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TV and Movies

Catching up on two weeks of stuff—SHARPE’S JUSTICE is a fabricate sequel to Sharpe’s Revenge in which Napoleon’s defeat frees Sharpe to journey to England to settle things with his self-serving wife Jane and her lover Rossendale (Alexis Denisof). Rossendale, however, gets him assigned to a garrison in Yorkshire where Sharpe meets childhood friends (in the novels, he’s a bastard from the rookeries of London, which makes me wonder if they made the change to match Sean Bean’s accent), locks horns with workers challenging the local mill owners and discovers one of the owners is a black-died bastard indeed. Quite good, particularly for one not based on the original books. “Is it a bill to help the poor? No … it’s a wine bill.”
I Netflixed a DVD of the RAMBO cartoon from the late 1980s and found just as forgettable as prior episodes I’d caught. This is a GI Joe knockoff in which Rambo leads the “Force of Freedom” against the terrorist cartel S.A.V.A.G.E., but the force only includes two members (Turbo the tech guy and Cat, the mistress of disguise), which limits the character interactions that could make the Joes fun. It is, however, interesting to see what a collection of late-20th century boogeymen work for SAVAGE: Arab terrorists, ninjas, street punks with mohawks, leftover Nazis … I am surprised they didn’t throw in any Commie presence, though.

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) is the Coen brothers’ picaresque mash-up of Sullivan’s Travels and The Odyssey as George Clooney leads an escape from a chain gang (John Turturro is one of the other inmates) in hopes of stopping ex-wife Holly Hunter from remarrying. This leads to encounters with siren Musetta Vander, cyclops John Goodman, conniving politico Charles Durning and Baby-Face Nelson. Clooney’s quest gives this the narrative spine The Big Lebowski needed, plus it has better musical numbers. The ending showdown with the law is also a good example of a well set-up eucatastrophe. “Even if it did put you right with the Lord, the state of Mississippi is a little more hard-nosed.”
I rewarded myself for meeting my writing goals in April by buying a set of Abbott and Costello movies—HIT THE ICE (1943) stars Bud and Lou as aspiring newspaper photographers who accidentally wind up capturing Sheldon Leonard’s bank robbery on camera. Determined to cover up the facts, Leonard arranges for them and another witness to join him at a winter resort until he can recover the film and rub them out. Like a lot of A&C scripts, this is weak stuff (there’s no reason Bud and Lou really have to worry about being blamed for the robbery) and with too many musical interludes, but the duo’s talent with a gag makes it watchable. “You’re as useless as sour cream in an outboard motor.”

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Movies and Books: Not their A-game

For starters, three that disappointed me.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) is the Coen Brothers’ cult hit in which aging radical (“I wrote the Port Huron statement—the original, not the later compromise draft.”) turned stoner bowler “Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) attempts to get compensation for his ruined rug (“It pulled together the room.”) which leads him into the noirish schemes of “Big” Lebowski (Jeffrey Huddleston), booklicker Philip Seymour Hoffman and eccentric artist Julianne Moore. The result is neo-noir filtered through the Coens’ comedic style (it’s like Harold and Kumar wandered onto the set of Blood Simple), but rewatching this, it didn’t work well for me. As Leonard Maltin says, it’s a shaggy dog story—nothing the Dude does changes anything, nor does it change him, which gives it a kind of pointless feel (and makes cowboy Sam Elliott’s assertion the Dude was the man we needed at this moment pointless too). John Goodman plays a psycho Vietnam vet (I think they’re trying to parody that cliche but it doesn’t work), and Steve Buscemi is a bad-luck bowling buddy. Ruthless People would double-bill well as they both involve convoluted kidnap schemes, or Burn After Reading, which did noir comedy better. “So my only hope is that the Big Lebowski kills me before the Germans cut my balls off.”

