Thursday, December 31, 2009

December. It's a Wrap

In case you're just joining us for 2010 or spent December at the North Pole without internet service. And if you are just joining us... what's your problem? You're supposed to be here daily. Hourly even. All year round. Quit slacking.

"Sandra Sandra Sandra. Sandra Sandra Sandra"
Sandra, Ciao!

Nine Thoughts I Had... on Nine the musical. The critical drubbing it's getting is unfortunately vicious but it is rather obviously flawed
"In the Garden There is a Girl" JA made me rethink Shaun of the Dead. Good stuff
The Flourescent Globe Nominations a lively chat about the Globe announcements in the second season of TFE's podcast
The Two Sandras Bullock's golden twofer. Worth the hoopla?
2004 makes a case for best movie year of the decade

Brittany Murphy I missed her before she was gone
Natalie Portman & the "Three Block Rule" Live by it. She's a smart girl
Sell it to the Highest Bidder notes on Summer Hours
Julia & Rupert Matt revisits 90s romantic comedy classic My Best Friend's Wedding
"Play it Again, Clint" Best Pictures From the Outside In confronts Unforgiven and the immortal Casablanca

New Reader?
Got a couple hours? Read the best of January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October and November.

Coming in January...

2009 Top Ten and the 10th annual FB Awards. Plus: a trip back to Silence of the Lambs, more Avatar, more Oscar hoopla... and maybe even a trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

Online Film Critics Society Snubs Avatar For Best Pic!

So much for stereotyping all online critics as fanboys. Good set of nominees this year, veering from the usual suspects in a couple of key ways that are rather interesting.

Like Avatar for Director, but not Picture. No acting nominations that seem like completely lazy voting -- i.e. no one is getting nominated strictly because they were cast in a musical or a Clint Eastwood picture. Though I guess one could argue that three acting nods for Inglourious Basterds might be the online equivalent of those default kind of choices.

But most of all it's nice to see some critics group finally wising up about Tilda Swinton in Julia. I'm so proud of the OFCS today that I'm wishing I was a member but I have sadly never applied.

Year in Review Pt 3: That's So Gay!

<--- "Looking good Barbie!"

Over at Towleroad I flame on to recount the highs and lows of gay(ish) cinema this year. Gay loosely defined of course. It's a speed read from last year's Milk Oscars through Valentino The Last Emperor and Brüno to this year's A Single Man buzz, with pit stops along the way to ogle the Hughs (Dancy and Jackman). Enjoy!

P.S. I forgot to mention Nine but that's more about actressexuality anyhow. And Guido Contini is definitely an actressexual.

Directors of the Decade: You Decide

Robert here. Moving forward, my Directors of the Decade series is going to get a little bit of a makeover. I'll still be featuring the best, most original, most significant directors working, but not limited to 2000-2009. I'll look back at their influences (and yes even movies made prior to the decade) but mostly I'll look forward toward the impact these great directors will continue to have on modern cinema.

Since we're putting Directors of the Decade to bed, I thought I'd ask you to share your top directors of this past decade (and the masterpieces they've made). Who do you love?  Who has made a difference to you?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year in Review Part 2: Burn the Negatives!

The title of this post is indefensible, exclamatory (!) and puerile. But these movies piss me off and if they can be super obnoxious, so can I. Now, in truth, I probably never see the absolute "worst" of the movies that play in theaters since I can pick and choose my own film menu. My New Year's Resolution is to be more constructive when I criticize (I'm not giving up criticism. That's mother's milk). I'd also like to be more positive in 2010.

Thus, I retract the titular command: No negatives of the following movies and performances should be incinerated ... instead let them live on as cautionary tales to actors and filmmakers. People are watching. Try harder.

Worst Supporting Actor
I've already expressed my concerned about the "too much!" of Stanley Tucci's continually nominated performance in The Lovely Bones. I don't know what the hell Richard Gere was doing in Amelia, do you? And I don't want Alan Arkin to do what he was doing in Sunshine Cleaning one more time. You won an Oscar for that performance already. Move on! Other than his suddenly legal elfin beauty, I can't see what Colin Firth could have possibly seen in Nicholas Hoult in A Single Man. In the end though it was clear that this would have to be a group "honor". I considered giving it to Everyone in G.I. Joe, none of whom seem to nail the cartoonishly one-note style that the movie desperately needs (not that they're playing whole octaves either, mind). I wasn't entirely crazy about what Stephen Lang was doing in Avatar but it's exactly what everyone in G.I. Joe needed to be doing. But in the end I have no choice but to hand this to the Muggy McMuggerson twins Jae Head and Ray McKinnon in The Blind Side. I partially blame them for Sandra Bullock's sudden Oscar contention. Standing next to them (and the unfortunately blank Quinton Aaron as "Michael Oher") she looks like some kind of genius dramatist. I guess that's a new way to be a "supporting" actor.

Worst Supporting Actress
Rachel McAdams seems completely lost in Sherlock Holmes, doesn't she? I love Jenny Beavan's costumes in the movie but Rachel seems lost inside of them. I got nothing from that performance. Nothing! I can barely remember her in the movie and I saw it one week ago. It breaks my hard to express my dismay about Betty White in The Proposal ("too much!") because she's practically our collective grandmother and she's absolutely my favorite Golden Girl. But this dishonor goes no contest to Rose Byrne an actress I have never warmed too. That said, she's not usually flat out awful the way she is in her shrill performance in Knowing. [spoiler] I wasn't so sad when the world ended because at least that meant I was rid of Rose Byrne and Nicolas Cage.

Worst Actor
I dedicate this award to Nicolas Cage but I'm not actually giving him the prize for Knowing (in which he is typically terrible) because, he's won too many of these already. Plus I hear he's lunatic inspired in Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt since Werner Herzog is directing him. Herzog is, as you know, quite good with certifiable movie stars (See also: Klaus Kinski). Larry David made me bonkers in Whatever Works because he doesn't modify his schtick at all to suit a different writer's voice and he's even less believeable as a romantic lead to young beautiful women than Woody Allen ever was. I wish Hugh Jackman had remembered to have fun as Wolverine in that X-Men Origins dirge. He was better the other three times he played the role. But the loser here is Channing Tatum as "Duke" in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra because I think he thinks that the movie was a drama. Oops. He is stupid hot. And I mean both adjectives emphatically.

