Sunday, February 21, 2016

Eddie the Eagle
















I'm such a sucker for movies like Eddie the Eagle. Movies that focus on an underdog hero besting the odds to triumph either personally, professionally or both. This film falls quite easily within that particular genre. While not an accurate telling of the story of Michael "Eddie" Edwards (far from it actually), it is certainly an entertaining one.  

For much of his life, Eddie (played by Taron Egerton) has had aspirations to be an Olympic athlete. Much of his childhood was spent trying to find the right sport to focus on, to the adoration of his Mum (played by Jo Hartley) and the chagrin of his dad (played by Keith Allen). This is covered in an amusingly adorable montage as young Eddie stumbles through several Olympic sports. He finally settles on Downhill Skiing, realizing he won't be in the Olympics, but the Winter Olympics. When he is told he won't be part of the 1988 British downhill ski team, he's about ready to give up on his dream. Then he discovers that there is no one competing in the Ski Jump event for Great Britain. Seeing the opportunity, he leaves home and heads to Germany to begin learning how to Ski Jump. Filled with more moxie than actual know how, Eddie jumps in and starts learning as he goes. He attracts the attention of Bronson Peary (played by Hugh Jackman), a one time Olympic Ski Jumper for the U.S who now works on maintaining the Ski Jumps, as well as on a bottle of scotch. Initially trying to discourage Eddie, he begrudgingly agrees to coach Eddie and try to get him ready for the fast approaching Winter Olympics.

This film fits the usual underdog sports story pretty well and it's some well worn territory, but damn if it still didn't work on me. Yeah, it was fairly predictable but at the same time I didn't care because even if I knew where it was going, the trip getting there was still a lot of fun. A lot of that goes to both the leads in the film. Taron Egerton creates such an endearing character in Eddie that you can't help but love the guy. He is absolutely determined to be an Olympian and nothing is going to stop him. He is certainly the heart of the film. Then on the other side, you have the cynical and feisty Bronson Peary. After being dropped from the U.S ski jump team, Bronson landed at the Ski Jump school in Germany, whiling his days away maintaining the slopes while nursing a flask of scotch he refers to as his "jacket." He initially resists Eddie's requests to coach him because he wants to keep that chapter of his life closed, but Bronson finally relents when he realizes that Eddie won't quit, no matter how many times he gets hurt. From there, starts an unlikely friendship between the two of them as they embark on a training regimen that would be best described as "ugly but effective." Bronson is tragically a completely fictional character, which was disappointing to hear, especially after witnessing said character go down the 90m ski jump in the middle of the night with no protective gear while smoking a cigarette just to show up the Norwegian Olympic ski jump team who considered him washed up. (Although what a Norwegian Olympic ski jump team is doing training in Germany is never well explained since I have it on pretty good authority that there is, or at least was, at least one ski jump in Norway.)

The film is well directed by Dexter Fletcher and was produced by Matthew Vaughn from a script by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay who imbue the film with a warm sweetness and a heavy dose of humor. There are a lot of genuine and big laughs to be had in the film, as well as a lot of heart. It's the kind of movie that had tears welling up in my eyes while I had a big, dopey grin on my face, and quite honestly those are my favorite kinds of movies. I also loved that the score of the film, written by Matthew Margeson, perfectly recaptures the electronic, synthesizer scores of the era. I thought that was a wonderful touch and left theater wanting to download it (sadly, I have a bit of a wait for it to be released). The film also happens to take place at the same Winter Olympics (the 1988 games in Calgary, Canada) as the film Cool Runnings, a film about the Jamaican Bobsled team that competed there as well and they worked in a nice little reference to the other film as well that gave me and one other viewer a chortle of recognition.

Overall, Eddie the Eagle was certainly my kind of movie. Sentimental, but not too sappy. Funny, but not too silly. It strikes a good balance with two great characters at the center of it. Not everyone may enjoy it as much as I did, but I certainly dug it.   

