Coen Marathon: The Ladykillers

“You, madam, are addressing a man, who is in fact quiet… and yet, not quiet, if I may offer to you a riddle.”

“The apostle John said, ‘Behold, there is a stranger in our midst come to destroy us.'”

“This is a Christian house, boy. No hippity-hop language in here.”

So here I come to the bottom of the Coen canon. “The Ladykillers”, a remake of a 1955 movie, is pretty much universally regarded as the Coen Bros worst movie.  There are good reasons for this ranking.

Before I get to those reasons, I will suggest that the Coens doing a remake of a film is a little strange.  Up until this point, Joel and Ethan Coen have written original screenplays and directed everything themselves.  There are three exceptions to this:  1)  “The Hudsucker Proxy” the Coen Bros wrote with help from Sam Raimi (of “Evil Dead” and the first “Spiderman” trilogy fame) who is also credited; 2)  “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” but so loosely based that we might as well regard this as an original screenplay; 3)  “Intolerable Cruelty” being a studio film had five writers credited for the screenplay (Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, John Romano and the Coens).

“The Ladykillers” screenplay was written by William Rose for the 1955 version.  I have not seen the older version, which stars Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, but apparently the Coen Bros did some rewriting as they are also credited writers on the 2004 remake.

The movie opens showing a bridge with rather ominous statues and as the camera pans up, we see a garbage dump in the distance.  A foreshadowing of where this is all going to wind up.  The opening song over these images is from “The Soul Stirrers” and it is a gospel tune:  “Come, let us go back to God.” The Coens will again be exploring religious faith in the context of one of their films but I just wish they were able to go deeper.

Set in the south, we soon meet Marva Munson (an excellent performance by Irma P Hall) who is a deeply committed Christian, a widow, active in her church and also religiously gives $5 dollars a month to Bob Jones University (of all the charities, it is hilarious the Coens chose that one).  Munson is strict and devout but she is not naïve.  With where the film goes, the fact that Munson is not naïve is severely tested by the screenplay itself but the Coens are after a genuine portrait here of a Bible-believing Christian with southern sentiment.

Her door is soon darkened by Tom Hanks as “Professor” Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr who is inquiring about a room she is offering for rent.  Hanks’ performance as Dorr is, well, goofy and strange and is definitely one of his more “out there” performances.  After “Professor” Dorr gathers Mrs. Munson’s cat from a tree, he wins her approval to live in the open room.

Wouldn’t you know it that the wily “professor” has other plans?  He explains to Mrs. Munson that he is a part of a classical music ensemble that will need a quiet place to practice (i.e. Mrs. Munson’s basement).  The basement is a root cellar and the “professor” intends to, incredibly, tunnel through her wall into the vault of a casino.  Assisting him in the robbery will be his “ensemble”:  Gawain MacSam (a brilliant Marlon Wayans) who is a trash talking janitor at the casino, Garth Pancake (JK Simmons) who is an explosives expert, the General (Tzi Ma) who runs a convenience store but also dug tunnels for the Viet Cong, and Lump (Ryan Hurst) who is a lug headed football player brought on for the hard labor and to stand around with a dumb expression on his face.

The Coens stretch the believability of this entire charade even when the film itself is clearly a satire.  The criminals will play classical music over a stereo system while in the basement tunneling and if Mrs. Munson pokes her head down the stairs, they will quickly pick up musical instruments and pretend to play.  While the genre of the movie is full on screwball comedy, the suspense of disbelief is considerable.

There are complications when Gawain gets fired from the casino after sexually harassing a customer which involved him walking behind her and making admiring comments about her butt.  He blackmails his manager to hire him back on.  Other complications to their pathetic heist plans come near the end and I won’t give them away.

One major thing about the film that just doesn’t fit is Marva Munson’s character who again is not portrayed as being naïve but is clearly being snookered by not so bright criminals.  Digging in her basement and pretending to play instruments, she becomes suspicious but at some point we are wondering:  how in the world can she not know what is going on?

