That Old, Familiar Tune

Is this what some people feel like when they watch a Quentin Tarantino film? There I was, watching the penultimate episode of The Night Of, HBO’s 2016 prestige crime/prison/courtroom drama. (Beware spoilers for The Night Of, but also for The Man Who Wasn’t There.) In its final, expertly staged scenes, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-innocent protagonist Naz becomes a willing accessory to a swift, bloody jailhouse murder. As the scene begins, violins start playing a melancholy tune – one that I immediately knew: the makers of The Night Of had taken a page out of the Coen Brothers’ songbook, using a theme written by composer Carter Burwell for The Man Who Wasn’t There to colour a scene of ruthless brutality.

The Man Who Wasn't There

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How many roads must a man walk down carrying a cat under his arm?

If you had to guess the screenwriter and/or director of a film featuring the line “Where is his scrotum?” with respect to a ginger cat, how long would it take you to come up with the name ‘Coen’? There are definitely many examples of the brothers’ trademark deadpanned quirks throughout Inside Llewyn Davis – at the same time, though, their latest is a remarkably low-key – and dare I say “mature” without sounding really old? – work, scrotum or no scrotum.

There are many things the film isn’t; for one thing, I wouldn’t call it original, as its characters and story beats are pretty familiar, nor is it as comedic as many of the Coens’ films, although it is frequently amusing. It is, however, a film that is crafted almost to perfection, knowing what it wants to be and how best to be it. This is nowhere as apparent as in Oscar Isaac’s performance as the title character, a singer-songwriter trying to find his place in the folk music scene of the ’60s. This isn’t an award-grabbing performance, remaining mostly internalised throughout, yet there’s not a single beat, line, gesture or lack thereof that could be changed without losing the character’s essential quality. Llewyn Davis is not an easy character to like, often exuding an understated mix of resentment, self-pity and arrogance underlying his lack of direction or drive, but Isaac, working with a strong script, makes him engaging – and that’s when he isn’t singing. When he is, you want to keep listening to Davis’ voice.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Just as essential to the film’s success as the central performance, the script and the music, is its beautiful cinematography, for once not by longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins but by Bruno Delbonnel of Amélie fame. I’ve long been annoyed with the nostalgia porn of so many films set in the ’60s or ’70s, but while Inside Llewyn Davis looks beautiful, it’s not the usual commodified attractiveness of the past that cinema tends to peddle. Delbonnel’s images are gorgeous to look at, but that doesn’t keep his New York and Chicago, his big city streets and smoky clubs, from being cold, dingy and unwelcoming. The film has an artist’s view of the ’60s, not a tourist’s.

So, in short, the film is surely one of the Coens’ most accomplished features – though I’m not sure the film will stay with me to the same extent that some of the Coens’ earlier works have; Fargo will always be special to be for being the first of the brothers’ films I’ve seen (and with my later wife, so it’s loaded with personal significance), and movies such as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There have probably left more of an imprint due to who I was when I saw them. As much as I liked Inside Llewyn Davis, it didn’t resonate with me the way that these other films did – but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in the Coens’ oeuvre, Inside Llewyn Davis may just be the most pitch-perfect, beautifully made.

Based on a true trailer

Since we’ll be leaving the United States in just over 32 hours, we thought we’d check out another movie, if only for the experience of sitting in a movie theatre armed with a double espresso shot caramel macchiato and an apple fritter. I’ll never eat in this town again.

The film itself, Burn After Reading, was decidedly so-so. I think my main problem with several of the Coen Bros. comedies is that the characters are painfully flat and, as a result, I simply don’t care much. (The Big Lebowski gets around this by making its characters quite endearing and strangely poignant, which should be an impossibility with such a far out, potheaded plot.) Same here: apart from very few moments, all of the protagonists remain cartoons – added to which there simply isn’t much of a plot to hold everything together. While the individual situations are comical, there’s a “ooookay… what should happen next? dunno…” quality to this film.

So, since a lot has already been written about the film, let me talk about more interesting things: the trailers. Four of ’em, and all of them intriguing.