Worst Actress
I seem to be in the distinct minority that would rather watch almost anything other than Kristen Stewart's mopey twitching ... even in Adventureland but I've already talked about that. It's too obvious to tell you that I thought Hilary Swank was embarrassing in Amelia but, so what, I did. She was stiff, stilted and sexless in a movie that needed an actress with spontaneity and fire. But this one is no contest: Hayden Panetierre plays the title role in I Love You Beth Cooper. Beth is a standard spoiled beauty who discovers that a less attractive 'loser' has real soul (funny how that's always happening in movies. I wonder who the movies are made for?) Panetierre can't even manage this stock character that thousands of actresses have explained how to play for the past century of film.

Hell's Multiplex
The Worst Pictures of the Year

10 Fighting
I still giggle when I think of Joe Reid's brilliant take on this Channing Tatum is a streetfighter drama. Is it really a comedy about retarded men having hardcore gay sex? If that's what the filmmakers intended maybe it's a masterpiece and it belongs on next week's Top Ten list?

Hugh gives Channing the beat down

09 X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Greedily hordes all the well known pitfalls of inferior superhero movies like they're actually merit badges: operatically self important, humorless, needlessly complicated backstories, the introduction of so many characters that none resonate, battles for battles sake, invulnerable characters that rob fight scenes of any actual drama... Note to filmmakers: if people cannot be killed or even injured it is SUPER boring to watch them fight. Unless the set pieces are insanely creative or well choreographed and these aren't. I will always love the X-Men. I grew up reading them. But the past two pictures have unfortunately cured me of all desire to see them on the silver screen.

08 The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson's nadir. Garishly colorful when it needs the beauty of a simpler palette, entirely negligent about tracking the true heart of its drama (a family torn asunder), weirdly repetitive about its most obvious plot points, lazy with emotional shortcuts and telegraphed character details. In short, a disaster. Most hated moment: [Spoiler] Did we really have to equate Susie Salmon's cathartic posthumous first kiss (which she's happy about by the way) with the extended coundtown scene of her mutilated dead body being rolled towards a garbage dump? It's the worst and ickiest cross cutting I've seen in a movie since Eric Bana's orgasm in Munich but at least the latter made a solid narrative point.

04 Push (Not Based on the Novel by Sapphire)
I don't often watch movies and think 'this would be way better as a TV series' but...yeah. Push spends a lot of time (a lot) setting up the mythology of an evil corporation that experiments and tries to control people with psychic powers. The prologue itself felt like it should have been extended by a half hour and function as a "pilot". But even accepting that they decided to make this convoluted premise into a stand alone movie, it's a huge inept mess. It rarely goes for laughs but I couldn't help laughing at one recurring gaffe. Every single time someone used one of their powers in a crowded room the extras mysteriously disappeared. I suspect they couldn't afford the extras for more complex special effects shots but you can't really show them in a scene and then make a quick edit to the same set with special effects occuring and remove the extras and not have the audience noticing the mass vanishing, you know? Worse yet this occurs in the climactic battle. A "pusher" is controlling a small group of armed men. It's actually a cool effect as she turns them like synchronized soldiers to attack any opponent. Then the emotional climax occurs. They're surrounding her like bodyguards in the medium shot, there's some close up drama and suddenly they're not in the scene any more. What... the... hell?

The third stupidest thing I saw in a movie this year: The recurring visual of a "bleeder", whose power is screaming really loud until people die from internal bleeding, removing his sunglasses so that he can scream (f/x magic makes his eyes crazy). Apparently you can't scream while you're wearing glasses. Who knew?

03 G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra
The stupidest thing I saw in any movie this year: constant fiery explosions UNDER WATER.
The second stupidest thing I saw this year (regarding movies):
abundant people trying to make thumbs up excuses for this movie. Thank god that James Cameron finally came back to the cinema to remind people that action films can be thrilling and fun ... especially when you can actually follow what's happening and there's some beauty and style to the big booms.

02 The Ugly Truth
Over the past few weeks I've been trying to catch up with films I'd missed during the year. I've rediscovered something I knew already: it can be easier to watch mediocre or outright bad movies than quality films. I suspect this is why the box office charts are so often littered with disposable junk. Bad and/or unambitious movies require almost nothing from their audience. But if you're not in the right frame of mind, a quality movie's best attributes may slip right by you. I suspect this is why more complicated movies often get the dread "boring" tag from the general public. Junk is easy to engage with on superficial levels if you're feeling tired, stressed, distracted or not completely on top of your game... and who doesn't feel those things regularly? But when a movie is reallllllllly bad and offensive, none of this applies. It can prove very difficult to watch. I actually briefly hated the cinema (my great love!) when the credits rolled on this one.

Who knew that Tom Cruise's 'sperm receptacle' nastiness in Magnolia could actually be played straight for romantic comedy. And that audiences were expected to sign on and swoon? I'd name this the worst movie of the year but for the saving grace/problem of Katherine Heigl. She is actually a natural at romantic comedy but she's totally using her powers for evil. She called Knocked Up out on its sexism and then made this...?

01 I Love You I Hate You Beth Cooper.
I've already said my piece on Hayden earlier. But I would like to add that after the Home Alone franchise's elaborate pain-making slapstick and this movie's insanely violent "funny" moments (people wouldn't live through these things in real life) I do worry about writer/director Chris Columbus's sadistic streak. Maybe he should make a horror movie instead of all these sentimental pictures. He definitely likes to inflict pain.


Whew. Got that out of my system. I'm nice from here on out as I pass out the FB Awards starting next week.

But before we get to the top ten movies of 2009 which movies made you crazy hateful this past year... which prompted your own berzerker rage? And if you love any of the movies I just barked at ... what's wrong with you? (Joking! Don't freak out) If you love any of these movies... teach us how to love them more.

Channing "Russell" Tatum

This just in: Channing Tatum to star in a remake of Gladiator. "That movie is so old" a studio executive whined, "Time for a reboot!" The star suggested bringing sexy (shaved head) back but producers felt his skull wasn't shaped enough like Russell Crowe's so a pseudo caesar haircut would have to do!

Actually it's a still from Tatum's 2010 release The Eagle of the Ninth. I have no idea what it's about (I have no time to read... especially when there are pretty pictures to look at!) but like Ridley Scott's Robin Hood trailer it wants to remind you of Gladiator in a big big way. Are you not entertained ........ by the bald great-by-association ploy? More pictures including a strapping Jamie Bell here.

Up in the Link

T Magazine Bryce Dallas Howards' new roles. Hasn't Hollywood realized she's a bad luck charm by now?
Pajiba Would you watch James McAvoy create "James Bond" in a Fleming biopic?
Back Stage Blog Stage Wicked is still breaking Broadway records. Can they get the movie version made already? Strike while the iron is warm. And cast people who can sing please!
Sunset Gun Kim Morgan's top ten for 2009
Observations on Film Art the ten best pictures of 2009 1919 Ken Levine loves Up in the Air. This quote should probably be used on Vera Farmiga's FYC ads. Talk about flattering
the real revelation is Vera Farmiga. Picture a taller, sexier, younger, straighter Ann Heche with the smarts and sassiness of Bogey’s Bacall. I love this woman! I want to write a movie just so she can be in it.

