Frances leaves surly asshole bar owner for stoic cowboy bartender, bar owner hires sleazy private eye to spy and then murder them but he kills bar owner instead. Bartender discovers owner and thinks Frances did it, so buries the guy himself, then the private eye comes after both of them.

Cowboy Bartender was later notable as the only actor to bridge Cronenberg’s The Fly and its little-loved sequel. I feel like I should know Private Eye M. Emmet Walsh better than I do – time for a rewatch of Critters.

Mike D’Angelo:

It’s uniquely structured in that the audience always knows exactly what’s happening, but none of the characters have the slightest clue, even though they’re all convinced they’re on top of it. The movie ends with a dying man laughing his head off as he finally realizes the mistake someone else has made—as cogent a summary of the Coens’ personal philosophy as can be found in any of their films.

Artificial, stagy-looking, stylish, with great transitions between scenes. Everyone has different speaking styles, not flattened into a single form. Kathryn Hunter obviously MVP, good to see Stephen Root and Harry Melling (Julie Taymor’s Puck). Most importantly, there are more birds in this version than in any other.

Grotesquely happy, murderous singing cowboy Tim Blake Nelson explains that he’s not a misanthrope in the Coens’ most self-referential piece yet, before he’s killed by a Hail Caesar singer.

James Franco gets hanged for his comically failed bank robbery, then again after escaping on account of Indians killing the guys hanging him, the point of the episode seeming to be the joke where he turns to another guy getting hanged and says “first time?”

(Nearly?) mute Liam Neeson wheels a monologuing human torso (Harry Melling) from town to town until tastes change and Neeson finds new entertainment that’s cheaper to feed. A haunting and cynical segment – wonderful looking, with rich storybook color, as are they all.

Tom Waits as an ol’ prospector, the role he was born to play, just searching for gold in a gorgeous river valley amongst deer and owls. The lead character has died at the end of every segment so far, so I was afraid for Tom, but he turns the tables on would-be thief Sam Dillon.

Finally it’s a woman’s turn to meet a sorry end: nervous Zoe Kazan, a wagon train widow who is very nearly protected from Indians by Bill Heck and Grainger Hines.

Then five mismatched people in a coach, like a Stagecoach parody, ending up like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors with all of them already dead.

Watched at the Landmark, and reserving further comment until I either rewatch and get some sweet screenshots, or order that Adam Nayman book.

Slower and weirder than it seemed from the trailer, which sets up a madcap comedy.
Katy was disappointed.

Mid-1950’s Hollywood: Josh Brolin is a hard-working studio employee who keeps the stars in line and keeps the press (Tilda Swinton) away from the more damaging stories. Period epic star George Clooney is kidnapped by commies, is curious and agreeable, doesn’t seem to realize he’s being held hostage until rescued by cowboy actor Alden Ehrenreich. Those two and Brolin are great, but they’ve got nothing on Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor who’s secretly the commie group’s leader. Ralph Fiennes plays a frustrated director, and we get quite small roles for McDormand, Johansson and Jonah Hill, and reeeeally small roles for Alex Karpovsky and Dolph Lundgren.

Slant:

On the flipside is a cell of communist screenwriters who abduct mega star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to bleed the studios, only to let slip that their ideals of upending the means of production stem from bitterness over not getting the back-end points they think they deserve. In perhaps the only subtle joke in the entire film, the warped prosperity politics that Hollywood communists bring to the cause is tacitly positioned as a precursor to Scientology, another faddish, extreme cause that the Hollywood faithful would frame in terms of making more bank.

G. Kenny:

The movie makes light of the dialectic as explained to Baird by Marcuse, but it also, in its tricky way, continually invites/compels the viewer to use it. Eddie Mannix is a good man who is very good at his job — but his job seems to be manufacturing schlock. People enjoy schlock, but schlock is arguably an agent of The People’s oppression, so… anyway, one needn’t go on. Suffice it to say that in the cosmology of the delightful Hail Caesar!, regardless of the conclusions to which dialectical thinking may lead, acceptance is the key, and Hollywood, while “problematic,” is more a force for good than the military-industrial complex can ever hope to be. And, finally, doing the right thing is an instinct shared by both company men and singing cowboys, for whatever that’s worth.

