Coen Marathon: True Grit

“I am struck that LaBoeuf is shot, trampled, and nearly severs his tongue, and not only does not cease to talk, but spills the banks of English!”

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

“Time just gets away from us.”

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When I first heard of the Coen Brothers remaking “True Grit”, I thought this seemed an odd choice given their filmography.  Of course they had done a remake before with “The Ladykillers” but that 1955 film was relatively not well known.  “True Grit” was previously made in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway and featured the iconic legend John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.  Wayne, my dad’s hero, won the Best Actor Oscar for that portrayal.  So in 2010, the Coen’s remade a popular movie “True Grit” well after the Hollywood western genre had faded from popularity?  Well, yes.

It has been a long while since I have seen John Wayne’s “True Grit” and I have never read the book by Charles Portis (although I’m curious to do so) which leaves me in the position not to compare the Coen’s work with the previous material.  The reporting is that the Coens adapted the material as screenwriters more directly from the book then the 1969 movie did.  All of that being said, “True Grit” 2010 is a solid film that is entertaining to watch and is probably the most commercially assessable film of the Coen’s since “Intolerable Cruelty”.  Indeed, the movie grossed $171,031,347 at the box office (per imdb) which is a mammoth hit by Coen standards.

The storyline is incredibly straightforward.  A young girl of 14 years, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires an infamous, aging US Marshal (Cogburn) and an assistant Laboeuf (Matt Damon) in tracking her father’s killer deep into Indian territory which leads to conflict and the inevitable western shoot outs.  As I mentioned previously, the film is very entertaining and engrossing.

One of the reasons why are the performances.  Jeff Bridges (returning to the Coen canon for the first time since “The Big Lebowski”) takes up the reins as Rooster Cogburn.  Bridges plays Cogburn like a homeless bum with a considerable amount of street skill in tracking and using a weapon.  Donning the iconic eye patch, Bridges gives a hell of a performance with a helping of lines and reactions to situations that are funny.

Almost stealing the show and having a high degree of chemistry with Bridges was newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.  Portraying a 14 year old, she is fierce and determined to enact retribution against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for murdering her father.

The Coens have always been known for having high production values and they really show off their skills in this movie.  The desert landscapes, largely shot in Texas at the hand of the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, are bleak but have an eerie sense of beauty (sort of like “No Country for Old Men”).

The problems with the film are, for the most part, minor but definitely threatened my suspension of disbelief.  Coincidences happen with characters meeting each other and then some cliché moments where a hero shows up at the last possible moment in order to save another character.  Most of these issues are in the third act and they are noticeable because the Coens have built such a sense of realism leading up to the climax.  Perhaps I’m being a little hard on this film because the project is such an example of straightforward genre storytelling and I have come to expect a high degree of originality from the Coens.  If Coen fans love to expect the unexpected when seeing their movies, Joel and Ethan Coen threw their fans for a loop by remaking a standard studio motion picture but one that is professionally crafted and fun.

That brings me to the epilogue which is brilliant.  Leave it to the Coens to have justice served triumphantly at the end of their western but then turn the proceedings melancholy.  The character, Mattie Ross, is the narrator and at the tail end we see her older.  She is trying to track down older Cogburn who had helped her all those years ago.  The final monologue is indeed sad and features the closing line, “Time just gets away from us.”  My take on this is that Mattie Ross went on this high adventure with Cogburn and Laboeuf but nothing else in her life after that would ever match or live up to that time.  So the years, as they tend to do, slip away.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

True Grit

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

 

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September 11, 2001

For me, it is hard to remember when the date “September 11” had no extra weight.  The day was one out of 365.  Ordinary.  Average.  I mean, one of my friends from college (who later officiated my wedding) birthday is on September 11 but other than that, the day carried no additional value.

2001.  The tragic and historic day that all changed.

That Tuesday morning I had no classes.  Always nice to sleep in during my senior year in college.  Atleast until, oh, 9am- I forget what time chapel started exactly.  I was a senior at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN, a sleepy and small Midwest college town that was near Warsaw and about 45 minutes from Fort Wayne.

At the time, I was a resident assistant (RA) so my job was to somewhat keep an entire hall of guys in line or be a leader or something.   I lived in Kent Hall which is apartment-style living.  This building was newer when I attended school so it was nice and the atmosphere was epically quiet.

