Coen Marathon: The Big Lebowski

“The Stranger:  How have things been going?
The Dude:  Well, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

A tumbleweed blows through the SoCal desert and enters the City of Angels as it moves along a busy highway.  Eventually, the circular free-roaming bush happens upon the beach and rolls toward the ocean.

We are introduced to The Dude, Jeff Lebowski (the best Jeff Bridges’ performance ever) who is a weed smoking slacker, consumer of White Russians and by nightfall an avid bowler.  His wardrobe consists of consignment sale shirts, Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a tan (ish) bathrobe while sporting a shaggy goatee.  The Coen Bros reportedly based the character of The Dude on Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist who was a key player in helping them launch their first film “Blood Simple”.  If there truly is a person like The Dude in real life, this is somebody to know.

“The Big Lebowski” is, shall we say, the least plotted of all the Coen Bros movies.  The Dude meets the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) who is confined to a wheelchair and married to Bunny (Tara Reid) after two goons attack The Dude in his house.  They think the Dude is the Big Lebowski and they are attempting to collect money for a porn magnate named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) as Bunny owes them a lot of cash.  Of course, the goons realize they have the wrong Lebowski and piss on his rug on the way out.  The desecration of the rug makes The Dude very angry as it “tied the room together”.  Visiting the other Lebowski, The Dude demands compensation for his rug.  The eccentric millionaire declines so The Dude steals a rug from him.  The wealthy Lebowski soon informs The Dude that his wife Bunny has been kidnapped and enlists him and his friend, Walter Sobchak (Coen regular John Goodman), to help get her back.

So yeah, the plot revolves around The Dude being mad about his rug being urinated on that sets everything else into motion.  The storyline here is clearly an after thought as it is simply used as a device to introduce these rather colorful characters and strange situations.  Normally, I would not like a movie with such a shoe-string and bizarre plot line but this is very much an exception.  There is a brilliance to “The Big Lebowski” and a good degree of hilarity (this is easily their funniest movie since “Raising Arizona”).

Other than The Dude, his good friend Walter is a Vietnam war veteran with a hair-trigger temper (people always talk about Bridges’ performance but forget about how amazing Goodman is in this film), and Donny (Steve Buscemi fresh off getting put in the Fargo wood chipper) who is never really allowed to finish a complete sentence when bowling with his buddies.  There is also millionaire Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore) who fastens herself to an overhead harness and zooms across of the ceiling of a building in order to paint, German nihilists (including actor Peter Stormare who put Buscemi in the wood chipper in Fargo), a young Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt (an assistant for Big Lebowski), and a character named Jesus (John Turturro) who is seen at the bowling alley.

The movie also contains memorable sequences such as The Dude flying north over Los Angeles in a dream, the aforementioned Maude painting in her studio while flying across the room on her harness, and Walter hitting a German nihilist in the midsection with his bowling ball during a climatic fight. Hell, the Coens even have another dream sequence where The Dude is trapped on the bowling ball conveyor track as the giant ball rolls toward him (reminds me of the famous opening sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” kind of).  The Dude goes into the finger hole of the bowling ball and the audience experiences a point-of-view shot from inside the bowling ball (looking out the finger hole) as it rolls down the lane.

Yes, this film is insane and that is a beautiful thing.  Unexpected with all the hilarity is that “The Big Lebowski” also has more contemplative views on life.  These are provided by the mysterious stranger (who also narrates) played by Sam Elliott who at the end looks directly into the camera for the final monologue.  Glimpses of what will happen to the characters are revealed and the Stranger says that he will see us soon.  “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself down through the generations. Westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we – ah, look at me. I’m ramblin’ again.” An interesting angle on spirituality?  Does the Stranger weirdly represent a sort of contemporary western frontier?  Who knows.

The Dude abides.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

The Big Lebowski

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

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Coen Marathon: Fargo

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”

“Blood has been shed, Jerry”

During Christmas break in the year 1996, by my guess anyway, my friend Jake Wilkinson and I went to our local Video Update store.  Gone forever are the days where two high school friends would browse around a video rental store looking for something to watch for the evening.  On this particular night, we settled on renting “Fargo”.

