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by Bill Gibron

14 Mar 2008

What would you do for unconscionable wealth? How desperate would you have to be, financially, to face your past and all the humiliations and pain within it? That’s the question posed to recently unemployed musical instrument salesman Pruchit. Drowning in debt and unable to support his family’s growing needs, it seems like life is constantly kicking this hard working if harried soul. Into his miserable existence steps 13, a website which - unbeknownst to him - offers an online reality game show featuring fabulous cash prizes. All our hero has to do is complete an unlucky number of tasks, and he will be handsomely rewarded to the tune of 100 million baht.

Of course, there’s a catch. Instead of standard stunts, Chit is required to sink deeper and deeper into the bowels of amoral activity. His first few goals are menial - kill a fly, eat said insect, make three children cry, etc. But when he reaches the fourth stage, and sees a dinner plate of feces awaiting him, both our lead and the audience know that things are only going to get worse - much worse. Indeed, as Chit plays along, he is challenged to both save and end lives, cause and prevent harm, and come face to face with his mixed ethnicity past, the father who abused him, and the horrible feelings of inadequacy and shame that such a situation fostered.

Overloaded with good intentions and definitely overreaching at the end, 13: Game of Death (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Group’s Dimension Extreme label) is a very ‘70s post-millennial movie. It gets a great deal of its clockwork thrills right. It also stumbles in significant ways while rushing toward the end. At nearly two hours, there is way too much material here, and director Chukiat Sakveerakul could have definitely cut out a subplot here and there. Since it’s based on a comic book, one must imagine the filmmaker feeling a debt of completist gratitude toward the source (co-screenwriter Eakasit Thairstana crafted the original Thai graphic novel). But the computer geek intern who sympathizes with Chit, along with the surreal storyline featuring the most uncaring family in the world, really don’t work. Even the flashbacks to our hero’s childhood feel superfluous until the end.

One thing Sakveerakul definitely knows is suspense and cinematic strategy. He is keenly aware that the inherent narrative drive - read: the 13 tasks - will keep even the most disassociated viewer glued to the screen. As long as he can deliver intriguing tricks and quests, we’ll follow along. At first, it appears the errands will be tame, following a standard formula of humiliation and taboo busting. But Game of Death defies many expectations, and when Chit must rescue a rotting corpse from an in-house well, we see there is much more to this movie besides challenges and choices. Sakveerakul’s attempts at humor are more or less effective, as are his violent set pieces. One semi-decapitated victim definitely leaves a lasting impression.

But there are also times when we fail to sympathize with Chit. He often comes across as purposefully ineffectual and weak, showing no backbone and even less will to change. Some may see the different confronts as a way of shaking him out of his shell, to stand up and be counted among the many making their way in the world. Yet there is a fatalistic feel to everything that happens to our lead. It’s as if the cosmos is convinced that Chit is a loser and is looking for ways to prove it time and time again. Thanks to the intrinsic nature of where the story is going, we continue to be invested. But Chit’s attitude tends to countermand such cinematic awareness.

And then there is the whole slightly surreal element that comes from the Thailand setting. Unlike other Asian horror or genre efforts, there is very little of the ghostly superstition or traditional terrors here. Sakveerakul keeps everything centered well within the real world, the better to make his occasional bouts of social commentary stand out. If you look carefully, you see slams against neglecting the elderly, police corruption, cyberspace anonymity and criminality, as well as slightly more goofy statements regarding cell phones and laundry lines. Clearly, 13 Game of Death is more interested in fear than focusing on major Thai concerns. But there are some subtle jabs intertwined with the dread.

That’s why we recognize how readily the movie harkens back to the more meaning-laced offerings of the Me Decade. Sakveerakul wants his ideas to resonate beyond the simple gore and torture porn many will infer into this film. Yet aside from a couple of blood soaked shots, the grue is relatively tame and the brutality centered on main character Chit. In fact, it’s safe to say that 13: Game of Death is one of the more unusual efforts to be associated with the post-Saw/Hostel world. While it reflects the mindset that made those films, it also argues for a differing, more unique approach to such subjects. It’s something that Sakveerakul discusses in the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an 18 minute Making-of featurette.

