Tagged Coen Brothers

Barton Fink: Head in the Clouds, Feet in the Sand

Barton Fink. 1991. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, Richard Portnow, & Christopher Murney. 20th Century Fox/Circle Films/Working Title Films.
Rated R. 116 minutes.
Comedy/Drama

★★★★★OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Coen Brothers are impressive for many reasons. Particularly for the fact they make these elaborate pictures, one might even call them extravagant, yet still they retain their uniquely creative independent spirit. Even in their more recent films in the past decade from No Country for Old Men to their latest Hail, Caesar! they somehow manage to keep their weird little hearts alive, no matter what the material. Then there’s the fact they’re usually tackling stories many others wouldn’t go near. Not for any controversy, nothing like that. Rather the Coens have a certain way of looking at the world, and so it’s only natural this bleeds into their work. I mean, who else would’ve done stories like The Big Lebowski or Fargo before these guys came along? Or told the stories of of movies such as Blood Simple.Raising ArizonaMiller’s Crossing?
That’s right. Nobody else.
So here we are at Barton Fink. An immediate aspect I love about this movie is the fact these writers (and good directors as this pair are they are most amazing in their abilities as writers) wrote a story about a writer. I’m always a sucker for literature or film about the art of writing, about the people that write the stories, so on. Ultimately, this movie concerns the life of a writer, and through a journey of magnificent hyperbole the eponymous Mr. Fink (John Turturro) we experience his combative writer’s block from one scene to the next, as Hollywood nearly eats him alive. Doesn’t hurt there are plenty of references to real life figures that serve as inspiration for Fink and others, including famous Southerner William Faulkner (my favourite author) and playwright Clifford Odets. Sure, this movie didn’t do well at the box office, but when has that ever mattered? Money isn’t quality. And perhaps part of that speaks to certain elements within the film itself. Nevertheless, this is an underrated film in general, as well as in the Coen Brothers’ overall filmography.
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Reality v. Fiction is a prominent part of the entire film. Mainly, the Coens place us in the headspace of Barton, in the realm of “the life of the mind” as Charlie (John Goodman) calls it. His major personal crisis has to do with that perceived need, or at least his want, to be in the realm of the common man. However, what Barton doesn’t face is the fact that, no matter how real your fiction gets it is always fiction. No matter how close to the common you get, soon as words hit the page and they’re only a representation of life then you’re always creating something, fictionalizing, you’re moving away from the truth. Just as Plato saw art as an imitation already twice removed, Barton will never be able to just get into that perspective of the common man. He is not a common man, definitely not after accepting a job in Hollywood writing motion pictures; it’s almost ironic then how he’s living in a shitty hotel, slumming it and trying to find that perspective when just working for a studio has already ensured he’s no longer common. Moving from Broadway to Hollywood is essentially going bigger, rather than smaller. So part of Barton’s entire journey is almost futile, or existentially frustrating, as it’s doomed from the start.
There are a few really great moments where satire is all but bursting right through the screen. One of my favourite scenes comes when Barton goes to see Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) at his sprawling mansion – Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) tries to pressure Barton into giving Mr. Lipnick information, lest he find himself out of work. Breeze tells Fink: “Right now the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” That’s such a perfect line in regards to how writers are treated, like a mill pumping out tangible product into the boss’ hands. Afterwards, this prompts Lipnick to send Breeze packing, then he gets down on his knees and literally kisses Barton’s foot, as a gesture of gratitude and an apology. It’s hilarious, and also poignant. This one scene alone displays the fake reverence and at once the very real disrespect many writers encounter while trying to practise their craft. There are many great scenes in a similar vein, this is just my favourite one and probably the most on-the-nose.
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Along the way, reality and fiction clash. All of a sudden, there’s a surreal quality to the film and Fink himself feels plunged inside a dream. There are echoes of themes to do with fascism and World War II, becoming even more clear later when we meet two detectives (they respectively have Italian and German surnames) and Charlie says a strange line directly related to WWII. So the surreal elements almost challenge you to look at the film either as a story about a writer and writing on the surface, or as a story with symbolism and thematic material lurking around every corner. Personally, I don’t feel the Coens intended this as a totally symbolic, metaphorical piece of cinema. Most of all, the themes tackled here have much to do with the distinctions between writers in the realm of Broadway and literary fiction and those that write for the movies. And not in any way are they trying to be negative, as the Coens themselves are indeed screenwriters. What they do successfully is examine the often fine line we as society demarcate between high and low culture. So, if we want to apply the concepts of literature to Barton Fink, I would suggest this as a post-modern story. Many aspects which define post-modern literature are the inclusion of both high and low culture, the looming spectre of WWII and more specifically the Holocaust, a shifting perspective or concept of identity, and more. All of which you’ll find throughout this amazing, dark comedic drama.
