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Posts Tagged ‘Coen Brothers’

Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can’t call myself a fan – there’s something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they’re little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.

But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.

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As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn’t have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs’ satisfaction?

I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there’s the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you’d expect) highly impressive.

And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes’ film director tries to coach Ehrenreich’s heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.

A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I’ve already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren’s scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).

The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg’s 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I’m rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the same kind of irresistible energy or gleeful sense of excess. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there’s actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I’ve no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.

This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking ‘hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept’ but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there’s a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. I think there is less to this film than meets the eye.

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Topping up my rental list a while back, I decided to add the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men – not because I’m a particular fan of the Coens, though I’ve never found one of their movies less than diverting, but because this one seemed to have a bit of a reputation about it. (Due to my international jetsetting lifestyle, I missed it on its initial release and indeed for quite a long time kept getting it mixed up with There Will Be Blood, which came out at about the same time.) It also appears to be the film that launched Javier Bardem’s career in Anglophone cinema – and with my ticket for Skyfall already bought, he’s an actor currently on my radar.

The thing with the Coens is that you never know quite what you’re going to get – they’ve done comedies, thrillers, and westerns of all stripes and tones, although a certain offness of beat is usually to be expected. This movie, however, is written and played rather straighter than most of their output, presumably due to its greater fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s source novel (when asked about the process of adaptation, the Coens revealed that one of them held the book open while the other typed the contents into the script).

Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a laconic retired welder living in the southern USA in 1980. By chance he stumbles upon the aftermath of an unsuccessful drug deal: one of the distinguishing features of the drug business is that failed deals tend to involve more spent ammunition and corpses than other areas of industry. Moss discovers a bag with $2 million in it and, perhaps understandably, decides he would quite like to keep it.

However, the owner of the money would also quite like it back and to this end dispatches laconic psychopathic weirdo Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in a deeply unflattering hairstyle somewhat reminiscent of Sonny Bono) to get it back. Chigurh’s chosen implements include a pneumatic bolt-gun and a shotgun with a silencer on it (no, I didn’t know you could do that either); as someone observes, he is not well blessed with a sense of humour, and the sort of hitch-hiker who gives the pursuit a bad name.

Aware of what’s going on is mild-mannered and laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – but Moss is intent on handling matters himself, placing himself in severe peril as Chigurh, another laconic bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) and some peeved Mexican drug-dealers close in on him…

On one level this is unrepentantly a genre movie, though it’s a little unclear quite what the genre in question is. The Coens cheerfully mash together tropes of both the classic western and the contemporary crime thriller, and the results are virtually seamless. The result is a tough, one might almost say macho movie, bloodily violent in places, and mostly populated by hard, laconic men, used to lives of violence. (That said, Kelly Macdonald is rather good – and, to my eyes, almost unrecognisable – as Moss’ wife.) This is a great-looking film with its own rather spartan style: there are long stretches with virtually no dialogue, and the only music in it is diegetic (hey, look at it this way: I’ve given you the opportunity to either feel a sense of smug kinship or learn a new word).

For the majority of its running time this is a taut, engrossing movie, well-directed, with very strong performances from everyone involved. And then… well, I would hate to spoil the ending, even though I found it more baffling than satisfying. There’s – well, it’s not quite a plot twist, but it’s an event that would cause most writing coaches to faint with horror if you were to suggest it. And following this, the remainder of the film becomes much less obviously a thriller or a western, but more a thoughtful and rather oblique meditation on… I’m really not sure. Fate. Responsibility. The nature of justice. The thriller plotline seems to get forgotten about, and so, for that matter, does a conventional ending.

I have to say I was disappointed by the way this film wrapped up, largely because I’d been so impressed with it in its earlier stages: the shift in tone and focus is just a bit too sudden and jarring. I suppose by making what looks like a genre movie you’re putting yourself in thrall to genre conventions, and having done so it’s very difficult to extricate yourself with a great deal of elegance, or indeed in a satisfying way.

