Hail, Caesar! (B-). With the glaring and painful exception of Barton Fink, I have yet to see a Coen brothers movie I didn’t like. (Granted, I haven’t seen them all.) True Grit, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou? are all classics in my book. Their current release has its pleasures, but I think it is definitely a lesser entry in the Coen canon. It’s a pure comedy and a tribute to the movies of the 1940s and 1950s. (Apparently there are a gazillion references to movies and Hollywood scandals of that era. They went over my head, but I think I did catch an homage to Fargo.) Josh Brolin (Sicario) stars as Eddie Mannix, a honcho for Capital Studios who is pulled in a million directions at once as he tries to keep his movies and his movie stars out of trouble. George Clooney (Intolerable Cruelty) costars as Baird Whitlock, a matinee idol who is supposed to be starring in a big Ben Hur-like production but who has been kidnaped by a mysterious group called The Future. And there are scads of other stars on hand, including Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a fey director of costume dramas, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) as a pregnant movie star in a mermaid suit, and Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) as the star of a South Pacific-like musical. I enjoyed the energy of the picture, but it didn’t really seem to add up to much—except maybe to say gee, isn’t show biz crazy?
Bridge of Spies (B+). So, I set out to see Crimson Peak, but somehow I got the time messed up and arrived at a theater where it wasn’t playing until much later in the day. Casting about for something else, I saw that I was in time to see this movie, which I knew had gotten good reviews. So I bought my matinee ticket and was pleasantly surprised to learn during the opening credits that Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) directed and the Coen brothers (True Grit) co-wrote the screenplay. The movie itself was even more of a pleasant surprise. Based on true events, the film stars Tom Hanks (That Thing You Do!) as Jim Donovan, a Nuremberg-prosecutor-turned-insurance-lawyer. In the late 1950s, a Communist spy is arrested in New York, and the feds recruit Donovan to defend the Commie (Mark Rylance, The Other Boleyn Girl). Needless to say, his vigorous defense of the hated spy doesn’t win Donovan many friends. Then the feds have to turn to Donovan once more when U-2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and captured. Can he go alone into East Berlin and negotiate a prisoner exchange? Although this is all ancient history (and the movie clocks in at a lengthy 141 minutes), Spielberg and Co. make it fresh and exciting. Alan Alda (The Aviator) and Amy Ryan (TV’s The Office) pop up in small parts as Donovan’s law partner and wife respectively.
True Grit (A). I am unfamiliar with the book and the John Wayne version of this movie, so I had no preconceived notions–except that I would probably like this movie because I’ve liked everything I’ve seen by the Coen brothers for a long time. (I still don’t get Barton Fink, though.) Obviously, I thoroughly liked this movie. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father has just been murdered in 1870s Fort Smith, Arkansas (on the border with the Indian Territory). Smart and determined, she persuades broken-down federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, Tron) to pursue the murderer into the Indian Territory for the promise of a $100 reward. Matt Damon (The Informant!) plays LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who’s tracking the same guy for a crime he committed in Texas. The dialogue is strangely elevated, almost like a Whit Stillman film, but it somehow seems right. Mayhem is never far away as they track the villainous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, The Goonies). Good stuff!
The Big Lebowski (A-). I am sorry I have missed out on the pleasure of this Coen brothers movie for so long. A plot summary can’t begin to convey how bizarrely off the wall the film is. Jeff Bridges (Starman) is an amiable California slacker named Jeff Lebowski, known to his friends simply as The Dude. He likes to drink, smoke marijuana, and bowl with his buddies Walter (John Goodman, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi, The Island). But then a couple of thugs mistake him for a wealthy old man who happens to share his name, and then when the old Lebowski’s trophy wife (Tara Reid, Josie and the Pussycats) gets kidnapped, he taps The Dude to be his ransom courier. Things quickly spiral out of The Dude’s comprehension, much less his control. Julianne Moore (Children of Men) is hilarious as the old man’s avant-garde-artist daughter. A couple of dream sequences are way, way over the top. (How does one conceive of the image of Saddam Hussein getting your bowling shoes for you?) Oh, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is in the movie, too. I laughed out loud several times, and I never stopped rooting for The Dude. If you like the Coen brothers’ quirky sense of humor, this cross between Raising Arizona and What’s Up, Doc? should hit your funny bone.
