Category Archives: Coen Brothers

“Suburbicon” has elements of quality, but lacks coherence

George Clooney, as a director, has a spotty record. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a great film. “The Monuments Men” is not. Now with “Suburbicon”, Clooney finds himself with a mixed bag of some interesting elements, some dull ones and a general lack of cohesion.

“Suburbicon” tells the story of a 1950s community in upheaval. When a black family movies into the neighborhood, the dark underbelly of the town begins to reveal itself. Gardner (Matt Damon) is a father who lives next to the new family with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law, Margaret (also Julianne Moore). When a home invasion turns the family’s world upside down, Nicky discovers the secrets that his family have been hiding and that all is not well in the happy-go-lucky neighborhood.

Written by the Coen brothers and Clooney’s usual partner, Grant Heslov, the film has some promising setups and payoffs and some memorable plot twists that keep things interesting. Some sequences at the end of the film are exciting, and the acting and directing are fairly well-balanced.

Where the film struggles is its characters, tone and its theming. The characters are more stereotypes, one-dimensional goodies or baddies who don’t have a lot of remorse or second thoughts. For the Coens, one need only look at Anton Chigurh or the pair of kidnappers in Fargo to find examples of nefarious characters who are still interesting. The film is part murder mystery, part dark comedy and part social critique and these tones bump heads against each other. Some clearer direction would have gone a long way. And the theming is nothing original. There’ve been plenty of films about the “evils” of suburbia and their underlying racism. David Lynch has made an entire career out of it. If the film had something new to say about the matter, it would feel weightier, but as a whole, it just feels like it’s retreading old ground.

Nevertheless, “Suburbicon” is a somewhat enjoyable film that utilizes filmmaking (acting, cinematography, camera movement) to tell a familiar if flawed story.

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The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

8. Lost in Translation (2003)

As indie film took over the industry in the 2000s, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” asserted itself as a quiet, brilliant character examination that utilized so little but created so much. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging actor doing advertisements in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is abandoned in a Tokyo hotel as her photographer husband is out on assignment. A chance meeting brings them together in this land of personal emptiness, and they connect in a way that is so purely human over the course of the story. Revealing their inner fears, hopes, regrets and loves to each other, as the film connects these two lost souls, we feel that connection and remember the connections we ourselves have made and lost over our lives in such a poignant way.

7. Moonlight (2016)

A film about being black, poor and gay all at the same time,  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a tale of acceptance and identity. Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) grows up with a mother addicted to crack. He befriends his mother’s dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Terea (Janelle Monáe), and they become surrogate parents to him. As he learns about his homosexuality, he is picked on at school, with only one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), whose relationship with him grows over the course of the telling. The film is told over three periods of Chiron’s life, from youth to adolescent to adult to fully illustrate his journey. It is about the barriers we create to hide from the cruelty of the world and how those barriers block us from true connection. A beautiful story, “Moonlight” will become a classic in the years to come.

6. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood not only crafted a great film with “Unforgiven”, he made the defining Western movie. When a prostitute is cut up in the town of Big Whiskey, the whorehouse puts a bounty on the wrongdoer’s heads. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is called to collect the reward from a young gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). They partner up with Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and begin the trek to hunt down the two men. Big Whiskey’s sadistic sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), poses a direct threat to their efforts. The film utilizes the tropes of the Western genre, but places a moral compass in the middle of the narrative, showing how killing takes something intangible away from the killer. No film has ever been able to create as much heart from the genre as Eastwood did, and the film stands as the ultimate statement on the Western.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

“Schindler’s List” is more than just a film. It is a transcendent statement on humanity; the despair and the simultaneous hope that it brings at the worst of times. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi who owns a factory. As the exterminations of the Jews begin, he decides to save as many souls as he can, hiding them in his factory as “workers.” As the war drags on and the death camps continue, he attempts everything in his power to save his workers. Brimming with history and sorrow, director Steven Spielberg uses all of his creative talent to create not just the story of Schindler, but of the entire Holocaust. Haunting, humbling and unforgettable, it is the most revered film of all time.

