Tag: joel coen

Hail, Caesar!


Hail, Caesar! (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Though commendable that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” is an off-center, satirical comedy about moviemaking, its many pieces never fully come together. It is likely to breed great frustration, especially from laypeople who neither watch very many films nor are interested in how the Hollywood machine functions in the past and present.

It is a piece of work designed for a specific audience: people who work within the film industry, those who are close to it, movie critics, and cinephiles. Although I belong in one of these groups, the film is still not very funny. It is a stretch to call it anything beyond average.

The main strand that is supposed to connect every subplot together is uninteresting and at times downright boring. It involves the head of physical production of Capitol Pictures named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who discovers that the studio’s biggest movie star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by screenwriters who happen to be communists. Cue subtle laughter here. The ransom is set for $100,000. Cue bigger laughter here. That amount of money, even in the standard of 1950s Hollywood, is inconsequential.

Brolin is convincing as a man who is torn between his current occupation and accepting a generous offer to work for the aerospace industry. One feels the performer’s struggle of trying to make sense of his character despite a script that lacks both comic and dramatic focus. I wanted to know more—and deeply—about this man who is so guilty about his every day existence, he feels the need to go to confession for every little thing. Even the priest tells him that he need not go to confession so often as he does.

On the other hand, Clooney cashes it in by utilizing his go-to aren’t-I-so-charming performance. He creates a caricature and in a movie that is filled to the brim by parody and satire, he not only disappears into the background, he is overwhelmed by them. By the end, I felt I had no understanding of what his character is supposed to be about or who the character is as a celebrity, as an actor in the ‘50s, or as a person who just so happens to be in movies. I was bored by Clooney’s many choices of barely passable mediocrity. He should change it up.

I enjoyed that the environment has a look of artificiality and superficiality to them. Every set that Eddie visits, there is a specific design and feeling. One of the most impressive scenes in terms look and effectiveness of comedy involves renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) shooting a dramatic scene in a posh party but one of the replacement stars, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich—continuing his run as a performer to watch out for), just cannot get the rhythm, emotion, and dialogue of a straight-faced drama. It doesn’t help that his prim-looking co-star—not to mention the extras—is increasingly exasperated but attempting not to show it.

Watching Hobie Doyle, who is great at starring in western films but terrible with everything else, trying to act in a serious drama is like forcing an animal into a dress and expecting it to talk like you and me. It is a scene where if the set pieces and script were not on the same level of detail, it would not have turned out so amusing, so entertaining, or as pointed at its commentary that movies are fantasy, that sometimes we look at the obviously inorganic elements on screen but something inside us automatically processes them as real. This is when this film is at its most powerful—and there isn’t enough of them.

“Hail, Caesar!” provokes dry amusement but its too frivolous of an approach fails to balance all of the elements necessary to make it an entertaining and a compelling work. In the end, it is neither; it is flat, uninspiring, and forgettable. It is a work that is best treated as a footnote in the Coen Brothers’ otherwise colorful and impressive oeuvre.

Inside Llewyn Davis


Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer-songwriter whose career is stuck in mud. He is certainly very talented but his unwillingness to bend from what he thinks is best has likely cost him a real shot at making it big. Combine his inflexibility with an inaccessible personality and circumstances that often lean toward bad luck, every day is an upstream battle. He does not even have a place to sleep.

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the look, the mood, and the right actors but it lacks one important element: a reason for us to wish to see the next scene. Though it is not without a sense of humor, the picture is one note in that things are simply allowed to happen to the main character. We watch Llewyn sleepwalk through his rotting career. Since a series of unfortunate turn of events do not have much depth to them, Llewyn’s journey is most depressing.

The film jolts to life when the protagonist performs with nothing but his voice and a guitar. I enjoyed the way Isaac allows Llewyn to be vulnerable when singing and a wall once again when the melody stops. It communicates that the man is not entirely incapable of connecting. Perhaps he is afraid or hurt or simply not ready. In a way, a part of him died after Mike, his musical partner, committed suicide.

The Coen brothers know how to frame the performances. Oftentimes the camera is up close: from the waist up with occasional close-ups during the chorus. They put us in the front row so that we can relish the tiny emotions of the faces and voices. Though the perspective pulls back once in a while to capture the space between the artist and the audiences, our connection to the performances are not allowed to waver. This is best shown when Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” to Mr. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a producer in Chicago.

When the songs stop, so does our involvement. The wait is about three to five scenes until the next one. In some ways, the structure of picture likens that of a mediocre album: the first two songs are great, the next three are passable followed by a good one, and then a few more fillers until a memorable track. There is an imbalance to film that I found almost unbearable. Couple that with a slow pacing, it becomes a challenge not to get frustrated.