Burn After Reading (B). This 2008 release by the Coen brothers (A Serious Man) was actually nominated for a best-comedy Golden Globe. It’s a pretty black comedy, but I enjoyed it well enough. A CIA analyst with a drinking problem (John Malkovich, Beowulf) gets fired and starts writing his memoirs. Through a series of unlikely events, a CD containing some of his memoirs ends up in the hands of two dim-bulb gym employees (Brad Pitt, Babel; Frances McDormand, Fargo), who try to blackmail him for money and then try to sell their “secret information” to the Russians at their embassy. Oh, and George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox) is involved as a treasury agent who is sleeping with both McDormand’s character and the CIA analyst’s wife. Basically, almost everyone involved is an idiot, and the upper echelon CIA guys who hear bits and pieces of what is going on are completely baffled. A little slow in the early going, but entertaining if you like black comedy.
A Serious Man (B). I skipped the last couple of offerings from the Coen brothers, but the reviews for this one caught my attention. Our local critic called it a modern retelling of the Book of Job, so I was intrigued. Setting aside a weird but interesting prologue, the movie is a slice from the life of a nondescript Jewish college professor named Larry Gopnik, circa 1967. Unlike Job, who is presented as being very rich and very holy, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg, Men in Black 3) seems to be a very ordinary guy–decent enough, but not particularly virtuous. Some things start to go wrong in his life, and he begins to question whether there is any justice in the universe. Is there a God behind it all? And if so, what is He trying to tell poor Larry, who repeatedly protests, “I didn’t do anything!” But then, could that be the very reason his life is starting to fall apart? I really got engrossed in the movie and was eager to see how it all played out for poor Larry, but the ending let me down a little bit. In hindsight, though, it’s probably not a bad ending. Anyway, I enjoyed it, and if you see it in a thoughtful frame of mind I think you will too.
For the very first time in my life, I have read a book that was made into a movie, seen the movie, and concluded that the movie was better than the book. I struggled through darn near every page of Cormac McCarthy’s story of violence meets Texana meets chance. I blame my struggle on Mr. McCarthy’s rejection of some of the basic tenets of writing, chiefly his refusal to include quotation marks for any conversation between characters. It is a basic construct of writing. Apparently, one I need to accurately follow a written conversation. In any event, his story must be a good one because it translates well on the big screen. It may help that the acting is so good. The book and movie follows a Cowboy who comes across a big briefcase of money and the trouble that ensues as a crazed man with a bad haircut tries to chase the Cowboy and the big briefcase down. Perhaps I am just numb to it, but I did not find the violence in the movie to be too much to take. That said, a mess of people end up dead and there is gunplay and blood involved. I give the book a “C.” I give the movie an “A.”
Fargo (B). Yes, I have only just now gotten around to seeing this modern film noir by the Coen brothers. It is a pretty dark tale about a sad sack’s desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy by staging the kidnapping of his wife and having her wealthy father foot the ransom. Little goes according to plan, which is not surprising when Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski) shows up as one of the two kidnappers. Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom) won an Oscar, I believe, for her portrayal of the very pregnant small-town police chief who is a lot more on the ball than her frequent use of “jeez” and “you betcha” might indicate. She’s good, no question, but to me William H. Macy (The Cooler) steals the show as the poor schlub who concocts the scheme. Whether he’s quailing before his blustering father-in-law (and boss) or transparently lying to his customers at the car dealership where he works, Macy is picture-perfect as the pathetic loser whose plans spiral horribly out of control. Worth a viewing.
Intolerable Cruelty. (B) The Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my all-time favorite movies. I did not have such high expectations for this comedy about divorce, but I was pleasantly surprised. From the amusing opening credits, the film had no trouble keeping my interest. George Clooney is Miles Massey, a star divorce attorney in L.A. and creator of the “impenetrable” Massey pre-nuptial agreement. Near the beginning of the movie, he represents a philandering husband against his aggrieved wife Marilyn, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and he completely defeats her effort to take her husband for millions. But Massey is captivated by the incredibly beautiful Marilyn, and sparks fly when their paths cross a couple more times over the course of the film. There are plenty of humorous moments and a few typically Coenesque grotesqueries (like the living fossil of a lawyer who apparently lives in the basement of Massey’s law firm). And did I mention how insanely beautiful Zeta-Jones is in this movie? Check it out.
Mamma Mia. As an anniversary present, I took my parents to see this traveling production of the musical based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. I think they enjoyed it, but I was disappointed. For one, the music was way too loud, painfully so, and it frequently drowned out the singers. The light and playful sound of ABBA was never in evidence. For another, the play was rather crass and vulgar in parts. For a third, the songs were not integrated into the storyline in any coherent or compelling way. The paper-thin plot is merely an excuse for overblown versions of 25-year-old songs that lots of people (including me) still like today. Personally, I’d rather see and hear a competent ABBA cover band than sit through this production again.