My other big complaint is the Coens had a chance in this film to really say something interesting about religious faith or at least what they think of it and missed a chance.  The ending of the film, as off the rails absurd as it is, can be interpreted as a Divine presence watching over His faithful saint (Mrs. Munson) in dispatching these idiot reprobates through extraordinary fashion (spoiler alert: think back to the opening scene of the movie).  A more sophisticated theological approach to direct religiousity would have been more than welcome.

So, I’m a big Coen fan obviously.  There are things that I can find to like about “The Ladykillers” and there are some decent laughs.  Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t add up and the themes fall flat when they should have been more fully explored.

Lester Lauding Level:  2.5 (out of 5)

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers

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Coen Marathon: Intolerable Cruelty

“Attila the Hun. Ivan the Terrible. Henry the Eighth. What do they have in common?”   “Middle name?”

“I’m gonna nail yo ass”

“Bitch! That’s my Daytime Television Lifetime Achievement Award!”

The opening of “Intolerable Cruelty” features Donovan Donaly (portrayed by the incomparable Geoffrey Rush) singing along to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” as he rides in his fancy jaguar convertible to his house.  What he discovers at his home, which leads him to being stabbed in the ass by his own Daytime Television Lifetime Achievement Award, is one of the funniest sequences in the Coen filmography.  Certainly not comparable to the “Raising Arizona” sequence when Nicholas Cage steals diapers from the grocery store and ignites a wild aftermath but hilarious nonetheless.

A movie centered around infidelity and divorce in Beverly Hills and other upscale parts of Los Angeles allow the Coens to blast us with their full sense of irony.  Isn’t it ironic that couples who once claimed to love each other would try and kill (or atleast drastically ruin) each other later?  Isn’t it ironic that an asymatic hitman after being sprayed in the eyes with mace would put a gun in his mouth rather then his inhaler?  Isn’t it ironic that a woman would have a prominent divorce attorney write up a foolproof pre-nuptial agreement for her fiancee when we really suspect said woman is in love with the divorce attorney?  Isn’t it ironic that the mentioned fiancée would eat the pre-nuptial agreement (with barbeque sauce) at his own wedding to pathetically prove his love to the woman?

The divorce attorney is Miles Massey (the 2nd Coen go around for George Clooney) and he can spin any story or set of circumstances much more convincingly than a talk radio show host.  Miles is hired by Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) who has been briefly married to Marilyn (Catherine Zeta Jones).  Rexroth was caught on video attempting to commit adultery by detective Gus (Cedric the Entertainer) who busts into his motel room filming and shouting, “I’m gonna nail yo ass!”  When he promptly turns over the video of this encounter to Marilyn, she appears to have a strong case.

When Miles the divorce attorney meets Marilyn, he is immediately smitten.  Oddly, and perhaps ironically, he invites her to dinner where he meets his match of cunningness and intelligence.  The meeting begins a rather rocky road to a place where they, maybe, love each other.  Maybe.  She will wind her way through another fiancée (played by Billy Bob Thornton returning as a Coen player) who is the guy at his wedding that ingests the pre-nup agreement with barbeque sauce.

“Intolerable Cruelty” is the Coen Bros version of a romantic comedy.  The movie is the most commercially viable film that they have done up to this point with big movie stars and somewhat of a conventional plot.  However, they still showcase wild characters and their dark comedy injects certain amounts of cynicism.  In other words, if this is indeed a romantic comedy, probably one of the few worth watching and I guarantee you will have some good laughs.

In saying the above, I do have to say that this is not their top tier work and not even mid tier comparably.  Cedric the Entertainer, as fun of an actor as he is, gets very old in scene after scene screaming “I’m gonna nail yo ass” which happens way too much.  Though some of the characters are indeed wild they are not necessarily memorable as in most of the other movies in the Coen cannon.  I can summarize most of the movie by saying there are some big, big laughs followed by scenes that aren’t terrible but just above mediocrity.  Another asset to the film are Clooney and Zeta Jones who will remind everyone of old time movie stars from the Hollywood golden era in this work.

If you are a Coen fan, like me, you will find some enjoyment here.  If you are a fan of rom-coms, you actually may not like this too much because of the movie’s darker edges.  “Intolerable Cruelty” is an interesting cocktail mix of different tones and textures.

