Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Coen Project: The Big Lebowski

"The Dude abides..." - The Dude

It feels pointless to comment on The Big Lebowski, which has gone from a critical and commerical failure that disappointed many who loved Fargo to a cultural phenomenon. Books, academic theses, websites have all been devoted to the philosophical underpinnings of this movie. Sufficit to say, Jeffery "The Dude" Lebowski is the Coen brothers alternative model for American male values. Throughout the film, The Dude comes in contact with archtypes of American masculinity, from cowboys to industrialists to a Chandler-esque private detective. In all cases, the narrow-minded acquisitiveness that makes life in the Coen-verse such a bloody fiasco holds no real enticement for the Dude. He has found peace without the drive for money that consumes the Nihilists, or the vain status whoring that turns the Big Lebowski into a cuckolded, criminal fraud. Instead, the Dude simply abides. He finds joy and contentment where he can, expending as little effort as possible and, as a result, leads a relatively charmed life by Coen brothers standards. Sure, his car is slowly destroyed over the course of the film, and he gets roughed up a bit, but he also gets to sleep with Maude and help perpetuate another generation of laid-back wizards of lethargy.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Coen Project: Fargo

"So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, ya know? Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." - Marge Gunderson

The Coens followed up Hudsucker Proxy, their most stiffly formalist work to date, with Fargo, the most humane film in their canon. The humanity of Fargo rests entirely in the character of Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson, who isn't really a "Coen brothers" character at all. She's a tourist in the Coen-verse, someone whose basic decency and intelligence is largely absent in other Coen brothers movies. Marge is a rebuke to any critic who complains that the Coen brothers have nothing but contempt for their characters. They treat Marge with the gentleness and empathy due to someone of her wholesomeness. Most Coen brothers characters are treated with contempt because they are worthy of contempt. The Coens are interested in showing how social forces deform humanity, and the best way to illustrate that is to create deformed humans. And humans don't get much more deformed than the likes of Gaer Grimsrud, Carl Showalter and Jerry Lundegaard. Their dumb lust for money and, in the case of Jerry, the social standing money brings, has turned them into bloody-minded troglodytes. Their lack of humanity is made even starker compared to Marge. The very fact that the Coens created someone like Marge shows that they are not bloodless cynics. They're simply more interested in the sad flailing of people who've absorbed the cutthroat ethos of the American dream than in the humble strivings of good-hearted citizens. And who can blame them? What's more fun, watching Marge and Norm eat Arby's together, or Gaer feeding Carl into the woodchipper?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Hangover

For weeks now, commercials have been touting The Hangover as "the breakout comedy hit of the summer!" After a 40 million dollar opening weekend, it looks like that was more than promotional braggadocio. It was an easy prediction to make, though, because The Hangover meets every requirement of past "breakout comedy hits of the summer:" 1. it's about a bunch of bros getting into shenanigans, 2. it's R-rated due to pervasive cursing and the presence of at least one boob and/or wang 3. it features a left field celebrity cameo (in this case, Mike Tyson). In other words, it's perfectly catered to appeal to 18-40 year old white males, the ur-consumers. Making it even easier to tell that The Hangover was going to be a "breakout comedy hit" is that the very term "breakout comedy hit" is a misnomer. "Breakout" suggests that these movies have to struggle for recognition in a sea of similar films. The fact is, that only one or two of these movies are released in a given summer. Every other "comedy" that comes out in wide release in the summer months is either a migraine-inducing CGI-filled bit of calculated whimsy aimed at kids (Night at the Museum, Land of the Lost), a women-skewing romantic comedy (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Proposal) or an "urban" entertainment (anything with Tyler Perry and/or Ice Cube). Because young white males aren't considered a "niche,"movies that try to make young white males laugh are the only ones that get called "comedies" without a prefix, even though they're often just as much slaves to their demographic as any other type of comedy.