Then again, it may be that it’s this very peculiar denouement which is responsible for the tremendous critical acclaim No Country For Old Men received: certainly it’s one of the most garlanded movies of recent years. Certainly, it’s beautifully written, filmed, directed and performed – Bardem is brilliant as a genuinely creepy psycho, and I don’t recall Harrelson ever being better, either – and if I was watching it for the first time on TV and the set blew up around the 90 minute mark I would be incensed, certain I was missing the end of a classic movie. As it is, I don’t know; maybe I will have to watch it again and try to assimilate that final half hour or so properly. I hesitate to call this movie deeply flawed, because that ending is obviously intended to mean something: I just have no idea what it is.

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As regular visitors may have begun to inkle, I have been rambling on about films on t’internet now for nearly ten years. Ten years! And of course, in this time I have cast my eye upon a wide range of films, good, bad, and ugly, right across the mainstream and beyond. If nothing else, as a result, I feel qualified to say that never has a genre fallen out of favour so completely and surprisingly as the western.

Other staples of the previous decade that seemed to have gone terminally out of fashion, such as the musical and the historical epic, have enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, but the western’s thunder and essence appears to have gone for good, its mythic status and moral certainties absorbed by other types of film. This is not to say that people have actually stopped making westerns, or pseudo-westerns, entirely: they haven’t. (I could name a string of movies from the last twenty years that comfortably fit the description, but that would be showing off.) But when someone makes what looks like a classic western and possesses genuine quality, it’s always treated as some kind of throwback to a bygone era.

Latest to get this attention (and the critical acclaim which often follows) is Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, based on Charles Portis’s novel and the 1969 adaptation which starred John Wayne. (The Coen version is the only one I am familiar with, alas.) Set in the late 1870s, this is the story of Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered by an intinerant ne’er-do-well (Josh Brolin). With the authorities apparently indifferent, she retains the somewhat-eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father’s killer to justice. Also on his trail is the self-regarding Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and together the trio set off into the lawless Indian Nation in pursuit of their quarry.

The first thing I have to say about True Grit is that it does seem like an oddity, a film which exists in a niche of its own rather than as part of any great tradition. The setting and the plot contain many staples of the genre – wide open spaces, sudden bursts of violence, themes of justice, revenge, and the loss of innocence – but at no time does it seem to be trying to say anything about what it means to be American today. It’s absolutely a period piece, set in and concerned with a particular time in the past. This is driven home by the rather florid dialogue given to everyone involved – fine old words like nincompoop and braggadocio get wheeled out for their first high-profile appearances in years.

Having said that, this is still a very good film – although not, I would say, in quite the same league as some of the others it’s in competition with for the season’s major gongs. It looks superb, and the contrast between the civilised regions where the film opens and closes, and the wilderness where the meat of it is set, is firmly drawn. The script is similarly solid, and manages to incorporate some subtle pieces of Coen weirdness without dragging the entire film off-course.

But on the whole I think I will remember it best for the performances of the three leads (Brolin has very little screen-time). As one would expect, Jeff Bridges is immaculate, and doesn’t appear to be channelling Wayne too much. Reports of his performance being unintelligible have been somewhat exaggerated, too. Damon is very decent as well, in a slightly less showy (and certainly secondary) role. But the main plaudits must go to Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an astonishingly self-possessed and mature performance, basically as the main character of the movie.

Film historians of the future will, I predict, be baffled as to why Steinfeld’s only been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by AMPAS, when she effectively carries the film. A somewhat craven decision based on which category she’s most likely to win, I suspect. Well, the main gong no doubt has Natalie Portman’s name on it, I suppose, but it’s still doing Steinfeld an enormous disservice to suggest this isn’t her movie: it is. Hollywood will be beating a path to her door now, and – like all great discoveries of recent years – you can expect her to pop up in a brain-deficient action movie requiring her to use ten percent of her talent very soon.

I’m not entirely sure that fans of old-style westerns will find True Grit completely satisfying as an example of the genre – it’s a little too measured and restrained for that, lacking the sheer emotional charge that the best westerns can generate – whether that emotion is exhilaration, foreboding, or one of many others. But on its own terms, and as a piece of historical drama, it’s virtually flawless.

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