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Deadpool
















There is a trend beginning to emerge where over Valentines Day Weekend there will be a hyper-violent, wickedly funny action comedy released, as if to throw all of America an antidote to all the schmaltz and over-sentimentality that is released on the general public like a saccharine carpet bombing. Last year it was the immensely enjoyable Kingsman: The Secret Service. This year they did us one better and gave us the extremely funny Deadpool. To say I loved this movie would be an understatement. I haven't laughed that hard and that often in a theater in quite awhile. 

Wade Wilson (played by Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary for hire. He's quite good at his job and enjoys it, employing a cool wit as he tracks down his targets. Things change for him when he meets Vanessa (played by Morena Baccarin), who is a perfect match for Wade. They have a year-long courtship (glimpsed in a very funny montage set to Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl") which culminates in Wade proposing marriage (with a Ring Pop no less) just as Vanessa was about to propose they try anal intercourse. Yeah, this is a different kind of Superhero movie.  Shortly after that though, they discover that Wade has advanced and aggressive cancer that has spread to his brain, liver, lungs and prostate ("All things I can live without", he deadpans). Seeing no other option, he agrees to undergo an experimental procedure that promises to not only cure his cancer but also give him abilities he only dreamed of, performed by a shadowy group run by a guy named Ajax (played by Ed Skrein). The procedure doesn't go quite as planned as it leaves him horribly disfigured, although it does make him basically invulnerable, healing almost instantly from gunshot wounds and able to regrow lopped off body parts. Feeling he can no longer return to the life he led and the love of his life, Mr. Pool swears vengeance on the men who did this to him and is determined to make them fix it. Trying to rein in Mr. Pool before he causes too much damage are X-Men Colossus (played by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (played by Brianna Hildebrand), who also are trying in vain to get him to join the X-Men.  

If there was one role Ryan Reynolds was born to play, it's definitely the role of Deadpool, and he gives the role his all. This time around, it's the real deal too and not the weird bastardization that inexplicably had his mouth sewn shut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. From his wicked one-liners to all sorts of comedic moments, the performance is one of perfection. Morena Baccarin is the perfect match for Reynolds, crafting a character that is not just the girl, but a memorable, if equally damaged person as Wade is. They even have a moment where they try to one up each other on who had the more messed up childhood in a darkly comedic, yet endearing moment. T.J Miller is great as Wade's friend Weasel and it is clear that Miller and Reynolds, both accomplished comedic actors, had fun improvising scenes. But the real scene stealers, surprisingly, are Stefan Kapicic and Brianna Hildebrand as Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, especially the latter who is a buzz cut, sardonic teen that Deadpool is both in awe of and openly mocks in a way only he can. Then there is also Deadpool's frequent cab driver, Dopinder (played by Karan Soni), who he gives what is perhaps some less than great advice on how to deal with a romantic rival that pays off beautifully towards the end of the film.  

Making his feature film debut, director Tim Miller does an impressive job fashioning a film that balances the hardcore action and the wilder moments that would be expected in a movie focused on a character that is fully aware he is in a Superhero movie. It's a careful balancing act but he pulls it off. The film has a solid script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that I have a feeling was only made stronger by frequent improvisations by the cast and especially Ryan Reynolds. The special effects are well rendered as well, especially for a lower budget movie (due to the perceived risk of it being an R-rated movie), especially with the motion capture created Colossus.  

Overall, Deadpool is a wickedly funny, raunchy and hyper-violent treat of a movie. It's not one for everyone, but for those that can appreciate it's mischievous spirit will have a good time with it. I know I did. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Top 15 Favorite Films of 2015

At the end of the year it is customary for the writers of film criticism to name their top films of the year. Since I have openly stated many times on this blog that film viewing can be incredibly subjective and that one person's bomb is another's masterpiece, I am intentionally noting this as my favorites of the year and not "best". That said, it was a hard list to narrow down. I should also preface this by saying I have not seen every movie released in 2015. There were ones I inevitably missed and ones that have not gotten a chance to see yet. In the interest of getting this list done in a timely manner, I decided to do it now rather than wait for everything to come out here. So, in no particular order, we shall dig in.



















