Friday, February 12, 2016

Classic Movie Review: The Decline of the American Empire (1986)

The Decline of the American Empire (1986)
Directed by: Denys Arcand.
Written by: Denys Arcand.
Starring: Dominique Michel (Dominique St. Arnaud), Dorothée Berryman (Louise), Louise Portal (Diane Leonard), Pierre Curzi (Pierre), Rémy Girard (Rémy), Yves Jacques (Claude), Geneviève Rioux (Danielle), Daniel Brière (Alain), Gabriel Arcand (Mario).

It is hard to overstate the importance of The Decline of the American Empire to the Quebec film industry. When it was made, back in 1986, the Quebec film industry was going through rough times – even the great Claude Jutra couldn’t get anything made, and was basically doing TV work before he killed himself after learning he had Alzheimer’s in 1985. Denys Arcand had been active in the film industry since the 1960s – but he bounced around from features to shorts to docs to TV work and back again, searching for his hit. With The Decline of the American Empire he finally found it. The film became the first film made in Canada to be nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar (Arcand would actually make the first three to get that honor – with Jesus of Montreal in 1989 and The Barbarian Invasions, a sequel to Decline which won, in 2003). The film helped to revitalize the Quebec – and Canadian – film industry, as it became an art house hit and put Arcand on the map.

I’ve seen The Barbarian Invasions of course – and Jesus of Montreal (and Stardom and Days of Darkness for that matter), but for reasons I cannot explain, I had not seen The Decline of the American Empire until now. The film has certainly aged a little bit – any movie from the past does this of course, but there’s something about the big hair and shoulder pads era of the 1980s that always make it more pronounced to me. But the film still works – it’s still funny, well-acted and well-written. The film overreaches more than a little bit with the title, as the film at times strains for importance that its shallow, sex-obsessed cast of characters doesn’t earn, but as a Woody Allen-esque sex comedy for middle aged intellectuals, the film hits its target.

The first hour of the film has its eight main characters split into two groups. The men – married Remy (Remy Girard), divorced Pierre (Pierre Curzi) with a new, younger girlfriend, gay Claude (Yves Jacques), and young bachelor Alain (Daniel Brier) are all at a lakeside cottage, preparing dinner, drinking wine, and talking. They all work at the University, but they don’t much touch on intellectual topics – although they do talk about how intellectual they are – but they basically talk about sex. Pierre got divorced because he was fucking anything that moves. Remy also fucks anything that moves, but wants to stay married. He says his infidelity actually improves his marriage. Claude talks about “cruising” – but he doesn’t get as much graphic detail as the others do. And Alain sits back, not quite sure what to make of it all. The women – Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who is married to Remy, says she knows that Remy probably has affairs, but has no idea how deep it goes, Diane (Louise Portal), a divorcee, going from one fling to another, Dominique (Dominique St. Arnaud) a never married woman in middle age, and Danielle (Genevieve Rioux), Pierre’s younger girlfriend, are all at the health club. As they swim, run, take a steam, they all talk about sex as well – they compare notes, and talk as big of game as the men do.

After the first hour, the two groups come together – and are joined by one other person, Mario (Gabriel Arcand), a lover of Diane’s. The first hour was funny, as the sex talk was witty, and the cut always to various sexual acts not overly graphic, but amusing (basically flashing to Remy sleeping with the other women – except the younger Danielle) or Pierre sleeping with the other women in her group, or Louise’s recollection of an orgy gone wrong. Remy and Louise emerge as the central couple almost by default, as they are the ones who have been together the longest, and the only couple we can compare notes on (someone is lying about that orgy gone wrong). As we head into the second hour though, the humor starts to drain away. Things at the house get a little tenser, secrets are revealed – and it becomes clear that no one is quite as jaded and cynical as they want everyone else to believe. People are hurt, relationships are destroyed – as will be confirmed in The Barbarian Invasions.

The film works because the performances are engaging, the writing is funny and Arcand keeps things moving at a brisk, enjoyable pace. I don’t think it quite rises the level that Arcand is aiming for – these aging leftists and their sex lives don’t really represent the downfall of Western Civilization as much as their own selfish selves. Arcand does a better job in introducing the larger cultural world into The Barbarian Invasions than he does here. There are some things that don’t work as well in the film – I’m still somewhat confused as to what the purpose of Mario was (but I am assuming there is one – he won a Genie for Best Supporting Actor for reasons I do not understand).