Much as I admire the late Steven Jay Gould’s science writing, I wound up skimming lots of AN URCHIN IN THE STORM: Essays About Books and Ideas. I think my big problem is that these essays were written for the New York Review of Books rather than his Nature column, so he’s recycling a lot of material on sociobiology and science history I’ve already read. He does an impressive job shredding anti-genengineering activist Jeremy Rifkin for scientific ignorance (while sharing some of his reservations), but overall unsatisfying and occasionally (as inevitable with prolific science writing) embarrassing, such as his dismissal of apes learning language as an obvious trick.
As an even bigger fan of Lord Dunsany’s fantasy, THE FOOD OF DEATH: Fifty-One Tales was a bigger disappointment. As I’ve mentioned before, Dunsany writes a lot about how we are all dust in the wind, but in a story such as “In the Land of Time” there’s much more going on. In these flash-fiction pieces, Time Destroys All is the whole point, and he insists on making it over and over and over, occasionally varying it to bewail how Commerce and Industry are destroying England, or combining themes to remind us that Time will eventually replace polluted, commercial London with green fields (while I’m quite happy criticizing commerce and industry, as you now, I’ve never thought Back to the Land was the solution—but of course I’m not a wealthy British aristocrat with vast country estates). All that being said, “Charon” is an excellent story and so are some of the others, such as “The Food of Death and “How the Enemy Came to Thlunrana.” Overall, though, weak.

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Movies and Books

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) is the Coen Brothers Capraesque tale (the ending owes a lot to both It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe) of how Indiana hick Tim Robbins becomes president of a national conglomerate as part of Paul Newman’s scheme to drive down the stock price, then snap it up for a song. Jennifer Jason Leigh further complicates the mix doing a dead-on Katherine Hepburn impersonation as a brash reporter (but frankly I think a more toned-down Barbara Stanwyck character would have fitted better). Entertaining, but not as hilarious as Raising Arizona—I think the Coen style clashes with the style of the forties material too much. With Charles Durning as Robbins’ predecessor, Bruce Campbell and John Mahoney as fellow newshounds (Sam Raimi cowrote this, which may explain Campbell showing up) and Jon Polito and Peter Gallagher in bit parts. “I’m never supposed to do that—but could you think of a better option?”

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY by Mary Robinette Kowal Is a not-quite-successful fantasy set in a Jane Austen world where illusion casting is considered a demure womanly art like painting watercolors or playing piano. The protagonist is the ugly-duckling sister of a pretty young thing and, unfortunately, comes off even more passive than the protagonist of Mansfield Park, spending most of the book sitting around wringing her hands and wishing she were pretty. This has all the elements Austen heroines deal with (Obnoxious and Irritating Suitors, insecurity, annoying relatives and protecting friends from bad decisions) but never catches the magic.
John LeCarré forsook espionage in THE NAÏVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER for the old warhorse of a successful man having a midlife crisis—specifically a British businessman who dives into the waters of the sexual revolution, most significantly with a male author who’s slid into obscurity since his legendary first bestseller. This didn’t work for me, but I agree with LeCarré in the introduction that it’s not as far removed from his spy thrillers as critics complained at the time (as the author puts it, Aldo has the same inability to work out his personal issues as Smiley does and for the same reasons).
BLACK PANTHER BY JACK KIRBY reminds me why it took years for me to take Kirby’s standing in comics seriously—I didn’t start reading his stuff until the New Gods era was almost over, and almost everything he wrote after that was pretty feeble (Eternals and Kamandi excepted). While this collection is full of energy as T’Challa falls in with a scheming group of relic hunters called the Collectors, the stories and concepts are recycled old-hat pulp stuff (with the exception of King Solomon’s Frog, a tiny time machine in the shape of a frog figurine—a shame everything wasn’t that zany). For most of the series, T’Challa’s standing as King of Wakanda and a technological genius is largely ignored in favor of reducing him to the big tough sidekick (to the primary Collector, Mr. Little) who hits things. Very unimpressive.
WORKING-CLASS WAR: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam by Christian G. Appy argues that class was the great dividing line between Vietnam veterans and non-veterans as the lower classes went to ‘nam for reasons ranging from lack of a job to ignorance about ways to get out of the draft to the guilt or shame factor when everyone else in their neighborhood was signing up. Appy’s work follows a general overview of how the grunts reacted to Vietnam, the Vietnamese and the war, and the shift in attitudes over time, most of which he finds More Complicated Than We Think (a lot of veterans who opposed the war didn’t come out and say so because they found the anti-war protesters equally objectionable). Very good