4. City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” tells the story of three boys, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues). All three live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Li’l Zé and Bené become crime lords while all Buscapé can do is witness the events surrounding him through the pictures he takes. The film’s narrative weaves together themes of poverty, opportunity, violence, yearning and history as Li’l Zé’s mob gang rises and falls. A coming-of-age story, the film examines social derision and the problems of the modern world in a powerful way.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson has only made 7 feature-length films, but his vision and style are distinctive and incredible. Perhaps his greatest achievement is “There Will Be Blood”, starring a sensational Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. On his quest for oil and power, he comes face to face with competition in the form of religion, personified by a radical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The conflict between business and religion illustrates the methods both use to control the people they need, and in so doing, it relegates both as unethical and corrupt. Perhaps nothing speaks to modern times more than the themes utilized in Anderson’s film.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Few filmmakers have defined an era as much as Quentin Tarantino did during the 1990s. From his breakout hit “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), Tarantino blew the roof off with “Pulp Fiction”, as swag and as defining a film as has ever been made. Whether it is the Royale with Cheese, the gimp or walking with the shepherd, the memorability of the film is uncanny. Tarantino brought the B-list storyline into mainstream moviemaking and paved the way for indie films to become a leading force of the industry. “Pulp Fiction” is one of those films that will always be remembered, ingrained in pop culture with as much vitality as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Star Wars.”

  1. Fargo (1996)

We finish this list with, in my opinion, the best filmmakers of the past 25 years: the Coen brothers. As great as “No Country for Old Men” is, their ultimate work came 14 years beforehand: “Fargo.” It is the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a man who hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom money from his stringent father-in-law. But the star of the film is police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who is tasked with investigating the murders that transpire as Lundegaard’s plot spins wildly out of control. The Coens don’t make films that are easy to digest. They take a bit of thinking to figure out what it all means and even then, you may find yourself changing your mind upon a second, a third, a fourth viewing. They are artists in an era where more and more of the industry is inundated with banality and a dearth of ideas. When the Coens make films, it’s a cinematic event, and “Fargo” is their seminal work, a film with interesting characters, an ingenious plot, an uncommon theme, great acting and fantastic writing and directing. It is everything we love about the movies.

‘Bridge of Spies’ heartfelt if less than great

Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.

Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?

Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.

Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.

What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.

And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.

But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.

‘Hail, Caesar’ an unconventional love letter to the movies

The Coen brothers tell good stories. Whether it be “No Country for Old Men”, “Fargo”, “Burn After Reading”, “True Grit” or any of their other works, it doesn’t pound you over the head with themes or dumbs down its plot to accommodate the audience: they simply tell good stories in their own way.

In their latest feature, “Hail, Caesar”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer dealing with conflicting emotions about leaving Hollywood. During a production shoot of the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar”, his star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a mysterious organization that calls itself “the future.” Over the next 24 hours, he tries to get Whitlock back, deal with a never-ending parade of issues, and resolve his qualms about decency in his life.

The cast is a long list of Hollywood stars in and of itself, including Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. The fact that real-life Hollywood stars are caricaturing their counterparts of the 1950s adds to the flavor of the film. Each character is lost in some form or another, all trying to find their way; through religion, communism, love, politics, smoking. What unites them is their  idealistic vision of cinema, the promise of happy endings and creating movie magic.

There are so many characters and so much going on that sometimes it is hard to keep focus on what is happening, but the Coens have always been able to utilize the idiosyncrasies in their characters to make sure that even with limited screentime, they are still memorable and relatable. If the movie were a little bit longer and some of the characters were able to be fleshed out just a little bit more, it would really aid the pacing and emotional impact.

Though decidedly one of their “lesser” works because of its rambliness and overstuffed plot, “Hail, Caesar” is still a blast, a lesser work from the Coens equal to superior work from most other filmmakers.