Neither of us knew who the Coen Bros were.  I had never heard of Frances McDormand or Steve Buscemi or William H Macy.  Copies of “Fargo” were propped up on the back shelf of this movie rental store in the “new releases” section.  Something about the cover of this movie featuring the barren snow of a North Dakota winter and a female police detective crouched down in the snow over a bloodied dead body compelled us to check it out.  Plus, this was billed as a thriller so we figured there would be some suspense and action.

“Fargo” was striking to me after the first viewing as I had never seen any movie quite like it.  How does one classify “Fargo”?  Is the movie a comedy?  A crime drama?  A thriller?  At a time when Quentin Tarantino was re-mixing genre, the Coen Bros were turning genre on its head.  Made for an estimated $7 million, the film only grossed $25,882,374 at the box office.  A true independent movie that caught fire with critic reviews and word of mouth and ended up as a Best picture nominee at the Oscars (pathetically, “Fargo” lost to the overlong, melodrama “The English Patient”).  Roger Ebert not only named it one of the best movies of 1996 but later added “Fargo” to his Great Movies collection.

Funny enough, the action takes place in Brainerd more than Fargo (makes for a better movie title).  Jerry Lundegaard (played by Macy) meets up with two low-life crooks to hatch what is supposed to be a relatively small time cash grab.  Lundegaard seeks to employ Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi in a major role after a cameo in “The Hudsucker Proxy”) and Gaear Grimsrud (the Marlboro man lookalike Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife in order to get his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) to pay $80,000 in ransom.  Of course, the intention is to split this amount amongst themselves.  Sneaky Lundegaard though, a schmuck car sales executive who works for his father-in-law, is going to tell his father-in-law the ransom is $1 million and his plan is to pilfer this money to buy up parking lots to make his own living.

To attend to the cliché that things don’t go according to plan, in this case, would be a chasm of an understatement.  By the time the famous woodchipper scene comes around, the body count has reached Shakespearean tragedy proportions.

After the shooting of a police officer and the killing of random passerbys who witness that murder, one of cinema’s most famous characters debuts on the screen- Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand won the Oscar for this brilliant performance).  Making a quick assessment of the crime scene with a more stunning efficiency then her male partner who stands on the snow covered field overlooking the grisly slayings while saying “yah” repeatedly, she begins to track the bumbling criminals.

People can certainly discuss the genre classification of “Fargo” but I see the film, in a way, as a kind of clash of cultures.  Media in 2017 is fascinated by this idea of rural Americans versus big city Americans and examining that trope in the context of this film is an interesting discussion.  After all, the setting is the small town of Brainerd.  Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are said to be from the big city.  In other words,  corrupt criminals from the big city come into a community of nice, country folk who think of themselves as good and morally upright (perhaps with the exception of the swindling Jerry Lundegaard).  The criminals participate in a half-baked kidnapping for ransom plot, hook up with prostitutes and kill people.

One would be mistaken for thinking the Coens were holding onto the idea that these rural people were stupid or hopelessly naïve.  I mean, some of them are but recall, Marge Gunderson is one of these rural Americans.  She is portrayed as being incredibly intelligent and dutifully dedicated to solving this horrific crime in her community.  The wood chipper scene (featuring McDormand, Stormare and Buscemi’s foot) at the end showcases her bravery for confronting a brutal, if incompetent, evil on her own.

Until a recent viewing of “Fargo”, I thought the only flaw in the movie was a bizarre scene where Marge goes to meet with a high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park).  He is clearly trying to sleep with her and she is currently married and pregnant as she explains to him.  The desperation from this classmate becomes pathetic.  The next morning, a high school girlfriend calls Marge and tells her that Mike was lying about his wife passing away (which he had explained to Marge through tears).  The realization comes that a lonely and pathetic individual was using an emotional sob story to try and manipulate Marge to go to bed with him.  Now, ask yourself:  what is the point of this scene in the movie?  My first couple of viewings, I had no idea but this time I realized what comes after this strange encounter.  Marge goes back to interview Jerry Lundegaard for a second time.  The scene with the high school classmate mirrors the lies and manipulation that Lundegaard had used in his first interview with Marge.  In other words, it dawns on her that Lundegaard is lying.

