty (2003), they’d started making movies that were less unique to themselves.

A Serious Man is quite different in many ways to any of their other films, though it bears some location and cultural resonance with Fargo (1996) in that it is set in their childhood state of Minnesota.  Actually, there is reason to find more parallels in their lives in general in this film, focused on a father of a Jewish-American family in the late 1960’s  who is a professor of physics at a university, which is similar to their father’s profession and their childhood time approximately.

The film is very focused on Judaism, or at least a person of the Jewish faith, who is turning to his faith for help in a time of multiple crises.  His wife wants to leave him, his son is smoking dope, he is being threatened by a disgruntled student and a record mailing house, and he has a brother living with him who has a multitude of issues in and of himself.  I’ve read that his situations are most explicitly comparable to the biblical Job, of whom I know only the most pedestrian of information on (I’m no biblical scholar).  And from some reading, this seems apt.

Larry Gopnik, the father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), is tested time and again, and yet maintains his faith, though questioning why he is being so tested.  He has the patience of Job, so to speak.  He seeks help from three rabbis, from whom he gets mixed advice.  And actually, the second rabbi, who tells him a strange, seemingly metaphorical story about a Jewish dentist who finds a message in the mouth of a gentile (a “goy”, as the movie puts it).  But the story, which seems significant, also provides no guidance or answers.  And in some ways, maybe that is the message of the film itself.   What does all this story mean?  Is it in essence meaningless?

The film is steeped in period clothing, decor, style, and very much the Jewish life of the family.  The world of the film is interestingly packed with Hebrew writing and prayer, books and records that would have seemed particularly outre to the average gentile, I would guess, but are the norm in this film’s world.  The “goys” are the outsiders, the gun-toting neighbor or the Korean businessman and his son.  The world is almost entirely Jewish, though that must have been anomalous in Minnesota in the late 1960’s.  But when the son gets stoned for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish faces, the language, the rabbis, the Torah, the whole thing is like some trippy nightmare, winding up in the ornate and archaic office of the eldest of the rabbis, who is strangely in touch with Jefferson Starship.

The film ends with ominous imagery, a coming storm, while the storm has already been wreaking havoc in the life of Larry Gopnik.  It’s unsettling, as much of the movie is, somewhat almost misanthropic, while staying true to the noble humanity and patience that Gopnik shows throughout the film.

Is this a personal film for the Coen brothers?  Or is that a red herring as they are so wont to throw into their storytelling?  And the opening sequence, a period tale of a Jewish husband and wife, whose meaning is also left dangling for interpretation…how does that all tie in?

Though left with a multitude of possible questions, I also feel that the test of Job, of Gopnik, is a test of the audience as well.  Much like the story of the dentist, which seems so packed with meaning and significance, perhaps the message is not to question, to accept and to open one’s mind to other perspectives, as the youngest rabbi recommends.  Or is there just doom?  Gopnik suffers a mid-life crisis in which his life has the crises and he just must suffer.  And what does it mean to be a “serious man”?

Darned if I know.  And darned if I know how to place the movie either ultimately.  Like many things, this will probably have to settle in and absorb before I have more of a sense.  And then again, maybe the answers just aren’t there.