A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Amy Adams stars in “Sunshine Cleaning,” a story about a woman who was in desperate financial situations so she took up a job, along with her sister played by Emily Blunt, cleaning up after crime scenes and suicides. I expected this movie to be more on the comedic side than the dramatic side but it was a nice surprise because it ended up to be a good balance of both. I really got a sense of Adams’ strong female character who, despite her flaws, was willing to go on when life throws an unsuspecting blow to her upward momentum. It was really easy for me to root for her because she was fighting various elements: her rocky relationship with her sister, her son (Jason Spevack) who kept getting into trouble in school because of his strange behaviors, her fling with her high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) who happened to be married, and her insecurities concerning her thoughts about peaking in high school as her classmates went on to get married and live in nice houses. The only negative I can think of concerning the film was I thought it could have had more scenes to strengthen the two daughters’ relationship with their father (Alan Arkin). Although he was a nice guy, I didn’t feel as though I knew him as well, which was not a good thing because the film’s crux was the way the family as a unit helped each other out when circumstances got difficult. In a way, “Sunshine Cleaning” somewhat worked as a slice-of-life picture where the audiences are transported into the family’s lives and left things in a not-so-perfect way. There were many bittersweet scenes involving the death of their mother and darkly comic scenes when they had to clean up blood and guts off the walls. Directed by Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, “Sunshine Cleaning” wears its indie feel on its sleeve but it was strong enough to go beyond the quirks and damaged characters. In a strange way, it was quite empowering.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
Joel Coen directs this story about a gold-digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a divorce lawyer’s (George Clooney) mind games. The two seemingly like each other despite their bickering but it is really difficult to define their relationship because they always have something up their sleeves (sometimes with the aid of lucky coincidences). I did enjoy the first half of this picture because it was silly and it embraced its screwball nature. However, somewhere in the second half, I grew tired of it mainly because the once astute two lead characters became simple caricatures not worth liking. I kept trying to convince myself there was something more about them other than their scamming ways but I was disappointed that there wasn’t. I know that the Coen brothers have a proclivity for irony but there is such a thing as too much irony. This film is a fine example of the latter so it became convoluted instead of focused, smug instead of welcoming, unfunny instead of dryly funny. I did, however, enjoy the supporting actors such as Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush. But their presence alone did not save this heavy-handed movie about two bickering infantile adults who have nothing better to do than to make each other’s lives miserable. I liked Zeta-Jones and Clooney’s acting during the first half because it was easy to tell that they were having fun with their characters. However, in the second half, I believe they crossed the line between being funny and trying too hard to be funny but actually failing at it. In the end, I wondered what happened to the power the Coen brothers usually had in their films. But I suppose great directors have their failures as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad movie. It’s simply a mediocre product given the expectations that usually come in a Coen brothers picture. It was too quirky for its own good when it really should have been working on its substance.
Blood Simple (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Blood Simple,” directed by Joel Coen and written by the Coen brothers, is my definition of a great film. From start to finish, I was absolutely blown away because of its ability to take a genre on its head and create something truly original, or at least a breath of fresh air. Labeling this picture as a thriller may not do it justice because it contained darkly comedic scenes, horrific montages, and touching moments. To be released in 1984 and still remain that great to this day is an achievement that most pictures do not quite accomplish.
Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator named Loren (M. Emmet Walsh) to observe his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) having an affair with Ray (John Getz), a man who works in Marty’s bar. Driven to extreme jealousy and heartbreak, Marty eventually orders Loren to kill the new couple for $10,000. Little did Marty know that Loren is a calculating, risk-avoidant man and that he has a plan on his own to get the money without killing Abby and Ray. A series of strange coincidences and assumptions are added to the seemingly simple equation which eventually makes a stylish film that is able to bring up moral questions, as well as what a person is willing to do to get away with something–whether that something is to benefit one’s self or others.
First of all, I have to commend all of the four leads because I felt like they each brought something special to the table. Each of their character was multi-layered in his or her way to the point where I did not know how they would react to certain situations when certain variables were changed. Each of them was intelligent, capable of good and evil, and has a good sense on how to survive when faced with certain challenges. This being a thriller film, I knew that not all of them would survive by the end. But the interesting part was trying to figure out who would outsmart who; it was kind of like watching sharks battle it out in order to ultimately be on the top of the food chain. I must also give recognition to the Coen brothers, especially Joel, for giving the audiences one memorable scene after another. While the conversations were smart, Joel Coen was able to use colors and sound to maximize the effect of certain scenes. In most thrillers of today, the soundtrack could get so distracting that it tends to take away the power of simply observing a character move in silence. Like a good novel, the use of foreshadowing was implemented in just about the right moments so when we actually get to the crucial scene, we are swept off our feet without feeling cheated. Lastly, I mention the genre-defying tone of the movie. There were some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout but there were also some that left me cowering in a corner and wondering what I would have done if I was placed in the same position. The last thirty minutes or so were post-noir (arguably my favorite subgrenre) in its core and I relished every second of it because it was so well done.