One of the major scenes in the movie, of course, is post-wood chipper.  Marge has arrested Gaear and he is riding in the back seat of her police cruiser.  The monologue goes:  “So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrud) on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”  This usually makes me laugh because the first instinct that a viewer has may be to go to how hopelessly naïve Marge sounds trying to assign a moral lesson to the chaotic and stupid evil which has transpired.  However, I don’t think the Coens mean this scene as a joke at all.  When faced with scenes that are unfathomable to her small town life worldview, Marge has to assign a moral lesson to try and make sense of the horror and the randomness of the crime.  She has to categorize the vicious proceedings and fit them into how she sees her life and the world in general.

“Fargo” feels like a milestone culmination of the Coen Bros work and somewhat of a mixture of their previous films blended together.  A little bit of “Blood Simple” is here as well as the comedy of “Raising Arizona” and some of the seriousness of “Miller’s Crossing”.  Not to take away from “Fargo” though as the movie stands well on its own and is certainly original.  There was no movie like “Fargo” until it was released and now there are dozens of cheap imitators.

Barren, snowy landscape captured by the usual Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins accentuates the masterpiece of “Fargo” and is another character in and of itself.  The harsh winter snow will cover over the bag full of a million dollars that Carl Showalter leaves next to a simple wire fence that he incompetently tries to mark with an ice scraper.  It will soon be buried for a long time.  The entire point of the criminal plot here becomes meaningless.  Chaotic randomness up against Marge Gunderson’s sincere “moral of the story” viewpoints butt heads and maybe there actually is a resolution in the final scene.

“Fargo” is rightfully on a good many “best movies of all time” lists.  Not only one of the Coen’s greatest but one for the, yah, ages.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

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Coen Marathon: The Hudsucker Proxy

“You know, for kids.”

Toward the beginning of the film, we quickly discover that Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) has had enough.  While his board chatters on about business on the 44th floor of the Hudsucker skyscraper, Waring Hudsucker sets down a pocket watch, climbs up onto the board table, and starts stretching his legs like he is about to run a marathon.  The board members all turn their attention toward him in curiousity.  Hudsucker, with an odd grin on his face, charges down the long boardroom table, throws himself through the building window and falls to his death 44 stories below.  Board Member:  “He could have opened a window.”  Another board member:  “Waring Hudsucker never did anything the easy way.”

The Coens return to screwball comedy territory with “The Hudsucker Proxy” which was written by the Coens and Sam Raimi (the original Spiderman trilogy with Tobey Maguire).  Unlike “Raising Arizona” though which is pure insanity, Hudsucker is a comedy mixed with strong themes revolving around elite corporatists and workers.  The proletariats vs the bourgeoisie.

Sidney Mussburger (one of the best ever, Paul Newman) hatches a plan upon Hudsucker’s splatting on the pavement.  Many board members are concerned within their elitist bubble of the unwashed masses now being able to buy stock in Hudsucker Industries as a result of the president’s suicide.  They cannot allow normal, everyday people to own shares of their company.  Mussburger proposes hiring a moron to become CEO post-Hudsucker.  Stock prices would drop so low due to bumbling incompetence that Mussburger and his friends could then buy the stock for pennies on the dollar.  Therefore, they would take over control of the company and restore the fortunes.

Meanwhile, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has just started in the dirty and crowded mail room downstairs.  Carrying around a sheet of paper with a circle drawn on it and nothing else, Barnes loves to show people his revolutionary idea that took 2-3 years to come up with.  Upon a chance meeting with Mussburger, Barnes is installed as the president of Hudsucker Industries.  Mussburger’s plan is launched.  Unbeknownst to Mussburger, Barnes is on the verge of inventing the hula hoop.

Corporate cynicism is pitted against a naïve idealism represented by Mussburger and Barnes respectively.  Barnes means well, cares about his work and the company while not knowing about the more nefarious plans behind his back.  He is also unaware that his newly hired secretary is actually an investigative reporter (Amy Archer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) looking for a scoop on what is going on within Hudsucker Industries.