F. Cardamenis says the movie “reveals a striking ambivalence about [Hollywood], finding magic in its products but malice in its motives.”

D. Ehrlich’s article in Slate was my favorite, even if I did a sorry job condensing its points below:

[Hail Caesar and The Grand Budapest Hotel] shift through several different aspect ratios and feature Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and — wait for it! — Fisher Stevens. Both films bake their darker underpinnings beneath a frivolous screwball glaze. More crucially, both films probe the ultimate value of storytelling, and leverage their findings into lucid summations of their creators’ entire career and creative worldview. Hail, Caesar! takes one of the diverse back catalogs in American cinema and forces its various components into a reluctant conversation that changes them all, like strangers who are forced into small talk at a cocktail party only to realize that they have the whole world in common.

[the sailor musical sequence] convincingly argues the value of filmmaking to a universe of indelible characters who are struggling to understand it for themselves. It’s a truth they could see if only they had faith. And that, ultimately, is what Hail, Caesar! argues with greater clarity — if not always greater force — than any of the Coens’ previous films. There is no meaning but that which we convince ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you adhere to communism, religion, or movies: The only way you can believe in yourself is if you believe in something bigger. Who wouldn’t want to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest hotel, sir? It’s an institution.

Oscar Isaac (Carey Mulligan’s loser husband in Drive) is a folk singer who gets by on his earnest music and pity over the suicide of his ex-partner, not on his abilities to make or keep friends or smoothly adapt to change. He sleeps at fellow folkies Jean & Jim’s place (cutie couple Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or arts patrons The Gorfeins. Llewyn may have gotten Jean pregnant, and he accidentally receives (then loses) the Gorfeins’ cat. He’s running out of career options and hastily plans a last-ditch trip to Chicago in the company of sullen actor Garrett Hedlund and grotesque blues man John Goodman, to (unsuccessfully) audition at a major club.

R. Brody: “The symbolic aspect of this sidebar is clear. The jazzman is a hardened cynic with a wound, a habit—and a career; the young actor is a self-deluding purist trapped in humiliating servitude; and for Davis, both options appear unbearable.”

Interesting how the end of Llewyn Davis is similar/opposite to the end of The Grandmaster. In Grandmaster, Ip Man has suffered and ended up alone, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bruce Lee, and the movie is telling us that Ip’s legacy and teachings will live on gloriously. In the Coen movie, Llewyn has suffered and ended up alone getting his ass kicked in an alley, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bob Dylan, and the movie is telling us Llewyn has run out of time, than his whole genre is about to be transformed and move on without him.

B. Ebiri:

The film fades to black, and the Dylan song, victorious, plays over the end credits. Somewhere along the way, you figure Dylan has been on his own, significantly luckier trajectory – maybe like the Incredible Journey that Ulysses the cat must have been on. But we didn’t see that journey. We saw the other journey — the one with some loser named Llewyn and a nameless, wounded cat. In many ways, that’s the journey the rest of us are also on.

M. Koresky:

It ought to be rather clear by now that the Coens’ body of work constitutes the closest we have to a consistent existential American cinema. This helps explain that sense of detachment in their films, often misread as condescension. Theirs is admittedly not an open-arms type of filmmaking, but no one could accuse Inside Llewyn Davis, at once their warmest and most fragile film, of treating its complicated, imperfect protagonist with disdain. From its opening shot, the camera caresses Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), who enters from frame right to meet a microphone in wait.

Habitual thief marries cop, they steal baby, then every other character in the movie (his boss, his prison buddies, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse) try to steal him back.

Some similarities to the later Wild at Heart: Nic Cage, wide-open Western locations, amour fou, people exploding. Is it just me, or is there an Evil Dead reference in the low, traveling camera move when Mrs. Arizona discovers her missing son? And the movie has a similar ending (hazy dream of a child-filled future) to 25th Hour.