And boy-howdy is The Hangover a slave to its demographic. It's the story of three bros waking up from a Las Vegas bender with no memory of the night before trying to find their missing groom-to-be, while dealing with the consequences of their outlandish blackout behavior. Such behavior includes marrying strippers, losing teeth and stealing Mike Tyson's pet tiger. Along the way, there are a bunch of ass and penis related jokes, some exceedingly contrived tazer hijinx and other stuff too pointless and unfunny to bother recounting. The main problem with The Hangover, besides its general air of randomness and predictability (will the sedated tiger wake up in the back of the BMW during the ride to Mike Tyson's house? You bet!) is that the characters are either bland and/or indistinct, or frankly repellent. Bradley Cooper plays a guy named Phil who, in the name of accuracy, should have been named "Vince Vaughn Was Unavailable," is a douchebag, but a completely humorless one. Ed Helms is basically Cameron Fry grown up. He's got a few good comedic moments, but doesn't leave much of an impression. The biggest disappointment is Zach Galifinakis as the bride-to-be's creepy brother. He delivers the only funny dialogue uttered by any of the principle characters, but he doesn't' have a consistent voice: sometimes he seems developmentally disabled, sometimes perverted, sometimes just harmlessly weird. Like the rest of the movie, the characterization is sloppy. Director Todd Philips and company seem content to hit as many Maxim-approved comic set ups as possible, even if the haphazard style blunts the humor and makes it impossible to care what happens next, because the characters are jackasses and nothing they do is going to be funny anyway.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Coen Project: The Hudsucker Proxy

"Strictly speaking, I'm never supposed to do this, but do you have a better idea?" - Moses the Clock Man

The Coens followed Barton Fink, which is partially a defense of formalism, with The Hudsucker Proxy, their most formalist exercise to that point. At times, Proxy feels like a parody of a Coen brothers film; ornately filigreed dialogue, deadpan shenanigans, nonexistent or ironic emotional content and smart-aleck mimicry. It's still a tremendously entertaining film, with some of the Coens' most inspired cinematography and wordplay, but at the end it amounts to little more than an extended riff on pre-war screwball comedy, right down to the font of the opening credits. Beyond the catchphrases and enjoyable mannered performances, what really lingers after watching The Hudsucker Proxy is the dread-inducing industrial hellscape of the Hudsucker industries mailroom, which has to stand as one of the most visceral depictions of the dehumanization of industrial relations put to film. Even if it is mostly a joke. You know...for kids.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Coen Project: Barton Fink

"I'll show you the life of the mind!" - Charlie Meadows aka Karl "Mad Man" Mundt

Barton Fink is a singular work in the Coen brothers canon. It's their most symbolically oriented movie, and the closest they've ever come to offering an artistic manifesto. The story of Barton Fink, earnest young 'playwright of the common man' who goes to Hollywood to write for the pictures and finds himself in a hell of his own making, doubles as a metaphor for the creative process. The Hollywood studio system, in the person of vulgarian studio head Jack Lipnick and broken, dipsomaniacal screenwriter Bill Mayhew, is shown to be the artistically bankrupt shit-factory we all know it to be, but the real revelation is that Fink, for all of his pretensions to Beauty through Truth, is as creatively crippled as any of the hacks churning out wrestling pictures on the studio back lots.Fink is sort of a stand-in for the type of artist who would disdain the Coens' for what Barton himself calls "empty formalism" and their failure to engage the real world. "It's the stuff of life! Why shouldn't it be the stuff of theater!" Fink thunders! But, of course, he's thundering this at the salt-of-the-earth insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. Yet, when Charlie says "I could tell you stories..." Fink cuts him off to expound more about the virtues of the common man, ignoring the common man sitting right in front of him. He also swims with sexual repression that he cannot honestly confront. When Det. Mastrionotti says "you're a sick fuck, Fink," you get the feeling he's on to something. Beyond Fink's individual shortcomings, the Coens suggest that the essential nature of existence precludes the possibility of art that speaks for anyone other than the artist. Regardless of Fink's commitment to looking outward, he spends the majority of the film in his sticky, dingy hotel room, relating to the other occupants only through the sounds leaking through the walls. In a film chock full of symbolism, the hotel room is the most important bit: it's Fink's head, a claustrophobic space that brooks no contact with the outside, nor can it. Charlie, who moonlights as a head-removing serial killer named Karl "Mad Man" Mundt, is Fink's only confidant, and it's not exactly clear is Charlie isn't a figment of Fink's imagination. Either way, it's certainly clear that Fink's attempt to create art on behalf of others is the height of presumption. As Charlie tells him as his hotel room burns, "You think I made your life hell? Take a look around this dump. You're just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton. I live here. And you come into my home and complain that I'm making too much noise." Barton Fink is the Coens' rejoinder to all who complain that their films are insular and artificial. All art, for the Coens, is insular and artificial. And why? As Tom Regan said, "nobody know anybody. Not that well."

