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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Coen Marathon: Raising Arizona

What is the greatest Nicholas Cage movie of all time?  The Coen Bros second feature film may very well be a contender.  Every once in awhile, I see lists about the funniest films of the 1980s and I don’t recall seeing “Raising Arizona” on any of those lists.  It should be.  Set in the rural desert in Arizona (southwestern culture becomes a character in the Coen canon) and featuring a prison convict falling in love and getting married to his prison photographer, the terrain finds the Coens in pure screwball comedy mode.

Idiosyncratic dialogue, Biblical references, and occasional wild camerawork season this story revolving around H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) settling down with Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) after the prison stint.  They reside in their mobile home out in the rural desert of Arizona and tragically learn they cannot have children.  Adoption is out of the question as well because of McDunnough’s criminal record.  Here we get an economic lesson from the film:  it is so unfair that some people have so much and others so little.

The wealthy Nathan Arizona, Sr (Trey Wilson) and his wife, Florence Arizona (Lynne Dumin Kitei) have five children.  McDunnough and Edwina judge this is too many kids for them to have and they should share so they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the children to have one of their own.  The couple escapes from the Arizona home with one of the babies.

Randomly entering the movie shortly thereafter, the lone biker of the apocalypse Leonard Smalls (played with a menace by Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) roaring on his motorcycle down an otherwise deserted patch of southwestern road (straight out of hell presumably).  Out of a cloud of smoke, his motorcycle flying through the air only to land on the pavement, the lone biker is armed with big guns, features grenades attached to his vest and is decorated with tattoos.  He lobs grenades at wildlife and shoots lizards on rocks as he rolls past.  Naming his price at $50,000, he offers to find Mr. Arizona’s missing child which puts him on a collision course with McDunnough and Edwina.

One of the funniest sequences that the Coens’ have ever done happens a little ways into the film when McDunnough goes into a grocery store to steal diapers.  Donning a nylon stocking over his head, he attempts to hold up the store but things go awry and he finds himself running from police with a cop hanging out of his police car window firing at him, an eager teenager with braces holding a magnum, packs of dogs that he attracts along the way and all of this while carrying a pack of diapers.  The soundtrack music during this sequence features yodeling by John R Crowder.  When I first saw this scene, I laughed so hard that I’m not sure I have ever laughed harder in a movie.  It is Coen magic where they are at their most zany and insane.

Things eventually get resolved, we get voiceover narration over the final scenes and the final line is just about perfect when held up to everything that has come before.  The most hilarious movie in the Coen canon?  One can certainly make a valid case.

Next:  “Miller’s Crossing”- a prohibition-era gangster film done Coen-style and also vastly underrated.

Ranking of Coen Bro Movies:

Raising Arizona

Blood Simple (my review is here).

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Make America Read Again: My March Book List

March has come and gone.  Still working on my admittedly low bar of 24 books for the year.  Last month’s offerings:

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Only having experienced Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, I thought of him as a guy who is a good writer who uses interesting stories (often true life ones so he claims) to state rather obvious themes and conclusions.  These conclusions may not always be scientific.

The main thematic thrust of his “David and Goliath” book is in the title:  smaller organizations and/or individuals can often “win” against bigger organizations or bloated corporations because they are leaner and meaner (one of the reasons would be a lack of bureaucracy).  A person walking down the street may be able to spout this off the top of their head but Gladwell makes the concept sound fascinating, dressing up his message in clever analogies and accounts, while sounding profound in the process.  As the book moves on, particularly toward the back half, the reader becomes less and less convinced that the information Gladwell is selling and the analogies he drenches throughout his narrative necessarily line up with what he wanted to do from the outset.

Gladwell talks about underdogs playing basketball, how a significant percentage of CEOs and other leaders have dyslexia, children who lose parents, students who attend mediocre schools and even individuals who are discriminated against.  His argument remains that these disadvantages can be turned to advantages hence the Biblical account of David slaying the giant.  Some of his writing seems a little neat and tidy compared with the roadblocks that society puts in front of some people that is entirely out of their control.