Of course, the irony is laid on thick throughout the film.  Much reference is made to people “climbing the corporate ladder” and making their way from the bottom mail room floor to the upward spacious and immaculate corporate suites.  When people attain the top floor power position, many of them end up launching themselves off the building and falling to their deaths below.  The Coens again here show their existential core in relation to the “rat race” and attaining promotions for more power and money in the business world as being utterly absurd and meaningless.

Visually, the movie is striking while even being from 1994.  The camera navigates the steel and glass canyons of New York City.  The production values of the Coen Bros are always solid but this is one of their most compelling visual feasts.

The Coens even touch on religion in the movie with references to angels and perhaps a demon (depending on how one interprets one of the characters).  An angel makes a reference to climbing up beyond the giant earthly skyscraper into the kingdom in the sky which subtly references to me the mixture of capitalism and religious faith that has impacted many Americans views of Christianity.  This is only a brief part of the movie but I found the idea interesting and wished the Coens would have explored it more in their screenplay.

All in all, “The Hudsucker Proxy” is fun.  The setting is the late 1950s and it seems like the Coens were, overall, paying a sort of homage to old school Hollywood:  the good capitalist rises and invents something popular while battling the crony capitalisms who are hell bent on screwing everyone over and reveling in their greed.  All of this with old Americana religion being nodded to and used as a fascinating lever to further the plot and theme.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

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Coen Marathon: Barton Fink

“Look upon me!  I’ll show you the life of the mind.  Ahhhhh!”

After his Coen debut in “Miller’s Crossing” where he had a key monologue out in the woods where mob men execute their victims, John Turturro was ready for leading man status as Barton Fink.  Of course, this doesn’t mean a trip to the A-list but certainly a headliner of one of the most independent films the Coen brothers would be involved with (and that is saying something) and also, one of their more “out there” movies.

“Barton Fink” feels personal to Joel and Ethan Coen.  Fink is a Hollywood screenwriter who, of course, is fighting for his vision on his scripts.  The system of Hollywood, i.e. the men behind desks, are trying to corrupt him.  The towering film critic Roger Ebert had thoughts on the Coen’s including this consistent theme in their work:  “If there is a favorite image in the movies by the Coen brothers, it’s of crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy. Maybe that’s because, like all filmmakers, the Coens have spent a lot of time on the carpet, pitching projects to executives. In ‘Blood Simple,’ the guy behind the desk was M. Emmet Walsh, as a scheming private detective. In ‘Raising Arizona,’ it was Trey Wilson’s furniture czar. In ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ it was Albert Finney, as a mob boss. In ‘Barton Fink,’ it is Michael Lerner, as the head of a Hollywood studio. All of these men are vulgar, smoke cigars, and view their supplicants with contempt.”

The proceedings start in New York City where Fink is a renowned intellectual playwright.  He is tempted to go to Hollywood and told by his agent that he could make $1,000 dollars a week or maybe $2,000 a week to write a wrestling picture.  Big money in 1941.  Fink has an existential struggle.  His ideals are wanting to create theater for the common man but in the end, the money and prestige win out in his soul.  Moving to Hollywood and staying in an eerie hotel, Fink meets Jack Lipnik (Lerner) of Capitol Pictures who encourages Fink to begin writing his wrestling picture screenplay on a typewriter in his hotel room.

That’s when things really start, er, happening.  As one watches, they will begin to wonder how much of “Barton Fink” is actually taking place in real time or how much is simply the tortured writer’s mind.  After all, that is the entire point of this film and why this is so personal to the Coen brothers who are writer’s themselves and have mostly tried to buck the Hollywood system (with a few exceptions) in their career.

John Goodman is also staying at the hotel and portrays an insurance salesmen named Charlie Meadows.  He has long and strange conversations with Fink including about the life of the mind.  Toward the end, when the hotel is on fire and Goodman is running down the hall with a shotgun screaming, “Look upon me!  I’ll show you the life of the mind” we still wonder how much of this is supposed to be in literal reality.