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Coen Project: Miller's Crossing

"Nobody knows anybody. Not that well." - Tom Regan

Millers' Crossing is the first Coen brothers film to feature characters with functioning frontal lobes. It takes place in a cuthroat world of gangsters, gun molls and bookies in a Prohibition-era urban jungle.  Dunderpates like H.I. McDonnough wouldn't last five minutes before being ground into hamburger. That's because this isn't really the Coen brothers world, it's Dashiell Hammet's, with the brothers using the stereotypes and plot mechanisms of books like The Glass Key and Red Harvest to riff on the genre.  With all the colorful dialogue and tough-talking gunsels, a lot of critics praised Miller's Crossing for its craft, but wrote it off as little more than an empty exercise in formalist tomfoolery.  That misses the fact that Miller's Crossing, in the characters of Tom Regan and Johnny Casper, offers contrasting approaches to conducting oneself in a lawless universe where wealth and guile are the only things that can keep you alive.  Tom Regan operates from the central conviction that the only person worth trusting is oneself, and so has built an ethic of radical self-centeredness.  His every decision is made based on maximizing his personal autonomy and avoiding any dangerous connection to other human beings.  When his boss, Leo O'Bannion offers to erase his mounting gambling debts with a single phone call, he refused "I'll pay me own way," he says, and he means it.  He serves Leo because he chooses to, not because he owes Leo anything.  Several times through the course of the movie, Tom is offered easy solutions to his problems; not just the gambling debts, but the continued existence of troublemaking bookie Bernie Birnbaum.  Each time, he refuses the out because it would undermine the his personal prerogatives.  In the most famous scene in the film, when Tom leads Bernie into the woods, having been ordered by Johnny Casper's goons, Frankie and Tic Tac, to finish the shmatte off himself, Tom saves Bernie's life because Bernie asks him to "look into" his heart.  What he finds there isn't compassion for Bernie, it's related to something else Bernie says to him while praying for his life: "they can't make us different people than we are. We're not muscle, Tom!"  And it's true. Tom is not a triggerman, and he cannot abide being forced to become one by a crazy dago like Johnny Casper.  And so, he risks his life to save Bernie, even though he gladly would have waited in the car while Frankie and Tic Tac killed him.  As Verna tells him, "I never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride."  In a world where trust can be as deadly than a loaded roscoe, the only armor is ferocious self-regard.  Compromising his sense of self or subsuming his will to anyone else will surely end him.  Tom's pigheadeness might get him killed, too, but he'll die on his own terms.  Johnny Casper, on the other hand, navigates the choppy waters of the underworld with a different sextant: "I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics."  For Johnny Casper, the only way to make sense of an unregulated marketplace of blood and thunder is to hold tight to an ethic of "above board" behavior: straightforward rackets, with no side dealing or doublecrosses because once you start double crossing, where does it end?  Casper figures that if he keeps to an ethic of honest thievery, so will those he deals with.  He passes up the chance to clip Tom after he fingers Bernie because such a double-cross would just invite more shady dealings.  In the end his naive belief that his personal integrity will protect him from the dishonesty of others gets him killed when he believes Tom over his right hand man, Eddie Dane.  He backs the wrong horse, because he's got nothing to go on but a gut feeling about which man to trust. It's a mistake Tom Regan would never make, because he operates on the assumption that no one is to be trusted.  It's a philosophy that leaves him alone at the end of the film, but grimly and defiantly alive.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Sometimes it feels like Pixar is conducting an experiment to find the most unconventional children's movie protagonist.  After failing to alienate young audiences with a non-verbal robot in Wall-E, they've up the ante with a crotchety old widower in Up.  They're almost daring kids to squirm in their seats.  And yet, they don't, which is testament to the gold-plated instincts for storytelling that drive every Pixar project.  The aforementioned crotchety widower is Carl Fredrickson who decides to honor a promise to his recently deceased wife and travels to a mysterious South American mountain by strapping his house to a giant bundle of helium balloons. Of course, it wouldn't be Pixar without bracing emotional content, so the viewer is introduced to Carl's wife and witnesses a touching, expertly detailed recap of her life...and then her funeral...and Carl sitting heartbroken in their empty house.  Guys know how to stick it in and break it off, don't they?