I’m not a big Meryll Streep fan, although I acknowledge that she’s a good actress. Much of the time she seems too much like “Meryll Streep acting her little cotton socks off”, just like Robert de Niro, even at his best, tends to make the strain of acting very visible. It works in some films, but I prefer acting that almost vanishes – or otherwise make it very overt acting that doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s an act. Having said all of that, this trailer made me look up. Added to which it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman. Colour me intrigued.

Trailer no. 2. Okay… on the surface, this looks like it’s trying way too hard to win Oscars. Disability. Troubled musician. Based on a true story. Directed by the guy who brought you these middlebrow tearjerkers. And yet, and yet. Robert Downey Jr. can make most middling films interesting and Jamie Foxx definitely knows how to act. Also, based on the trailer the film looks beautifully shot, without going for the glossy, strings-swelling-triumphantly, one-step-away-from-Hallmark visual style.

I’ve only seen one film by Gus Van Sant: Finding Forrester. Yes, I like Anna Paquin, but that didn’t make it a very good film (although it was one of the weirdest, coolest, loveliest evenings and nights in my life that followed that film). Okay, I’ve also seen the vignette he directed in Paris Je T’Aime. I have no idea whether I like him as a director or not. Mostly I’ve read reviews of his films and thought, “Um… right.” (I am uncannily interested in Gerry, mind you.) Then there’s Sean Penn who, for me, is very hit-and-miss. When he’s good he’s very, very good; when he’s on a mission, he’s annoying as hell. But, I must admit, this trailer looks fascinating.

Finally, Frost/Nixon. So far I wasn’t interested at all. And if I’d remembered the director, my disinterest would have doubled, nay, trippled. Is there a more competently nothingy director than Ron Howard? But this may be just the right film for a bland director who nevertheless knows how to get good performances out of his actors. Added to which: Matthew Macfadyen. Yep – it’s Tom Quinn. It’s Henry IV. It’s one-eyed guy with bigass scar. (That last one was Enigma, in case you just went, “Huh?”) And the trailer doesn’t look like “Talky sort-of-historical film based on a play, with actors who wish they hadn’t played in those vampire movies” – it looks like a proper film.

So: main feature – meh. Trailers? Gimme more of that!

The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.

This is the one with pictures!

And what pretty pictures they are! Oh! Oh!

Okay, enough of that… it’s getting silly. What is there to talk about? Blood Simple, perhaps, which we watched tonight. A fascinating film to watch if you like les frères Coen, because it combines the “Ohshitohshitohshit…” tension of a James M. Cain novel with traces of the subversive humour that would come to full bloom in later Coen movies. Then again, I don’t particularly feel like talking about that movie. Go and watch it yourself, if you can keep yourself from constantly muttering, “Oh. My. God. Frances McDormand is so young!”

What else then? Nate Fisher’s funeral perhaps. It’s strange – when I first watched this episode about 1 1/2 years ago, I mostly felt numb throughout it. The tears only started to come halfway through the penultimate episode “Static”. (When the car pickup guy kicks in the crashed hearse’s window, that does me in completely.) This time, though, the aptly names “All Alone” really got to me. The way all the remaining Fishers, as well as Brenda and Maggie, were locked into themselves by their grief, rage and frustration. The way putting shrouded Nate in that hole in the ground seemed so final – even though this is Six Feet Under, where the dead appear to the living to cajole, taunt and sometimes, very rarely, if you’re lucky, offer much needed sympathy. Even Claire’s flashback to the day Kurt Cobain died (“Too pure for this world”?! Whatever it is you’re smoking, buddy boy, gimme some of that!) didn’t just feel embarrassing. Perhaps I’m just getting soppy and old.

Ruth alone

Or should I write about Deadwood? I’ve already said a lot about the tension that’s been building up since George Hearst’s arrival and immediate claim. It definitely feels like more blood will be spilled before the end of the season – and quite some blood has already been spilled. Not to mention other body parts ending up where they don’t really belong.

So, just one brief note about Deadwood: in addition to the dialogues, the world that is evoked, the storylines, the series’ feel for what the Germans call Spannungsbogen (there’s really no exact English equivalent, which I consider a much greater inadequacy than the lack of Zeitgeist or Blitzkrieg), I simply love the faces. They all tell stories, and they feel so eminently right.

George Hearst, looking for a new captain (preferably with two eyes)

The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.

 Not.

The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.