Movies Kick Ass completes the series '10 Movies That Defined My Decade'. If I made a list with the same name, we'd share #1
my internet... "essential blog post of the day" Hollywood parties sure do make for unexpected photo ops

And because I always think that letting the movies bleed into your every day life is a great idea, here's an Avatar-obsessed makeup tutorial.... "rawwwwrrr" [hat tip]

Curio: Filmstrip Scarf

Alexa here from Pop Elegantiarum with a little winter warm-up. Normally the idea of a piece of film fashioned into clothing sounds about as cool as a piano key necktie. But I'm digging this filmstrip scarf by Azure Knits, and not just because the holes are real. It's pretty understated, no? It might be a bit too literal to wear it to Sundance, but it works for a winter weekend. Azure sells her wares here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year in Review Pt 1: Baffling Comedy and Over Cooked Drama

Part 1 of ??? (Possibly Many)
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.
~"Rashi" according to A Serious Man.
I rarely make time to rewatch movies (so many new and old films to see for the first time) which is a shame since a second look can be valuable. Some critics and civilians are loathe to admit that their minds are changeable or that their opinions aren't the be all/end all, but why? There's always new points of view to consider and life experiences that should shift your paradigms.


Before I get to the movies I feel strongly about (i.e. worst and best), I thought I'd share the three which I'm not sure I "got": The Coen Bros A Serious Man, Lars von Trier's Antichrist (my gut reaction) and Jody Hill's Observe and Report.

All three verge on the deeply misanthropic which can be something of a turn-off even if you're otherwise amused by the nifty formal control, shock aesthetics, or pitch black comedy. I'd love to hear opinions from readers on where these movies succeed or fail because honestly, I didn't know what to make of them. Or, rather, I am unsure if what I made of them will last. I currently think the first two in particular are wildly over acclaimed but I'm open to being talked out of that. At the very least all three feel like exactly the picture the filmmaker(s) set out to make. There's something to be said for movies that don't feel at all about confused about themselves... even when they prompt confusion in the viewer.

Hyperbole Gone Wild
Since this happens to be one of my intermittent "consensus" years, I actually like most of the films and performances that have been racking up the Oscar-buzz. That makes kicking the movies while they're up more difficult. Maximum flexibility required. So approach the following list of 'ridiculously overpraised' with the understanding that none of them are bad. So, let's also note the silver linings.

Over Appreciated Movies
[This section of the year-end review is dedicated to you-know-who. I've had to declare him ineligible for this annual tradition lest his movies clog up the list each and every year, including this one]

04 Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Yeah, yeah, I enjoyed it okay. But why isn't everyone sick of this franchise yet? Two more to go still? I'm not sure if I have the stamina. Silver Lining: Jim Broadbentwas a welcome cast addition.

03 The Cove
See previous post. I haven't seen much of its competition but it's tough to imagine that there isn't a better documentary getting shafted with its trophy haul (10+ prizes already). From the limited docs I've seen this year I much preferred Prodigal Sons (genius) Anvil! The Story of Anvil! (multi-layered) and Valentino the Last Emperor (entertaining!) for starters. Silver Lining: Dolphins are awesome.

02 The Hangover
I avoided this film for a long time. Frat boy comedy has never been my thing and I'd heard about the "Dr. Faggot" jokes and the inappropriate justifications of the same ('that's the way people talk!' for a film that otherwise doesn't worry a lick about representing reality). Watching it proved to be quite a rollercoaster. For the first 15 minutes I was bored solid and annoyed by the sexism/homophobia, generic setup and pedestrian filmmaking. Then, suddenly, the movie became consistently hilarious for a full half hour (which is more than most comedies can claim) as the inexplicable absurdities piled up: the chicken, the tiger in the bathroom, the missing tooth, the police car. The absurdly ballooning 'what the hell happened' scenario provided lots of funny which then slowly deflated, punctured by increasingly less funny 'here's what happened' details. Then in the final half hour the film returned to its generic misogyny. The takeaway: Boys will be boys, warts and all. Ya gotta love 'em! [back slap!] Women on the other hand... If you have to put up with them (and you do, unfortunately) only blissfully ignorant wives and sexual bimbos are acceptable options. Silver Lining: And yet... lots of laughs.

01 A Single Man
I'm sure some of you may feel that this drama about a gay man named George grieving his dead lover belongs in the grouping above. 'You'll change your mind about it! It's great!!!' But I can't shake the film school feeling that Tom Ford's debut gave me. Some people see enormously moving beauty. I see enormously self-conscious imitative beauty. Not that that can't blossom into something better. I look forward to Ford's next film. I just wish people hadn't been as quick to shower him with praise. George practically drowned in all of it in the dream sequence! What will there be left to say if Ford makes a truly great film next? Silver Lining: the original European trailer is so flawless and hypnotic that if we were grading trailers rather than the movies they're advertising this one would be an "A". The same grade applies to Colin Firth's heartbreaking performance, especially in the first half.

Inexplicably Praised Performances

It would be a gross exaggeration to say "worst" when it comes to these two performances but both are misjudged. That they should be in contention for acting prizes over more complex, careful and rewarding work would be maddening but for the Career Reward aspects of year-end hoopla. Both of these actors can claim fine "nomination worthy" turns in the past. And by "past" I do not mean earlier in December when these performances emerged.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as "Jean Craddock" in Crazy Heart
One of my friends recently told me I had taken "bad mood pills" the day I saw Crazy Heart. If reviews could speak they would undoubtedly say the same. It's just that I felt that I'd seen the movie a hundred times before and that it meandered dully whenever it drifted away from the musical performances (quite good) and into the romance and addiction drama. Jeff Bridges is terrific as "Bad Blake" but his excellence didn't feel revelatory to me in the way that seems to be elevating the film for others. Since when is Jeff Bridges not terrific when he's front and center? How can this be a revelation to people after The Big Lebowski, Star Man, The Door in the Floor, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Insert More Movies Here? I bought Bad Blake's instant lost puppy insinuation into Jean's life but I didn't buy her ready acceptance of the same. The conflict that arises in their relationship you expect but Jean's reaction to it was puzzling. It didn't feel at all organic to the character as Maggie had been playing her up till then. What about this woman would have made her cast her lot so quickly with such an obviously "Bad" man? She doesn't play the backstory. You have to get it from the screenplay instead. Did Maggie misplace her script or did they edit out a crucial character detail scene?

