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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/14/16) 8:48pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed many, many weeks, owing to laziness.]

Books:  <none>
Movies:  Hail, Caesar!, The Ladykillers (2004), No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man
TV:  Good Eats [season 5]

Hail, Caesar!
This is the latest film from the Coen Brothers, about a 'fixer' for a 1950s Hollywood studio.

Let's get the broad strokes out of the way first: no, this is not one of the Great Coen Brothers Films -- it's not another Fargo, or Big Lebowski, or No Country for Old Men.  But really, the only way you could avoid enjoying this movie is by expecting it to *be* a work of art on that level.

Maybe it's best not to think of Hail, Caesar! as a movie at all.  Instead, approach it like it's a really good sketch-comedy revue.  Sit down to watch it as a set of interlocking comedy sketches, and the film delivers.  Approach it as a standard three-act movie, and it kind of falls apart.  The movie has the paradoxical quality of becoming unclear once you step back to look at the big picture.  Individual moments are sharp, and funny, and engaging -- and informed, in nearly every shot, by the directors' obvious love for the waning days of bloated big-studio production, before New-Wave auteurism more or less blew the system apart (for a while).  Everything adds up to something of a muddle.

Weirdly, it reminds me of a project I pitched in on some twenty years ago.  The interactive-fiction community decided to try making a collaboratively-written game.  So, lots of participants wrote up locations, and objects, and characters... and then it was left to the organizers to somehow stitch it all together into a game.  And that was a thankless, brutal, and (in the end) impossible task, with intermediate attempts that were hopelessly shambolic.

And that's kind of how Hail, Caesar! feels -- not like it was a movie, but like it was a bunch of scenes that the Coens desperately wanted to make.  They loved the chance to make an Anchors Aweigh-style musical number, or to let Tilda Swinton play a Hedda-Hopper-type columnist, or to send up the nigh-studio-killing bloat of Cleopatra or The Bible.  And honestly, much of the film feels like a nearly Adam-Sandler-like chance to work with their friends -- sure, here's Frances McDormand in a scene, and yeah, let's bring in George Clooney for another gloriously stupid character, and Josh Brolin was great in No Country for Old Men and True Grit, right?  Let's bring him in, too.

Again, there's a plot, and maybe it means something, but the story here feels meandering and obligatory.  At best, it's cute, in the way it ties some things up neatly at the end -- it's not quite the magic trick that the end of Burn After Reading was, but few things are.  But mainly, it just feels like the story isn't really what the Coens were interested in.  (See also: Inside Llewyn Davis, where they added a lost cat because the script seemed to have no story whatsoever.)  In those moments, the parts where it's not lugging through all the connective exposition and just letting, say, Scarlett Johansson crack wise about her character's pregnancy during the downtime of an Esther-Williams-esque aquatic musical number -- in those moments, it's just beautiful and witty and fun.

Don't knock fun.  Fun is damned hard.

The Ladykillers (2004)
This is the Coen Brothers' 2004 remake of the classic 1955 Ealing Studios comedy about a professor who rents a room in the house of an eccentric old woman, and then secretly coordinates an elaborate heist, using the house as a base of operations.

I keep wanting to split the Coens catalog into pairs: Raising Arizona flips the bleak noir of Blood Simple into something almost unsettlingly whimsical; The Big Lebowski trades in Fargo's desperate, miserable crime spree for a laid back stoner comedy; The Hudsucker Proxy rebels against the opaque and unsettling tone of Barton Fink, aiming for a big, open-hearted, and populist comedy.  You keep seeing these pairings where the Coens clearly don't want to repeat themselves.  And yet.  And yet, every time, you can't help but see a million little similarities between each pair, until the second film seems to be exactly the same, only inverted along one specific axis.