Still, the story remains all too familiar - a desperate man doing unspeakable acts for the sake of some strings-attached coin. The cabal-oriented conclusion feels tacked on and the major plot twist is telegraphed a good five minutes before it happens. Yet 13: Game of Death is a good little thriller. It keeps you occupied and finds a way to work, even in spite of itself. While it probably won’t change the world’s perspective on Thai horror, it will definitely delight the adventurous fright fan. And with a message about money and its roots of all evil front and center, it has something to say as well.


by Bill Gibron

13 Mar 2008

Like getting smacked in the face? Of course not - no one does. Aside from the physical pain and assault, there’s the demoralizing effect on one’s dignity and pride. Such an attack is a psychological affront, a meta- and physical reminder of every bad time you’ve ever had, every bad thought you’ve ever harbored. Yet this is the exact sensation one gets after suffering through the pointless ‘revisionist’ thriller Funny Games. While Austrian director Michael Haneke may be doing little except revamping his 1997 foreign language film for US distribution, this shot for shot retelling of a family vacation gone gangrenous is actually an outright assail on audiences.

You see, Haneke dislikes America. He specifically hates our love affair with violence. He believes - and perhaps, rightfully so - that we are obsessed with it. He thinks we get a vicarious, even erotic charge out of seeing individuals suffer on screen. He’s stunned by the brutality leveled in the name of entertainment and he thinks that such a sickening bloodlust needs a direct and slightly sarcastic denunciation. The result? Funny Games. In the serial killer playing mind games narrative, the filmmaker fiddles with genre expectations. Actions happen off screen or in long, laborious takes. Murder is undercut with cruel humor. Our heroes are weak and our villains smug. And above all, all sense of right and wrong is retrofitted into an ambiguous, grossly dissatisfying cinematic arrogance.

It’s clear that this director would love the above scribed dressing down. He sees similar criticism as the proper effect of his film. He wants viewers to question the logic and logistical set-ups. He begs that we fall for the formulas and champion the stereotypes. He wants to peak our inherent sense of vigilante justice and bemoan the lack of true criminal comeuppance. In part, this is aggravation as overly intellectualized confrontation - like creating a monster movie only to filter it through a partygoer’s everpresent camera POV. But the disastrous element of Funny Games is this blatant obviousness. Instead of trying to fool you with the preplanned perspective, it simply stands there and sucker punches you - again, and again, and again.

It’s the main facet of the film, and one that has both intrigued and repelled critics. Some have praised Haneke as taking a brave, even bravura tactic. By making the audience’s own reaction as important as that of the characters onscreen, Funny Games breaks down the fabled Fourth Wall and turns the viewer into a participant in the pain as well. Their distress and unease is all part of the maker’s intention. But this begs a significant question - does a filmgoer really want to be made uncomfortable? Now, we are not talking about the intrinsic reaction that comes with most genres - comedy/laughter, horror/fear, melodrama/sadness. Funny Games is not working in free association. It’s about rubbing your nose in your own morbid curiosity and enjoying the sour smell.

Again - is that a viable element of the motion picture artform? When rape is depicted as part of a director’s vision, some find it powerful. Others feel it’s provocative. And there are those who see it as exploitative, unnecessary, and gratuitous. Haneke seems to be suggesting that murder - one of Funny Games and the movies in general most fervent pastimes - be treated the same way. Of course, our cultural love affair with violence means that we have to be tricked into taking notice - thus his “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” approach. By busting through convention, this director wants you to acknowledge it. By thwarting your anticipated reactions, he hopes to undermine you appreciation of dread.

Yet all of this fails to address the initial premise - is it something cinema should do? Is something that is essentially amusing supposed to trip up our sensibilities so? The answer appears to be generational. Those raised on traditional ideals despise this kind of grandstanding self-centeredness. A filmmaker should never call direct attention to himself or his style - unless your name is Hitchcock. It’s like explaining the joke before you’ve told the set-up and/or punchline. But the younger demographic of movie lovers, the ones raised on hours in front of the VCR and endless premium cable reruns dig this new breed of brazenness. They will mistake a con job for con artistry and scream for more, more, more.