Lester Lauding Level:  3 (out of 5)

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Intolerable Cruelty

 

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Coen Marathon: The Man Who Wasn’t There

“He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”

“They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap – well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own g-ddamn schnozz. So there is no ‘what happened’? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle”. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”

“I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” 

The words come as Ed Crane (known as the Barber) played by Billy Bob Thornton sits alone in his house.  His wife, Doris (another Frances McDormand appearance) is in jail for a murder she did not commit but that he did.  Was the crime a murder or self-defense?  The scene of violence, which the audience sees, can certainly be interpreted as the latter but how does the factor that the Barber was blackmailing his victim play into the whole situation? The Barber has also discovered she was having an affair on him with the man he killed.  Yet, he still loves his wife.

Nothing seems easy within the confines of this Coen film shot beautifully in black and white as if the gray on screen is an eerie poetry.  “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is probably one of the more obscure movies in the Coen catalog.  In some ways that is a shame because the movie is well worth watching however, it would also be fair to say that this is not their top tier work.  The writing is top notch and offers incredible insight and depth to how human beings think about things.  Reason. Doubt. Science.  Faith. Reasonable Doubt.  The film is also immaculately shot by Roger Deakins (the frequent Coen contributor) who was nominated for an Oscar for his work.

The issue for some is probably the pacing and, as with any Coen work, some strange elements but they may be pushing the boundaries of strange with this film.

The setting is again California (this time in northern CA and in a small town) in 1949.  The Barber cuts hair, of course, and thinks of wanting to open a dry cleaning business (a new technology at that point).  He is a laconic, chain smoker with big, sad eyes.  The decision to blackmail Big Dave (James Gandolfini who was playing Tony Soprano at the time) to obtain money to open the dry cleaner goes terribly wrong.  At one point, Big Dave’s wife Ann, comes to the Barber and confesses that she and Big Dave had seen a UFO and had a bizarre experience.  Here we have the window for the Coens to explore the California moonbeam culture.

A thematic element is strongly suggested as being scientific knowledge is not enough for people to find meaning in life.  A character exclaims: “Knowledge can be a curse.”  People must have an overarching philosophy that guides and colors how they perceive and see the world.  For Big Dave and Ann, this was an encounter with aliens in a UFO.  What is it for the Barber?  Maybe his love for his wife.

This theme about science and perception is further developed by Scarlet Johansson who plays Birdy Abundas. She is a technically great piano player but is criticized by a piano teacher for having no soul in her music.  She can hit all the right notes in rudimentary fashion but where is the passion behind her art?

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is definitely the most serious of the Coen Brother filmography.  The only time I laughed out loud was during a scene where the Barber wakes up in a hospital bed to three faces peering in at him.  I won’t reveal why he is there or who is talking to him during this scene but it is funny.  Actually, given the humor in this scene, there does seem to be a disconnect with the rest of the film because the proceedings are so melancholy and reflective.

The Coens often pay homage to film history in ways and here they going for the classic 1940s film noir.  It may be one of their more serious films but it also has engaging poetic reflections on life.  One of the Barber’s final narrations illustrates this very point:  “I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.”

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

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Coen Marathon: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Most people remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the massive hit soundtrack that the movie spawned but forget that the movie itself is very good.  This is the closest that the Coens have come to doing an outright musical.  The movie is, uh, incredibly loosely inspired by Homer’s poem “The Odyssey”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a quest through 1930s depression era Mississippi.  The title of the film comes from the classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels”.

As the film opens, three members of the chain gang are escaping through the southern fields occasionally popping up their heads to awkwardly run in unison.  They are brainiac Ulysses Everett McGill (welcome to the Coen filmography George Clooney), Pete (the Coen regular John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson).  The latter two are…shall we say…not the sharpest.  The quest they are on is to find treasure that Everett supposedly buried and must find the gold before the area is flooded to make a lake.

The Coens again demonstrate their fascination with Americana culture.  In “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” there will be a one-eyed traveling Bible salesman (John Goodman, of course), a dark shades wearing Sheriff Cooley(Daniel von Bargen) who stands in as the devil, a blues singer who sells his soul to the devil (a character inspired by blues singer Robert Johnson and portrayed by Chris Thomas King), three sirens bathing while singing on rocks, a stand-in for Babyface Nelson who wields a tommy gun while robbing banks and shooting cows, and a KKK rally complete with orchestrated formations and a flaming cross falling on them at the end of the scene.  All in all, a snippet of historical, depression era southern culture done Coen-style.