And so it is with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which are widely considered a low point in the filmography, until the brothers would come roaring back with No Country for Old Men and a passel of Oscars.  Again, viewed at one angle, the two films are opposites.  Intolerable Cruelty is smooth, glossy, corporate product: a conventional, contemporary romcom, aiming to be a broad crowd-pleaser.[1]  And The Ladykillers goes the opposite direction, adapting a fifty-year-old comedy without significant alterations, using a mise-en-scène that's nearly as quirky and twee as a Wes Anderson film, and giving us no character a movie executive would call "conventionally attractive".  Intolerable Cruelty has big, splashy sets, while The Ladykillers closes in, mostly taking place in one or two rooms.  And while both movies are modern day, The Ladykillers feels oddly adrift, like it keeps forgetting what year it is and floating off into some antebellum past where Professor Dorr might have somewhat fit in.

And yet.  And yet, they both seem hobbled by some of the same problems.  Both of them seem oddly hemmed in, without, say, the odd Mike Yatagata scene from Fargo, or the byzantine wheels within wheels of Miller's Crossing, or the way that No Country for Old Men shoots straight past where a conventional movie would have ended, revealing that no, this movie wasn't about that at all.  Intolerable Cruelty is stuck with playing out a romcom, in spite of its feeble attempts to break out of that formula.  And The Ladykillers feels stuck in the simple thievery plotline of its source material: they're planning the heist, they're doing the heist, and they're killing each other over the profits.  Unlike nearly every other film from the Coens, it goes in a straight line, and we see exactly where it's going.

And what's worse: to my estimation, these are the only two Coen films that don't seem to like their characters.  I'm sure the filmmakers would beg to differ -- in some of their scant interviews, they talk about loving all their characters, and (IIRC) not really seeing the point of telling stories any other way.  And most of their films have this come through -- maybe not so broadly as in Hudsucker, but it's always there, counterbalancing the frequently arch tone of the films.  Even Anton Chigurh gets to describe a sort of moral code before his movie ends.

And with that, both movies become much, much harder to get into.

Several close friends whose opinions I respect really love this movie.  I can understand that -- I myself only like it okay, but there's a lot to like about The Ladykillers.  It's got a great soundtrack.  It looks beautiful, almost as distinct as O Brother's dreamy, sepia-tinted Mississippi.  And the acting is just phenomenal.  Mrs. Munson and Professor Dorr are just wonderful characters, and most of the best work in the film are just scenes of the two of them talking.  Hanks is clearly having a grand old time undercutting his trustworthy and genial persona, and Irma P. Hall gets to dig in her heels against that.

So there are pleasures to be had here, even if it's widely considered one of their lesser films.  And it's great to see them back on their feet after Intolerable Cruelty.

No Country for Old Men
This is the Coen Brothers' 2007 adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about a man who finds two million dollars at the scene of a drug deal gone bad, the killers who then go after him, and the sheriff following the case.

This one was the massive critical success.  After a career where even The Big Lebowski couldn't get much more than a shrug from the average critic, and even Fargo left many critics cold, and after both Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers left audiences and critics alike wondering if the Coen Brothers lost the plot, this film, No Country for Old Men, was the one where they connected in a big way: at the Oscars, it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay; according to wikipedia, it appeared on more critical top-ten lists than any other film released that year; and many critics laud it as the best film of the Coens' career -- even among the best films of the 2000s.[2]

What surprises me is how it succeeds in ways that you don't expect of the Coen Brothers.  A lot of people forget these New Yorkers' connections to Texas: Ethan went to UT for a semester, and lived around here for a year or so; then the brothers came back here to shoot Blood Simple in Waco and Austin.  But even knowing this, I was taken aback by their convincing portrait of west Texas in 1980.  Some distance of time always gives their films a little more snap -- like they're more actively engaged in creating the world of the film instead of just shooting what the outside world looks like[3] -- and their period pieces tend to split into the "long ago films" with a dreamy, mannered, idealized re-creation of a distant period (see: O Brother, Where Art Thou?), or the "short time ago" films, which operate with more accuracy, but tweak that setting to have a particular feel and tone (see: The Big Lebowski).