These are the Funny Games apologists, the ones reading way more into the movie than probably exists. They don’t mind the tension breaking asides directed to the audience, or the moment when a remote control literally rewinds the action to benefit the bad guys. To them, it’s all manipulation with a purpose, a full disclosure dance between the old guard and the fresh faces. But there is a flaw in this reasoning, something that stems directly from what Haneke wants to do. When a child suffers a horrendous shotgun blast, his viscera strewn around the living room set like so much Leatherface graphic design, Haneke keeps the event offscreen. Yet we still see the gore, the insinuation as nasty as seeing the act itself.

Then there’s the other brutality. Legs are broken, women defiled (if only psychologically), and animals are rendered into lifeless heaps. Haneke never once avoids a single one of these senseless shocker moments. Sure, we may have to experience the majority of the mayhem indirectly, but seeing a gaping wound or canine corpse remains standard scary movie procedure. To really give us the goose, Haneke would have kept everything out of sight - the body blows, the asexual strip tease. A dead child would have been a sonic cue only, a last act drowning a mere mention between murderers. But that’s not good enough for Funny Games, and the reason why stands as the film’s final undoing.

Haneke is not making this movie for free. He’s not selling his celluloid sermon via a self-run website and a homemade DV-R dynamic. No, he’s got a top flight Western cast (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts), a major studio (Warners Independent) push, and a great deal of ‘then and now’ comparative publicity. While he may claim his movie is all about the message, the truth is it’s all about the money. You don’t cast Dawson’s Creek level actors like Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet unless you’re trying to trade on their youth appeal, and you don’t stress the “darkly comic” edge of the story in ads to try and trap the over 40 crowd. In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.

Besides, the movie is reprehensible, obvious, polarizing, uninvolving, and in the end, a waste of talent and time. And even with all that being true, there will be those who stand back and praise such problems. It’s one thing to take a strong statement against violence and its cultural commercialization and translate it into an equally powerful work. It’s another to take the symbolic stance and have the audience do the majority of the heavy lifting. Funny Games is a farce and Michael Haneke is the fully clothed foreign film emperor. Unfortunately, the blood staining such threads is not insightful. It’s insidious. 

by Bill Gibron

12 Mar 2008

Ah, abortion: the solid center to any motion picture entertainment, right? Why so many of today’s movies have shied away from this normal, non-hot-button issue is simply a mystery. How could famed producers and artistically minded directors not see the inherent visual appeal of seedy, back alley clinics, wire coat hangers, and post-procedure hemorrhaging? You’d think by the way they avoided it, there was some manner of controversy surrounding this simple, salient life option preferred by so many modern women. Even the exploitation element felt sheepish about broaching the topic - mostly.

When corn-fed gal Patty Smith arrives in LA from Kansas, she wants to experience all that the West Coast has to offer. But getting gang-raped by a bunch of swarthy toughs was not high on her “to do” list. A couple of bouts of morning sickness later, and Patty has a permanent souvenir of the City of Angels. Hoping for help in terminating this unwanted “with child,” Patty seeks her doctor’s advice. He preaches to her about legalities. Seeking a second opinion, she visits another physician. He sermonizes about ethics…and then demands $600 to “help.” Desperate for money, Patty heads over to her church looking for a loan. The local parish priest condemns her - and her unborn fetus - to an eternity of damnation. Besides, the diocese is short on cash (go figure).

At her wit’s - and first trimester’s - end, Patty seeks the assistance of a sleazy bar owner with “connections.” He spares her a lecture, but does suggest she simply “get it over with” and just turn whore. Finally finding a financially acceptable option, Patty takes $200 to a “floating” clinic and prepares for a safe, sanitary procedure. What she gets instead is another homily to legislative change and a rather deadly infection. It may be hard for the folks back home to understand, but such knitting needle options are simply part of The Shame of Patty Smith.

Over in Dentonville, Florida, folks are as overheated as a cat on a hot tin roof, and view their small town existence as one huge crass menagerie. Trading on her family name - and her physician father’s swollen back account - little Joan Denton loves to cruise the seedy side of the city and hornswoggle the local rough trade. Eddie Mercer is the lucky load who lands Joanie’s physical love bug, and it’s not long before seed has taken womb root. The determined debutante immediately puts the kibosh on further fetlock fun, and this devastates ol’ Ed. He wants her to have the baby. But Joan is too busy preparing for country club parties, going on shopping sprees, and looking for available abortionists in Tampa (which is apparently famous for said surgical saloons).