The Decline of the American Empire put Arcand on the map. He topped himself with Jesus of Montreal – and did so again with The Barbarian Invasions. Those three films by themselves will keep him in the pantheon of best Canadian directors of all time. And if The Decline of the American Empire is the weakest of the three, that says more about the strengths of the other two than the weaknesses of this one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Movie Review: Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott based on the play by Aristophanes.
Starring: Nick Cannon (Chi-Raq), Teyonah Parris (Lysistrata), Wesley Snipes (Cyclops), Angela Bassett (Miss Helen), Samuel L. Jackson (Dolmedes), John Cusack (Father Mike Corridan), Jennifer Hudson (Irene), David Patrick Kelly (General King Kong), D.B. Sweeney (Mayor McCloud), Dave Chappelle (Morris), Steve Harris (Old Duke), Harry Lennix (Commissioner Blades).

Spike Lee is, without a doubt, the only director who would attempt to make a movie like Chi-Raq. The film is a musical, sex comedy/satire about gun violence based on a Greek play written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, but set in modern day Chicago. Lee and his co-writer – Kevin Willmott – decide to write the whole movie in verse – basically having all the dialogue spoken in rhyming couplets. They have cast Samuel L. Jackson as the wonderfully named Dolmedes – part Blaxploitation figure, part Greek chorus, to narrate the action. The basic plot of the movie involves the women of Chicago, led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who are tired of all the gun deaths – including those of innocent bystanders, who are often children, going on a sex strike to force their men to give up violence. “No peace, no pussy”, is their blunt catchphrase. Lee has never been an overly subtle director – he likes his films loud, blunt and in your face – and you’d be hard pressed to find a louder or blunter movie even in Lee’s filmography. But sometimes that is precisely what is needed – and Chi-Raq is one of those times. Chi-Raq is hardly a perfect movie – by trying to do so much, Lee has to know it’s not all going to work – but perfection is an overrated quality in movies anyway. Chi-Raq gives you more to think about than just about any other film out there – you probably won’t agree with it all, it probably all won’t work for you – but dammit all, you’re not going to forget Chi-Raq. The film is perfectly imperfect.

Lee’s bold, stylistic gambits start right from the beginning, as he allows the entire title song to play out, against a black screen, with the lyrics being the only words on the screen. If you’re watching this film, you’re going to listen to this song – about the violence and hate that has infested Chicago – and you’re going to deal with the lyrics. He then segues right to Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolemedes explaining what the hell the movie is up to, and then another song – performed by a rapper/gangster named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), glorifying the exact thing that the previous song demonized. As the song is being performed – in a packed club – Lysistrata is among the women in the crowd, dancing in unison, in what looks like a war dance. Surprising no one, that song will be cut short when shots start ringing out leaving several people dead of injured. None of this seems to have much of an effect on Chi-Raq or Lysistrata, who we see engaged in a vigorous sex right afterwards – although that too will be interrupted by violence. It’s not long before a little girl ends up dead on the street – a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – leading to a memorable image of the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) trying in vain to scrub her dead daughter’s blood off the street. It is also this death that sets in motion the rest of the movie – as Lysistrata goes to talk to a neighbor (Angela Bassett) and starts to see things in a different light. She gets together with the women who are with members of Chi-Raq’s gang, as well as women in their rival gangs (led by Wesley Snipes’s cackling, one eyed Cyclops) and starts the sex strike. Things pick up even more when Lysistrata and her women take over the armory to have their demands met.

Lee has never been afraid of preaching or sermonizing in his movie – and you have to give him credit in Chi-Raq that he doesn’t even try to hide that fact. There is a good 10-15 sequence when Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) gives a sermon at the funeral of the dead little girl, where he calls out everything from the politicians to the NRA to the culture of toxic masculinity that has led to all this violence in the first place. This does grind the movie to a halt – but not in a bad way. At first, it’s rather jarring (and you wonder why Lee cast Cusack, and not a black man in the role – although apparently he is based on a real life figure) – but Cusack does some amazing work in this sequence. It’s almost another of the film’s musical numbers.