Haven’t seen Holly Hunter since The Incredibles (and haven’t seen her since O Brother). Her last movie before starring in this was Swing Shift. Tex Cobb (Police Academy 4) is the Lone Biker, a bounty hunter seemingly summoned by Cage’s nightmares. Sam McMurray (a cop in C.H.U.D.) is Cage’s boss who gets punched (and thus fires Cage) for suggesting a wife-swap, then schemes to steal the stolen tyke for wife Frances McDormand. John Goodman and William Forsythe (of the Steve Gutterberg version of The Man Who Wasn’t There) are brothers who break out of prison (then in the epilogue, back into prison) assuming Cage will join them on some heists. And Trey Wilson (a baddie in Twins who died soon after) is Nathan Arizona, father of the quints, who proves to be a decent fellow at the end.

The least Coeny of the Coens’ string of remakes and adaptations. It’s got their perfectly-timed dialogue, comic tone with brief bursts of violence, cinematography by the gifted Roger Deakins, and Dude Lebowski in a major role, but it doesn’t have their mark all over it. This isn’t a complaint – it’s an excellent Western, exciting and well-acted. Plus Matt Damon. He is kinda weird in it. The little girl who had to carry the whole movie, Hailee Steinfeld, got nominated for an oscar for her troubles. Her character is dedicated – shooting unrepentant daddy-killer Josh Brolin once when she first meets him, then again (to his death) at the end. Part of the film was set in my former family home of Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The place hasn’t changed.

Reportedly this movie was written by the Coens and Sam Raimi in the 80’s at the same time they wrote Crimewave together. Both were huge flops. But Crimewave, directed by Raimi between the first two Evil Dead movies, is downright awful, whereas I think every scene in Hudsucker is just perfect. The movie was expensive, but looks expensive – a well done period piece with great attention to detail. And Katy liked it!


FEB 2021 EDIT: Watched again… good movie.

The Coens follow up their grim oscar-winner with the star-studded, absurd and murderous Burn After Reading and then a star-less (recognized one guy from Spin City) return to excellence. Like Miller’s Crossing, it’s a series of perfect scenes, building and building, and leading to… ambiguity. Would need to watch a few more times to work out the film’s philosophy. Part of the problem is all the biblical references (IMDB trivia: “His son Danny’s looking at the oncoming tornado recalls God speaking to Job from out of the whirlwind, saying He will not explain why these bad things have happened to him.”) and I’ve only skimmed Revelations looking for the parts about the seas running red with blood (I think that’s actually in the Necronomicon), so I miss certain allusions.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry leads a pitch-perfect cast (relative unknowns or not, the actors must be the best ensemble of the year, Inglorious Basterds their only rival). His wife is leaving him for a smarmy neighbor just as he’s up for tenure, a student is threatening/bribing him, his kids are pains in the ass, his brother is a closeted, medically-impaired couch physicist, and the rabbis offer no help at all. The story builds to a final tragedy (presumably bad news from the doctor, which we never hear, directly after Larry caves on the bribery issue) and a final mystery (a tornado outside the son’s school) but shortly before the denouement comes the son’s quiet, nervous post-bar-mitzvah visit with the elder rabbi which just explodes the movie’s long-held tension when the old man’s handed-down wisdom consists of quoted Jefferson Airplane lyrics.

G. Kenny calls it “something new in the Coen oeuvre: A completely seamless hybrid of their putatively mature mode with their outrageous cartoonish one.”

Bright Lights:

To watch A Serious Man – their most morally sophisticated work – is to feel what it’s like to be Joel or Ethan Coen, to see the world as a pointless series of endless sufferings and inconveniences, surrounded by insufferable buffoons and irrational cretins. This is not a world of their making. This is the world they live in.

Slate:

You could know the Kabbalah inside out and still struggle with these mysteries every bit as fruitlessly as Larry does. And that’s just how his creators want it. Though the movie concerns a specifically Jewish crisis of faith (and paints a satiric but lovingly precise portrait of Jewish-American culture), A Serious Man unfolds in a moral universe that’s recognizable from earlier Coen films. It’s a cruel and ultimately inexplicable place. What Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s pitiless mass murderer, was to No Country for Old Men, the Hebrew God is to this movie.

I should also mention that this movie had one of the best trailers of the year, a montage of annoying sound effects and cries for help set to the rhythm of Larry’s head being banged into a chalkboard. If not for that propulsive Arcade Fire song on Where The Wild Things Are, I’d have to give it top honors.