If you want, you could look at the entire film as symbolic. Or at least the latter half. Are Charlie and Barton the same person? In his quest to find the common man, did Barton create an entirely other self, one whom he could live through vicariously in order to create a story worthy of 1940s Hollywood? Who knows. Is Barton literally chained to a bed in a burning motel? Is he figuratively chained, stuck inside the burning house of his dilemma as a writer waiting to either escape or perish? “Sometimes it gets so hot I wanna crawl right out of my skin,” Charlie tells Barton. Much of this imagery, and Barton’s relationship with Charlie, has to do with the shifting identity Fink fights against. He is not sure who he is any more – a Broadway playwright or a big time Hollywood film writer. His personality has fractured, we see this early on even before the fire, as the wallpaper’s already begun to peel and curl up. These elements only intensify towards the end.
When Charlie bends the bars of the bed to free barton, this is the best indication of their being two parts of one personality. One side of Barton’s mind has freed the other, allowing it to continue on as it instead walks off into the fire. Better yet, more evidence to suggest Charlie isn’t altogether real is the box: before walking away he tells Barton he lied, the box does not belong to him. Therefore, the box has no rightful owner, at least not of which we’re aware. We can only assume the box is representative of an unknown possibility, almost like Schrödinger’s cat, very literally, but for the audience: there is either confirmation of Charlie’s character as real in that a head is in the box (highly unlikely to me as it would probably stink terribly with Barton lugging it around in that L.A. heat), or there is nothing significant in it and the box is a red herring, a confirmation that ultimately Charlie is a figment of ours and Barton’s imagination.
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Charlie: “I will show you the life of the mind
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John Turturro is one of the most slept on actors in the history of cinema. I’ll always stand by that fact. He is a man of many faces, often remembered for his funnier roles. And while Barton Fink is a comedic character in his own right, the meat of this role has to do with Turturro’s ability to portray a man whose life is falling apart. The meaning of his life – writing – is suddenly pulled into question, so every last element of what he sees as reality starts to sort of come loose. The very fabric of his being separates and gradually we fall down the rabbit hole right next to him. It isn’t easy for an actor to make psychological breakdowns feel and look entertaining. Turturro digs deep and brings his experiences as an actor to the part, as all artists know what it’s like to feel disconnected, worn out, blocked up. In the end, Barton is a complex character and we’ve never completely able to know if he’s a man with his head permanently in the clouds. Perhaps as he sits on the beach, admiring a woman uncannily similar to the picture hanging in his hotel room with his feet in the sand, Barton has come to realize – at the very least – that it’s all about perspective.
On the opposite side is John Goodman, a wonderful actor, too. He plays Charlie Meadows to perfection, giving him lots of likeable qualities and also making us aware that there’s something quirk about the man; we don’t find out exactly how much so until the end, when you can definitely start substituting crazy for quirky. There’s a danger to the character from minute one, but Goodman helps to keep us guessing. Roger Ebert made  good points about the theme of fascism against the backdrop of WWII and the Nazis, and that Charlie represents how easy it is for the common man to fall into madness, or almost worse into extremism – in this light, Goodman gives Charlie even creepier qualities. There’s no immediate sense of any extremism, though further we move through the plot it becomes clear Charlie is not whom he pretends to be, and this brings to mind the old sheep in wolves clothing adage. No matter how you interpret the film or the character, Goodman does well with Charlie as the sort of parallel extreme to Barton as a much more cautious, quiet type.
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This may be my personal favourite film from the Coen Brothers. It’s always hard to choose when filmmakers have such rich, diverse movies amongst their catalogue. Even with their signature and unmistakable style, the Coens always manage to create something new and intriguing each time out of the gate. Barton Fink is an enigma. Just as the film itself defies genre categorization (film noir/comedy/drama/surrealism/et cetera), the story defies one concrete explanation. I didn’t even bother getting into certain portions of the varying themes, as I’ve already run a long review. But there are so many elements at play throughout the film that you can’t definitively point to one thing and say WE FOUND IT. There are many things to enjoy and so many things to mull over, to ponder long after the credits roll and the experience is over. Whether you see this as symbolic film is not the point. The point is it gets you thinking and offers not just one idea, it allows us as an audience plenty of room to flesh out our individual experiences with the film and makes sure Barton Fink doesn’t only captivate you while the movie plays. No matter how you feel about this movie you’re bound to find something worth debating. And above all else, this is one of art’s main objectives.