The End of the Tour

I don't think I was quite prepared for how much I was going to love this movie, but I really did. It took me by surprise how much it really moved me and touched me in a way. The bulk of the movie is focused on two guys, David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segal) and David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg). Lipsky is a reporter on assignment for Rolling Stone who is following notable author Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. Almost immediately, the two establish a great report with one another as they discuss Wallace's life, work and outlook on life, delving into his past, thoughts on life and the surprising insecurities fame can bring with it. Anchored by two stellar performances, especially by Jason Segal, bring these two characters wonderfully to life. Filled with aching heart and genuine sentiment, I really enjoyed every second of this movie.















Kingsman: The Secret Service

Oh my god, how I loved Kingsman: The Secret Service. I just can't help but adore every tongue in cheek, silly and action packed moment. Casting Colin Firth as the seasoned Kingsman agent training in new recruit Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) was a stroke of genius and he is more than up to the challenge. Not afraid to indulge in a bit of dark humor and intense violence (the church scene is a show stopper, for sure), the entire film plays out like an edgier James Bond movie, which this film of course tips it's hat to repeatedly. Add in a scene stealing Samuel L. Jackson as the megalomaniacal villain who can't stand the sight of blood and you have yourself a winner.  There were some people who found parts of the film offensive for some reason. To them I can only say lighten up, none of it is meant to be taken seriously.
















Creed

I've been a long time fan of the Rocky series but I really thought we had seen the last of the old lug when Rocky Balboa came out. Imagine my surprise when along came Creed, breathing some new life into the series. Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed who seeks out his father's old rival turned friend to help him train to become a boxer. What develops between the two is nothing short of genuinely moving as both actors are at the top of their game, especially Stallone who gives maybe the performance of his career and I am not in the least bit surprised to see him get some awards attention because of it. It's easily the best Rocky since the first one and just perfection from beginning to end. 

















Mad Max: Fury Road

I think I'm still stunned at how well Mad Max Fury Road has done. It was a $140 Million dollar fourth installment in the Post-Apocalyptic action series with the previous third film released thirty years prior. None of the signs were pointing to this being a huge hit. But then a funny thing happened and audiences turned out for what is easily the boldest, most original and highest octane action movie I think I have ever seen. George Miller, who directed the previous three films as well, returns with a new tale of Max in the wastelands of Australia. Standing toe to toe with him is Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, an absolute dynamite character that in many ways overshadows Max. Theron gives an amazing performance as a woman trying her best to stay strong as she tries to free the five "brides" of a ruthless warlord known as Immortan Joe. Filled with some of the most imaginative action sequences and dazzling practical effects with a human and deeply emotional story to ground everything, this one is an action movie masterpiece.

















 S py

I knew that teaming Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig on a spy movie comedy was going to be good. What I did not anticipate was how quietly progressive it was in the process. Melissa McCarthy gives a great performance as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who has to go out into the field when all the available operatives have their covers blown. With assistance from her friend and co-worker Nancy (played by Miranda Hart), Cooper finds herself up to the task at hand. However, she also has to deal with the intense and over-confident field agent Rick Ford (played by Jason Statham), who is determined to make sure the mission succeeds since he doesn't trust Cooper to get the job done. The cool thing about this movie is that at no time is it ever said that Cooper can't do the job because she is a woman or because of her body type. It is never once made an issue but rather the humor comes from her lack of field experience and the situations she finds herself in. To my surprise a lot of the humor also comes from Jason Statham, especially any time he is running down his incredible exploits as an agent. This one was such a wonderful and pleasant surprise in a year full of spy movies.  


