One of the compelling things about this film is a picture that hangs above the desk where Fink’s typewriter sits in his hotel room.  It is a picture of a woman sitting on the beach with waves crashing in front of her.  Carefree and leaning back with her right hand shielding her eyes from the sun, she glances out to see. At times throughout the film, Fink hears the sounds of waves crashing.  This will all be important to the overall theme once you arrive at the end.  Speaking of which, I have now seen this movie twice in my life (the first time with my friend’s Mike Mason and Franklin Choate back in college).  Both times I have laughed out loud at the very last shot before the credits roll.  You will too.  The ending is quintessentially Coen.

This is may not be the Coen’s very best work but that does not mean that the movie is not good or interesting to watch.  If anything, it serves as a window into what the Coen’s themselves think of Hollywood (hint: not too highly).

Lester Lauding Level:  3/5

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink

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Make America Read Again: My April Book List

Still working to finish some of the commentaries that I started in research for sermons I have given this year, I’m gradually trying to make my way to perhaps more diversified reading.  Generally, I like commentaries but they have to be insightful and good unlike this month’s entry.

A friend wrote to me last year and proposed that I start a rating system for the books I read.  Jake suggested a “Lester Lauding Level” which would be 1 (bad) all the way to 5 (excellent).  I’ll start that system in my reading list this month.

Be Wise: 1 Corinthians: Discern the Difference Between Man’s Knowledge and God’s Wisdom by Warren W. Wiersbe

This is the only book I have read by Warren W. Wiersbe and I’m not sure I’m excited to read another one.  Having started off reading this book in preparation for sermons on 1 Corinthians, I realized early on that I probably was not going to like this book but hey, I need to finish it so I can put on my reading list.  In times like these, I begin to think maybe this reading list isn’t the best of ideas but I’m forcing myself to finish what I have started.

Wiersbe has deep ties to Moody Bible Institute and has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.  He also has been involved with the “Back to the Bible” radio broadcasts.  He is considered a pastor of pastors.

That’s why I was fairly disappointed with how shallow his commentary on 1 Corinthians was.  He approaches the text with a straightforward walk-through of the verses but at many points in his work, I wasn’t sure what new information one would have from just reading the actual book of 1 Corinthians through.  What I appreciate about really good commentaries is their exploration of the Biblical culture and history of the time which (in the vast majority of cases) really illuminates the text itself.  The identification of textual criticism and variants, I think, is also especially helpful.  These items are stunningly missing from Wiersbe’s commentary.  One could argue that is approach is more pastoral and focused on application of the Word of God but I didn’t even find the application aspects to be that challenging, convicting or inspiring.

Lester Lauding Level:   2 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“To ‘have the mind of Christ’ means to look at life from the Savior’s point of view, having His values and desires in mind. It means to think God’s thoughts and not think as the world thinks.”

Preacher Volume 1: Gone to Texas by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

Profane, twisted, extremely violent and strangely imaginative can all be used to describe Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s legendary comic book series “Preacher” (which has been made into a television show that I have not seen).  Reading through this graphic novel, I can say that I was shocked, entertained, and compelled to think about some of the themes that were brought up (some of them surprisingly complex).

The story revolves around Jesse Custer, a Texas reverend, who has lost his faith and has become possessed by a mysterious entity called Genesis (a conscienceless being that is the offspring of an angel and a demon).  Upon being possessed, Custer leveled his entire congregation as in they all died in a chilling fashion.

From the outset, the reverend Jesse, Cassidy (a wayward Irish traveler consistently looking for trouble) and Tulip (the ex-girlfriend of Jesse and a southern belle character) sit in an All-American diner discussing how they all came together.  Meanwhile in heaven, an individual called the Saint of Killers is dispatched to retrieve Genesis.

Through a series of bloody and gruesome events, Jesse and his friends are on the run from the police, the heavenly Saint of Killers, and other forces.  Jesse has a revelation that God has left His creation and abdicated His responsibilities.  He and his friends set off on a cross-country expedition to find God and have Him answer for his dereliction as well as suffering He has caused.