Anyway, my alarm went off.  I took a shower, got dressed, put some books in my backpack for classes later on that day and started walking to chapel out of our dorm across a practice soccer field (which served mainly to entertain intramural sports).  I cannot stress enough how absolutely ordinary this morning was and I sensed nothing was different. Strolled past the science hall, the gym, took a left by Philathea walking across a parking lot and into McClain Hall where in the basement, the student body gathered for chapel service (if I remember right, chapel was Tuesday through Thursday).  Students were getting seated and I had found a seat, if I recall, somewhere in the middle looking toward the stage.  Again, I was totally oblivious but I think the people around me that I was chatting with were too.  My senses picked up nothing wildly different.

As I remember, the service was late getting started. Eventually Jim Swanson (the dean of students) walked up to the stage and grabbed a microphone.  Now, Jim was a big man and by big, I mean tall.  Maybe 6’7 or 6’8 or perhaps my mind is betraying me (he could correct the record of course).  In my interactions with Jim, he was a solid guy and fair in his dealings with students in my experience but we did get the sense that one did not want to screw around with him.

Jim, who could be an imposing figure to some, started to cry as he gripped the microphone.  I had never seen him cry and he muttered a sentence:  “Perhaps the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history has happened this morning.”  The statement was barely finished before more tears came.  An eerie silence fell over the entire room which was a decent sized space.  I didn’t move in my chair. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.  More reporting came from him or someone else in the room, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.” A shock came over me.  The state of bewilderment was so considerable that I was trying in my mind to picture what the World Trade Center looked like and I couldn’t do it regarding one of the most famous landmarks in our country.

More reports from the audience (maybe from Dr. Mark Soto who still teaches there).  “Another plane has hit the second tower.”

Somebody else.  “A plane has hit the Pentagon.”

And another. “A plane has crashed in Pennsylvania.”

Different individuals kept calling out reports from the audience.

After that last report, I witnessed students exiting to the right in McClain Hall in a panic.  Being that our school was in Indiana, a lot of the student body was from Pennsylvania and were presumably going to call their family to make sure they were OK.  All that to say, even in a small Midwestern town far away from the horrors of that day, the terror and trauma was considerable.

For an extended moment, it felt like my (and indeed probably all of ours) world was crumbling.  Were there more planes that would attack?  Were we going to be invaded?  Who did this?  I assume that most of you reading this lived through the 9/11 terror attacks and remember how haunting some of those questions were when we did not have any answers.  Truth be told, the initial impression of the world crumbling was accurate.  Nothing has been the same since.

Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and I retired to my dorm apartment with friends including my roommate, Zach.  We had cable news on for most of the day that was following the coverage and playing the excruciating shots of the planes over and over again.  There was anger.  There was the “we are going to kick someone’s ass” and the anger within ourselves and across the nation was understandable.

The finest moments of George W Bush’s presidency were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  His speech that day reflected on the duality of human beings:  “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”  For a little while, there was an uncanny unity in our country behind the president’s leadership but it was short lived.

Regardless of the politics that came in the wake of September 11th, nearly 3,000 image bearers of God lost their lives that day.  Many first responders, police officers and firefighters and medical personnel, rushed toward burning and collapsing buildings to save lives.  Some of those people still suffer from that heroic decision with cancer and other physical elements as a result of that day.

When we say #neverforget I often wonder what people mean.  What is it that we want to remember?  Do we want to recollect on a time where radicalized ideological terrorists caught us off guard?  Or do we want to remember the people, the fellow citizens, who lost lives and the aid workers who risked everything to save and help as many as they could?

What have we learned from 9/11?  I mean, we have bolstered our national security apparatus but have we thought through other elements of this infamous day?  What all is there to learn?  How do we think about such a dark time in our nation’s history and indeed, a heavy dark shadow that still hangs over us?  The process of thinking about this lone day is far from over and I still wrestle with this collective tragedy in my own soul.

***EDIT on 9/12/2017- I have been informed that Dr. Mark Soto actually no longer teaches at Grace College.  Also, not all classes were cancelled on September 11, 2001 (professor discretion) but mine were.

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Coen Marathon: A Serious Man

“I am the junior rabbi. And it’s true, the point-of-view of somebody who’s older and perhaps had similar problems might be more valid. And you should see the senior rabbi as well, by all means. Or even Minda if you can get in, he’s quite busy. But maybe – can I share something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can’t see Him, He isn’t there any more, He’s gone. But that’s not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right?  I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these… autos and such… somebody still with a capacity for wonder… Someone with a fresh… perspective. That’s what it is, Larry…Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of… thing… a problem… a thing…”

“The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” -Rashi

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Most people have probably not heard of the Coen Brothers movie “A Serious Man”.  That is a shame.  After making a film with a star-studded cast set in Washington DC (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons), their next movie would feature a not very famous cast.  “A Serious Man” is, by far, the most underrated film in the Coen canon.  It is a brilliant film arguably just barely missing the greatness of “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men”.