Chi-Raq deliberately has some drastic tonal shifts in it. At times, the film is hilariously funny and over-the-top – like the sequence where Lysistrata takes over the armory by seducing its commander – an openly racist General, who humps a Civil War canon while wearing Confederate flag underwear. At times the film is powerful and emotional – Hudson cleaning the blood off the streets, the various young men in wheelchairs or suffering from other ailments talking about how their lives have changed because of the violence. At times the film is undeniably sexy and erotic – especially the face-off climax between Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, in a big brass bed, in front of everyone, which doubles as a brilliant musical number. The fact the film’s dialogue is written in verse does lead to its share of awkward dialogue, but the game cast makes it work. No one is better than Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata who owns the screen is a dynamic, sexy performance that deftly navigates the tonal shifts, and creates a real character out of Lysistrata. Lee has never been a great writer of female characters – some of his weaker films (like She’s Gotta Have It or Girl 6) have had female leads that Lee never truly understands. That’s not the case here as Lysistrata is the central character, and Parris delivers a great performance.

Chi-Raq was made by Amazon studios – their first movie – and is another of Lee’s recent string of lowered budgeted film, produced by means outside of the Hollywood studio system. Whatever you thought of the two more recent movies like this – 2012’s Red Hook Summer and 2015’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (and, for the record, I think both are among Lee’s weakest film), you cannot doubt their passion – nor their personal meaning to Lee. Lee is at an age when many directors soften, and simply repeat their greatest hits (he did after all just win a lifetime achievement Oscar – the least the Academy could do considering all the times they have ignored his work) – but Lee isn’t interested in doing that. He is continuing to make bold movies that take huge chances. Sometimes, those chances don’t pay off – but wouldn’t you rather Lee continue in this vein, rather than make more films like Oldboy (2013) – a thriller made with genuine skill, that nonetheless feels like exactly what it is – a work for hire. Chi-Raq is a bold and original work – and no matter its flaws, it is one of the most vital films of the year.

Movie Review: Our Brand is Crisis

Our Brand is Crisis
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: Peter Straughan suggested by the documentary by Rachel Boynton.
Starring: Sandra Bullock (Jane), Billy Bob Thornton (Pat Candy), Anthony Mackie (Ben), Joaquim de Almeida (Castillo), Ann Dowd (Nell), Scoot McNairy (Buckley), Zoe Kazan (LeBlanc), Dominic Flores (Hugo), Reynaldo Pacheco (Eddie), Louis Arcella (Rivera), Octavio Gómez Berríos (Pepe), Luis Chávez (Abraham).

The career of director David Gordon Green has been an interesting one. It started with four low budget films – George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels – that show the influence of Terrence Malick (who signed on as a producer on some of them) – and were slow, brilliantly photographed films that reveal their characters, and their locations, wonderfully. These four made him one of my favorite young directors – but didn’t make very much money. He then moved into mainstream comedy with Pineapple Express (which was wonderful), and then Your Highness and The Sitter (which were not). Since then, he has struggled a little to regain his footing – Prince Avalanche with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, tried to bridge the gap between his early work and the comedy, with limited success, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage at his best, is the best of his recent work, Manglehorn, with Al Pacino, was interesting, but not very successful, and character piece. Green started as a director with a distinctive style all his own – you knew you were watching a David Gordon Green film. Now, you have no idea.

His latest is Our Brand is Crisis – a political satire starring Sandra Bullock as “Calamity” Jane – a political strategist who has had more failures in recent years than successes, and is all but out of the game, when she hired to come down to Bolivia and help the Presidential campaign of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who is way behind in the pools, and is seen as being out of touch with the problems of real Bolivia – and is widely believed to want to contact the IMF the moment he is elected, which is apparently a very bad thing, although the movie never really explains way. Jane doesn’t really know or care about what a win for Castillo would actually mean for Bolivia – she just wants to win, especially since the current frontrunner has hired Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), her arch nemesis that she has never beaten, as his advisor. Jane arrives, and immediately starts to trying to change the message of Castillo’s campaign – to tell everyone Bolivia is in crisis, and only he can see it – and humanize him.

Most of the movie is played as a political comedy, with snappy dialogue that Bullock handles well, as does Billy Bob Thornton, and the rest of the cast. A little bit of lip service is paid to the people of Bolivia – mainly in the form of Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), who idolizes Castillo, and works on the campaign, and eventually shows Jane how he and his friends live in the slums. It isn’t pretty. The film has some nice bits of comedy – a dead llama for example – and for his part, Green keeps the pacing of the movie up and its all somewhat entertaining.