Despite the dark brooding in the marrow of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the lack of substance is astonishing. Halfway through, I asked myself: “Am I enjoying this movie as a whole so far or are the songs keeping this thing afloat?” I leaned toward the latter. Since the centerpiece is the soundtrack with accompanying visuals, perhaps the Coen brothers might have been better off releasing a series of music videos.

Miller’s Crossing


Miller’s Crossing (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wishes to kill Bernie (John Turturro), a bookie whom Johnny suspects to be selling information involving fixed fights, but he needs the permission of Leo (the sublime Albert Finney), a fellow mobster who promised to give Bernie protection, before he can take action. Leo admonishes that if Johnny kills Bernie, they are going to have problems. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Leo has the intention of marrying Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who occasionally engages in casual sex with Tom (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s right-hand man.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “Miller’s Crossing” is an elegant-looking gangster film as it is constructed. In its first scene, we are casually dropped into the middle of an intense conversation between dangerous and influential men. Although the specifics regarding why Johnny is so upset are not immediately obvious to us, it almost does not matter. What is important is the image of two men, Dane (J.E. Freeman) and Tom, standing alongside Johnny and Leo’s right, respectively. Dane holds his hat in front of him while Tom has his left hand in his pocket. They do not say a lot, unlike their superiors, but their body language informs us that they are ready if the situation turns ugly.

It is a classic Coen brothers scene: despite the commotion happening on the foreground, what is more interesting is what brews in the background. The writer-directors know how to build suspense in record time. More impressive is we know nothing yet about the characters but we cannot help but anticipate who, if any, will make it out of the room alive.

The person we follow throughout is Tom, a thinking man who easily sees through pleasantries and deduce why certain individuals are driven to do the things they do. But he is not without a flaw. With so much thinking going on in his head, there are times when inaction takes over and he turns into a pathetic punching bag. Curve balls are prevalent not just in terms of who lives or dies, as in most gangster pictures of inferior quality. The tone commands a certain unpredictability.

When Tom and Verna occupy the same room, they have wonderful chemistry. It is interesting to see them interact because they cannot help but argue. They want to be together but some of their loyalties belong to someone else: Tom wants to protect Leo (friendship) while Verna wants to protect Bernie (family). There is tension between them because they know that they eventually have to choose which holds more importance.

“Miller’s Crossing,” based on the novels “Red Harvest” and “Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett, is strong because the electrifying dialogue and memorable voices behind the performances reach a synergy. For instance, Mink (Steve Buscemi), someone close to Dane, is given only one scene which lasts just under a minute. His name is mentioned several times throughout the film but since that one scene that unfolds early on is so well-crafted, we do not forget who he is.

The film is efficient with its characterization and is very exciting tonally because it sandwiches elements of modern noir in classic gangster storytelling. People say that they are at a loss on why the picture has not gotten the mainstream recognition it deserves. I’m not the least bit surprised. The unfortunate reason is that it holds a reputation of being difficult to understand upon first viewing. I disagree. If you can observe and think at the same time, as most people should be able to, the challenge to put the pieces together should be welcomed, even demanded, but not feared.

Drive


Drive (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The man with the scorpion jacket had three part-time jobs, not one of which fully described his isolated existence in the City of Angels. By day, he was a stuntman for action movies and a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man who gave him a job when he didn’t have any. By night, he was a getaway driver for criminals who needed the money for their own reasons. Driver (Ryan Gosling) only had one rule when it came to the heists: his clients had exactly five minutes to ransack the place and get back into the car. Whatever happened within the five-minute window, he was on their side no matter what. However, once the allotted time ran out, he was just another person in the street who kept his head down. “Drive,” based on a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was similar to Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” despite sporting vastly different milieus, for its control of visual style to highlight the bubbling disposition of a seemingly unemotional and reticent protagonist, punctuated use of violence, and sublime characterization through critical decision-making. When Driver met Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos), her son, who lived a couple of steps from his apartment, something inside him couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Driver and Irene eventually got closer through small gestures but what they had was more friendship than romance. Driver hoped to change that. On the way to a dinner date, Irene revealed that her husband (Oscar Isaac) was about to be released from prison. As they pulled over to a stoplight, the emanated red light covered Driver’s face. Though he remained emotionless, as if the husband’s presence was no real threat to what he, Irene, and Benicio could have, the red, acting like a black light, revealed what he attempted to cover up. The return of the husband could’ve taken the picture on a cheaply maddening route by allowing Driver and Standard to become rivals, sneering at each other and testing one another’s masculinity when Irene wasn’t looking. There was none of such sitcom-like set-up. Their relationship, as tenuous as it was, surprised me because Standard seemed to really appreciate what Driver had done for his family. And he should. But his freedom had a price which thrusted the film into bloody violence. Although the violence was mesmerizing, almost having a poetic lyricism feel to it, there was an understated sadness in having to inflict pain on others for the sake for information and, if necessary, take their lives. Hossein Amini’s screenplay was admirably paradoxical. Although Driver’s motivation was to protect Irene and her son from crooks, it seemed that with each kill, he grew further from his dream of being with them rather than toward. Thus, the violence, though necessary, did not feel at all glamorous. The violence was ugly and Gosling’s angelic face, coldly calculating at times, provided an excellent contrasting template. Lastly, I admired the film’s elegance in connecting every character. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Shannon’s longtime pal, and Nino (Ron Perlman) were allowed to shine in the latter half. Unlike the masked bandits that hired Driver at night, their motivations were more than just about money. Like Driver, they fought for what they considered to be very important to them. And that made them as lethal as scorpions.

Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007


Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007 (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

2007 was one of my favorite years for movies released in the year 2000s because independent movies demanded to be noticed. My top ten favorite movies from that year largely consisted of indie films. Mario Diaz’ documentary discussed the hard work in getting independent movies financed, the long and arduous process of making such films, and hopefully getting them picked up by studios for wider distribution. It also highlighted the role of the renowned Gotham Awards in putting the spotlight on indie pictures so they could have a chance to be seen by audiences all over the world. Some successful passion projects included (but not limited to) Sean Penn’s free-spirited “Into the Wild,” the Coen Brothers’ ruthless “No Country for Old Men,” Tamara Jenkins’ vitriolic and wildly amusing “The Savages,” Todd Haynes’ philosophical “I’m Not There,” and Jason Reitman’s verbal exercise that was “Juno.” On the other side of the spectrum, although it did win key Gotham Awards, movies like Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” didn’t quite captivate audiences in a worldwide scale. It was great to hear from the aforementioned filmmakers about what their movie meant to them. It was a nice reminder, especially for people like myself who watch hundreds of movies each year, that every film should be approached with an open mind. And if it somehow underwhelms us, it’s important to treat it with respect and explain why, in our opinion, it just didn’t work for us. Because all movies, whether they be good or bad in our eyes, have a story to them. The directors, the crew, the actors, and the producers take the time and the money to create something that would hopefully pass as a work of art. I think my love for independent feature films stemmed from the similar themes they so often tackled: identity, one’s place in the world, one’s relationship with others, and the way an individual received, processed, evaluated information, and how one’s thought differed from one’s actions. Independent movies appeal to me because I was going through those very same themes back in the tenth grade when I was just beginning to see movies as more than a source of entertainment. I was drawn to their daring subject matter, complex characterizations, and shocking honesty. I think that parallel will always be a part of the way I see motion pictures. That’s why I always lend a critical eye to the characters and the way they attempt to deal with and adapt to their specific circumstances. The documentary also shed light to the fact that women filmmakers weren’t as high profile and prolific as their male counterparts. It’s unfortunate because I strongly believe that women, in some ways, view things differently than men and it will benefit the world if women’s visions are shared just as equally as men’s. “Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007” needed an extra thirty to forty minutes for more in-depth exploration, but it managed to tackle many interesting ideas with the time that it had.

The Square


Square, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

Ray (David Roberts) was having an affair with a much younger woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). One day, Carla found a bag full of cash in the attic which she knew belonged to her husband (Anthony Hayes) and his crooked friends. Ray and Carla planned to get the money, burn the house to the ground, and run away together with the help of a hot-tempered third party (Joel Edgerton). Naturally, the plan didn’t go the way the cheating couple expected. “The Square” took a lot of risks with its tone and various twists in the plot. It reminded me of the Ethan and Joel Coens’ masterful “Blood Simple.” but far less realized as a whole because it stumbled on its way to the finish line. Rising action was abound. Ray became increasingly desperate as the body count started to rise around him. It didn’t help that someone kept sending him cryptic letters involving blackmail. Unable to confide in anyone, he needed an outlet to his frustrations. It was like watching someone playing Tetris. It’s a very practical game (as practical a simple stealing can be) but one mistake can lead to another especially when panic sets in. Carla was frustrated as well because Ray was reluctant to leave his increasingly suspecting wife. She also had to mollify her guilt due to an accidental murder in which she was directly related. But a great rising action is only as great as its payoff. Toward the end, I began to feel confused with the way Nash Edgerton, the director, tried to steer the characters away from their respective predicaments. The strand about the blackmailer was immediately dismissed when it should have been tackled head-on because the picture spent a solid amount of time luring our curiosity to the person sending the letters. In a way, I felt slightly cheated. I felt as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to sufficiently end their story so the project eventually imploded. The characters failed to think critically and act practically. There was not one person I wanted to see succeed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an archetypal good guy but I wish I didn’t feel so detached during the final few scenes and apathetic when it ended. “The Square” was a modern noir with a somber tone that started off with a roar but ended with a barely audible whimper. It needed to work on its themes regarding tragedy, guilt, and betrayal. It dealt with such themes separately but the more important exploration was how the three were interconnected and the pressures our characters went through that could explain why they played the final hands they’ve been given the way they did.

Bound


Bound (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?