A confrontation leads to a misunderstanding and before you know it, Edward is in jail on trumped-up charges, Dr. Denton is arranging for the fertility flushing, and a snotty lawyer from Miami is sticking his bar credentials in everyone’s dirty laundry business. When it appears that her trip to one of Ybor City’s finest birth termination facilities is threatened, Joan goes jittery and grabs a gun. Orphans are threatened. Swamps are polluted. And a planned retirement community is turned into a pre-Poltergeist burial mound as death comes from the flash of a muzzle accompanied by the screaming sentiment, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!”

All joking aside, it’s clear that one of the reasons abortion has stayed a minor motion picture plotpoint is that The Shame of Patty Smith covered the subject so thoroughly and with enough debate-oriented detail that no other Tinseltown NOW testament could compete with its completeness. And inclusive is definitely one way of describing this legal and ethical diatribe.

Made 11 years before Roe v. Wade turned promiscuity into a viable vice option (at least in the Puritan’s mind), this cinematic amicus brief to the cause of choice gives every side - medical, religious, law enforcement, and backroom butcher - the chance to have his or her say. A lot of say. Too much say. While the arguments are cogent and the language intelligent, these discomfited conversational sidesteps turn the movie into something of a mad musical of soapbox stumping. Like one of those old MGM Technicolor classics, you can literally watch The Shame of Patty Smith‘s narrative and say to yourself, “I feel a speech coming on.”

Far too contemporary for its early ‘60s surroundings, this uncomfortable confrontation between life and privacy tries to address this most non-winnable of arguments in a realistic manner. Too bad it sacrifices salaciousness, drama and entertainment to do so. One has to wonder what the raincoat crowd made of this dull, detail-oriented offering. Never before has getting knocked up been so foul…or so thoroughly footnoted. The Shame of Patty Smith has good intentions, antithetical to a grindhouse good time.

If you ever wondered what an exploitation movie about unwanted teen pregnancy would look like had it been penned by Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, then settle back on your porch swing, pour yourself a frosty mint julep and whittle away an hour (actually, 73 minutes) with the powerful Denton family and their promiscuous daughter Joan. So steamy it instantly irons out the wrinkles in your drapes the minute it starts to unscroll onscreen, and so full of Southern-fried melodrama that Colonel Sanders once thought of including it with a bucket of his chicken, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” (changed from the original Touch of Flesh) is more Tobacco Road than classroom scare tactic.

Between the backstabbing family lawyer, the local police chief who proudly flaunts his lack of parentage, and a slinky slut who’s new to town but already at home with the horny swing of things, this peculating potboiler is as bodice-bulging as they get. Add in Joan’s sexual slumming, an elderly matron with the “hots” for Dr. Denton, and some gratuitous orphans, and this sleazy saga goes from bad to perverse.

Director R. John Hugh has a unique cinematic style. Placing his camera just a little too high in the frame, he forces everyone to talk down toward the floor, so we get very little actual eye contact. Everyone navel-gazes as they deliver their overly melodramatic lines filled with family secrets and prosecutorial proverbs. Barely touching on the divisive surgery controversy, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” intends to show how an unwanted oven bun can lead to all manner of overacting. It succeeds in superbly seedy fashion. Not even old Ed can damage this randy rhetoric reading.

As unique as they are oblique, both The Shame of Patty Smith and “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” represent motion picture moralizing at its most truncated and tawdry. They also stand as wonderful examples of abortion’s limited cinematic stance. Pro or con, these are a couple of crazy lessons in Constitutional constructions.

by Bill Gibron

11 Mar 2008

Blame it all on Godzilla. Or better yet, blame it on Toho Studios, Sandy Frank, and any other individual or entity that has a say in how Japan’s favorite oversized lizard gets manipulated and marketed around the world. When Rhino released Volume 10 in their recently halted Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection (don’t worry - Shout! Factory is taking up the mantle), it included the satiric show’s riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon. Famous for introducing the Ultraman-inspired Jet Jaguar, as well as a weird arms race theme (the undersea kingdom of Seatopia decides to fight nuclear testing by…sending a massive monster to destroy Tokyo?), it stands as a fan favorite.