Yet the movie never quite works. It all seems so lightweight and inconsequential – that no one involved is taking it all that seriously. Perhaps that would less of a problem, but the end of the movie begs to be taken seriously – and offers an out of nowhere left turn where it tries to make you care for a character who had spent the rest of the movie basically be amoral (as all the other Americans in the movie are). Our Brand is Crisis either needed to take that whole conversion more seriously – or abandon it altogether. As it stands, the result is a rather toothless movie – it pulls its punches early, so it can deliver its would-be knock-out punch late – but as it stands, it doesn’t really land any of them. The cast – especially Bullock, who I think can go darker – deserved better than what they got. And the career of David Gordon Green keeps getting murkier.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Updated Coen Brothers Ranking

In early 2014, I went back and watched all of the Coen brothers movie, and did a re-ranking of them. No, two years later, their latest film, Hail, Caesar! opens, and I need to re-rank everything again. I always bounce around on the Coen’s depending on my mood, and so this is probably not the same as the last ranking I did, nor will it be the same as my next ranking. I always love reading Coen rankings, because no two are remotely the same – there’s always a film or two on every list that I think is shockingly low, and another film or two that are shockingly high.

17. The Ladykillers (2004) – I remember thinking this movie wasn’t so bad when I watched it back in 2004 – and when I re-watched it, I still don’t think it’s horrible. But other than the minor joy of seeing Tom Hanks play against type, and the major joy of Irma P. Hall doing everything, there just isn’t much here – and the film is more mean spirited than I recall. I cannot think of a reason I’d ever re-watch it again  that - is until the next time I decide to go through the Coens films one at a time.

16. Raising Arizona (1987) – Everybody’s Coen brothers list has to have an outlier – either the film that is largely dismissed that ranks in your top 5, or the supposed masterpiece near the bottom. Many think Raising Arizona is a masterpiece – and I just don’t get it. Normally, the Coen’s in silly mode makes me laugh (and there are funny moments here to be sure), and normally, I find their blending of comedy and drama effortless. Here though, it mostly just hits the wrong notes, and I just don’t think it works. I’ll probably keep re-watching this film – I’ve seen it at least 4 or 5 times now – and hope to change my mind. But so far, no dice.

15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003) – This film probably feels less Coen brother-y than any of their other films. Yet, when I re-watched it two years ago, I was surprised by how utterly delightful it was. No, it’s nowhere near the brothers best work, but damn it all if it isn’t a hell of a lot fun.

14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – Out of all of the Coens films, The Hudsucker Proxy is probably where I get closest to the Brothers detractors – and will admit that yes, in this case, it is all style over substance. The more times I watch the film, the less the plot or characters or themes affect me – but the more I marvel at the amazing style in which they pull it all off. It’s fun, and brilliant to look at. That isn’t too bad, is it?

13. Miller’s Crossing (1990) – I know a lot of people will scream at me for having this so low. So be it. Miller’s Crossing is a brilliant looking film – a blending of the Coen style with 1930s gangster movies, and it looks amazing. It is also, without a doubt for me, the coldest film of the Coen’s career – deliberately so to be sure, but still, perhaps too icy for me to really get into. I still quite like it – love it in some ways – but it’s nowhere near the brothers best for me.

12. Burn After Reading (2008) – I know I like Burn After Reading more than most people do – to me, it was pretty much hilarious from start to finish, with a brilliant ensemble cast, playing a bunch of idiots who crash into each other for two years, ending with a great final scene of a minor character wishing he knew “just what the fuck we’ve done here”. Take it as a surface level comedy, and it’s hilarious. But I think there’s something deeper – and angrier – here as well. Not much deeper, perhaps, but much angrier – a movie of its moments and the culture of idiots that surrounded it.

11. True Grit (2010) – The Coen Brothers remaking an Oscar winning, John Wayne classic probably doesn’t sound like a good idea – that is, unless you’ve read the book, in which you know it was already half-way to a Coen movie anyway. This Western is a lot of things – starting off being extremely funny and entertaining – with Jeff Bridges playing the John Wayne part basically as The Dude, and young Hailee Steinfeld killing it as the young girl at the center of the movie. Then, gradually, the film becomes richer and darker as it goes along – and ends up being surprisingly moving. If you’re only going to see one version of True Grit – this is the one to see.