The film opens with a strange prologue that is in Yiddish and set in an unnamed eastern European country in the 19th century.  A Jewish man tells his wife that a man had helped him on his way home and he had invited this man to come over for soup.  When he mentions the man’s name, Reb Groshkover, his wife proclaims that Groshkover is dead and that the man who had come over for soup must be possessed by an evil spirit.  The wife plunges an ice pick into Groshkover’s chest and Groshkover turns and walks out into the snow.  Why did this happen and what does this scene have to do with the rest of the movie?  The question is the point.

The only connection of that prologue to the central plot is theme.  The film centers around a mid-western physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).  He lives in a suburb in Bloomington, Minnesota and the year is 1967.  He and his family are Jewish and attend a local synagogue where his son is about to receive his Bar Mitzvah. Important to note that the Coen Brothers grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, are Jewish and this story is alleged to be somewhat based on their childhood and thereby is a more personal movie.

Anyway, Gopnik is a cinematic character that we will justifiably feel awful for.  His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him to save up for a nose job.  Danny, his son (Aaron Wolff), is a pothead who demands he fix the TV antenna and his wife, Judy (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry their friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she swears (not that we are convinced) that there has been no “hanky-panky”.

Our protagonist, Larry Gopnik, fills an entire blackboard in his classes with mathematic proofs approaching certainty for the discipline of physics but what is he sure of in life?  What is certain in his existence?  Nothing.  As evidenced in his family life and beyond that, a land dispute with his over-testosteroned neighbor, and a student attempting to bribe him for good grades, Larry feels like his entire life is coming apart.

The film has appropriately been compared to the account of Job in the Old Testament.  The story of Job revolves around how his entire life became upended for no discernible reason to him.  His family died.  His wealth was lost. Job had no answers or explanations for why this happened to him.  For the tribulations facing Larry Gopnik, there are no explanations either.  Counseling with Rabbi’s, Larry seeks insight into the will of God.  An older Rabbi sits at his desk in a big long room and the secretary says that Rabbi is “busy” thinking.  Another Junior Rabbi is available that offers circular reasoning on the will of God question, tells Larry that he lacks perspective and asks him to consider a perspective of the parking lot outside.  We always have to allow the comic absurdity of a Coen Brothers film.

A big part of the Jewish faith, to my understanding, is how many of them interpret their sacred Scriptures.  Many western thinkers and philosophers approach the Bible seeking a singular answer as the Word of God should provide answers to our questions according to this school of thought.  Many Jewish thinkers approach Old Testament interpretation with a perspective of wrestling with the text and perhaps coming out with no clear answer.  Think of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32:22-31.

For me, there is a central scene in this movie which is after Danny (while high on pot) completes his Bar Mitzvah.  Walking into the elderly Rabbi’s office, Danny walks slowly toward the desk.  The camera takes its time on this scene showing Danny slowly approaching the Jewish leader.  What will the Rabbi tell Danny?  Will Danny receive insight into the meaning of life?  A purpose?  Any answer to existence?  When Danny is standing immediately in front of the desk, the Rabbi opens his mouth and declares:  “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies”.  Of course, these are the lyrics to a popular “Jefferson Airplane” pop song “Somebody to Love” and the Rabbi proceeds to recite the names of the band members.  Imagine the shock on Danny’s face.

The scene is hilarious in a darkly ironic way because the entire sequence, with the buildup, feels absurd and that is the point.  Or is it really a point at all?  I have nothing to go on but speculation however I imagine that if we wanted to know what the Coen Brothers thought about life metaphysically, we may as well start right here in this personal film of theirs.  In a scene where we may have expected a profound insight into life’s meaning, the teacher quotes a pop song from the 1960s.  To add another layer though, that song, simplistic as it is, does exclaim in the chorus:  “Don’t you want somebody to love/ Don’t you need somebody to love.”