Obviously, the metaphor for trying to “find God” takes center stage here but clearly Ennis and Dillon are working with Christian imagery with a deist type twist.  They also employ wild and fanciful imaginings of common Christian doctrine that is all set in the American Bible belt among characters speaking in the comic book windows with a southern drawl.

Ennis’ writing is both wickedly funny one instant and then deadly serious.  The story is perverse and shock jock but surprisingly reflective and moving in parts.  As one gets toward the end of the graphic novel, they will be stunned as to how much they are drawn in by the characters even though none of them are particularly good people (good and bad people definitely gets substantially blurred the more one reads “Preacher”).

So, this is a very good series but be forewarned.  The work is extremely violent, not politically correct, offensive, twisted (think even beyond Quentin Tarantino’s film work) and ragingly funny in a dark way.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

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Favorite Movies of 2016

My predictable lateness with my best movies of 2016 comes with the same usual excuses.  Not getting to movie theaters hardly at all anymore, I’m reliant on Netflix and Red Box for checking out films that have a chance of being my favorites of the year.  Thus, the latest best movies of the year list ever.

By the way, a great resource for tracking various film critics “best movies of the year” listings is at metacritic where they compile movie critic’s lists from across the country and assign a point value based upon the rankings.  If you are a film buff, this will give you solid ideas on things you can seek to stream at home or add to your Netflix queue.

My best movies of 2016:

10) Knight of Cups- Director Terrence Malick is an enigma and the reactions to his movies are very harshly divided.  Many people will not like this movie and I don’t mean that to be snobbish.  Malick employes a stream-of-consciousness type filmmaking that often features whispery voiceovers.  I appreciate his style because there is literally no one else who makes films like he does and there is always a mystifying spirituality in his work.  “Knight of Cups” is no exception on both points (Fully reviewed by me here.)  Diving into “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and tarot cards, Malick has main character Christian Bale (Rick) lost and spiritually alienated in the shallow Hollywood culture/system. His family fractured and his relationships with women broken, he yearns for a deeper grasp of his own existence.  One of the closer things to gospel that Malick has ever done.  Bale’s Rick learns from a priest that God loves him even when he is suffering.  Suffering binds us to something higher than ourselves is the message.  Through this truth comes the last segment of the film that is titled “freedom”.

9) Sing Street- Not being a fan of music from the 1980s generally, I was quite surprised by how much I loved “Sing Street” which is about a kid, Conor, in the mid-1980s who forms a band to impress a girl that he likes.  The plot may sound typical but the way that director John Carney (of “Once” fame) constructs the film elevates the work beyond the usual.

8) The Birth of a Nation- A raw, brutal and uncompromising biographical portrayal of slave turned leader of a bloody revolt was brought to the screen by writer/ director Nate Parker.  Parker also stars in the film as Nat Turner a literate preacher who reaches a breaking point with the antebellum south of Virginia over the treatment and condition of slaves.  The rage is a slow boil but once things come to fruition, the blood starts flowing.  There are many fascinating moments in Parker’s film including a Bible verse battle over slavery between Turner and a slave owner each offering their own verses to justify their positions.  The legacy of Turner and his men still lives on today and the movie links his ideas and actions during the 1830s to the coming Civil War.  One can point out some narrative flaws in the film but I’m willing to forgive those for the sheer passion that brought this unlikely-to-be financed movie to the big screen.

7) Loving- Part one of the year of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) who has become one of the most exciting filmmakers out there.  In “Loving”, he examines the relationship of Mildred and Richard Loving who were at the center of the Supreme Court decision (Loving v Virginia in 1967) which affirmed their interracial marriage.  Wisely, Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) does not center this film on a big dramatic courtroom showdown.  The narrative never flinches from being about the Loving’s and how a state reprehensibly intruded into their lives, attempted to de-legitimize their humanity and destroy their marriage.  Anger from many audience members will be palpable as they witness police officers break into the Loving house, seize them from their bed and place them under arrest for being married to each other.  Rather then leaving people in rage, Nichols threads the fine line as his film leaves us with hope and awe of the love and commitment this couple, who just wanted to be left alone, have for each other.