Fargo – Season 2, Episode 2: “Before the Law”

FX’s Fargo
Season 2, Episode 2:
 “Before the Law”
Directed by Noah Hawley
Written by Noah Hawley

* For a review of the previous episode, “Waiting for Dutch” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “The Myth of Sisyphus” – click here
IMG_2157After the incredible opening episode, Fargo moves further into Season 2 with “Before the Law”.
This episode begins with more of the stylistically awesome editing, loving the splits-screen and how they use it at various intervals. Nice montage to start with Bobbie Gentry’s “Reunion” playing over top. We see glimpses of almost all the characters here and I thought it was a good way to start things off.
Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) is dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s stroke. A Gerhardt nephew, Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) – whose father is Bear (Angus Sampson) – helps his grandma out with “the bank“. Out in the barn, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) is viciously interrogating some poor guy with his partner in crime Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon). Meanwhile, Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett) have also come in from Kansas City to see the Gerhardt clan.
Plenty of things happening. Seems there are troubles within the family, let alone anything else outside of their ranks. Dodd wants to be the boss of the family now that patriarch Otto (Michael Hogan) is temporarily – and most likely permanently – out of the picture as figurehead. However, even his brother Bear believes their mother is the proper candidate. A tense little scene where we see how there’s not much real love in the Gerhardt family, it’s all about politics and hierarchical structure. Not saying they don’t love one another, but more that their family is built around an empire. It’s more a business than anything.
Dodd Gerhardt – with his right hand man Hanzee – is not letting his mother’s newly found leadership get in the way. They’re plotting something, planning. We’ll see exactly what that is sooner than later.
IMG_2159Floyd: “That’s what an empire is – it’s bigger than any son, or daughter.”

One big pot of jumbo going on here. So many complexities happening. I haven’t even mentioned the fact of Rye (Kieran Culkin) having been killed in the last episode by Ed and Peggy Blomquist (Jesse Plemons/Kirsten Dunst). The rest of Rye’s clan think he’s off either getting laid or doing something else just as trivial, in their eyes. I keep wondering how this is all going to come together, a big SNAFU of epic criminal proportions.
Heading away from the Gerhardt home, Bulo and Milligan have a conversation about their job. Seems they’re going to try divide and conquer among the Gerhardt boys. The first suggestion from Milligan, Rye, is obviously not going to work out.
Usually I find Ted Danson sort of… tedious. I’m already loving him in this season of Fargo. This character has a good deal of depth off the bat. Hank Larsson (Danson) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) are very believable together as father-in-law/son-in-law buddy cops. Added into that situation is Lou’s wife, daughter of Hank, Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti). I think the three-way dynamic between these actors and their characters is beginning very strong. Look forward to seeing more of them with each passing episode.
IMG_2161 IMG_2162I feel bad for Ed Blomquist. Peggy really did him dirty with the whole accident and not telling him. What did she think would happen? What was Peggy planning on doing? Very clear Ed loves his wife, if not he wouldn’t stick by her so closely. Her transgression has really put them both in a terrifying place. Not only that, Ed has to deal simply with the fact he took another man’s life. Regardless of how it happened, what went down, he still killed someone. Cannot be easy to live with.
Really, though, I’m sure Peggy will be the downfall of them both. At least in terms of public image. She is so nervous looking and her disposition is totally off when around others, so I can almost see it coming right now. She’s too edgy while Ed appears level headed and focused on making sure they don’t get caught.

