Tag Archives: A Serious Man

Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.

Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

This year’s New York Film Festival played host to a 15th Anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ Dirty Thirties road movie, though it hardly seems like that much time has passed. I might have described O Brother differently — say, the Coens’ Dust Bowl love letter or the Coens’ Homer homage or the period highbrow escapee buddy whatever — except that the directing duo melted all of that babble away in the post-screening “discussion” of their writing process. “We just started with ‘three guys on the road'” said Joel; Ethan added, “then we tarted it up with Homer.” That was that. Next question. The Coens are experts at both of those things: interpretive film direction and film interpretation deflection.

But they were no less the storytellers on stage, despite their succinctness, and they were joined by O Brother stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The latter was a pleasant surprise, and though the Coens have recently worked with the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki and Bruno Delbonnel it’s endlessly exciting that Deakins will return to the fold (as will Clooney) for the next Coen film Hail, Caesar!; if it’s at all the blend of O Brother and Barton Fink that it appears to be, then it can’t come soon enough.

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The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

The Coen Brothers’ filmography seems to alternate between “beloved” and “pretty much unknown.” For every Fargo and Big Lebowski there’s a Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. Nonetheless, it’s this writer’s opinion that each one of their movies is carefully crafted to near-perfection. (Okay, the jury’s still out on Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. ) Of course, if I hold all their movies in such high esteem, what’s the point of a review? Well, because first of all I want you to know that The Hudsucker Proxy exists. And secondly because it deserves as much analysis as any of their other films.

In a hyper-Art Deco 1930s Manhattan, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), president of Hudsucker Industries, has flung himself off the top floor of the downtown headquarters. With company stocks about to go public, the board of directors, led by Sydney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), plots to depress stock prices by hiring an incompetent president as a scapegoat and then buying back the company. That incompetent proxy turns out to be oblivious business student Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). But that’s only the beginning of the Coens’ madcap screwball parody that satirizes every rung of the workforce ladder, from the mailroom grunt to the head honcho. Continue reading The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Leviathan (2014)

Leviathan is chilling. It’s many things, of course — it’s beautiful, stunningly shot by director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; it’s grand and sweeping, ceilingless in theme and character; it’s relevant, despite criticism by the Russian government regarding an “unpatriotic” message. But most of all Leviathan is hauntingly realistic, defiant of many of the plot developments one might expect from such a film. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (and arguably the frontrunner alongside Ida), Leviathan is also Russia’s first appearance at the Academy Awards in nearly a decade.

The plot stems from a land dispute between a corrupt town mayor and a family living by the seashore. After having been harassed by the mayor’s men, the short-fused patriarch Kolia brings in his friend Dmitri, now a lawyer in Moscow, to help fight the takeover. Dmitri digs up some dirt on the mayor that he thinks he can use — but in this tiny Northern town it seems everyone is dirty. Kolia’s life begins to unravel as he watches helplessly, and before long it’s not just his home that lies in jeopardy but his job, his wife, his son, his freedom.

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A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.

Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.

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