The Martian

I knew as soon as I heard the premise for The Martian that it was going to be a great film. However, what I wasn't prepared for going into it was just how funny of a movie this was going to be. Seriously, if I am ever in as dire of a situation as Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is in this movie, I can only hope I am capable of being even half the smart ass he is in this movie. The whole cast was top notch though, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan and Kristen Wiig, just to name a few. Coupled with fantastic writing and solid direction from Ridley Scott made this one of the most entertaining, inspiring and moving films I saw all year.  
















The Gift

I went into the movie The Gift expecting one kind of movie and wound up getting something different and something even better. It was packaged and sold to the masses as a typical yuppies in peril psychological thriller and to an extent it was. But at the same time, writer/ director Joel Edgerton (who also plays the film's antagonist, Gordo) has some good curve balls that he throws the audience that really keeps people guessing. It's a smart and well done thriller anchored by three solid performances by Edgerton, Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman who makes the most of his meaty role, giving one of his best performances in recent memory.


Love & Mercy

I grew up on the music of The Beach Boys, so when this biopic about Brian Wilson, the group's main composer and songwriter, came out I was immediately intrigued. The movie bounces back and forth during two periods of Wilson's life, when he was a younger man (played by Paul Dano) conceiving the legendary Pet Sounds album and later in life (played by John Cusack) when he met his future wife while trying to escape the overpowering care of Dr. Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti), a man who used and abused Brian while he was battling mental illness for his own ends. With two great performances from Dano and Cusack at two different times of his life, this film is at times inspiring, engrossing and even heartbreaking. Still, hearing how some of my all time favorite Beach Boys songs slowly were pieced together in the recording studio was amazing (I got chills as I heard Good Vibrations slowly coming together). I just love how this film was put together from beginning to end, it was a fantastic film.


















Mr. Holmes

Ian McKellan playing Sherlock Holmes? Sign me up, I am down with that. This film focuses on Holmes towards the end of his life. In his old age, he is haunted by one case he couldn't solve and is trying to piece it together while desperately trying to stave off his declining mental abilities. Helping him out is young Roger (played by Milo Parker), who looks upon Sherlock with a sort of hero worship and lives with him at his countryside home with his mother, Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney). While the film does have a mystery to solve, it is more interested in the character of Sherlock himself who in his older age is starting to re-evaluate the choices he made in his life, especially as Mrs. Munro is beginning to think of moving on to another job to hopefully give Roger a more normal childhood. Holmes does not take this well, having to admit he has grown quite fond of both of them. It is an engrossing and well acted new look at Sherlock Holmes, anchored by a reliably great Ian McKellan performance.

















Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Brushing off the woefully uneven Prequels, the Star Wars series bursts triumphantly back to life with this latest entry in the series, directed by J.J Abrams and written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. Skillfully introducing such intriguing and immediately lovable new characters such as Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Issac), Finn (played by John Boyega) and Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) while bringing back the fan favorites such as Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) and Leia (played by Carrie Fisher, as badass as ever, if not more so). There is also a new baddie in town by the name of Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) who is intent on picking up right where Vader left off. This one hit the ground running and never really slowed down. It was a fantastic thrill ride from beginning to end with surprise plot twists and one I thoroughly enjoyed. 

























The Hateful Eight

There's just something about the films of Quentin Tarantino that I can't help but love and The Hateful Eight falls in right along with them. He crafts some of the most colorful and interesting characters, gives them wonderful dialogue to say all the while slowly ratcheting up the tension and this one is another perfect example of it. It's also completely unpredictable. All the possible scenarios I had in mind of how this film would play out didn't come to pass and that's what I love about Tarantino's films. I won't spoil anything but he really surprised me repeatedly with this one. Filmed in glorious Ultra Panavision 70 with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, everything about this movie just feels epic, whether it's shots of a stagecoach racing through the snow or a bunch of people talking in a mountainside cabin during a blizzard, Tarantino uses every inch of his ultra widescreen frame to spin one hell of a tale.