Milligan pays a visit to the shop where Rye had previously been conducting his business with Skip Watson (Mike Bradecich). He’s tracking down the youngest Gerhardt. A real great scene here, which shows the solid acting abilities of Bokeem Woodbine; an underrated actor. He pulls Watson’s tie into one of the IBM typewriters, looking for information on the Judge killed over at the diner in “Waiting for Dutch“, then follows up with a little story about writing a letter to General Electric and some questions. It’s such an expertly written scene, something I’m coming to expect from Hawley.
IMG_2163 IMG_2164 Jesse Plemons is someone I think is also underrated. After his turn on Breaking Bad, playing a very unlikeable character (though he played him well), here he gets a bigger role, as well as one with even more under the surface. Watching him clean up the mess his wife made, first the car and bleaching the garage floor then in his underwear burning bloody clothes at the fireplace, you can tell he’s even come a long way just since Breaking Bad. The Blomquists story is a part of this season I’m already super invested in personally and I’m sure there are going to be more little tragedies for them the further we go.
IMG_2165One of my favourite scenes of the season already comes when Lou Solverson goes over to the diner. He heads inside to have a look at the nasty crime scene. Outside, his daughter and wife play in the snow. Then when the little one picks up a deflated balloon, Betsy ends up finding the shiny silver revolver Rye used in the murders. Sort of a bittersweet moment because it’s awesome she found the gun, also sort of darkly funny the way Lou was inside with all the blood and death, as his wife and daughter are just outside, having fun in the angelic white snow. Perfect sort of Fargo moment of juxtaposition.
IMG_2167 Right afterwards there’s an intense scene. Milligan and his henchmen are pulled over by Larsson. There’s a bit of messing about, with Milligan playing games briefly. Honestly, I was completely on edge from the moment Larsson stood in the road and their car showed up. Ted Danson has such an outstanding degree of suspense in his own eyes, such a burning stare throughout the confrontation, you’ll find it very hard not to fall in with how tense things feel. I actually let my breath out slightly once the scene faded into the next. Wow.
IMG_2169Still, I’m most interested in Ed and Peggy. More so Ed, though, as he’s carrying the major brunt of the entire situation on his shoulders. Just watching him smolder alone in his car, at the meat shop, at home, it’s almost unnerving. Because you don’t know how regular, everyday people will be affected by murder. It can lead certain people into a dark descent. Will Ed be one of those? Will he crack under the pressure, or keep it all together in order to protect himself, his wife, his potential family down the road? One thing I know is that it’s totally fun watching the dark drama play out in front of us. The spirit of the Coen Brothers Fargo is continuously alive and well.
Feeling like a broken record, again there is trouble for the Blomquists. Co-worker Constance (Elizabeth Marvel) ends up finding the stolen toilet paper she’d mentioned earlier, to Peggy – in Peggy’s house. The smallest sort of thing, but in these murder cover-up situations, aren’t the smallest details almost most important? Even worse, now more people – Constance – are seeing the car, the damage, so their dirty secrets are starting to filter out. In a small Minnesota town, secrets like theirs, or any secrets for that matter can easily make their rounds through the locals. The more I see Peggy onscreen, the more I feel she’s going to do something even more stupid than she originally did and the secrets will start flowing like waterfalls.
IMG_2170Larsson and Solverson have a nice little conversation nearing the episode’s end. Not only are the idiosyncrasies of these two characters revealed a little more, their talk about “convergence” and “callback” is important. Fargo is a show based around those ideas, that one situation will remind you of another, that things come back to bear on all things relevant; ultimately, the bad keeps repeating, calling back to other bad things, and so on. There’s more to their conversation, mostly concerning the diner crime scene. However, I think a good deal of their dialogue lent itself to the idea of history repeating itself, at least in part.
IMG_2171Larsson: “Sometimes I wonder if you boys didn’t bring that war home with ya.”