Unfortunately, as with many movies in the MST3K catalog, issues over rebroadcast rights reared their ugly head. Devotees of the classic cowtown puppet show have long had to resign themselves to the fact that many of the series’ most memorable episodes would never see the light of a home video release. The reasons are many - post-commercialized claims, long unsettled legal disputes, family tiffs, limited use contracts - but the fact remains that both Godzilla and his success inspired turtle brother Gamera have been visibly absent from the Rhino releases. When Megalon hit, many thought the drought may finally have ended. Others believed it was too good to be true. They were right.

Indeed, aside from a few review versions sent to websites and publications for write-up, and a couple of accidental brick and mortar sales, Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Collection soon became an out of print prize. The box set was pulled, rumors surfaced and were settled, and anyone desperate to own the DVD version of the installment had to pay big bucks to collectors and/or price gougers. In response, Rhino is releasing a ‘replacement’ disc, an ‘upgrade’ if you will. Taking Gojira’s still warm seat in the digital package will now be the classic Season Four installment, The Giant Gila Monster. Starring the leg up vocalizing of Don Sullivan and directed by The Killer Shrews’ Ray Kellogg, this forced perspective reptile on the prowl picture is truly bad…meaning it makes for flawless MST fodder.

It seems that Chase Winstead and his fast driving teen buddies just can’t get enough of tearing through the dirt roads of their backwater burg. But when a pal and his pretty thing fail to show up for a rendezvous at the passion pit, the town gets worried. Seems the boy is the son of factory owner Mr. Thompson, and this rural entrepreneur loves to throw his weigh around. He especially enjoys bossing the likable Sheriff Jeff. When more people go missing, the mystery deepens. Then local lush Old Man Harris sees a giant Gila monster crossing the road. It causes a massive train accident where victims confirm the creature. It is up to Chase, his crippled sister, his French speaking girlfriend, and the aging lawman, to save the barn dance and destroy the beast once and for all.

In a clear case of Fourth Season syndrome (a theory among critics by which a television series reaches its first of possibly many creative peaks), The Giant Gila Monster stands as many MiSTie’s most memorable outings. It contains the sensational second on air cast incarnation - Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff - and finds the program banging on all of its sarcastic cylinders. From the sensational invention exchange (who doesn’t want to punch out Renaissance Fair stereotypes) to Tom Servo’s expose on how Kellogg employed the ‘bended knee as blocking device’ technique, it’s a marvelous installment. While it may not replace the mesmerizing “man in suit” dynamic of Godzilla’s Eastern promise, it satisfies in its own schlocky way.

Indeed, the movie itself is a mishmash of horror, rock and roll, melodramatic schmaltz, and standard formulaic filmmaking. Kellogg uses minimal sets (a garage, a barn, a soda shop) and lots of local Texas backdrops (the movie was filmed in the Lone Star state) to tell his tale, and via the use of miniatures and massive close-ups, he creates a well-meaning (if rather unexceptional) giant beast. Sullivan’s Chase Winstead is a juvenile delinquent in the Steve McQueen/The Blob sense. He’s a good kid, occasionally misguided in his engine revving routine. There are songs (composed and sung by the star himself), a wacky old drunk, some choice chest puffing, and a good amount of over the top orchestration. All of it tries to make The Giant Gila Monster more imposing than it is.

As for the MST material, it’s above reproach. The in-theater joking is marvelous, most of the mirth centering on giving the title character a rib-tickling running critter commentary. Though it admits to having a brain “the size of a chickpea”, the Gila definitely gives good wit. Similarly, there are numerous mentions of the actor’s everpresent knees, a complete deconstruction of Sullivan’s tune “The Lord Said Laugh”, and a choice skit where comic drunks are discussed. This is the kind of movie that easily lends itself to the MST3K treatment. It’s hokey without being completely horrible, pedestrian without plodding along. The combination of film and funny business represent the reason many think Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains the best show in the history of the medium.