The Big Short

Adam McKay takes a searing look into the Mortgage crisis of 2007-2008 and the people who not only saw it coming, but found a way to profit from it when no one would listen to them. With an all star cast that includes Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei and Christian Bale, coupled by a razor sharp script by director McKay and Charles Randolph, from the book by Michael Lewis makes for a winning film. While it's not 100% accurate and how everything went down with the Mortgage Markets is probably a bit oversimplified, it's still a good way to see what happened and will have you slapping your forehead at the stupidity of it all (I know I did, as well as thinking, "Yep, that's why I got a fixed rate mortgage"). Even then, the movie frequently breaks the fourth wall with asides explaining some of the Wall Street Jargon, recruiting the likes of Margot Robie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to explain the concepts in every day terms.  It's a smart and at times very funny film that has a razor sharp wit fueled with righteous anger. 
















Inside Out

There's something really smart and kind of brilliant about this Pixar film by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen. It finds a really fun and imaginative way to explore the full spectrum of human emotion and how things like memories and life experiences play into that. The film focuses on the five core emotions, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Fear (played by Bill Hader), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling) and Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), the upheaval they experience when the person they occupy, a young girl named Riley (played by Kaitlyn Dias) moves from (I kid you not) Eden Prairie, Minnesota to San Francisco, California (yes, part of a Pixar movie takes place in my hometown. I'm not ashamed to say I got really excited when I found that out). The film does a great job creating a tangible world for these emotions to live in and show how they are learning right along with Riley herself as she grows up. The film even occasionally breaks away and explores the inner emotions of other characters, such as Riley's parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), to humorous effect. The cast is uniformly top notch across the board and each one gives a great performance, especially with the five principal voice actors playing the different emotions, as well as Richard Kind, who turns up as Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing Bong. All put together, Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen created a highly enjoyable and surprisingly emotional film that will resonate with audiences of all ages. I also appreciated the small touches, with each character being well drawn and relatable. I also liked that Riley played Hockey and that was a big thing in her life. I felt that was a nice touch, probably in part because I've known girls like that in my life. With some great imagination at work, an all around stellar voice cast, Inside Out proved to be one of the year's best and certainly one of my favorites.   















Straight Outta Compton 

Man, talk about the right movie coming out at the right time. This film takes a look at the Rap group N.W.A from their rise to their eventual break-up, and in process showing in no uncertain terms that maybe not as much has changed in America as we thought, racially speaking. The things we see the likes of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre or Eazy-E dealing with, especially with the Police, is still happening today. If anything it has only gotten worse. We see the inception of some of their songs including their most controversial one, born out of repeated police harrassment, "Fuck the Police." With great perfomances, including O'Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his own father, Ice Cube, makes this one of the more riveting biopics I've seen in quite awhile. 














Bridge of Spies

The latest team up between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks is easily one of their best as it tells the true story of insurance lawyer James Donovan, who is recruited to help negotiate the trade of a captured Russian spy in exchange for an American one. It's less of a thriller and more of a well played drama focusing on one man trying to navigate some intense situations and work the situation to the benefit of everyone. With a sharp script by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen matched with great direction from Spielberg, this film was a smart and engrossing look at a period of time in the Cold War, showing how it really was. 

Honorable Mentions:

Here are a couple films I couldn't quite fit into the Top 15, but I still really, really enjoyed from 2015:


 Jurassic World

One of my all time favorite movies is the original Jurassic Park, so it was with fervent anticipation that I went into the newest installment and I must admit I really, really dug it. I knew it wasn't going to be as good as the original and my expectations were in check. I went in expecting an big, bad ass monster movie and got exactly what I expected. It had plenty of monster mayhem, action and a genuinely kick ass ending. I saw the film in the theatre three times and each time left with a big dopey grin on my face. Yes, it wasn't perfect and I do have some nitpicks, but it was so much fun on the whole that I just didn't care. Besides, it was a thrill just to see Jurassic Park as a thriving theme park that was completely open, and all the nods to the original film were a nice nostalgic touch as well.
















Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

It's kind of hard to believe that we have five Mission: Impossible movies now, and they just keep getting better and better, with the latest installment being another top notch twisty turny thrill ride. Tom Cruise once again plays Ethan Hunt, this time trying to take down a shadowy terrorist organization called The Syndicate. With his usual team of agents, including Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner as well as assistance from a Syndicate double Agent played by Rebecca Ferguson. With plenty of action and stunts as well as a compelling script and stylish direction to match from writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, this made for another fantastic entry in the Mission: Impossible series.  

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Hail, Caesar


















I normally look forward to any Coen Brothers film with anticipation, but when I found out their latest dealt with 1950's Hollywood, my anticipation went up a few notches. With nods left, right and center to all sorts of famous classic films and the stars that occupied them, this film is going to be a hoot for anyone who has spent far too much time watching Turner Classic Movies. You know, someone like me.

Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is a studio executive and "fixer" for Capital Pictures. He spends his days fixing assorted problems around the studio. From the relatively mundane, such as filling an open casting spot in an ongoing film with a rising star, Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich) to the more scandalous, such as dealing with pregnant out of wedlock star Deanna Moran (played by Scarlett Johansson). His biggest problem is his newest when the star of the studio's new prestige picture, Hail, Caesar, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney) has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom by a group calling themselves "The Future." This leaves Eddie scrambling to meet the kidnappers demands while keeping it out of the Hollywood Gossip columns written by twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). The chaos that ensues leaves Eddie wondering if he would be happier taking the job that's being offered to him by Lockheed Martin, whose recruiter keeps hounding him throughout the film.  

Joel and Ethan Coen, along with their Director of Photography Roger Deakins, do a fantastic job recreating the style of 1950's cinema, whether it be Hail Caesar, Deanna Moran performing an Esther Williams style water ballet or Hobie Doyle in a western shoot-out, they manage to perfectly capture the look of each of those types of films. They also draw inspiration from the films of the era itself, with George Clooney riffing on a mix of Tony Curtis and Charlton Heston as the star of the latest sword and sandal picture, in the vein of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments. Scarlett Johansson's Deanna Moran is clearly a riff on Esther Williams, while we also have Channing Tatum taking on Gene Kelly in a musical number for a film that is clearly referencing and spoofing Anchors Aweigh. But the one that quietly stole the show for me was Alden Ehrenreich as Western star Hobie Doyle. He is cast at the last minute in a drama where he really has to act and finds himself very much out of his depth when he's out of the saddle. The biggest laughs in the movie were when the film's director, Laurence Laurentz (played by Ralph Feinnes) is trying desperately to get Hobie to say a line correctly. Poor Hobie wants to do nothing more that please his director but has a heck of a time trying to say the line, "Would that it were so simple."  Later, while on a studio fixed date, he impresses his date by making a small lasso out of a piece of cooked spaghetti, giving new meaning to the term spaghetti western.

The interesting thing about this film is that all the advertising is focused on the kidnapping aspect of the plot, whereas the film itself is squarely focused on Eddie Mannix and all the different things he has to deal with over the course of a two day period the film takes place in. It is very much a character piece as many Coen Brothers films are and doesn't get bogged down in such things as a straight-forward plot. Yes, the Baird Whitlock kidnapping is a big part of the story, but it isn't the whole story. It is much more focused on Eddie, a man at a crossroads of his life wondering if he should keep his Hollywood Studio job or take the cushy Lockheed Martin job and all the things in his life, the various star and starlet scandals and issues he has to deal with making him wonder if it's all worth it. I figured I would clarify this a bit since many people have been disappointed in the film as they were clearly expecting something else. 