I still love My Maggie G and it's not like I don't root for her to walk Oscar's red carpet quite frequently (If there's a big surprise in Oscar's Supporting Actress list maybe it'll be her?) but it's hard not to expect more from her after the electricity and depth of her star turn in Sherrybaby (among others).

Stanley Tucci as "George Harvey" in The Lovely Bones
Momentum has been building to give this fine actor/writer/director his first Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. I can totally support that (see previous Tucci enthusiasm). But if we're going to do that can't it be for Julie & Julia wherein he effortlessly supported the movie and the star (Meryl Streep) and did so with great charm and well judged simplicity. In The Lovely Bones he adds so many affectations to the killer that one wonders why the neighbors haven't come at him with pitchforks years ago. And all of it is unnecessary since Peter Jackson and his production team are already telegraphing what a terrible pervert he is through camera angles, lighting, makeup and wardrobe. George Harvey is a killer but this performance is O-V-E-R-K-I-L-L.

Ways to Be Wicked

That's only one man's opinion, mine. And yours? Which 2009 films and performances did you struggle to appreciate when everyone around you was swooning for them? And are you glad I declared a certain film ineligible so you didn't have to hear me bitch about it?

Hell's Multiplex: The Worst of the Year.

Best Pictures... "Play it Again, Clint"

Nathaniel: Once again we apologize for the long delays between episodes. This Best Picture From the Outside In series… it’s a helluva thing.


We continue to pull one movie from either end of Oscar’s chronology, working towards the center of their eighty-plus year history. This match up brings us two of Oscar’s most respected prize-winners: Casablanca (1943) and Unforgiven (1992). Both films essentially begin with a sudden eruption of violence (a shooting and a slashing, respectively) followed by the intervention of local law enforcement (embodied by Claude Rains and Gene Hackman, respectively). World War II era Morocco and Wild West era Wyoming are dangerous and morally ambiguous places. They're also fine places to escape from one's past and start anew. At least that's how Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and William Munny (Clint Eastwood) see it.

Casablanca and Unforgiven toss out key plot points and introduce multiple supporting players before they get to Bogie and Clint, their twin heavyweight champions of American masculinity. It’s almost as if the stories have to spin madly from the start to create enough centripetal force to yank these two self-contained icons away from their isolation and pull them into the action.

I appreciate Clint's deconstruction of his own mythology through William Munny in Unforgiven but in the end I think he can't get enough distance from it. He is that He is as it were. Casablanca, on the other hand, benefits enormously from the distance that its director Michael Curtiz has while he gazes at his star. Rick's reluctance to star in his own movie, Casablanca, remains wonderfully fascinating. What's more I love the incongruous artistic friction between Rick's job as host of the party (Everybody Goes to Rick's was the original title of the movie) and his actual personality as displayed throughout the movie (bitter, unknowable and more than a little self-pitying) which never seem to jibe. Casablanca remains unbeatably gripping, especially once Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has entered the film. The western is trickier to ride with as it run in circles and occassionally veers toward great scenes. I love Unforgiven's thematic gravitas but I always feel like it's a sell out in the end, backing away from its disturbingly sober guilt to engage in old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling.

But I'm jumping too far ahead. Back to the beginning... when did you know that you loved these movies? Or if you didn't love them (gasp), where did they lose you?

Mike: Unforgiven had me with its opening crawl, about a mother's dismay that her only daughter would marry "a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition," rolling over a lonely shot, mostly silhouettes, of a man burying his wife. There's that distance you mentioned, and it crops up again and again throughout the film in super-wide establishing shots and full-body long shots. It's also there in the self-consciously artificial eloquence of the crawl and of much of the dialog; later, Little Bill will ridicule the writing of Saul Rubinek's scribe (a mirror, perhaps, of piano-playing Sam in Casablanca?), but he doesn't notice that he tends to talk like he's in a penny dreadful.

Casablanca also had me from its opening, with the staccato narration about how people come to Casablanca "to wait... and wait... and wait," followed by that amazing shot of one of the usual suspects shot to death against a huge poster of Marshal Petain, and then the amusing interlude with the pickpocket advising some unsuspecting victims to beware of people exactly like him. It's that combination of dead-serious drama, somewhat overwrought melodrama, and diverting comedy that makes the film for me: it has all the elements of a typical Hollywood production, but it all comes together in a magical, perfect film.

Nick: At no point have I known that I loved Unforgiven, though I admire parts of it very much and think it's an exceedingly handsome film much of the time. And "thematic gravitas" pretty much hits the nail on its big cardinal virtue, give or take the way in which the framings and shot sequences often do look beneath the brooding 90s cinematography as though the movie were made four decades earlier, like Sam Fuller or somebody making a nasty double-biller for The Searchers. (You can certainly imagine Fuller opening a movie with this ghastly, misogynist violence, though his approach would have been even less timid.)

But I'm going to disproportionately focus on my misgivings, because the film's reputation always strikes me as excessive to its strengths. I agree with Nathaniel that Clint never manages enough distance from his own iconicity, partly because his acting feels so inadequate to the task. I rarely feel, despite the curdled force of the filmmaking in William Munny's two encounters with Gene Hackman's Bill Daggett, that this character has really transcended a past life of odious heartlessness, or that he's been pulled fully back in, or that it was all that difficult for him to get pulled back in, if that's what's happened. For sure the film's essay about corrosive violence works, but I just don't buy the arc it's supposed to have. At times, Eastwood's line readings border on the disastrous, but even when he's solid, he's often a mouthpiece for the film's assertions about William Munny while actually embodying someone too much like Clint Eastwood, and blurrily so: waffling between the aloofness of his most famous characterizations and the grotty naturalism that the script seems to require.

On that point, I've gotta add that, Hackman's Oscar notwithstanding, the unevenness of the film's other performances - a chronic problem in better and worse Eastwood pictures - limits the power of this one. And as marvelously as the film resuscitates a late 40s / mid 50s shooting and editing style, I often feel (as I do not in Million Dollar Baby) that the film sticks itself with unnecessary shots and some repetitive scenes, especially as Eastwood, Freeman, and Woolvert make their way to Big Whiskey. A lot of people lionize the "classical" filmmaking as though it's automatically tremendously succinct and disciplined, or vindicated in every respect by relations to past masters, and I just don't think it always is.