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Movies and TV

While I’m not a fan of Federico Fellini’s work, I do like 8 ½ (1963), in which Marcello Mastroanni plays a film directing struggling to create an ambitious, heavily autobiographical film, slipping into childhood flashbacks and fantasy sequences and trying to negotiate his relationships with the women in his life including wife Anouk Aimee and Claudia Cardinale. A very good film, arty in that distinctively European sixties way, but more successfully than Last Year at Marienbad. “These tender, innocent scenes of childhood are completely negative.”
Woody Allen was fairly obviously influenced by 8 1/2 (the similarity is obvious in the opening film-within-film sequences) in making STARDUST MEMORIES (1980), in which a filmmaker (Allen) spends a weekend at a tribute film festival coping with fans, flashing back to his past, juggling relationships (here they include Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper) and fending off complaints he’s not making funny movies any more (which makes me think it would double-bill well with Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, as Allen draws the opposite conclusions about humor from that film’s Joel McCrea). I find the last part interesting as I didn’t realize that criticism started this early in his career (the only serious movies he’s made to date are Manhattan and Interiors) and it’s actually a surprisingly funny movie a lot of the time. Entertaining overall, though frequently sliding into “wimpy Lovecraft” territory (see the burden of being Woody Allen!). with Daniel Stern, Sharon Stone (in an early bit part) and Tony Roberts among the supporting cast. “I can prove that if there is life anywhere else in the universe, it has a Marxist economy!”
Apparently it was a good period for watching films about creative minds in torment—BARTON FINK (1991) is pretentious playwright John Turturro (“The dreams and hopes of the common man are as important as those of a king!”) whose visit to Hollywood to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture becomes heavy going even before the intervention of psycho killer John Goodman. This Coen Brothers black comedy starts off well as Turturro copes with oily execs, unccoperative wallpaper and drunken Falkneresque screenwriter John Mahoney but it falls apart when Judy Davis’ corpse turns up in Turturro’s bed (about the point my tape cut out the first time I watched this): The transition from odd comedy to odd noir just doesn’t work. Great looking though, and solidly performed, with Tony Shalhoub as a producer, Steve Buscemi as a weird bellhop and Jon Polito as a studio lackey. More interesting than the Coen brothers’ previous film, Miller’s Crossing, though not necessarily better. “We were taught in the old country there’s no shame in supplicating yourself when you respect someone.”

NBC’s spy comedy CHUCK bowed out with a short season this year, following up on the end of the previous season in which evil spy Richard Burgi stripped Chuck of his “intersect” abilities (which give him both a database of top secrets in his head plus martial arts move). In rapid succession, we have Chuck’s buddy Morgan acquiring the Intersect, going off the rails, Burgi’s secret boss exposed (as my friend Ross says, a good choice—but they dropped the idea Burgi hinted at that everything that happened to Chuck had been part of one master plan) and then a much-inferior villain taking over for the last few episodes. Despite the weaker villain, a good finish to a fun series, with the last episode giving everyone a satisfying resolution.