Of course, what many outside the obsessive will wonder is - is this DVD worth getting? Rhino is selling them for under $8 (for those who already own Volume 10) and it will be included in every new version of Volume 10.2. The answer is a resounding YES, if only for the introductory material. Somehow, Joel, Trace, and Frank were all convinced to re-don their character costumes and recreate an opening sequence from the show. Within this older, balder, and bulkier version of MST‘s memorable players, Joel and the ‘Bots help Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank explain the “upgrade” process. It’s one of the best things the series has ever done, and a burst of badass nostalgia for anyone who truly adores the show.

But there’s more here than that. Along with a gallery of stills, the disc also houses a 12 minute interview with actor Don Sullivan. He expresses his love of the film, how MST3K helped him appreciate it even more, and how he came to Hollywood with big dreams and $3 in his pocket. He also talks about his songwriting, the meaning of “The Lord Said Laugh” and why he dropped out of show business. It’s an insightful Q&A, one of the best ones these discs have provided. As an added bonus, we get two audio-only tracks from the Sullivan catalog. They’re a hoot. It all turns a must-own DVD into one of the best format fortunes out there. So perhaps instead of blaming Godzilla and his monetary keepers, we should thank them. If for nothing else than the return of our favorite MST icons, The Giant Gila Monster makes Volume 10.2 terrific!


by Bill Gibron

10 Mar 2008

The review in the most recent Variety says it all – after half a decade in the cinematic wilderness, the Coen Brothers have apparently returned to their original, brilliant filmmaking forte. The movie in question is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s drug and death thriller No Country for Old Men, and advanced word is more than favorable. Indeed, it’s the kind of unmitigated praise (with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ tossed around) that the skilled siblings once attained with surprising regularity. Fans who have long hoped for a return to form should be smiling from ear to ear, and while we will have to wait until sometime in late November to see if the Cannes screening buzz is true, any promise of their previous brilliance is worth celebrating.

You see, the Coens were, at one time, undeniable gods of quirky, unconventional filmmaking. While they never delivered a monster mainstream motion picture (2000’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou? is the closest they every came to a certified hit) they also never really hid behind a veil of independent or outsider auteurship. Instead, writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel have openly helmed some of the most memorable movies of the last two decades, remarkable masterworks with titles like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In all, the nine films they made over their first 17 years in the industry represent the best that modern cinema can achieve. They even achieved that rarity for visionary artists – an actual Oscar (for crafting the screenplay for Fargo).

But something happened in 2001, right around the time that their black and white opus The Man Who Wasn’t There was hitting theaters. For a long time, the Coens had hated the idea of working outside the system. While their films had always been embraced by the studios (well, mostly), they had never really had a concrete deal to depend on. But when O’ Brother went ballistic, giving former ER star George Clooney a substantial boost into the realm of superstardom, the boys appeared ready to bathe in the limelight of legitimacy. They took a sketchy divorce comedy by a pair of unheralded Hollywood hacks (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, responsible for Life, Big Trouble, and the horrid Man of the House), reworked the material to fit their idiosyncratic ideals, and got their pal George back on board. Suddenly, Intolerable Cruelty was on the production fast track.

When A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thorton and Geoffrey Rush signed on, it looked like the Coens would finally see some solid commercial returns. And they didn’t intend to totally abandon their esoteric cinematic style. As they saw it, this was a chance to meld their vision with a viable high profile product. Unfortunately, they failed both demographics. Devotees destroyed the film, seeing nothing of their favorite filmmakers in the dull, derivative mess. Even worse, audiences outside the boys’ normal sphere of influence discovered very little to like about this cobbled together collection of clipped dialogue, oddball characters, and stylized visual imagery. After a few feeble weeks at the box office, the film only earned back half of its $60 million price tag.

Luckily, the guys had already lined up their next project. Looking for something to subvert his normal nice guy image onscreen, megastar Tom Hanks provided the duo with their crumbling career safety net. He hooked up with the Coens for their planned remake of the Alec Guiness classic The Ladykillers, hoping that by playing a corrupt con man looking to rob a local bank he could win back a little of the acting credibility he once had (the man owns a pair of Academy brass, remember). The cast was fleshed out with additional faces unfamiliar to the boys’ standard acting crew (J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans), and while Hanks excelled in the lead, the rest of the movie felt oddly off balance. Even the staunchest Coen supporters had a hard time defending its flatness.