One thing I have not written about in my reviews is how the Coens, through their movies, often investigate different elements of American culture.  “Blood Simple” took place in the heart of Texas.  “Raising Arizona” took place in the rural desert.  “Miller’s Crossing” was set, often in wooded scenes, in an unnamed northeastern town during prohibition.  Beginning in New York City but following a script writer to Hollywood, “Barton Fink” shows the life of a writer’s mind as he interacts with Hollywood producers and gatekeepers.  “The Hudsucker Proxy” follows a man coming from the Midwest to New York City for a job.  “Fargo” takes place in the barren snowfields of North Dakota.  “The Big Lebowski” returns to Los Angeles but shows a distinctly different side then “Barton Fink” reveling in the presence of a washed-up surfer type personality and other weirdos at a bowling alley.  The setting of a Coen Bros film might as well be a character itself and a fascinating lens to watch these movies through is by asking what exactly they are saying about American society, culture, and our values.

As a value in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, religion and spirituality take a more central position then any of the brothers other movies.  As Everett, Delmar, and Pete are in a forest after escaping from the police, they find themselves surrounded by a church group singing an acappella song in white robes. “As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!”  The group walks peacefully down to the river and a preacher begins to baptize the members in a lake.  Delmar charges out into the water and gets baptized.  As he emerges, he runs back toward Everett and Pete declaring that his sins have all been washed away.  Quite a message for a convict.  Everett, being a declared man of science, repudiates the baptism but Pete decides to wade in himself at the close of the scene.  In other places in the film, Delmar will reference his faith as a reason that he should not participate in unethical or criminal activities (although perhaps not always consistently).

On their journey, the three men even find fame although they don’t realize they have begun a singing sensation until the end when they team up with a gubernatorial candidate.  To the masses, they are the “Soggy Bottom Boys” who have a hit single “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” which in real life was also a smash single.

In the final moments of the film, the clashing worldviews between Everett as a man of science and the duo of Pete and Delmar as men of faith comes to a head.  Sheriff Cooley is about to arrest them at the spot where they believe they will find the treasure.  The men begin to pray to God to get them out of this situation and spare their lives from the murderous sheriff and his scary dog.  Even Everett prays for mercy.  Suddenly, a big wall of water comes crashing toward them and washes everything away (the authorities making a lake of the area that was referenced earlier in the movie).  The three men pop up out of the water, their lives spared.  Everett begins to talk about there being a perfect, rational explanation for what has happened.  When he sees a cow on the roof of a shack (which was prophesized to the three men earlier) floating by he becomes speechless and perhaps receives a personal revelation that there was more to their rescue then a mere scientific explanation.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou” is the Coens’ near their best.  A visionary experience of the depression era south and some of the pop culture figures and groups that define that specific era are all mixed in with a classic tale about a journey (even if very loosely based).  Not too mention that Joel and Ethan Coen have mixed in their screwball and occasionally odd humor.

Lester Lauding level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Big Lebowski (review here)

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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Make America Read Again: My May, June, and July reading List

Although I had some books started in May and June, I didn’t complete any (shame on me) so I decided to roll three months into one post.

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

This seems like a very important book for our times.  Rana Foroohar, “The Curious Capitalist” columnist in Time Magazine, examines the effects of modern finance on the overall American economy.  Let’s just say, it is not a pretty picture if you are not a part of the 1%.

Mitt Romney, now infamously, alluded in an undercover video to rich donors that 47% of the population were “takers” (IE dependent on government services) versus the other 53% were “makers”.  Foroohar turns that controversial phrase on its head and declares Wall Street financers to be the takers against ordinary main street Americans working as makers.

Through a well-researched book that is challenging but never too complex for an ordinary, non-expert to understand, she lays out a compelling case for how Wall Street, banks, lobbyists and politicians are screwing us over.  Notable, however, is Foroohar never uses inflammatory language that other lesser writers would use.  Her writing style is extremely matter of fact and level-headed without venturing into annoying populism.

