The Bad Girls of Film Noir are hanging out in a separate entry (visit them over here) but there are plenty of other releases this week, not the least of which is the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man (Universal), a serious (and seriously funny) meditation on little themes like the meaning of life and why are we here and how can we know God’s purpose, and is as funny, heartbreaking, questioning, trying, exasperating and sincerely inquisitive a portrait of the human condition as you’ll find on screen. You could call it their take on the story of Job, relocated to the Jewish community of 1967 Minneapolis and reincarnated in the person of university physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who at least is better off than the Biblical Job, with his suburban home and teaching position. The yearning for meaning and explanation (in a world where, in his own words, “we can’t ever really know… what’s going on”) is real but the ordeal is human, a mix of spiritual questing, existential crisis and cosmic joke. And have no fear: the credits assure us that “No Jews were harmed in the making of this picture.” I reviewed the film in 2009 (read the feature review here) and it since placed on scores of Top Ten lists and critics awards and received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes a stand
The DVD and Blu-ray releases feature a modest collection of supplements. The Coens don’t do commentary but they do sit down for an interview that is woven through a half hour’s worth of making-of featurettes. In “Becoming Serious,” which also includes interviews with cast and crew members and behind-the-scenes footage from the set, they talk about the origins of the story (including the Jewish fable that opens the film, which it turns out they made up themselves), and then take a back seat to the set designers and costumers and location scouts describing the art of “Creating 1967.” “Hebrew And Yiddish For Goys,” a whirlwind tour through the cultural vocabulary, rounds out the extras. The Blu-ray includes the usual generic BD-Live functions.
Read more »
I embark on a small scale odyssey through the Coen Bros. O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Turner Classic Movies online.
We're in a tight spot!
In the opening credits of Joel and Ethan Coen’s, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their 2000 depression-era prison break movie-turned-screwball odyssey through the deep south, is the attribution: “Based upon The Odyssey by Homer.” It’s a cheeky proclamation and it doesn’t take a classical scholar to note that, if it’s indeed true, they’ve taken liberties with the material. George Clooney comes on like a goofball Clark Gable as the fast-talking but slow-witted convict Everett, a greasy con-man who escapes from a chain gang, dragging along a couple of dim bulbs (a tetchy John Turturro and a sweetly stupid Tim Blake Nelson, both of whom spend much of the film with mouths agape and eyes glazed over). And drag them he does, almost literally, as they are chained together in those opening scenes. Once they throw off those chains, he appoints himself leader of their quest to uncover a buried treasure in a valley scheduled to be flooded. Along the way they have their fates foretold by a blind seer, become enchanted by the seductive song of three women washing in the river (the Sirens), are attacked by a giant of a one-eyed salesman (John Goodman, standing in for the Cyclops) and race to Everett’s home town to stop his abandoned wife, Penny (Holly Hunter as a tart Penelope), from marrying another man. Did I mention that Everett’s given name is Ulysses?
It has a remarkable (if playfully skewed) fidelity to the epic poem of mythical struggle, even if the filmmaking brother act never actually read Homer’s work (as they take pains to point out). “But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey,” confessed Ethan, as well as saw Hollywood spectacles and Ray Harryhausen fantasies based on, inspired by or selectively cribbed from it. Yet Homer’s epic poem is merely one of many inspirations for a film that Joel described as “the Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed comedies.”
Read the complete piece at TCM here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, October 15.
Just got back from Toronto – plenty of coverage on GreenCine, more to follow – but first, my review of the Coens’ Burn After Reading is in the P-I. this is definitely the brothers in inconsequential mode, having fun spinning their comic ideas and dark humor in a film with no ambitions beyond making you laugh.
George Clooney gets top billing in the Coen brothers’ new comedy, an espionage farce played with a straight face, but it’s Frances McDormand’s desperate, single, health-club employee who really drives this ensemble. She’s determined to get her plastic surgery makeover — which, for reasons she can’t understand, her HMO won’t cover — at any cost. Hell hath no fury.
The Coens shoot the film with the sober crispness of a genuine spy thriller, never telegraphing their punch lines. Instead, they let the cast have fun with enthusiastic performances. Clooney perhaps has too much fun: He plays big, bugs his eyes and goes screwball in scenes of comic mayhem.
Read the complete review here.
Long ago in a fantasy far, far away...
Tarsem Singh’s The Fall may not be the best film of 2008, but it is was one of my greatest joys of the year, a lovely reminder that stories don’t belong to the teller. They have a life of their own. They live in the hearts and minds of those who hear them, read them, see them, whose experiences ricochet and reverberate off the characters and narrative turns and story details, expanding and enriching them with their own personal meanings. Tarsem Singh’s second feature is a glorious embrace of narrative innocence directed as a deliciously, vividly visual phantasmagoria of an adventure fantasy. As an injured silent movie Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace) with a broken heart spins his make-believe epic to little immigrant girl Alexandria, a child migrant worker in the orange orchards who broke her arm in a fall, their respective personal experiences and cultural references mix for a story that shifts with each new addition and adjustment. It’s like a Terry Gilliam film directed by Zhang Yimou, with a script concocted by a child. Shot all over the world, it’s stunning to look at and a charge to see the travelers make their through a world where you can leap a continent just by crossing over the next rise. The story imagery and character identities are equal parts imagination and appropriation from the real world, and those connections, far from being deeply symbolic, are almost naively direct reflections of their respective emotional lives. It’s a sophisticated film about the naive pleasures of stories and storytelling.
Director Tarsem solos on one of the two commentary tracks in a near monotone of a voice, but packs his talk with illuminating observations and interesting production details. Actor Lee Pace and co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis are only slightly more animated and far less informative in their track. Also features two deleted scenes (running barely 90 seconds) and two behind-the-scenes featurettes (that together run almost an hour).
It’s also available in beautiful Blu-ray edition. I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.
Read more »
Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.
(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.
The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:
“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”
Read the complete DVD review here.
I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.
My other pick of the week spotlights racy films from Hollywood’s pre-code sound era, when the studios fought to attract audiences in the depths of the depression with cost-effective spectacles of sex, violence and other forbidden activities. TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2: Read more »