What all this brutal heartstring-pulling does is give Carl's journey with emotional weight and create instant audience identification with a character that a lot of kids might initially find off-puttingly old and cranky.  It also gives the movie it's thematic ballast, which is less ambitious than recent Pixar films like Ratatouille and Wall-E.   Although the "live-in-the-moment" message is familiar, it's brought across with remarkable subtlety.  There's no "too late I realize me children where my real treasure" speech, just a collection of silent, metaphor-heavy moments that must fly over the heads of younger kids.  What's impossible to miss is the richly textured animation, made even more rivetting by nifty 3-D effects.  There aren't any cheesy gotcha 3-D gimmick shots, but the depths of field make a lot of the action, which takes place at vertiginous altitudes, literally breathtaking.  It's a simple story, told with immense detail and a keen eye for both pathos and comedy business, but after the Shakespearean heights reached by recent Pixar efforts, Up can't help but feel like a minor, but still powerful, outing.  

Monday, June 01, 2009

Drag Me To Hell

Since Sam Raimi left the world of horror to make increasingly leaden comic book blockbusters, the American horror film landscape has languished in a tedious rut. In a given year, it's hard to find any major horror release that isn't torture porn, a dire remake of an 80s slasher flick, or a J-horror ripoff.  With no Raimi around, to remind people that comedy and horror share the same cinematic DNA, horror filmmaking is an airless, mechanical slog of hitch-gaited waifs and dismembered girls in cutoff T-shirts.  Thankfully, Drag Me To Hell marks the triumphant return of Raimi's intoxicating combination of slapstick and scares.  The movie is filled with scenes that start off giving the audience a standard-issue horror "jolt," and end by provoking a surprise burst of laughter.

Drag Me To Hell is old school all the way.  The basic plot skeleton is exactly the same as The Ring: a women has several days to stop her impending supernatural death by placating a malign spirit, all the while dealing with terrifying portents of her fate.  But instead of relying on the oh-so-millennial J-Horror notion of haunted technology, Drag Me To Hell features a plot engine that's been around since the Silent Era: a gypsy curse.  

Alison Lohman is adequate as the doomed young woman, an ambitious loan officer who refuses a mortgage extension to a baroquely wizened Gypsy crone (Lorna Raver) who unleashes a goat-horned demon to drag her to heck in three days.  Her kewpie doll looks and big, luminous eyes help make for some great reaction shots to Raimi's inspired array of Grand Guignol shock gags, all of which are shot with the same breakneck lurches between deadpan and semi-hysteria that let you know you're in the Raimiverse. After a grim decade of humorless, factory-issue horror films, it's a blast to be back.