One of the statistics she throws out in her work is that finance (stock trading and therefore money as a theoretical concept) takes up 25% of our economy but only creates 4% of the jobs.  Now we know why trickle down (or supply side) economics is not working.  Money being exchanged for goods and services, in many ways, is being crowded out by the expansion of finance which tends to enrich people at the top and leave large portions of our society out of the elitist loop.  Hedge fund managers are doing well and their wealthier clients but not so much the rest of America.

A case she brings up in the book is none other then Robert McNamara when he was hired to drastically change the Ford Motor Company.  An accountant by training, McNamara came into a company hemorrhaging $9 million dollars a month.  He developed complex financial metrics to look at product viability.  Every dollar spent in every facet of the business had to be justified.  McNamara cut back on research and development (R&D).

Foroohar brings up this case (and McNamara’s decisions certainly make business sense from a certain vantage point) to discuss the falling investment in many large corporations R&D departments.  A large corporation, according to Foroohar, can reach a certain point where they are generating enough revenue that the larger corporation plays it safe and focuses exclusively on decisions that will reward shareholders.  R&D which employs inventors and engineers suffers and this disrupts the capitalist system to an extent.

To be sure, Foroohar isn’t totally against finance.  Her argument is mainly that it has become too big and is crowding out other economic factors in our country which would generate more wage growth for main street Americans.  As Warren Buffett once told her: “You’ve now got a body of people who’ve decided they’d rather go to the casino than the restaurant [of capitalism].”

When the end rolls around, I’m not convinced of Foroohar’s prescriptions for fixing the system.  They seemed wildly idealistic to me such as making Wall Street financiers take a hippocratic oath like doctors do.  Does anyone really believe that some of the sharks at the top of our economy will give a shit about an oath?

That being said, I don’t want to dismiss the rest of her work because it is well-written and extremely important in our day and age.  Foroohar is an expert at diagnosing the problem and sounding the alarm bells in a rational fashion.  She just didn’t have a persuasive and comprehensive case to fix the whole system.

Lester Lauding Level (LLL):  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled (Adam) Smith’s mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn’t anticapitalist. I am not in favor of a planned economy or a turn away from a market system. I simply don’t think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system.”

Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation Edited by J.  Daryl Charles

Written in point and counterpoint fashion, this important work demonstrates the diversity of opinion among Evangelical (Protestant) scholars when the subject is interpreting Genesis chapters 1 and 2.  I imagine that if one asked an average person on the street what an Evangelical believes about Genesis 1 and 2 (therefore, the creation account), they would probably perceive them as literal, 24 hour day creationists and potentially suggest that they believed the earth was 6,000 or so years old.  This work shows some considerable diversity in the realm of Evangelical scholarship.

J. Daryl Charles edited the book which features prominent thinkers:  Richard Averbeck, Todd Beall, John Collins, Tremper Longman, John Walton and some others.  Each scholar gets space to articulate his views about Genesis 1-2 and then the others weigh in with rebuttals.  Virtually all of the authors acknowledge that the writing of Genesis 1 and 2 was inspired as a rebuttal against Ancient Near Eastern religions.  In other words, they postulate that Genesis was written to correct the record (so to speak) and argue for the true God.  I preached a sermon on this very idea earlier this year.

The guy who strays the most from the interpretation as a rebuttal is Todd Beall who is a 7 day creationist and takes Genesis 1 and 2 as a purely historical account.  While I disagree with Beall (and the other scholars do as well), his case is certainly arguable from the text and he is very well studied on the passages of Scripture.

Most impressive to me was Tremper Longman who focuses on the question of, within the historical context that the beginning of Genesis was written, what exactly is the text teaching?  What did it mean to the people who wrote down this account who had no knowledge of Charles Darwin?  I had been impressed before with Longman’s scholarship on Ecclesiastes and probably will seek out more books by him.

John Walton is an accomplished scholar as well and his contribution, while persuasively argued, seems a little far out there to me.  Of course, he views reading Genesis 1-2 as ancient cosmology but ties in the creation accounts to the Israel temple.  When God rested on the seventh day, he argues this was common in that time to view a god anthropomorphically as resting in the temple.  Interesting reasoning but the conclusion seemed a little ways out from how I interpret the text.