Mike: Just nudging back in: I think the film's uncertainty about whether Munny's transcended his past life of odious heartlessness is the point, and Munny shares that uncertainty; his constant "I've changed! I've changed! I'm not like that!" is a bit of a Munny doth protest too much. He's trying to convince himself and everyone around him, but I never really buy it: he's always full of fear of himself; he knows what kind of person he is, even if he doesn't want to be that person. He knows that all it will take is a little too much to drink or an encounter with someone who doesn't believe his protestations to let everything loose again. He's like a guy who joined a monastery disguised as a pig farm to hide from his addiction to chaos, and his incessant talk about dear departed Claudia is like a repetitive recitation of the rosary. I think that's why the super-Munny who emerges during the shootout at the end didn't throw me very much, because I saw that underneath the surface the whole time.

Humble Pig Farmer or No Good Killer?

Nick: Whereas I believe Eastwood's projection of what Munny "really is" only marginally more than his borderline-amateurish performance as Munny the pig farmer (which is too clumsy to me to work as a reflection of Munny's own ill-suitedness to that task). Beyond a few choice shots and moments, I don't feel the odious heartlessness, the addiction to chaos, the super-Munny, or the desperate self-convincing. I absolutely agree with you that the script works exactly as you say, but what all the moody sepia underlighting in the world and all the stark silhouettes against a tub-colored sky can't do (for me), and what Eastwood's acting wholly fails to do, is to put real conviction and emotional plausibility into the admirably ambitious, tragic pitch of these character beats. I actually buy Frankie's soul sickness and sour temper in Million Dollar Baby much more than what's going on with Munny... and speaking of protesting too much, I worry that in stacking so many chips in the square of Munny As Tragic Figure and Story As Morality Parable, the film almost totally misses the more immediate premise, swatted right in the character's name, that he's doing all this because he flat needs the cash.

Break the tie, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel: Unnhhh....I realize you're pushing your reservations to the forefront rather than focusing on what you do love about it, just for conversation's sake. But if I'm breaking a tie it doesn't come down in the movie's favor. BUT I mostly like the movie I should quickly add, for fear that it's über fans come at me with guns a blazin.

I love Mike's assertion that the monster is always still lurking and the man doth protest too much but I hadn't realized until reading your objections Nick, that what was missing for me was that kind of spine-tingling amorality/savagery that suddenly makes you uncomfortable with your pre-existing love for the iconic star you've come to see: I'm thinking of a couple of Daniel Day-Lewis moments in There Will be Blood or that beating scene in Bugsy where the otherwise charming and suave Warren Beatty suddenly seems considerably less human while shouting at a victim with blood streaming down his face. (Remember that?)

I also think the bookend scrawls spoil it. That is so hedging your bets. Especially with the sunset. It's as if Unforgiven knows that deep down it is a super impressively disturbing movie but it doesn't want to offend anyone who might need more in the way of catharsis and redemption or don't want to worry so much about how much they enjoy watching Clint Eastwood kill people. I guess I wanted more in the performance and in the movie that was tough to stomach. No pun intended but I'm thinking of the scene where the guy gets shot in his. You just have to deal with his howling and his bleeding and his terror about dying while everyone else in the scene is reduced to the uncomfortable act of seeing and hearing him expire. Great stuff.

Nick: The toughest thing for me to stomach in the movie is the scene where Eastwood, still a stranger in Big Whiskey, is so pitifully hunched under his hat in the bar, and Hackman is goading him for his firearms and fixing to show him some Daggett-style justice. There's something bracing about the scene's stress on Daggett's absolutism and about the way the shots, the edits, and Eastwood's body evoke how coiled up, angry, ambivalent, and outmatched Munny is in this moment. I wish the opening assault on Delilah resonated quite this much, or Ned's apprehension and murder, but the sloppy casting and directing of the women keeps slaking the force of the outraged-women plotline. Frankly, I worry that the film can't think or feel its way all the way these crimes; it uses them too much as plot devices that get a little overwhelmed by the thick, heavy atmosphere, and it verges on a cynical use of victimized women and a somewhat timidly coded lynching as another one of those crutches on which rests the re-emergence of Eastwood the Avenger that worries Nathaniel at the end.

I'm totally leaving it up to you to trust that I like this film much more than I'm admitting, but I find its flaws almost as galling as its almost instant canonization. I'll happily concede that the
acerbic challenges to Western mythology in the Hackman/Rubinek scenes almost works better for me than some of the foreground Will Munny stuff, and it's a much more engrossing second-tier storyline than I had remembered.

Whereas the 'second-tier' stuff in Casablanca is not only perfectly matched to the headlining relationship between Rick and Ilsa, but I can barely find a single thing in the movie that isn't enriched by its connections to everything else in the movie.

Nathaniel: Absolutely. I suffer forgetfulness when it comes to Casablanca, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise; every time I've seen the movie it's like my first screening of it. The thing that struck me most this time was, in fact, the secondary elements and how they reflect back on and complicate the main triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. Like the young couple I had completely forgotten about, the impoverished Bulgarians.

Should the Mrs. sleep with Renault (Claude Rains) to get exit visas and hide it from the Mr. forever? Posing this indelicate question to Rick, he is brusque and judgmental 'Go back to Bulgaria'.

Nick: He is incredibly peremptory, occasionally even cruel, for a protagonist we are obviously meant to admire. And it’s not as though Bogie is downplaying Rick’s unpleasant qualities, which is impressive in and of itself. But you were saying…

Nathaniel: ...that just as soon as he's bolted from all that projected sexual guilt and marital protectiveness, he's confronted with Ilsa and Rick, reentering his club. He rudely reminds Ilsa of her own hidden indiscretions with a reference to Paris and then he's bolting out of there too and back to the Bulgarians to do what amounts to a good dead. And then he's off again, (this movie is as restless as Rick himself) this time colliding with Renault, the villain in this particular scenario. But, that's so murky, because the movie is continually asking us to equate Rick with Renault (in spirit if not in temperament) each of them reigning over their own amoral fiefdoms.

Now, the situations and the characters are not at all perfect mirrors of one another (which is how clumsier movies often aim for this same effect) but we're still talking about a man of questionable motives confronted with a sexual triangle that casts a possibly harsh light on his own feelings in the other sexual triangle in which a woman has been unfaithful to a husband that she shields as much as she can.

Nick: Totally. And I especially agree that the recurrent doubling of Rick and Renault—which might be a “beautiful friendship,” but it’s also a pretty unnerving conflation from the audience’s point of view—is the linchpin to all of the other complex and often queasy analogies that the film suggests along the way among its characters, and their endless, tough predicaments. Even with the Lorre and Greenstreet characters, you can see little glimmers of them in Rick. If anything, he comes across as sharing Greenstreet’s curdled pragmatism at least as much as Laszlo’s idealism, and even Laszlo is weirdly icy. It’s hard to match the Henreid performance with the superlatives we keep hearing about him, even though this isn’t the kind of film that goes for the blunt irony of the notorious hero who’s actually just a cold fish, or an asshole. He’s something idiosyncratic, remote, believably hard to label. Which only gets back to how amazing it is that Casablanca trusts its audience not just to parse out all of this plot but to accept the gradations of character and compromise at almost every turn.

a beautiful friendship? or something more troubling...