10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – The Coens series of comic misadventures, inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, make this film more episodic than most – although it’s as funny as anything they have ever done. The film, brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, is a depression era, musical comedy with George Clooney (starting his fruitful collaboration with the Coens), John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of convicts escaping from the chain gang going on the run. The film is frequently hilarious, and if it’s hard to see a larger point to it all that hardly matters because of just how much fun it is.

9. Hail, Caesar! (2016) – I can see this either moving up or down a couple of spots on subsequent viewings (and there will be many) – but on first blush, right at the half way mark seems the perfect spot for their latest – a goofy comedy of the studio era, with many great comic set pieces, and a Christ storyline that makes the whole thing deeper. I loved the film the first time through – and hope to love it again later.

8. Blood Simple (1984) – The Coens debut film was this brilliant, modern day noir – with a cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz) trying to stay ahead of her rich husband (Dan Hedaya) and the P.I./killer (M. Emmett Walsh) he has hired to catch them. It’s amazing how complete the Coens’ worldview was right from the start of their career – how pitch black the comedy is here, how great performances and cinematography. Blood Simple is often on lists for the best debut films of all times – and it deserves that spot.

7. The Big Lebowski (1998) – An endlessly re-watchable, “Stoner Noir” – that would make a great triple feature alongside Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Anderson’s Inherent Vice – The Big Lebowski is the Coen’s at their goofiest, as The Dude – Jeff Bridges in his best, most iconic performance – wanders into a kidnapping plot, and has no clue what the hell he’s doing. The film has one great character and scene after another, all coming together in one of the overall most entertaining and funny packages of the Coen’s career. Not as deep as some, but never less than exuberantly entertaining.

6. Barton Fink (1991) – Barton Fink is a film that gets better every time I see it – I started off mystified, and then as time moved on, I loved it more and more. John Turturro’s title character – a mostly talentless playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter, slowly going insane in the hotel, is a masterwork of production design, and cinematography – and it’s funny as hell, and disturbing, as it almost literally descends into hell in the final reel. John Goodman has done any number of great performances for the Coens over the years – but this is his is best, easily. This is a film that I still don’t think I got a complete handle on – in fact, I think I’m going to watch it again soon.

5. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – This is a personal favorite of mine, for some complicated personal reasons. I know it’s probably not as deep as Barton Fink, nor as endlessly re-watchable as The Big Lebowski, but it’s a Coen film that moves me immeasurably every time I see it – much more than most, it seems, who have largely dismissed or forgotten the film as minor – despite great black and white cinematography (so great in fact, I wish the Coens would do another black and white film). This is great film noir, centered on a man so quiet and calm, that people barely realize he’s there – who finally tries to assert himself, with disastrous results. A brilliant examination of the type of character we hardly ever see in movies.

4. A Serious Man (2009) – It shouldn’t surprise anyone that if the Coens were going to turn any book of the bible into a movie, it would be the Book of Job – they no doubt enjoy how God basically torments Job for the sake of tormenting him. A Serious Man takes place in the suburban Minnesota of the 1960s that the Coens grew up in – and follows a physics professor (played, brilliantly, by Michael Stuhlbarg), whose entire life is falling apart, and he has no idea why. For the entire movie, he resists temptation, until the final moment – in which he may just unleash the apocalypse. And, it’s a comedy – not a goofy Coen comedy, but something deeper and richer. Like Barton Fink, this is one of those films that just gets deeper every damn time I watch it.

3. No Country for Old Men (2007) – Not many people have had success adapting Cormac McCarthy – but with No Country for Old Men the master novelist seemed to meet the brothers half way – writing a book that was perfect for them, and they were smart enough to realize it, and turn it into if not their best movie, then their most perfect one. The movie runs like a Swiss watch, and doesn’t hit a false note from the moment it begins, right to the final shot of Tommy Lee Jones at his kitchen table. One of those rare films that is perfect – and a perfect blend of multiple brilliant artists – McCarthy and the Coens, and their sensibilities.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – My favorite film of the decade so far, is masterwork from the brothers, about a 1960s folk singer who has talent – just not quite enough to make it. It is a quiet, devastating film about giving up and giving in. In the lead role, Oscar Isaac delivers perhaps the best single performance in a Coen movie ever. The film didn’t make much money when it released – although it was hugely critically acclaimed – but I think it’s still finding its audience. Don’t be surprised if one day, this moves up to the top spot on my list – I’m just not quite ready to do that yet.