All in all, for anyone interested in the opening chapters of the Bible, I would highly recommend this book that shows some of the diversity of opinion even within Evangelical scholarship (which is pretty narrow compared with the breadth of Christian thought).  The options are not just young earth creationism, theistic evolution or creationism but an old universe.  Thousands of years after Genesis was written, the inspired account still speaks to us as we wrestle to interpret it’s deep truths and meaning.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

The more I read about Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans and the further from the mammoth tragedy we get, I get more overwhelmed regarding the sheer scale of this storm.  Devastating and utterly destructive to a historic American city and it’s residents who were failed by layer upon layer of government fiascos.

Investigative journalist and New York Times correspondent Sheri Fink has us view the storm from the perspective of Memorial Medical Center in Louisiana. Fink had received the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 report (published by ProPublica and the New York Times) on this subject.  Fashioning the material and expanding the reports led to this book.

As the flood waters rose and looting plagued the city in late August 2005, the staff at Memorial as well as a separate unit (run by a for profit corporation) were trapped inside a hospital caring for patients in impossible circumstances.  In post-9/11 America, many hospitals were prepared for terrorist attacks but not for massive hurricanes and their insidious aftermaths.

The power grid failed which invited a diesel generator to give partial electricity.  The toilets overflowed emitting an unrelenting stench.  Workers at the hospital broke windows to help circulate air and heard the fruits of the looting that was happening all around their city.  Gunshots rang through the air.

The staff of the hospital worked to care for these patients in the most unimaginable situations.  244 patients were at the hospital including stabbing victims.  The first half of the book covers this story from August 28, 2005 through September 1, 2005 when the patients were finally evacuated.  What was realized in the aftermath of all of this is where the book takes an exceedingly dark turn.

45 patients had died during the storm.  Forsenic investigators found 23 bodies had elevated levels of morphine.  They judged that 20 people in the hospital had been the victims of homicide.  Authorities began an investigation and eventually charged Dr. Anna Pou, Cheri Landry, and Lori Budo with second-degree murder for administering lethal doses of morphine to the deceased patients.  The charges were eventually dropped and a grand jury decided not to indict Dr. Pou.  Obviously, this did not stop the rabble of cable news talking heads for months.

Fink writes in a gripping and harrowing voice that details this tragic situation with a reporters detachment.  There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here.  “Five Days at Memorial” tells of people in an excruciatingly difficult situation.  The decisions of the doctor and nurses are not glamourized but the question is still raised:  what if you were in that situation?  What if you had limited supplies and you did not know when the storm was going to let up?  Or when a rescue would come?  There are patients that are judged to be dying and beyond help.  There are also patients who can be helped with the limited supplies.  How does the Hippocratic oath apply to this situation?

As a Christian, I’m fiercely against euthanasia and think that the practice of intentionally ending someone’s life should be against every ethical code that medical professions operate under. Admittedly, this is an extreme situation and Fink brings out in compelling fashion the ethical and moral landmines even referencing how the Christian faith approaches this issue.

The first half of the book deals with the terrifying storm and the second half, the fallout of the legal and ethical ramifications of what happened to those 20 patients.  Through the entire work, Fink demonstrates that she is a top tier writer almost born to cover subject matter like this.  While working hard to avoid taking sides, she also engages the reader in all of the sweltering emotions that arose out of this historic storm.  “Five Days at Memorial” comes as highly recommended reading.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Life and death in the critical first hours of a calamity typically hinged on the preparedness, resources, and abilities of those in the affected community with the power to help themselves and others in their vicinity. Those who did better were those who didn’t wait idly for help to arrive. In the end, with systems crashing and failing, what mattered most and had the greatest immediate effects were the actions and decisions made in the midst of a crisis by individuals.”

“Emergencies are crucibles that contain and reveal the daily, slower-burning problems of medicine and beyond—our vulnerabilities; our trouble grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”

“Concepts of triage and medical rationing are a barometer of how those in power in a society value human life.”

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

“Gunshots assumed to have been aimed at rescuers may have been gunshots aimed, however misguidedly, at alerting those rescuers to the presence of desperate survivors.”

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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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