Overall, Hail Caesar probably isn't what most would consider classic Coen Brothers. But it is still good Coen Brothers and for me that's plenty good enough. There are some hearty laughs in the film, some surprise twists and it certainly kept my attention from beginning to end. If the subject matter interests you as well, then I can confidently say you're probably going to have a good time with it as well. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

O Brother Where Art Thou













The first time I saw O Brother Where Art Thou was in a theatre at the Mall of America and I remember sitting there as the credits rolled and the lights came up feeling a bit dumbfounded as to what I had just watched. It was completely unlike anything I had ever seen before, yet I knew I liked it. On subsequent viewings, I grew to love it and with each passing viewing I got more and more into it's unique groove and as I did I found myself laughing harder and more often each time. This is not an uncommon response with me to a Coen Brothers film. 

Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney) is a fugitive from a chain gang along with two other men, Pete (played by John Turturro) and Delmar (played by Tim Blake Nelson), in Great Depression era Mississippi. They are three men on a mission to retrieve the stolen loot Everett stashed at an old cabin in a valley that is about to be flooded as part of the creation of a Hydro-electric plant. Along the way, the three escaped convicts cross paths with Pete's cousin, who helps them out of their chains, but then promptly turns the trio in for the reward money and they narrowly escape. From there, they steal a car, crash a church revival where both Pete and Delmar get baptised. From there, they encounter a young black man named Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King), who states he had met the devil and sold his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar real good. Their travels also have them crossing paths with a crooked bible salesman (played by John Goodman), a Ku Klux Klan rally, two competing candidates for Governor and notorious gangster George "Babyface" Nelson, among assorted others. 

There is a unique rhythm to the film that might throw audiences the first time they watch it. It certainly threw me, with it's unique and stylized dialogue through out, especially from the hyper-articulate Everett. Every line of dialogue he has is golden, with a ridiculously large vocabulary, all delivered to perfection from a very game George Clooney, who is clearly having a blast with the role. Backing him up is John Turturro as the eternal sourpuss Pete, who can't quite seem to have anything go right in his life. Then there is the eternally loveable, if a bit dim, Delmar who is played wonderfully by Tim Blake Nelson. This trio of mismatched criminals makes for many of the best laughs of the film, even if Everett tends to look down on them, at one point remarking that Pete and Delmar are "dumber than a bag of hammers," (which happens to be one of my favorite quotes from the film).

The Coen Brothers and their Director of Photography Roger Deakins came up with a unique look for the film. They shot the entire film and then had the entire thing scanned into a computer and frame by frame adjusted the color to where it is almost, but not quite sepia toned. It makes for a very unique looking film, but yet in an odd way captures the time period quite well. Scoring the film with period folk and bluegrass music also helped capture the time period and the soundtrack for the film was a surprise best seller. The film also has a couple of funny inside jokes to previous films that the Coen Brothers worked on. Holly Hunter shows up as Everett's wife. She previously starred in the Coen's Raising Arizona as a childless woman who desperately wants a baby. In a cute little twist, this time around her character has several kids, including three daughters just as articulate as their daddy. The other one is the cabin that the trio is traveling to is modeled after the one in The Evil Dead, a movie Joel Coen worked on with that film's director, Sam Raimi. They were a couple fun little gags that always get a laugh from me.

Overall, O Brother Where Art Thou remains one of my all time favorite Coen Brothers films, with a trio of great comedic performances working their way through another unique and wild Coen Brothers film. I have barely touched on all the plot threads going through this film because part of the fun is discovering it for yourself. And if you do, I promise you it will be plenty of fun.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fargo

















As someone who was born and raised in Minnesota, I've always had an interesting relationship with the film Fargo. I initially saw it when it was first released on home video and was immediately taken with the more outrageous aspects of the film (I won't elaborate so as to avoid spoilers). Then, as the film became more well known and the whole Minnesota accent that is playfully exaggerated in the film became a thing with people I kind of distanced myself from it a bit. After all, we don't really talk like that here, do we? Of course we do. Then, finally, as I got older I wholeheartedly embraced the film. 

Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy) takes a meeting with two low-life thugs, Carl (played by Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (played by Peter Stormare). He wants them to kidnap his wife, Jean (played by Kristin Rudrud) to hold her for ransom so he can get some much needed money out of his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (played by Harve Presnell). The two goons carry out the crime, but things go south remarkably quickly when they are pulled over by a State Trooper. The Trooper winds up dead, along with two witnesses who drive by. Called in to investigate the three shootings is Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand), a sweet natured woman who happens to also be seven months pregnant with her first child. As she slowly pieces of the still unfolding crime together, Jerry is finding himself trapped in an ill-conceived scheme that is quickly spiraling out of control.  

There is a lot to love about Fargo. Joel and Ethan Coen manage to craft a unique crime story filtered through their unique twisted humor to create a story that is so thoroughly Minnesota, whether we want to admit it or not. There is so much that rang true for me, from the typical suburban life, depicted in the early scenes in the Lundegaard house or the moment when Marge goes outside to start up her squad car only to come back in and announce it needs a jump because of the cold left me with laughs of recognition. Then to pair this familiarity with a hard edged crime story that by the end leaves several dead bodies in it's wake makes for an enticingly strange brew of a film that I think only someone like the Coen brothers could have truly make work. 

It's the characters that really make the film work though. You have the chipper, intelligent and kind Marge, who throughout the film is a thoroughly competent police officer and then is played off a situation that includes two dangerous criminals, a heavily stressed weasel of a family man and a growing body count of people. But yet, nothing really seems to shake her. As she examines crime scenes, remarking on the clues she finds or that one of the victims looks like a nice enough of a fella says a lot about her character. Marge is a big key part in why I fell in love with this film so much. I love the little touches with her character, her relationship with her husband Norm. She is such a warm character in the backdrop of a frozen tundra of Minnesota. Her best moment, the one that sums up the whole character and the movie is a whole, is at the end of the film. She is talking to one of the criminals in the back of her squad car, waiting for back up to arrive. She runs down the list of his various crimes and then says, with more than a little down home wisdom, "And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life then a little bit of money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it."  

On the other side of the film, we also have William H Macy as the in way over his head Jerry who no matter how bad things get refuses to turn back or try to give up. He watches his harebrained scheme to fake a kidnapping to get a chunk of money out of his father in law go spectacularly up in flames but yet keeps trying to come out ahead and keep control until it finally reaches a point where he no longer can and he discovers he never really did have control. Macy is the perfect Ying to Marge's Yang. She is calm, assured and competent while Macy is a sputtering, nervous wreck of a man, spiraling out of control. Marge and Jerry have two meetings in the film and both times just her mere presence is enough to turn him into a near basket case. It's a fantastic performance by William H. Macy and certainly one that made him famous. 

Finally, we have our two knucklehead criminals, the motormouth Carl who never shuts up and the mostly silent and very deadly Gaear, who only occasionally mutters short sentences, such as wanting pancakes. They are two violent and idiotic criminals who leave a path of destruction in their wake at every turn. They are the perfect storm of bad decisions that only succeed in making a bad plan become even worse. 

Joel and Ethan Coen perfectly capture the winter landscape of Minnesota with some fantastic cinematography from Roger Deakins. It's partnered with such a unique and wonderful Carter Burwell score that I can only describe as achingly beautiful and fits the film perfectly. They pull all this different parts of a tale, which they jokingly refer to as a true story at the beginning of the film (it's really not), and create something wholly original that you're never quite sure how it will play out and fill it with such unique and colorful characters while perfectly capturing their home state of Minnesota quite well, perhaps even a little too well some would argue. 

Overall, Fargo may just be the Coen Brothers' masterpiece. Now that I've said that, I can just hear all the Lebowski Achievers crying foul (don't worry, I'll get to that other comedic masterpiece later). But as a whole film, from beginning to end, it is their most fulfilling film for me personally. Of course, a lot of that has to do with Frances McDormand's iconic and well deserved Oscar winning turn as Marge, who is an absolutely fantastic character in a really great film.