Nathaniel: It's interesting to me that the movie is so widely considered one of our most romantic because in some ways it's very dry eyed about the impracticality and selfishness of passionate love. This despite all those wet eyed closeups.

Nick: Nathaniel, if you keep saying all this smart stuff, I’m not going to have anything to add except, “I know! I agree!” and Mike is going to keep being stultified into not saying anything. Stop being so quick and savvy!

I do actually think that the weird mismatch between Casablanca’s immortal commemoration as this fabulous love story and the actual experience of the movie, which involves so much ethical trade-off and compromise and emotions that are completely dictated or at least regulated by immediate circumstances… this is getting to be an overly long sentence, but don’t you think that’s part of why the movie is so hard to remember, from viewing to viewing? There’s too much cultural weight accrued to the movie people probably want Casablanca to be (the paean to a love that conquers all, and agrees to sacrifice itself for the Greater Good), that I find it hard, too, to remember all the complexity and ambivalence in the Rick-Ilsa relationship, and how peripheral it often is to so much else in the movie. It’s like, the movie is just as “on” when all the denizens of the café are duking it out with their different national anthems. And when Greenstreet or Lorre or Conrad Veidt or exceptional, marvelous, droll, and flawless Claude Rains is on the screen, there is no indication that the movie is treating them as anything less than a lead character, or principal antagonist. There’s just so much going on! Even Sam is more of a character, with a real and rounded point of view, than the backgrounded songsmith that we inevitably expect in a Hollywood film of this epoch.

Which leaves me wondering, is Casablanca so phenomenally great, and such a universally loved classic, because a) it’s able to balance a love story with so many other elements of other narratives and genres, or because b) people implicitly realize that however much we want stories about love’s simplicity and perfection, we actually need stories about the difficulties and quandaries of love, and its failure to rise up above everything else in our lives, much less to conquer it, or because c) given all the cynicism and political nervousness in Casablanca, it’s a major miracle that the love story does resonate so powerfully, and that Bogie and Bergman have such phenomenal chemistry that even though their only scenes of full, sublime connection are far, far away in a flashback, the movie is able to make that feeling available to us, in no more than a few minutes of a jam-packed film?

You can play it again... and again

Mike: I've been pondering this for a month. Honestly! How do I follow that exchange? By changing the subject.

I share Nathaniel's forgetfulness, as this feels like a new movie every time I see it. Which ties into my lame attempt to wrap this up: this time around I was paying attention to memories and their power over Rick, and that applies to Will Munny as well. "You must remember this" but neither wants to remember. Rick ran to Casablanca and his bar to escape his broken heart and his reputation as a freedom fighter, but the events of the film reveal that Rick's still as much of a bleeding heart as he ever was. Will Munny ran to a pig farm and the arms of an honest woman to escape his reputation as a cold-blooded killer, but (at least I argued) he can't escape the fact that his reputation is basically accurate. Just like you can't change the fact that the "Best Pictures from the Outside In" series is going to be plagued by long delays between installments, neither man can change his essential nature. It's an interesting pairing, especially coming after Schindler's List which presents its own mirror images, one guy who can't change what he is and another who manages to. Life and fate, predestination—I hope that's a big enough note to exit on.

Casablanca was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3 (Picture, Director and Screenplay) but not for the acting which we raved so much about. Unforgiven was nominated for 9 and won 4 (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman and Editing) but not for the screenplay that we raved so much about.

all 16 episodes of "Best Pictures..."
A joint creation/production from Goatdog's Movies, Nick's Flick Picks and The Film Experience


Monday, December 28, 2009

The Ballots Are Coming! The Ballots Are Coming!

Ballots for the 82nd annual Oscars went out to the nearly 6,000 AMPAS members today. So anything happening right now is GOLD. What'll be on their mind when they open up those ballots in a day or three? How many screeners did they make it through over the holiday break or will they just vote for their friends and their friend's friends again? My predictions in all categories have been updated over the past week and I hope to investigate a couple of the fuzzy technical categories in more detail very soon.

The eligibility list is also available (a lot more films played in LA to qualify than I suspected here in NYC). Awards Daily points to a great reminder about the ballot math works. Though the accounting process is interesting I find it's best not to think about it too much. It's such a wormhole to another mentally loony dimension from which one may never return. The buzz is more reliable than these dizzying mathematical equations.

Here's the next juicy things on the awards calendar...
  • Dec 31st Online Film Critics Society nominees (I expect Sam Rockwell in Moon gets his first Best Actor mention)
  • Jan 3rd, National Society of Film Critics winners
  • Jan 5th, Producers Guild nominees
  • Jan 7th, Directors Guild nominees (this used to be very exciting since it was actually more telling about the future Best Picture lineup than it was the Director lineup. But with 10 nominees coming in Best Picture some of the magic will be over. I'm guessing we get: Bigelow, Cameron, Eastwood, Reitman and Tarantino)
what'chu waiting for?

What Did You See Over Christmas?

Spent the weekend with food, friends and a stack of DVDs. At the movie theater I tried to see Avatar a second time but failed (I'm holding out for the IMAX experience but it's eternally sold out... at least for people like me who don't plan things weeks in advance). We went to Sherlock Holmes since you have to see a movie with friends and family on Christmas day. It's tradition. And judging on the box office results (biggest Christmas weekend ever) I assume that's tradition for just about everyone.

  1. Avatar $75 (for a $212 total)
    It's already earned over $600 million worldwide so it looks like they won't lose their shirts, even with that unthinkably monstrous budget. The world's most important question [cough] right now is this: Will James Cameron make us wait 12 more years for his 9th film? And will it be a sequel to this one? He does like the number 2s. If I were him I'd be figuring out a way to speed up. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. How about mixing it up with one for the fans and one for yourself? His gap between films used to be only three years. Unsolicited advice for Cameron: Have dinner with Soderbergh, Allen and Eastwood and ask for tips on how to start filming your next movie before you've finished post on your current one while also writing the next next one.
  2. Sherlock Holmes $65.3
    I had a gay old time. But something was missing... just can't quite figure out what. It wasn't the chemistry between Jude & RDJ which was very much present. The score was also top notch, the best from Hans Zimmer in quite some time, yes?