I wish I had seen this film sooner. When I saw “Fargo,” I thought the Coen brothers would not be able to top it even if “No Country for Old Men” came quite close. However, having seen “Blood Simple,” I think it is possibly my favorite of the movies by them so far. I’ve seen a great number of fascinating motion pictures but I think this one deserves to be at least in my top twenty. The dripping ironies were just too impressive to resist (pun intended).
The Big Feast (1973)
★ / ★★★★
“La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” directed by Marco Ferreri, was such a huge disappointment for me because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, especially from critics and bloggers that I look up to for recommendations. Since my expectations were a bit hyped up, while actually watching it, it was such a letdown because the characters that came from different backgrounds–a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a judge (Philippe Noiret) and a television star (Michel Piccoli)–were so uninteresting for such an interesting premise. The four friends hired prostitutes and had orgies in a massive getaway mansion as they ate more food than they could digest in one sitting. Just when I thought that the story would evolve into something more, I felt like it actually tried to stay in one place and featured more images of sex and gluttony. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that can endure watching pretty much all kinds of sexual acts but this film made me wince repeatedly. I’m not quite sure if that was the kind of reaction that the director had it mind or if it was supposed to be genuinely sensual or erotic. But since it’s a dark comedy, I’m guessing it’s the former so perhaps, in a way, it succeeded on that level. Morever, for having such a group of supposedly smart gentlemen, they sure acted like adolescent morons for most of the picture. I didn’t see any scenes where any of them offered some sort of insight that made me think of their situation (or any situation for that matter) any differently. I felt like writers just had this one idea of excess but never quite broken from that in order to reach the next level. (And for a picture that ran for more than two hours, there was absolutely no excuse for that.) I also did not appreciate the slapstick that involved scenes with flatulence and excrement. I’m not a big fan of slapstick in the first place because they tend to rub me the wrong way so this film became that much worse in my book. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the final scenes that revealed the fate of the four main characters felt completely forced and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a complete waste of my time and I almost wished I never saw it.
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret, “Wristcutters: A Love Story” stars Patrick Fugit as a depressive guy who one day decides to kill himself and later wakes up in an alternate universe where people who have successfully committed suicides are sent to live. In that other universe, he meets a Russian ex-rocker (Shea Wigham) and while searching for Fugit’s ex-girlfriend (Leslie Bibb), the two meet a hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon) who claims that she did not kill herself. I thought the first part of the movie was pretty interesting and it did have its darkly comedic moments. However, as the film went on, I just grew tired of it because even though the three main characters are on the road and constantly meeting new quirky persons, I feel like they’re going absolutely nowhere. Therefore, the story becomes stagnant and quite tedious to watch because pretty much everyone is sad or depressed (which, I guess, would make sense because they all decided to kill themselves). The story is a one-note joke/what-if question which could’ve been more interesting if the characters actually offer some insight with each other. Admittedly, there were some really good scenes between Fugit and Sossamon but those deep conversations weren’t enough to save the picture’s stagnant disposition. I also didn’t like the third act of the movie when the Fugit, Wigham and Sossamon arrived in this town where “miracles” happen. It got even worse when they met Messiah (Will Arnett) who claims that he can separate his soul from his body. That part of the picture felt like a foreign appendage which eventually infected the whole body of work. However, I do give credit to the film for offering something different and taking risks when it comes to its humor. I just can’t quite recommend it because the negatives outweigh the positives.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson team up once again in “O Lucky Man!” a sequel to the exemplary “If…” McDowell plays Mike Travis, an ambitious and enthusiastic coffee salesman whose main goal is to attain financial success. I thought it was very interesting how he seems like a force to be reckoned with in the beginning of the film, but as it goes on and meets quirky, greedy and insightful characters, he seems so insignificant in comparison. Although its premise is a commentary on the evils of capitalism, the dry and dark humor are consistent. Although I didn’t understand some of the jokes because I don’t know much about business and economics, the ones I understand are clever and have a staying power that’s still relevant today; especially now that competition is at its peak and the American economy is not doing so well. This film’s strength lies in its surrealism: some of the actors play multiple characters (Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe…) and the events that unfold are extremely out of the ordinary and a bit random (such as the medical facility that use human subjects). I also enjoyed listening to Alan Price’s songs because they reflect what Mike Travis is going through yet at the same time comments on where he should be going. However, I felt like the film digressed too much. Despite Mike Travis’ adventures all over England, I feel as though he didn’t make any genuine human connection that could potentially warrant his change-of-heart during the film’s third act. Yes, he did have inspirations from poets and philosophers but I feel like those aren’t enough to change a person, especially a person who’s obsessed with climbing the economic ladder despite everything that’s put on his way to distract him from that goal. The most interesting character, other than Travis, was Patrcia (played by Helen Mirren) and I wanted to know more about her. In the end, I feel a certain disconnect from this picture–which is strange because, when it comes to films that run for about three hours, I usually feel a certain inclination for the project. “O Lucky Man!” is an unfortunate exception despite its intelligence and brilliant acting from McDowell.