And No Country fits into neither category.  It's different.  It feels like it's pitched for a sort of hyper-accuracy, with every bit of wood paneling, every broken-down and boxy car, every cheap earth-tone T-shirt, reflecting that specific time and place.  If they tweak that at all, it's to lean into the openness and spareness of the setting.  But when you watch it, you feel like someone just opened up a portal onto that distant time and place.

So it's a place we don't associate with the Coens, and it's played straight in a way that the Coens are not known for.  And it's so, so spare, and so, so quiet.  After Blood Simple, with every movie the Coens made, whatever they did, they did a lot of it.  As varied as Raising Arizona through The Ladykillers were, they were full of activity.  Even when nothing was happening, the score, and the camerawork, and the mise-en-scène were alive with activity, and you could feel the whole movie champing at the bit to get going again.  But with No Country, everything is pulled back.  The score is nearly nonexistent.  The dialog is stripped back, usually to short, succinct phrases -- the half-dozen or so long speeches in the film stand out because they stand alone -- and often to nothing at all, in long, virtuoso sequences of visual storytelling.

And I loved how the film blew past its ending.  Or rather, it set up the obvious question: "Will Llewelyn Moss get away with the money or not?"  It built up a storyline that seemed to lead to a resolution, as Chigurh closed in on him, but he made hair's-breadth escapes.  And then, no, Moss is dead, and the story is still going.  And suddenly it's not about that at all.  Maybe it's not really 'about' anything.  It's just a thing that happens.  Chigurh carries on, tying up loose ends.  Bell carries on, feeling unsettled about what the world is coming to.  And the whole world feels quiet, and cold, and unforgiving.

Normally, that would feel shoddy, somehow -- like the plot was poorly constructed.  But in this case, it felt like the plot knew what it was about all along.  I just let myself be misdirected.

A Serious Man
This is the Coens' 2009 film about a Jewish physics professor in the mid-60s.

I didn't get it.  And I didn't get the film to such a profound degree, that I can't even really assess whether it was good or bad.  The whole time, I had this feeling of "this movie is clearly doing what it set out to do -- but I don't know what that is, or how to connect to it".  It opens with a story of... some kind of evil spirit visiting a couple in an old-timey shtetl.  Then it cuts to the 1960s.  Then various disasters happen to our protagonist physics professor.  And then things end abruptly as a tornado shows up.

And... that's it.

I'm still trying to sort out what, exactly, I watched.  I assume that, on some level, this is the Coens writing about their past -- they are from Minneapolis, their father was (is?) a professor, and this probably reflects, to some extent, their world growing up.  But I keep trying to make the film add up to something, and it keeps kind of evaporating on me.

It was up for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  It has an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Ebert gave it four stars.  None of this rattles me -- they're not *wrong*, surely -- but the movie they saw, or the way that they saw it, feels like it's out of my grasp.  I see some critics wrote scathing critiques of the film, but I can't get behind that, either.  I'm not angry or put out by this production, just confused.

I mean, you could argue that Inside Llewyn Davis didn't add up to anything, plot-wise, but I loved that movie.  And you'd be right, and I'd be left shrugging.  I could appreciate everything *about* A Serious Man -- its mise-en-scène, its acting, its period detail, its sharp sense of place and time, and on and on and on.

Maybe I need to watch it again, unburdened from expecting a conventional story out of it.

Good Eats [season 5]
This is the 2001-2002 season of Good Eats, the cooking show where Alton Brown uses visual aids and sketch-comedy inclinations to explain the underlying principles of cooking.

Alas, I've really had nothing new to say about this show since season 1.  It's still solidly entertaining; it's still informative about food; and I still worry that I'm not really retaining any of the information.  But it's still an excellent show to watch while exercising.

For next week: I'm watching season 6 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I'm reading Pictures at a Revolution and listening to an audiobook about creative-thinking skills.  And I still have some books to catch up on for next week.

[1] It fails at this task.  My takeaway from this is that the Coens shouldn't really be in the broad crowd-pleaser business.
[2] Finally, a full stop.  Ahhh.
[3] Raising Arizona is the most obvious exception to this.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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