  3. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel $50.2

  4. It's Complicated $22.1
    People aren't talking about this since the top two are hogging the attention but this is Meryl Streep's third best headliner opening ever. (After Mamma Mia and The Devil Wears Prada, her two biggest hits if you don't adjust for inflation). There's just no stopping her.

    I have this theory that you can tell how well a star is loved by how little they're defaced in the subways. Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts etcetera... their faces never last long without "cosmetic adjustments" from sharpie carrying haters. Meryl Streep on the other hand often goes untouched. Respect! I was surprised to see this billboard scribbled on but the jokesters are just dissing Alec Baldwin and making reference to his various wife/daughter troubles over the years. Doesn't it seem like a million years ago when people hated Alec Baldwin for being a jerk? 30 Rock sure changed public perceptions. The charming lived charmed lives, don't you think?
  5. Up in the Air $11.7 (for a $24.5 total)
  6. The Blind Side $11.7 (for a $184.3 total)
    My god. This film lost over 600 screens and it was still up 17% in its sixth week. Sandra is totally going to take this past $200 million. Unbelievable. Why on earth is this such a sensation?
  7. The Princess and the Frog $8.6 (for a $63.3 total)

  8. Nine $5.5 (for a $5.9 total)
    This film cost $80 million to make. I fear for the musical genre. Hollywood forgives action flops and flops from big male stars all the time. But I'm not sure they'll forgive this any more than they forgive flops from female stars. They like to draw immediate unpleasant and untrue conclusions in those instances so I imagine we'll hear a round of "no one likes musicals! we're not making any more musicals!" panic. I still adamantly believe that this would have made more money opening for Thanksgiving as originally intended when the competition wasn't so insane and the buzz was still fresh. But it's also a "problem" musical in terms of the difficulty of transferring it from stage to screen.
  9. Did You Hear About the Morgans? $5 (for a $15.5 total)
  10. Invictus $4.3 (for a $23.3 total)
    More on this one tomorrow.

What did you see?

Nine (my review)? Avatar (previous posts)? Morgan Freeman giving good speech in Invictus? Meryl getting high in It's Complicated? Or Jude & Robert flirtatiously bickering in Sherlock Holmes? If you saw the thing with the chipmunks instead of any of these, just lie about it in the comments. No one will ever now... it's the internet!

Yes, No, Maybe So: Sex & the City & Iron Mans 2

As y'all know, I am not terribly good at simplicity. I can't just post a trailer. I gotta have an angle (charitable view) or a gimmick (uncharitable view) in order to have at it. Otherwise I fear I'll be absorbed into that Borg-like group internet mind that exists only to offer movie studios free publicity. So what to do with trailers? I used to resent them. I spent a lot of 2009 worrying about our All Foreplay/No Sex internet movie culture. 95% of movie discussions these days take place before anyone ever sees the movie in question. The discussion ends on the movie's opening weekend. Doesn't anyone wanna have sex with the movies anymore?

Speaking of Sex...

I didn't even realize this until both of these teasers premiered this past week or so but 2010's upcoming summer movie season is basically an elaborately expensive time machine designed to transport us back exactly two years to May 2008 when Tony Stark and Carrie Bradshaw played bookend egotist divas. They're both coming back to open and close the month of May again.

Which film are you salivating for?

While I blame our trailer-happy YouTube culture for this 'all foreplay' problem, I have decided to simply accept it and share and thus (hopefully) manage my expectations for new movies with a simple yes, no, maybe so.

Sex & the City 2

Yes. Sarah Jessica Parker is a babe*. She's only gotten more divalicious with age and the opening of this trailer, with the iconic Carrie Bradshaw emerging from her impossibly lux apartment building with pristine white dress and gold shades is such a money shot. Even better, SJP caps it with Carrie's trademark tongue check followed by hair toss. Love it.

*I don't even care how gay that makes me sound, haters!

No. But then there's the suggestion that we're going to spend the whole movie in the Sahara. Sometimes you do just have to get away with the girls but must you go so far? Did they learn nothing for those episodes in California? Manhattan is the fifth girl. And the best one.
Maybe So. Even if this movie is totally unnecessary I still can't wait to see the clothes*.

*I still don't care!

Yes. Robert Downey Jr & Gwyneth Paltrow had fine chemistry in the first. More Pepper, please. This kiss-off "you complete me" banter is totally endearing even though it's a little smug/ obnoxious. Kind of like RDJ as Tony Stark.
No. I'm excited that Mickey Rourke has a career again (God, the Wrestler was so good). But I don't get this busy/ugly Whiplash costume. Are those orange harem pants?
Maybe So. Metallic special effects mayhem. Entirely thrilling or too repetitive for words?

Those were my immediate responses. Yours? Do share... even if your feelings are as contradictory and carefully managed as mine.

Bonus points to whoever can accurately comment-guess how little screen time Scarlett Johansson is actually going to have as the Black Widow. You know how those superhero franchises like to load up on excellent comic book characters only to do virtually nothing with them once they show up onscreen. Care to guess? Unfortunately we won't be able to name the winner until May.

Link Flamingos

Scanners envisions Precious as a remake of John Waters Female Trouble. No seriously
Fin de Cinema top 100 of the decade. So many great movies...
Nicks Flick Picks is almost done with his, too.
Crossoverman cheats with lots of groupings for his top 50. But they're good movies so we'll let it slide
Just Jared Jude Law and Sienna Miller are back together? My god... when will these two make up their mind? I hope that when they're separated again Sienna has flashbacks about Jude as frenetically edited and obnoxious as the ones she has about Channing Tatum in GI Joe. Sometimes real life should be just like the movies.

i09 5 lessons we hope entertainment taught us in 2009. Good list
In Contention Guy's top ten of 2009, US and UK versions
42 inch Television's top ten of 2009. I link it becomes Whip It appears and that's nice to see for a change. Firmly agree that more and more people will catch on to this on cable and DVD.
Art Forum John Waters annual top ten list. I love this bit on Antichrist
If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.

and it's a bit late but I hope you all had a merry christmas... even if you were having a post apocalyptic christmas. Are you glad that that's all over with or are you already gearing up for another long weekend to ring in the New Year?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday R&R


Merry Christmas or whatever holiday you're celebrating. If you're not celebrating anything, happy unbirthday! We're taking a short break for the holidays. On account of we never do ever ever and some creative battery recharging is in order.

all the festive ladies... all the festive ladies. oh-oh-oh oh-oh-oh

Be back on Monday, December 28th!
  • Next week: Cinematic Shame, 2009 Top Ten and the kick off to the 10th Annual Film Bitch Awards. And maybe: New Year's Resolutions
  • Coming in January: the return of 'Streep at 60' and hopefully 'BPFTOI' though it's always unwise to promise. Plus: more Oscar podcasting and the Sundance Film Festival. I realize that everyone else has already done their "tops of the decade" list but I have always obeyed my own inner clock. So, the 'Actors and Actresses of the Aughts' countdown -- a famous rundown here at TFE that we haven't updated since 2005 -- begins again to close out the 2000-2009 party.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Prediction Surprises?