1. Fargo (1996) – I have seen Fargo more times than any other Coen brother movie – and perhaps more than any movie period – it is one of the few films I would describe as perfect. The film is a crime thriller – and a violent one, but also a hilarious comedy, and even a quietly touching look at marriage. It is endlessly quotable – features two of the best performances of all time by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy (not to mention to Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, and hell, everyone else). I will never get tired of watching this film.

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen. 
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker), Frances McDormand (C. C. Calhoun), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Veronica Osorio (Carlotta Valdez), Heather Goldenhersh (Natalie), Max Baker (Head Communist Writer), Fisher Stevens (Communist Writer #1), David Krumholtz (Communist Writer #4), John Bluthal (Professor Marcuse), Alex Karpovsky (Mr. Smitrovich), Aramazd Stepanian (Eastern Orthodox Clergyman), Allan Havey (Protestant Clergyman), Robert Pike Daniel (Catholic Clergyman), Ian Blackman (Cuddahy), Geoffrey Cantor (Sid Siegelstein), Christopher Lambert (Arne Seslum). 

On the surface, Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers in silly mode for the first time since 2008’s Burn After Reading, and it’s a welcome return. When the Coens decide to make pure comedy, they are better than just about anyone currently working at them, with humor both high and low, but frequently funnier than anything else around. Hail, Caesar has any number of those moments - the out and out funniest, Ralph Fiennes’ refined British director trying to coach Aldren Ehrenreich’s seemingly dimwitted Western star to say “Would that it were so simple” ranks among the funniest moments in any Coen film ever – and when they return to it, 45 minutes later, delivers a hell of kicker as well. This isn’t a Coen movie that has a plot that runs like a fine Swiss watch – there’s not a whole lot of plot in the movie to begin with, and the Coens aren’t above abandoning it for pleasurable diversions when they appear. That isn’t to say that Hail, Caesar is all surface level fun however – there is a level just beneath the surface that I cannot shake, and make the whole movie a richer, deeper experience – and makes the film perhaps the most hopeful film of the Coens career.

The film takes place in 1950s Hollywood – mainly on the lot of Capitol Pictures (the same studio that employed Barton Fink a couple decades previously). The main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who the “Head of Physical Production”, whose job it seems is to put out all the fires and solve all the problems on all the movies, and with all the movie stars. There was a real Eddie Mannix, who was a studio fixer in his day (the 1930s) – but the Coens, as they are wont to do, are basically screwing with the audience by naming him after a real person, who doesn’t have all the much in common with the fictional one here (that Mannix was a hell of a lot worse). The films takes place over a 24 hour period, and there is a hell of lot of problems that Mannix has to deal with – the biggest being that a group calling themselves The Future, has kidnapped Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, just as they are wrapping production on Hail, Caesar, their huge budgeted prestige picture for the year.

It’s no coincidence that the Coen’s open the movie on the image of a large crucifix, with Jesus dying on the cross, nor that the scene then segues into Mannix at confession – talking to an exasperated priest who is tired of seeing him every single day to hear his confession. Mannix is the film’s Christ figure here – taking on the sins of all those around him – none of whom feel the slightest bit of guilt about them – while he himself feels guilty on their behalf. Throughout the day, Mannix has a few conversations with a man from Lockheed –trying to tempt Mannix away from Capitol pictures, with an offer of more money, and less stress – as well as constantly offering Mannix a cigarette, even after he has explained that he’s trying to quit. To drive the point home, the first time we actually see the title of the movie onscreen, it’s not in the context of the title of the Coen movie, but of the film within the film, with the subheading “A Tale of the Christ” – much like 1959’s Ben-Hur. Although Jewish, the Coens have never really shied away from Christian imagery or even Christian messages throughout their career – and Hail, Caesar is no exception. Mannix may not be dying for the sins of the people under his care – but he is taking those sins upon himself.

This, as mentioned above, may just make Hail, Caesar! the most hopeful film of the Coens’ career to this point. The two taglines for their 2007 masterpiece, No Country for Old Men – “No One Gets Away Clean” and “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – sum up their career fairly succinctly. In the Coens’ world, you do not really get away with your sins – you are eventually punished for them one way or another – and sometimes even innocent pay for the sins of others (like William H. Macy’s wife in Fargo, or poor, dumb Donnie in The Big Lebowski). Not in Hail, Caesar! however, where everyone sins, and no one pays for it. Here, it seems, redemption really is possible – Mannix just has to except his fate.