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Movies

Catching up from last week …
The Coen Brothers’ third film was MILLER’S CROSSING (1990) in which 1920s mobster Gabriel Byrne tries to negotiate the tricky waters of a war between his boss Albert Finney and Italian gangster Jon Politoro, made further treacherous by Byrne’s affair with Finney’s mistress Marcia Gay Harden. After two Netflix DVDs of this proved defective, I read the online synopsis of the last 20 minutes—on the whole, watchable but not particularly outstanding, though it would double-bill well with The Glass Key (for another triangle involving a crook and his subordinate).“Once you make one double-cross where does it end? It’s an interesting ethical question.”
AVENGERS (2012) is, of course, the big budget hit in which Loki’s attempt to conquer Earth with the help of the Cosmic Cube and the Chitauri (aliens from Marvel’s Ultimates universe, which is a big influence on this) force Nick Fury to activate the Avengers Initiative and bring together Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow. Directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, this is great fun all the way around, as witness THG liked it too (she’s so not a super-hero type usually). That being said, the aliens were unimpressive—if the Black Widow can shoot them dead, the US Army can probably take them. “I got that reference—I actually got it.”
MANHATTAN (1979) is the story of how Woody Allen finds himself lured away from teen mistress Marielle Hemingway to his best friends adulterous lover Diane Keaton only to discover that their relationship is just as doomed as it was in Annie Hall. Although this is acclaimed as Allen’s masterpiece, it doesn’t work for me any better rewatching than it did on first glance: It’s not funny enough for a rom-com, but it doesn’t have the pacing or tone for a serious romantic drama either. It is hard now not to see his realizing Hemingway is The One as foreshadowing his later romance with Mia Farrow’s daughter. “I wrote a short story about my mother—I called it THE CASTRATING ZIONIST.”
PARTY GIRL (1995) is a fun reversal of the stereotype about librarians who need to loosen up; in this one it’s hedonistic New Yorker Parker Posey who grows up and gets her act together after being forced to work in the NY library system and developing a relationship with a local falafel vendor (the book Reel Bad Arabs applauds this one for using an Arab character as a non-stereotypical romantic lead). Fun, though my librarian friends say it wasn’t very accurate in its library science even at the time (and in the age of electronic catalogs it’s now quite antiquated, I imagine).“She’s always coding—I haven’t coded a single book!”
DOCTOR WHO: DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 AD (1966) is the much better sequel to Doctor Who and the Daleks in which a policeman stumbles into the TARDIS and gets a free ride to 2150, where he, Peter Cushing’s Doctor and his granddaughters must stop the Daleks turning Earth into a giant spaceship. This moves much faster than the first film (much less time wasted setting up the premise) and Cushing shows more steel. The Dalek weaponry (gas gun instead of TV’s negative-film image) is unimpressive though.“Surrender Earth to rolling trash bins? Never!”

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Movies

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) marks the point at which the Universal films became a series, as Frankenstein’s son Wolf (Basil Rathbone) returns to the ancestral castle only to discover the local villagers are horrified that he’ll follow his father’s traditions of mad science. And sure enough, the sinister, broken-necked Ygor (Bela Lugosi)—has this monstrous friend he hopes Wolf can revive … Noteworthy for introducing Ygor (the lab assistant in Frankenstein was Fritz) plus Lionel Atwill as a one-armed inspector and Karloff’s last turn in the monster makeup. Entertaining, and visually striking (the sets seem more stylized than the earlier films, IMHO), but Karloff gets little opportunity to be more than a generic monster (other than his grieving after Ygor’s death).“Eight men say Ygor must hang—now eight mean dead!’
RAISING ARIZONA (1987) is the Coen Brothers’ black-comic second film in which petty hood Nicolas Cage and cop wife Holly Hunter make up for their infertility by stealing one of the “Arizona Quintuplets.” Unfortunately, the dream of family life gets shattered by jailbreaking John Goodman and William Forsythe and demonic bounty hunter Randall Cobb. Funny, though the Coens strain to give this a happy ending; reminiscent of My Name Is Earl in that Cage looks and sounds a lot like Jason Lee in the TV show. “If you won’t meet my price for a baby, I’ll sell him for what the market will bear.”
THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1958) was a big influence on Brain From Outer Space—as you can probably tell from the title—so I finally got around to rewatching the story of how a malevolent, disembodied ET brain-creature takes over John Agar’s body, attempts to rape his fiancée (“There are aspects of the life of an Earth savage that I find exciting.”) and demands Earth build him a spacefleet for his goal of interplanetary conquest. Agar is, always, mind-blowingly wooden in the lead, and the ending is not only nutty but leaves several elements unresolved (how the heck will Agar convince the world he’s not an evil conqueror?); it is unusual to have a good alien brain hunting the evil Gor, implying that his civilization is actually law-abiding rather than all-evil. ”What you see me do to that one small area I can do to a city, a state—or a continent.”