6) Hell Or High Water- To call this a modern day western will draw the ire of some who believe that westerns are more defined by a setting that is before the industrial revolution.  I would describe “Hell or High Water” as a western because it meets the genre criteria thematically.  This is an excellent film that succeeds in creating no protagonists or antagonists but seeks for the audience to understand the motives of all sides of the conflict.  Tanner and Toby Howard (played respectively by Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are brothers who pull off a string of armed robberies at banks with the goal of paying off a reverse mortgage that, if not paid, will forfeit their recently deceased mother’s ranch.  On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (the always great Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).  The climax is surprising and really there are original threads all along the way throughout Taylor Sheridan’s expertly crafted screenplay.  The audience is really not sure how they want this one to turn out as we come to understand all the characters involved that are headed toward a fateful confrontation.

5) Eye in the Sky- The final film to star the legendary Alan Rickman (Harry Potter series, Die Hard) is a hard-hitting political thriller surrounding the use of drones.  Months after watching the movie, it still feels haunting to me.  Colonel Catherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a UK based military officer in charge of a drone program which seeks to capture terrorists in Kenya. Upon discovering a suicide bombing plot, the mission is escalated to killing the terrorists pre-emptively that are planning the bombing.  When they are getting ready to attack, a 9 year old girl enters the kill zone and sets off a raging international dispute reaching the highest levels of the American and British governments.  “Eye in the Sky”, directed by Gavin Hood, aims for an unsettling discussion on the morality and localized implications of modern warfare and takes us right into the middle of it.

4) Midnight Special- The year of Jeff Nichols part two.  “Midnight Special” stars Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon as Roy.  Roy is trying to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from multiple groups who are after him for special powers he possesses.  In a sense, this is a more realistic comic book type movie with a heavy nod to spirituality.  Roy and Alton escape a cult who worships the child for his powers but they also find themselves being chased by the government (including the National Security Agency) who are naturally “curious” about the child’s abilities. Although a cat-and-mouse thriller for sure, Nichols digs deeper to portray a powerful father/ son relationship while also pointing to a transcendent reality beyond this world.

3) OJ: Made in America/ 13th- Cheating a bit, I decided to combine two superior and important documentaries into one entry as they both have the theme of examining race in America.  The first, “OJ: Made in America”, impeccably directed by Ezra Edelman, not only re-examines the infamous court case but tracks one of the most intriguing and loathed celebrities in American history throughout his life and football career.  Not only that, OJ Simpson’s life is looked at through the larger perspective of race in America.  This is one of the best documentaries one could ever watch.  In our age when documentaries seem more akin to polemics, Edelman genuinely examines the perspectives on OJ and race from multiple angles and is largely fair to all sides.

Ava Duvernay’s “13th” is more of a polemic documentary but welcomed for the powerful and passionate argument that she creates while looking at the American prison system and the longer history of racism in America. She interviews college professors, activists, liberals and conservatives.  Newt Gingrich even makes an appearance and has, what some will think, are surprising remarks.  From chattel slavery, the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, to D.W. Griffith, the tragedy of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr, Civil Rights, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, an arc of history is traced on this explosive topic and the audience will come out challenged, informed and prayerfully motivated.

2) Arrival- The opening frames of “Arrival” (the new Denis Villeneuve masterpiece reviewed by me here) evoke an overwhelming sadness.  Images show us Louise Banks (the masterful Amy Adams) playing with her young daughter in flashbacks.  Now, Banks a linguist professor lives alone in her house by the lake and we are tipped off to a horrible tragedy.  While Banks is teaching her class, alien aircrafts invade the earth with mysterious motivations.  The military arrives and wants to recruit Banks and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt to communicate with the aliens.  The result, as I have noted before, is nothing short of a mind-bending masterpiece.  An intelligent and brilliantly crafted film that has massive surprises waiting.  Villeneuve is directing the sequel to Blade Runner next and I think fans of that old Harrison Ford film can anticipate greatness.