All of this to say, there are still fascinating gleanings that we can take from the work.  I have read the actual Biblical account of David and Goliath dozens of times and have heard sermons on the encounter between the shepherd’s boy and the giant Philistine but I have not delved into the expert analysis of the episode.  To be sure, Gladwell is not representing even the mid-range of scholarly commentary at the beginning of this book when he talks about David and Goliath but the ideas he brings out of the text are interesting to consider.  He theorizes (as others have) that Goliath had poor eyesight while being an intimidating brute in combat. The poor eyesight condition, according to Gladwell, could have come from acromelagy, a disease of the pituitary gland.  Gladwell also talks about the necessary component of “slingers” in those battle times and those would be individuals who had slingshots to fire at the opposing armies and some perhaps could sling a rock from 200 yards toward their target.  There are other issues that are not addressed by Gladwell (as Goliath wearing a helmet and why not?).  Some even ponder if Gladwell chose the right “moral” to bring out of the David and Goliath account.

If someone enjoys Gladwell’s work, they probably will enjoy this book.  For others or for those compelled to learn more about David and Goliath, I would recommend looking elsewhere.

Here are some quotes:

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”

“Any fool can spend money.  But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

“The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave.”

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell

The inaugural book by Rob Bell came out in 2005.  The popular author/ speaker and occasionally controversial pastor has had quite the interesting spiritual journey since then.  As I was reading this book, I realized I could refer to this as the period of Bell’s life when he was more orthodox in his Christian faith.

That doesn’t mean that Bell doesn’t significantly challenge the status quo and that “Velvet Elvis”, while meandering around in parts, is not a good read.  To the contrary, Bell introduces important concepts to re-visualize the Christian faith while being fairly bold with his own doubts and struggles while being a mega-church pastor.  This book simply felt different from anything that a mega-church pastor would write.  More raw, real and honest.

The “Velvet Elvis” is reportedly a figure that Bell had in his basement.  A relic. Out of date.  He compares this old figure with the American church.

The book continues with Bell describing the doctrines of the Christian faith (which he affirms, if questions, in the book) as akin to the springs on a trampoline from the outset of the book.  People are jumping (experiencing) the doctrines on the trampoline and inviting others to join in.  A kind of cheesy metaphor but Bell starts here at the outset of the book before launching into his challenges of “American Christianity” while not really explicitly saying that is what he is doing.  He calls the different segments of his book “movements”.

Different episodes are captured such as when he is wrecked by doubt between services on Easter.  Is Christianity actually even true?  He contemplated getting in his car and driving away between services while he was intensely doubting and struggling.

Questions, grace, forgiveness, phony pastors, salvation all are covered in Bell’s book.  The best thing about the work is Bell’s knowledge of Judaism and how he repeatedly uses the facts of Jewish cultural traditions to illustrate Jesus’ teachings and bring different elements of the gospel alive.

I don’t agree with Bell on a lot theology currently and that is why I liked this book.  As I mentioned, this is the period of Rob Bell where he was more orthodox.  While he always has challenging and interesting thoughts rather on paper or on his podcast (the Robcast), a part of me wishes he would circle back around to an embrace of these few baseline beliefs of the Christian faith.

“Velvet Elvis” is a smooth and conversational read that will both challenge and affirm faith in Jesus.

Here are some quotes:

“If there is a divine being who made everything, including us, what would our experiences with this being look like? The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control. And so in passage after passage, we find God reminding people that he is beyond and bigger and more.”

“Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.”

“Whether we are reading the Bible for the first time or standing in a field in Israel next to a historian and an archaeologist and a scholar, the Bible meets us where we are. That is what truth does.”

“Think about some of the words that are used in these kinds of discussions, one of the most common being the phrase ‘open-minded.’ Often the person with spiritual convictions is seen as close-minded and others are seen as open-minded. What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn’t all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is ‘more’ – Those who oppose this insist that this is all there is, that only what we can measure and observe and see with our eyes is real. There is nothing else. Which perspective is more ‘closed-minded?’ Which perspective is more ‘open?’

“It is such a letdown to rise from the dead and have your friends not recognize you.”

“Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone, I need a faith that doesn’t deny these moments but embraces them.”

“For Jesus, the question wasn’t, ‘How do I get into heaven?’ but ‘How do I bring heaven here?’

“But the first Christians didn’t see Jesus this way, as if God were somewhere else and then cooked up some way to solve the sin problem at the last minute by getting involved as Jesus. They believed that Jesus was somehow more, that Jesus had actually been present since before creation and had been a part of the story all along.”

“This is why it is so toxic for the gospel when Christians picket and boycott and complain about how bad the world is. This behavior doesn’t help.  It makes it worse. It isn’t the kind of voice Jesus wants his followers to have in the world.  Why blame the dark for being dark?  It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

 

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