Before the holiday break I thought I'd quickly try and update some Oscar pages. While most of the races appear to be settled down to 5 contenders for 5 spots (give or take a spoilerish 6th) I always like to delude myself into believing that nomination morning will provide one shock in each category but how about two in supporting actress?

I always like to imagine that Oscar voters aren't slaves to the whims of Globe, SAG and BFCA voters but they generally prove me wrong. Still, even if it goes down as expected I imagine 10 women are sharing the bulk of all votes. That 5th slot and maybe even that 4th and 5th are a touch unstable if you ask me. I believe that precious Mo'Nique and the Up in the Air girls are the only three contenders here that are truly locked and loaded.

But "Cruz!" you say. "She's been nominated for everything." Yes, yes, good point. Except... will Marion Cotillard really stay out of her perfectly toussled hair in the Nine balloting showdown?

Revised Oscar Pages:
Picture, Director Actress, Actor, Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor and Prediction Index

Directors of the Decade: Joel and Ethan Coen

Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. This week’s directors have achieved new heights critically and commercially in the past ten years. They may be (collectively) the greatest director(s) of the decade. I speak of: Joel and Ethan. The Coen Brothers.

Number of Films: Seven
Modern Masterpieces: Two. No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.
Total Disasters: The Ladykillers has maybe a few good things going for it.
Better than you remember: Burn After Reading was very much a love-it-or-hate-it film. If you hated it, it’s far better than you remember.
Awards: Director and Picture Oscars for No Country for Old Men
Box Office: That film is also their best performer w/ over 75 mil.
Critical Consensus: ...and received their most consistent raves.
Favorite Actor: If you said George Clooney, you’d be right! Also Stephen Root and Richard Jenkins. Three films each.

Let’s talk about:
Meaninglessness. It’s the major thematic thread through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, and best describes their view on life; a sequence of meaningless events full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But there’s a stylistic thread in the brothers’ films as well. It’s their favorite way to tell their tales of meaningless... By mixing and mis-matching various genres. The Coen brother’s films can reasonably be separated into two kinds. Those that are heavier on the genre fun (like The Big Lebowski where although it’s clear that The Dude’s misadventures add up to nothing the enjoyment comes from watching the stoner comedy meet Raymond Chandler). Or those that are heavier on the meaningless motif (like Fargo where the combined comedy and crime genre’s are essential, but the heart of the film lies within Marge’s “and what for?” monologue.)

Ethan, Joel, Roger

The Coen Brothers started off the decade with three films heavy on genre play and ended by digging deeper into the futility of their universe than ever before. O Brother Where Art Thou? is titled after a fictional film from Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels. And the film is their definitive love-letter to the 1930’s comedies that have inspired them from Raising Arizona onward. Sprinke in a little religious allegory and a lot of Greek myth (not to forget the contributions of T. Bone Burnett, one of their finest collaborators) and you’ve got classic Coen genre goofiness. Of course even after our fugitive protagonists save the day and get pardoned, they still find themselves senselessly at the whim of the film’s villain, followed by a Deus ex Machina ending that, from any other director, would be frustratingly unnatural. But not in the world of the Coens. After this came The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers’ definitive love-letter to film noir. Just as its predecessor the delights of the film come from watching noir elements congeal with staples of old time sci-fi and allusions to Nabakov’s Lolita (with a lot of aesthetic help from Roger Deankins, another invaluable contributor). And just as before not much that happens has any real meaning. It’s life. Man against a world out to punish him via ambivalence.

The Coen Brothers’ winning streak would tank a bit with their next film, Intolerable Cruelty. As long as they were making genre-based love letters, they might have as well thrown in screwball comedy. But they barely loaded the genre blender and as a result the film seems too safe (though it’s saved by Clooney’s inspired performance and an aside with a character named Wheezy Joe). Forget homage, The Ladykillers, their next film was an all-out remake, and like most remakes, came off as rather unnecessary. But the prospect of character after character getting bumped off in meaningless ways must have appealed to the Coens. And once again the film’s most worthwhile asset is its leading performance (nice to see Tom Hanks chew up the scenery comedically again).

Then, a high-water mark. Somehow The Academy Awards went for No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brother’s most nihilistic picture of the decade and a good example of the second kind of Coen film (light on genre, heavy on theme). As with Fargo the Coen Brothers create a crime film where each new futile development adds up to little more than additional death, while using the film’s protagonist to view the lunacy and ponder what it all means. As with Fargo, the true protagonist doesn’t show up for 30 minutes and is left with no real answer. Though Sheriff Ed Tom learns what Sheriff Marge may already know: the world is no place for reasonable people. But “after a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” And that’s it. As for the exciting plot, the chases, the shootouts, the intrigue… there could never be a satisfying ending to it. And plenty of viewers were upset. Feel that ambivalent universe yet?


In Burn After Reading, the Coen’s again use a character who wonders out loud about it all. “What did we learn?” asks the CIA man. But “I don’t know” is really the only possible response. This isn’t a deep thematic contemplation. This is another fun-with-genre outing. What genre you ask? Only the most vogue of the decade, the (god I hate this term) hyperlink film, where the lives of random strangers intertwine to create some kind of poignant statement on the world. But the Coens mock it. They know that these films are so overly dependent on ridiculous coincidence and stupid characters that what was supposed to be meaningful can only be meaningless… perfect for the Brothers’ Coen.

Finally the Coens returned to thematic territory. Not that they don’t have fun combining the Book of Job with comedy elements. But essentially they’re again asking more questions about the meaning of meaninglessness, of the ambivalence of the world. Larry Gopnik has to know if the universe is out to get him, yes or no. But the answer is either unknowable like the Goy’s teeth, or no good can come from finding out, like the tale of the dybbuk. Better to let the answer be yes and no (like Schrodinger’s cat). Don’t look in the box. Embrace the mystery. Enjoy the parking lot (as Jerry Lundegaard never got to).

And the Coens continue to explore the universe, utilizing more techniques and exploring even far more territory than I’ve been able to describe here. Their films are filled with layers, yet crammed with delights. Over the past decade, no directors have managed to combine the cerebral and the comical with such success. And in the last ten years their status has grown from quirky and clever cult directors to two of the best minds working in American cinema.