When the conclusion comes around, I would offer a guess that a good deal of people who actually saw the film will be frustrated at the final frame.  Without giving away what ends up happening, to say that “A Serious Man” has an abrupt ending is definitely an understatement.  Scenarios are introduced that will massively impact the characters that we have come to know.  In the true spirit of this film, we will never know the outcome of those scenarios.  But remember, that is the point if it is any point at all.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man

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)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Coen Marathon: Burn After Reading

“If you ever carried out your proposed threat you would experience such a shitstorm of consequences my friend your empty little head would be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there.”

“Talking here about department heads and their names and shit. And then there’s these other files that are just, like, numbers. Arrayed. Numbers and dates and numbers and numbers and dates.And numbers and… I think that’s the shit, man… The raw intelligence.”

“And you are not ideological?”

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Hard to follow up one of the best thrillers of all time so why not have the Coen Bros go back to screwball comedy in a funny movie that skewers the US intelligence community and the surrounding bureaucracy?  “Burn After Reading” came out in 2008 around the time I visited some friends in Philadelphia.  As I recall, we went to a downtown theater to see the latest Coen movie and laughed our asses off.

As the film opens, we see a “god perspective” looking down on America.  The picture eventually zooms in closer and closer to the Washington DC area and into a building. Members of the government bureaucracy are meeting with Osborne Cox (so great to see John Malkovich in a Coen flick) to remove him from his SIGINT position because of a drinking problem.  Cox, of course, denies this and lashes out at another partner in the room:  “I have a drinking problem? Fuck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon. Compared to you we ALL have a drinking problem!”  The stage is set.

Cox is something of a true believer in what he does.  Romanticizing the good ole days when people were dedicated and focused on their mission, he decides to write his memoir after he quits the CIA.  Through wild circumstances, a portion of his memoir ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym rats:  Chad (a crazy and hilarious Brad Pitt performance) and Linda (Frances McDormand).  These gym rats believe erroneously that they have stumbled upon classified information and seek to blackmail Cox in order to get some cash.  Literally, a gigantic comedy of errors and misunderstandings.

At one point, the gym rats get rejected by Cox regarding their blackmail offer and Cox angrily cusses them out so they decide to take their disk to….the Russian embassy.  Attempting to make a deal with the officials at the embassy, offering what they believe is the secret  intelligence for a sum of money, places this whole thing in even wackier territory especially considering our current news headlines for the past 8 months.  Joel and Ethan Coen made this film ten years too early.

Now, George Clooney, in his third go around with the Coens, plays Harry Pfarrer who works for the treasury department.  He is “happily” married and also is a rampant sex addict.  Katie Cox (wife of Osborne) portrayed by Tilda Swinton has been having a long term affair with Harry.  During this time, Harry begins having an affair with Linda much to the chagrin of the manager of the gym (played by Richard Jenkins) who is a sad sack that is madly in love with Linda.  The Coen’s pretty much go full Woody Allen here and maybe even beyond.

The plot is a labyrinth with all these characters but what is hilarious is the core of the story is a misunderstanding and thereby is really based on nothing.  Of course, that is intentional in a film about the intelligence community and government bureaucracy thereby making things all the funnier.

My quibble with the film is mostly at the end.  That is when the tone of the project changes from an absurd comedy (meant in a good way) to dark as in mean-spirited.  It just doesn’t seem like a few of the scenes at the conclusion fit with the rest of the movie which is just nutty fun.  Also, the writing at the tail end which brings some resolution seems like cheating.  It is abrupt and things that took place with certain characters are not shown on screen but are just explained by two bureaucrats talking to each other.  As much as I laugh at the conversation itself, this seemed like lazy writing.

All that to say, “Burn After Reading” is one of the Coen’s funniest movies.  With their focus on exploring different elements of American culture through different settings throughout their filmography, it is inevitable they would eventually wind up in Washington DC.  Could this be anything other than a screwball comedy?

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

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Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

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)

Burn After Reading

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Coen Marathon: No Country for Old Men

“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

“And you know what’s going to happen now. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it…Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

“He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”

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In the winter of 2007, I first viewed “No Country for Old Men” with a friend in a Spokane theater.  After the somewhat abrupt ending, my friend turned to me and said, “well, the Coen’s have laid another turd.”  I could not disagree more.

Coming off their lowest moment in “The Ladykillers”, the Coen Bros arguably succeeded even their highest peak in “Fargo”.  “No Country for Old Men” is a masterful thriller that finds the Coens returning to Texas (“Blood Simple” was set there) in 1980.  The barren landscape, expertly photographed by Roger Deakins (a frequent contributor), is beautiful but also emotes a sense of loneliness and alienation.  The feel of the movie, as conceived by the Coens and Deakins and musician Carter Burwell who did the scoring, add up to a haunting meditation.