Ed Blomquist finally finds himself in a tight situation. About time, really, in terms of this season’s plot; may as well get things going full steam. As Ed chops and grinds the body of Rye Gerhardt at the shop, putting it through the machinery like he might a bunch of sausages, et cetera. Amazing shot where he chops fingers off, they roll to the floor and one slips under the door out into the shop! I couldn’t believe it, such a gnarly moment. Plus, the suspense goes up with Lou Solverson out at the door, knocking away. Extremely tense – Lou wants bacon (get it?) for when Betsy wakes up, so naturally Ed invites him in while he cuts off a few pieces. Two excellent actors here bouncing off one another. Great writing. This is typical – and awesome – Fargo type fare, with the music really riling things up, the acting on point and a hairy situation playing out. Kept me on edge for the entire few minutes of the scene.
“The Eve of the War” by Jeff Wayne begins to play over the final shots. So fitting and beautiful and dark at once.
IMG_2172Cannot WAIT to see and review the next episode, “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Stay tuned, fellow Fargo-ites!

Prisoners: Guzikowski & Villeneuve Subvert the Usual Thriller

Prisoners. 2013. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Written by Aaron Guzikowski.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano. Warner Brothers Pictures. 14A. 153 minutes.
Drama/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★ (Movie)
★★★ (Blu ray release)

Denis Villeneuve has been on my radar ever since I was first able to see Polytechnique; a great little film about the awful Montreal Massacre on December 6th in 1989. Of course he’s also directed several other fascinating films including Incendies and another recent film again with Jake Gyllenhaal, the unique and, for some, the confusing Enemy. When I heard he was doing a film with both Hugh Jackman and Gyllenhaal, I got really interested. First of all because Villeneuve has a real talent for dark subject matter. Second, I love Gyllenhaal. After first seeing photos from production and the trailer, I couldn’t believe the look he had going for this film; it was thrilling. And last but not least, I think Jackman is underrated. Sure, he’s in tons of big budget films, and people know him very well, but I don’t think he exactly gets the praise he deserves. However, Prisoners changes the trajectory of his career, and I believe people should notice how good an actor he really is. While the entire film is also just about perfect, all these things come together to make Prisoners a dark modern classic.
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We’ve seen the story here probably more than we care to: young girls are kidnapped, police except for one crusader are inept, one of the parents takes the law into their own hands. Yet even though the story seems familiar, the plot Guzikowski weaves through it goes into very deep, dark territory. It isn’t the same thing we see time and time again. There’s something in Prisoners that taps into our fears, and it does so easily.

Essentially this is a lot like other thrillers on the same subject. Where Prisoners excels is the acting, cinematography, and of course the writing. The script is tight. Honestly, it kept me guessing until late in the game. What really gets me here is Roger Deakins. If you don’t know the Deak then what are you doing to yourself? I don’t even want to start listing the great films he has done as Director of Photography. Okay, okay, here’s a few: Sid and NancyHomicideBarton FinkThe Shawshank RedemptionThe Hudsucker ProxyFargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?House of Sand and Fog, JarheadNo Country for Old Men, and the film adaptation of Doubt, among many others. Deakins has an absolutely flawless eye for beauty on film. The way he does things is phenomenal. Prisoners has a very dark, gritty quality to it, but yet it is still pristine looking. The tone is absolutely set with the way Deakins shoots things. Villeneuve and Deakins must have had a grand time working together.
PrisonersAlthough Jackman is probably seen to be the star of the show, as his role is central to the plot, I think Gyllenhaal is the real star. Not that his performance is actually better than Jackman’s own, I just think his character is the most important.