1) Silence- The best movie of the year is yet another Martin Scorsese epic effort in world class filmmaking.  We are transported to the 17th century where Japan has outlawed Christianity and faithful followers of Jesus are being horribly persecuted.  Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield in the best performance he has ever given) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) arrive from Portugal in search of their missing mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  They have heard that Father Cristovao has renounced his faith after intense torture.  The situation that they arrive too is beyond what they could have thought and beyond what we as an audience could even understand without the experience.  Scorsese’s film is not a simplistic Sunday school lesson. This is a deep meditation and intellectual engagement on the nature of faith that thematically flows from what someone might confess with their mouth versus what is in their heart.  “Silence” is not a feel good faith movie either.  It is deeply unsettling, troubling and Scorsese never dodges the tough questions of this unfathomable situation.  Not only the best of the year but one of the most compelling, honest and raw films ever made about the Christian faith.

 

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Coen Marathon: Miller’s Crossing

A black fedora drops onto the screen right in front of us.  Sprawling out in front of the camera is a wooded scene with leaves and tree debris stretching out to the far edge in the back. The hat is lifted off the ground and randomly twirls toward the back of the screen until it disappears out of view.

The black fedora in the woods appears near the beginning of the third Coen feature “Miller’s Crossing“.  We are in the 1920s prohibition era and an advisor to an Irish Mob boss is about to be caught between two rival gangs.  Tom Reagan (played by gangster-ish looking Gabriel Byrne) is that advisor for Leo O’Bannon (a young Albert Finney) who runs an unspecified city of the eastern coast of the US.  Leo is carrying on a relationship with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and Verna is also having an affair with Tom.  Got all that?

Verna’s brother is Bernie (John Turturro in the first of recurring roles in Coen Brother movies).  Rival mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) puts out a hit on Bernie who is a bookie.  Going against the advice of Tom, Leo (again the other mob boss) extends protection to Bernie thus continuing the gangland war.

The Coens (who wrote the screenplay as they nearly always do) again mess with genre (as they did in “Blood Simple”) with “Miller’s Crossing” taking on a slow-burn mob picture and mixing the overall work with aspects of film noir.  A viewer has to make it through the first half an hour to be rewarded with what the film has to offer later.  The front half of the movie is definitely talky but lurking later are mobster assassinations, 1920s-style shootouts and the trademark Coen dark humor.

If I’m putting my critic hat on, I have to say that the mixture of these thematic elements do not always feel even.  The seriousness of a mob rivalry in the Prohibition-era with hits and assassinations out in the woods is interwoven with scenes such as when Leo gets the jump on rival gang members trying to kill him.  He shoots a would-be assassin from the driveway of a home in the back through an upstairs window.  The assassins’ body convulses as it is riddled with bullets and the tommy gun of the assassin starts firing in a pinwheel motion spraying ammunition into the ceiling and the floor as his arms move in a circle.  It is a scene that is outrageous and funny and completely absurd.  And yet, we are dealing with the Coen Bros.

For the unevenness though, “Miller’s Crossing” is a considerably original gangster movie that has its own flavor.  Richard Corliss, the legendary Time Magazine film critic, in 2005 listed the movie as one of the top 100 movies ever made since the inception of the magazine.  The third Coen feature is also consistently listed as one of the best gangster movies of all time (though certainly not anywhere near as good as “The Godfather 1 and 2” and “Goodfellas”).  As good as the movie is, this is probably over praise.

SPOILER: At the end, when Leo and Tom have made up over the double crossing after the funeral of Bernie, Leo praises Tom for his well-thought out plan of turning against him (Leo) in order to orchestrate all these events.  As Tom walks with Leo in the woods of Miller’s Crossing, he states something along the lines of, “you know that feeling where you act and you don’t even think things through” suggesting that the entire “plot” of Tom as simply random.  As random as a black fedora being blown around in the woods. No accident the Coens return again and again to this theme.  END SPOILER

A random note:  look for a young Steve Buscemi in a small role in this movie.  Of course, he would become a famed Coen player (especially later in “Fargo”).

My friend Jake mentioned that I should give actual ratings to my reviews and suggested a “Lester Lauding Level (LLL)” so I’m start employing that.

LLL for “Miller’s Crossing”= 4/5

Ranking of Coen Bro Movies (so far):

Miller’s Crossing

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

 

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