The result was a flop of reputational, not financial, proportions (the movie made money, believe it or not). What was happening to the brothers was something they had never experienced in the past. With the weak one-two punch of these underperforming efforts, followers began to doubt their inherent artistic acumen. At one time, their amiable aesthetic was unquestionable. The guys were geniuses and that was that. But somehow, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers showed that these irrefutable emperors did indeed have some frayed bits in their otherwise fanciful clothes. Of course, such a conclusion was only partly true, but the status carried. Suddenly, the one time deities of motion picture mastery were viewed as vulnerable, flawed, and very, very human.

Again, it’s not hard to see why. Modern writers/directors would give up their posh seats at the trendiest restaurant of the moment to claim any one of the Coens’ previous efforts. Blood Simple was such a shock to the system that mainstream critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were beside themselves with praise. The follow-up, the comedy classic Raising Arizona remains one of the great ensemble laugh fests ever formulated. With those two projects alone, most moviemakers would be satisfied, but the Coens continued their scorching streak of cinematic stalwarts.

During an unusual period of writer’s block, the brothers managed to salvage two scripts from the depths of literary despair. The final products – Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – stand as the best examples of the boys’ early period works. Dense, obtuse and frighteningly fleshed out, their takes on the period crime caper (Crossing) and the Golden Era of Hollywood (Fink) function as fascinating bookends, movies that completely encapsulate and explain the Coens’ interpretation of the language of film. Both projects wallowed in excessive detail, used sequences of startling violence, and just the slightest hint of socially unacceptable behavior (drinking, death) to round out their splashy, flashy finesse.

After their massive critical success, the pair was picked up by super producer Joel Silver to make their next movie – a satiric screwball comedy about big business entitled The Hudsucker Proxy. Like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying sans the music and misguided optimism, the Coens riffed on everything old fashioned and mannered about the post-War Tinsel Town comedies, and came up with a bafflingly insular work that few outside the fanbase could cotton to. From Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Kate Hepburn brogue to a plot premised on stock market fluctuations and company corruption, it took a few years of reconsideration before anyone considered Hudsucker a worthy companion to the boys’ previous gems.

Fargo, of course, was the duo’s final coming out. When Gene Siskel declared that he was sure he would not see a better film the rest of the year – and it was MARCH 1996 when he made such a statement – you just knew something special was in the offing. Driven by an idiosyncratic setting (upper Minnesota) and equally arcane accents, the Coens created a kidnapping/murder mystery with as much buffoonery as bite. With Oscar worthy performances from William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, and an Award winning turn by star Frances McDormand, the guys finally received the industry idolatry they so richly deserved (and statuettes for Best Original Screenplay).

The final three films in their notable nine movie run were equally important. The Big Lebowski proved that the Coens had lost none of their ridiculous razor’s edge, turning the story of a stoner and a case of mistaken identity into a fresh and full bodied farce. O’ Brother showcased the power in music, as well as the boys’ understanding of rural America revisionism. And when The Man Who Wasn’t There offered up a similar theme of flat feloniousness among small town folk, its anti-histrionic take on such acts of desperation was a revelation. So it’s no substantial shock that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers would feel like letdowns. Neither was an original creation from the guy’s unusual perspective, and neither tried to funnel their fascinating film fusion into a cohesive or vital vision. In fact, when the quirkiest element involved remains Tom Hank’s Southern dandy accent, you know you’ve swayed from what made you famous in the first place.

So it’s great to hear the outpouring of praise for No Country for Old Men. It’s been a long time since the Coens captured the imagination of the creative community, and though they’ve only been out of consideration for a few years, their exile from importance seems infinite. At one time, they wrote the new rules on how to deliver motion pictures from the mundane and the stagnant. They catered to characterization instead of high concepts, and smoothed out their scripts with a narrative flow as fluid as a puddle of pulsating mercury. If they end up winning Cannes’ biggest prizes (as they have done several times before) or simply walk away with the word of mouth necessary to jumpstart their next few films, then all is right in the cinematic universe. The Coens used to be said cosmos’ brightest stars. It’s wonderful to know they haven’t supernova-ed, at least not yet.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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