Gyllenhaal plays Detective David Loki, although his first name can only be seen on his business card. Of course, a lot of people automatically pinned Loki as the eventual culprit in the kidnapping of the two girls; his surname is deceptive, and naturally many thought it was a key to some answers. First off, any screenwriter who would actually name the villain in their film Loki is way too ham fisted. It should be obvious, sooner than later, Detective Loki’s name is just a red herring. The character is far too interesting to write off with simple character nims. We get glimpses of Loki’s tattoos, as they’re all over his body. At one point, you can clearly tell Loki is wearing a Masonic ring implying he is most likely a member of the Masonic Lodge (for those conspiracy theorists out there this is just another herring – regular Masons, such as my father and grandfather and a ton of other people I know, are not taking over the world, they are meeting at lodges and doing community work such as fundraising and other things – but here it is meant, again, to throw you off from figuring out the real criminal). There are so many tiny eccentricities about Gyllnehaal’s portrayal of Detective Loki you could go on and on for days. It’s just one of the things, aside from Gyllnehaal’s excellent performance, that makes Loki work perfectly as a character in this film.
THE-PRISONERS9-1024x542Jackman, on the other hand, plays the simple character of Keller Dover. I only say simple because he doesn’t have any flair; there are no little mysterious bits about Dover. He is a man who has lost his daughter, and is willing to go to any lengths necessary needed to find her and bring her home. The intensity Jackman brings is no surprise. He strikes me as an intense actor once he gets going. What does surprise me are the quieter moments. And they are there. Some people pass the performance off as all brash, loud scenes with Jackman yelling, growling, et cetera.
What they neglect are the small moments. The few in the beginning with his son. Little moments in the middle. As well as some powerful, subtle scenes nearing the very end. It isn’t all outright intensity. There are some really small and touching bits we get out of Jackman. Although, my favourite scene is when Dover is interrogating a man he believes to be the kidnapper of his and his friend’s children, and there’s a hammer involved. I don’t want to ruin it – it’s not really violent in the sense someone gets hurt with the hammer – but it is totally worth it to see this part. I didn’t expect it. It was one of those scenes I actually paused and imagined how the other actors reacted to his performance. I can’t imagine there wasn’t at least ONE person who was genuinely frightened by Jackman after those takes. Apparently Villeneuve coaxed Jackman into being more vicious, and this take was the next one he did; of course, it made its way right into the film. Rightfully so.
p5I cannot find anything I don’t like about Prisoners. As a film, I can happily and confidently give it a 5 star rating. There will always be differing opinions, on any movie. I just don’t see how you can’t enjoy this one. The acting, even the supporting roles and smaller bits, was wonderful. The script, while centered on a topic often covered in film, is fresh, and doesn’t go down all the same roads other films tend to travel on; some may disagree again, but we’ll have to amiably agree to disagree. I think the plot here, the writing, the acting – it all works to create a really amazing, dark, and exciting film.

I especially love the end. Villeneuve could have went several ways on it, but the ending is beautiful. It is a quiet, subdued ending. It even gives an air of hope, even if things are grim. Even if they may still come out grim after all. But the finale gives a glimmer of hope, and I enjoy that. Though I do enjoy all things dark and gritty, this film really gave the ending the right touch with just enough hope while still leaving things on an ambiguous note.
prisoners-image02On the contrary, I can only give Prisoners a 3 out of 5 stars in regards to the Blu ray release. The picture itself? Absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography really jumps out at you on this release. I can’t complain whatsoever about the picture or the sound; it’s all perfect. Though there is a complete lack of any real interesting extras on the disc. There are two small featurettes which give you some interviews with the cast and crew, but other than that there isn’t anything. They aren’t particularly long either. So the release itself isn’t amazing, aside from the picture quality of course, and if that wasn’t perfect then there’d be no real reason to want the Blu ray anyways – quality is expected when it comes to the visuals. I just wish they had some more special features to dive into. Alas, no such thing.

I highly recommend this Blu ray. Even though the extras don’t really fill out the release, the picture is still absolutely worth it. What you’re coming for is the movie either way, and the movie definitely delivers. The running time is long, but it doesn’t feel long when you’re sitting there watching it. And the picture is really stellar, again – I can’t stress that enough. While I wanted more extras, I’m absolutely okay with the release simply on the basis that it looks incredible, sounds great, and the film is spot on.
What I’m rambling on about? Pay more attention to the rating I gave Prisoners as a film and less about the Blu ray release – and go get yourself a copy of this brilliant, thrilling masterpiece! It’s a real modern work of dark and thrilling art.