I finally caught the third season of The Guild, Felicia Day’s Internet series about a World of Warcraft guild that runs into serious problems when it meets in the flesh. The third season is the equivalent of an Avengers Break Up comic book story as the various Guild members all walk out for one reason or another only to discover when they come up against Will Wheaton’s Guild of Doom that they’re better together than apart. Extremely fun. “One person told me that rather than talk with me, he’d sooner, and I quote, shave his privates with a rusty razor blade.”

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Movies

THE SONG OF SPARROWS (2008) is an Iranian film in which a working-class father loses his ostrich-farming job (I’m curious if that has the same exotic quality to Iranians it has here), goes to work as a motorbike-taxi driver and copes with both oddball customers and the occasional temptation to steal. Aimless, but entertaining——and I always find it interesting to watch films about ordinary life in a nation on our hit list. “What about the three herring?”
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) opens with Sean Connery avenging the death of Mrs. Bond in the previous film by killing Blofeld (Charles Gray) then starting a new job cracking a diamond smuggling ring which results in encounters with Jill St. John, Lana Wood (both great eye candy, though after Diana Rigg, their lack of acting talent is obvious), a Howard Hughes-style recluse (Jimmy Dean) and a not-so-dead Blofeld. This doesn’t hold up as well as I remember——the plot is pretty muddled, Blofeld’s final fate is quite anticlimactic and the film once again pads the running time with a car chase (which also looks suspiciously like product placement for a lot of Vegas hotels). Even so, quite entertaining and not a bad one for Connery to bow out of the official series with (he hadn’t wanted to return at all, but got to do two pictures of his choice in return, though only The Offense got made)——though he’d eventually return to the role in Never Say Never Again. “I know that in a relationship like ours, it isn’t the girl who’s supposed to ask.”
THE WAGES OF FEAR (1951) is a gripping drama in which a handful of down and out drifted in a pest-hole South American town (French stage star Yves Montand is the best known name to me) agree to transport two truckloads of nitro to an oil field to damp out a raging fire, despite the fact it’s rough, rocky road and if they jar the nitro too much … This Criterion edition includes the full print, with details of what got cut from various American releases (scenes critical of Big Oil, and some the distributor thought suggested too much homoerotic subtext) along with excellent documentary material about the director, Henri-Georges Clouzot (also known for Diabolique and Le Corbeau). Very good, and frequently nail-biting though the ending doesn’t work as well for me as it did first run.
INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973) is one of my all time favorite bad films, with batshit mad science and lots of eye candy (Veronica Vetri as the heroine has the Hot Librarian look down pat): After several government scientists drop dead during sex (with the women notably absent), government agent Neil Agar tries to figure out what, exactly is going on, unaware it’s the diabolical scheme of entomologist Anitra Ford to create——the Bee Girls! The DVD version has much more toplessness than my off-the-air tape, though some of it is in an attempted-rape scene (which thereby becomes even sleazier). Still, one I love much more than it probably deserves. “I’m about to discover the 90 percent that lies below the surface.”
BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) was the first of several neo-noir films the Coen brothers have done, wherein Dan Duryea discovers wife Frances McDormand’s affair and hires sleazy detective M. Emmett Walsh to get proof. Walsh, however, soon sees a way to profit from the situation, which results in a steadily increasing body count. True to the noir tradition of characters doomed by one mistake and very well done——though it’s sloppy that Duryea’s constant canine companion (and the dog following his wife’s lover around) both simply disappear mid-film without explanation. “If you point a gun at someone you’d better make sure he’s dead—that’s the only thing they taught us in the service that’s worth a damn.”

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