It’s entirely possible however to ignore all of that, and just enjoy Hail, Caesar as the goofy comedy that it is. The Coens’ have always been in love with old movies, often using them as templates for their own, and here they indulge themselves and do a brilliant job of recreating a little bit of everything for the studio era. One of the most memorable scenes in the whole film has nothing to do with anything else in the film, but is glorious just the same – the large scale, hilariously homoerotic dance number featuring a large group of sailors, led by the game as always Channing Tatum, tap dancing with the best of them. Tatum’s is just one of the great, little supporting roles in the film. Tilda Swinton is having a blast as twin gossip columnists, who seemingly appear out of nowhere, one at a time (they hate each other) to throw whoever off their game. George Clooney adds another of his glorious nitwits to his work for the Coens (following O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading) – spending the entire movie in his Hail, Caesar costume, and being introduced to Communism for the first time (it sounds pretty cool to him).Surprisingly, it’s Alden Ehrenreich who practically steals the movie as Hobie Doyle, who we are introduced to as a singing, stunt doing cowboy, before he’s cast in a drawing room comedy. At first, he seems like a complete and total idiot – but he’s actually the only one who can seemingly figure anything out, in his simple sounding, homespun fashion. That doesn’t even mention Scarlett Johansson, adopting the most exaggerated accent of her career (that has had a few), or Jonah Hill in a nearly silent, yet hilarious cameo, or Frances McDormand, as an old school editor. Brolin is wonderful as Mannix – funny and weary at the same time – but the supporting cast helps make the movie as wonderful as it is.

When the Coens go goofy, like Hail Caesar undeniably is, there is a tendency of some to dismiss it as minor Coens – enjoyable, but lightweight and meaningless. I don’t think Hail, Caesar is that. No, it isn’t the masterpiece that several of their films are – but it’s wonderful in its own way, and consistent with the rest of their work. I cannot wait to dive headlong into the film again – as I think there’s more here than is readily apparent on the surface.

Movie Review: Rams

Rams
Directed by: Grímur Hákonarson.
Written by: Grímur Hákonarson.
Starring: Sigurður Sigurjónsson (Gummi), Theodór Júlíusson (Kiddi), Charlotte Bøving (Katrin), Jon Benonysson (Runólfur), Gunnar Jónsson (Grímur), Þorleifur Einarsson (Sindri), Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson (Bjarni).

When I say that Rams is a movie about Icelandic sheep herders, I am sure that half of the people reading this will simply stop, and conclude that the movie isn’t for them. A movie about Icelandic sheep herders does in fact sound like the type of thing Lisa Simpson drags the rest of the family to, and the end of seeing some beautiful, but slow movie about endless toil and struggle – or a film that Jay Sherman from the critic would love, and the rest of the world would hate. But Rams is not that movie – it is a beautiful, humane and even funny movie – a film that sneaks up on you a little bit, as you’re not quite aware of just how involved you are until the final few scenes of the movie, that build to a quietly devastating, ambiguous final shot. This is an Icelandic sheep herder movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to just about any intelligent adult.

The film is about a pair of brothers – Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) – who are both sheep herders, and can see each other’s houses from their windows, but who haven’t spoken in decades, and generally have as little to do with each as possible – passive-aggressively using Kiddi’s dog to pass notes back and forth – and not notes to actually communicate with each, just to piss each other off even more. We get hints of what came between these two, but never the whole story. They live in a secluded valley near a small town, and everyone we meet seems to be involved in sheep herding in one way or another. The brothers have the last of a hearty stock of sheep, passed down from their father, and are very proud of this. At the annual sheep competition – where each farmer selects their prize ram for judgment – a half point (out of 267) separates the two brothers rams – with Kiddi, the older, drunker, less popular brother winning, apparently because of the thickness of the rams spine. Gummi sneaks away to investigate this sheep – and thinks he discovers something horrible – the ram has scraple. You have probably never heard of scrapple – unless you’re really into sheep, there’s no need to. But if a herd is infected with it, they all need to be put down. And since all of the sheep in the valley are close to each other, that means they all need to be put down – and they cannot raise any new ones for two years. Because Gummi discovered this, Kiddi holds him personally responsible – and the cold war between the two of them heats up. But then, surprisingly, it is Gummi who does something unexpected.