As the movie opens, a sheriff’s deputy is bringing in a strange man dressed in black with a freakish haircut.  The man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in one of the greatest portrayals of villainy in movie history) slowly loosens his bindings at the police station and casually strolls over to the deputy seated at a desk with his back turned.  Since the deputy is talking on the phone, he doesn’t expect to be strangled to death by Chigurh’s handcuffs but that is his fate.  The strangulation scene is vicious, long and drawn out perhaps with a singular purpose.  The Coens, of course, are known for their screwball comedies.  Here from the outset, they are morbidly serious.

We meet other characters.  An old, noble lawman (Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones) who provides some narration and Llewyn Moss (a solid performance from Josh Brolin).  While Moss is out hunting in the desert, he comes across the aftermath of a drug related shootout. Bodies are strewn everywhere.  Blood spatters on the ground and vehicles.  A dog was even shot multiple times.  In the back of one of the pickup trucks, Moss finds a mass quantity of packaged drugs.  The only thing that is missing is the money which Moss eventually finds.  Two million dollars.  A massive amount of cash for a guy who lives in a mobile home with his wife, Carla Jean (played by Kelly MacDonald).  Moss decides to take the money a fateful decision that will put him in the crosshairs of Chigurh and other drug lords trying to find their missing cash.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy with the screenplay written by the Coen’s, “No Country for Old Men” becomes a thought-provoking thriller that delves into the depths of human nature, the moral choices we make plus their consequences and the unstoppable nature of fate.  There are moments of monumental suspense through old motels, along sparsely populated roads and along the Texas/ Mexico border.  These moments provide a genuine anxiety to the audience as we wait for what will come next but the real terror of this movie is what the film has to say thematically about our lives, our choices or lack thereof.

Bell, as a police officer, has the noblest of intentions to stop a seemingly unquenchable evil but he is old, tired and slow.  Sequences of scenes toward the beginning of the film have Bell arriving at the scene of the drug shootout and also at Moss’s trailer after Chigurh has already been there.  Obviously this is intentional.  The police man is perpetually lagging behind the force of evil.  Will the lawman be able to enact justice or even come close?

Moss is a character who may as well be us.  A man who grew up hearing about the American dream, got married and lives in a trailer with his wife looking for a way to better his life.  Two million dollars would definitely be his ticket to increased material gains and a more comfortable living style.  However, what is the cost of taking this money?  Moss is clearly the protagonist whom the audience is rooting to get away but as we move toward the end, is he still the protagonist after the consequential decisions that he makes?  His climatic choice provide reverberations that are beyond his well-being.

The Coen’s turn the entire genre of thriller on its head much as they redefined it with “Fargo”.  “No Country for Old Men” takes unpredictable turns and Joel and Ethan Coen’s love for irony is far outside comedy in their McCarthy adaptation.  The irony turns on the observation that the villain, Chigurh, is far more principled and a convincing keeper of promises then our protagonist, Moss.

Chigurh can be interpreted as the force of fate (until “fate” visits him toward the end) and a good Calvinist would see this as predestination but even a worldview that is absent of God can believe that our choices, if they exist at all, are narrowly limited.  A flip of a coin determines the fate of a gas station attendant who meets Chigurh and the attendant has no say in the matter other than calling “heads” or “tails”.  When we are not met with forces outside our control, we are perhaps further confined, like Moss, by our so-called ethical choices especially the ones we will not make atonement for.

Ellis tells Sheriff Bell, “you can’t stop what’s coming” and if the sheriff thinks he can that his mindset is “vanity”.  The sheriff will not stop reckonings that need to happen and he cannot stop the cruel landlord of this world:  death.

Another crucial conversation takes place between Chigurh and Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson).  As Chigurh points his homemade gun at Wells, both men know that Wells will die.  Chigurh says,” Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” What rule is Chigurh referencing?  Perhaps Wells’ life philosophy or religion.  Regardless of what Wells’ believes about anything, he is going to die a violent death.  What was the point of those beliefs?

Those scenes and others speak to the haunting nature of “No Country for Old Men”.  It is one of the best films of the 21st century and one of the greatest thrillers ever made.  Relentlessly thrilling but also a rather introspective, dark meditation on our existence.  McCarthy and the Coen’s are certainly tipping the scales here toward nihilism.  There is not any hope or foundation for the characters to hold on too.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men

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 (review here)

 

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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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