Rams is basically a gentle human comedy with dramatic overtones. There are some very funny moments – the way Gummi takes Kiddi to the hospital for instance when he finds him unconscious in the snow, or the comedic sequence when Gummi tries to keep his secret hidden from an outsider. The two brothers are, of course, much like the stubborn rams they love so much – unwilling to forgive and forget what happened in the past, so instead they constantly butt heads. The performances by these two actors – especially Sigurjónsson as Gummi, who has a much more complex role - Kiddi is basically just a drunken ass for most of the movie – who does a lot with his face, even hidden behind the giant bushy beard all the males characters in the movie seem to share. The supporting cast have nice moments – rounding out the movie so it really does feel like its taking place in a community, not just between these two stubborn brothers. The landscape in the movie are beautiful in the early scenes - when it's summer, and cold and foreboding as the movie progresses into winter, and the snow starts piling up, trapping everyone inside.

The end of the movie is probably the best part – as it is here where writer/director Grímur Hákonarson really gets emotional, but not in an overly sentimental way. In the closing scenes, I was surprised by just how much I liked these two stubborn brothers, which makes the ambiguous ending all the more powerful. I don’t think Rams is a great movie – it does follow a fairly straight line, which is predictable – although the ending is unexpected. But I couldn’t help but think movies made in Hollywood (and England) about old people – both Gummi and Kiddi are past the normal retirement age – and how sickening sweet and sentimental they usually are. Rams is different – more direct, honest and subtle. And so much better.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Classic Movie Review: The Heart of the World (2000)

The Heart of the World (2000)
Directed by: Guy Maddin.
Written by: Guy Maddin.
Starring: Leslie Bais (Anna), Caelum Vatnsdal (Osip), Shaun Balbar (Nikolai), Greg Klymkiw (Akmatov).

If you are one of those poor, unfortunate souls who has not yet discovered the films of mad, Canadian genius Guy Maddin, than his 2000 short The Heart of the World may just be the place to start. It’s one of his best films to be sure – and typical of its work, it takes its inspiration from silent films (this one from Soviet films in particular), but does so in a way that wholly unique, wholly Guy Maddin. If you hate the film – and some will – its only 6 minutes long, so you won’t suffer for long. If you love it – and many will – you may have just discovered one of your new favorite filmmakers.

The film was commissioned by TIFF for the festival in 2000. Maddin, along with other Canadian filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Michael Snow (among others) were approached to make a 4 minute film to play in front of certain features. Apparently when Maddin heard that many filmmakers were planning on doing shorts with relatively few shots and simple stories, Maddin decided, of course, to do just the opposite. He expanded the film to 6 minutes after TIFF, and the film averages 2 shots per second for the entire runtime, and packs in a features worth of story into its runtime. In many ways, it plays like a silent film on fast forward.

The film is about two brothers who are both in love with the same woman, Anna (Leslie Bais), a State Scientist. Osip (Caelum Vatnsdal) is a mortician, who works with speed on an assembly line of corpses coming to him. Nikolai (Shaun Balbar) is an actor, who latest role is as Christ in a Passion Play, and he tries to impress Anna with his suffering. But Anna instead falls in love with Akmatov (Greg Klymkiw), an evil, fat, wealthy industrialist. But Anna discovers that the world itself is in danger of a heart attack – which would kill it – so she slides into the center of the earth to become its new heart – cinema.

The Heart of the World is a treasure trove for silent films fans. Yes, the movie references Soviet films more than anything else – the wealthy industrialist looks a lot like some of Eisenstein (in, say Strike), but there’s a lot of references here. Because the shots fly by so quickly, watching the first – or even second or third time through – isn’t enough to capture everything. It’s a short that not only rewards, but demands repeat viewings. I wasn’t at TIFF in 2000 – but I’ve been there many years, and I can tell you, the shorts and ads that play before the movie – even the best of them – get old, fast. I cannot imagine not perking up though had this played at the front of each movie one year I was there.

The Heart of the World is brilliantly constructed, witty, funny, moving and out and out fun. It is Guy Maddin at the height of his powers – which is why what could have been a throwaway film for many directors, ended up being one of the most acclaimed in Maddin’s career (he won quite a few awards for it). It is a short masterpiece – and the perfect place to start if you don’t already know Maddin.