Movie Review: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)


Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Summary/Review:

Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg.  But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers.  Then there is the soundtrack!  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie.  It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.

George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar.  The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.

The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either.  Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical.  The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Intermission (2003)


Title: Intermission 
Release Date: 29 August 2003
Director: John Crowley
Production Company: BSÉ/IFB | UK Film Council
Summary/Review:

I saw Intermission way back in 2003 and remember having mixed-to-positive feelings about it.  For some reason, there are scenes and gags that stick with me 18 years later so I figured it was a good time to revisit the movie.  The film is an ensemble comedy and crime caper set over several weeks in Dublin.  Stylistically Intermission feels like it’s at the crossroads of Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and The Commitments. It also has an incredible number of the top Irish actors of the time (and a couple of Scottish ones).

The movie has more brutal violence and just plain nasty characters than the word “comedy” would typically imply for me.  Those things are usually a turn-off for me but this movie does it well enough that it works. Nevertheless, be warned. It’s hard to summarize Intermission since it involves several intersecting stories, but here’s the basic gist:

  • John (Cillian Murphy) proposes an “intermission” to his relationship with Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) not expecting her to take him up on it and start dating a middle-aged banker, Sam (Michael McElhatton)
  • Deirdre’s sister Sally (Shirley Henderson), who is recovering from an abusive relationship, and her mother, Maura (Ger Ryan), become heroes rescuing passengers from a bus crash
  • Lehiff (Colin Farrell) is a petty thief who smooth talks his way through a few crimes and then plans a major kidnapping/heist involving many of the other characters
  • Detective Jerry Lynch (Colm Meaney playing against his affable guy type and relishing every minute of it) is a “hard as nails” cop with an outside ego who captures the attention of tv documentarian Ben Campion (Tomás Ó Súilleabháin) who wants to make “edgier” reality-based programming
  • John’s sexually frustrated friend Oscar (David Wilmot) follows advice to pursue older women and ends up in a relationship with Sam’s jilted wife  Noeleen (Deirdre O’Kane)

The movie is filmed in a verite style with hand-held cameras and quick cuts.  The soundtrack is well-scored with songs by U2, Ron Sexsmith, and um, Clannad.  Somehow I can manage to care about the characters despite them all being jerks in one way or another.  There are also some great running gags about steak sauce in coffee and “Celtic mysticism” that are never not funny. I think I might like this movie a lot more than I remembered.

On a related note, I just learned that John Crowley also directed Brooklyn, a movie with a very different style and tone that I liked.  I should check out some of his other movies.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)


Title: The Big Lebowski
Release Date: March 6, 1998
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Working Title Films
Summary/Review:

Many years ago a friend told me “You’ve got to see The Big Lebowski.”  So I got the DVD and watched and then went back to him and told him I’d watched.  “Yeah, I didn’t like that movie,” he told me.  When I said, “But you told me to watch it!,” he replied “That’s because I knew you would like it.”  I guess my friend knows me because I do in fact like The Big Lebowski and I think rewatching it after many years I like it even better than before.

The Big Lebowski  is basically the ultimate shaggy dog story.  It takes inspiration from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels and their movie adaptations.  It’s not so much a noir detective story as the episode structure of the protagonist falling into a series of conflicts with strange people that seem like that might add up to something, but upon reflection it doesn’t make much sense.  Actually, the movie Laura which I watched recently is a lot like this too.

The Big Lebowski is about “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges), whose real name is Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed slacker who spends his time bowling, drinking White Russians, and smoking pot.  A couple of hired thugs mistake him for a wealthy man also named Jeffrey Lebowski and pee on his rug “that really held the room together.”  In an attempt to get his rug replaced by the “Big Lebowski” (David Huddleston), The Dude ends up being recruited as a middleman when Lebowski’s trophy wife (Tara Reid) is kidnapped.

The supporting cast includes The Dude’s unstable friend Walter (John Goodman), the ultimate mansplainer and possible future MAGA who is on The Dude’s bowling team along with the dim but kind Donny (Steve Buscemi).  Among the people The Dude encounters investigating the kidnapping are Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the Big Lebowski’s daughter who is a performance artist with a ridiculously affecte mid-Atlantic accent. Then there’s Same Elliot as The Stranger, who narrates part of the film and drinks sarsaparilla at the bar with no clear reason for being in the movie.

The Big Lebowski is great because of its quotable dialogue, great performances (even actors who only appear in one or two scenes are memorable), and an eclectic soundtrack with songs tied to the various characters.  The Dude also hates the Eagles, man.  The movie may be one of the all-time great Los Angeles films, and I’m glad I watched it so soon after Mulholland Drive which makes a great double feature.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Fargo (1996)


TitleFargo
Release Date: March 8, 1996
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company:
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Working Title Films
Summary/Review:

The movie is called Fargo although it largely takes place in Minnesota, and the one scene set in the South Dakota city wasn’t even filmed on location in Fargo.  The introduction of the movie claims it based on true story but this is a bold-faced lie.  The layers of deception are already piling on before we see car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, whose real life friendly exterior hides some sliminess) begin to carry out a plot to have his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) kidnapped in order to extort money from his father-in-law and boss Wade (Harve Presnell).

Things go horribly wrong, of course, as hired hoods Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) are too incompetent to take basic actions to cover their steps, leading to multiple murders.  34 minutes into the movie enters our hero, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the police chief of the small-town of Brainerd, Minnesota who is seven months pregnant.  She has a natural instinct where she leads her to Minneapolis and Jerry’s auto dealership to begin unraveling the mystery.

As a New Englander my cynical feeling is that Minnesota Nice is as a much of a cover for darker behaviors as Southern Hospitality.  But Marge Gunderson, one of the great characters of film, shows that you don’t need to be a tough guy who throws punches and puts the pressure on in interrogation to solve the crime.  You just need to be a decent human being.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)


Title: Touch of Evil
Release Date: February 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Universal-International
Summary/Review:

Touch of Evil takes place on the border of Mexico and the United States, beginning with someone placing a time bomb in a car in the sleazy Mexican border town that doesn’t explode until the driver crosses the border.  Witnesses to the explosion include Mexican special prosecutor Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh).  Vargas takes an interest in the case and unravels the corrupt career of a racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Susan stays at an isolated motel not realising that it is owned by the sinister Grandi gang.  Bad things always happen when Janet Leigh stays at a motel.

This is not a movie that you watch for the plot as it doesn’t make much sense if you think much of it and every scene exists simply to set up the next twist.  Instead this is a movie you watch for the technical brilliance of its filming, particularly the camera work that is exemplified in the brilliant opening scene where we follow the car with the ticking time bomb and are simultaneously introduced to Vargas and Susan walking down the street. Heston may be the least Mexican person ever (he either has a deep tan or is wearing brownface) but he acquits himself well as the noble prosecutor.  Welles for his part is suitably slimy as the cop who plants evidence on his suspects.  Other notable performances include Dennis Weaver as the twitchy night manager of the motel (another precursor to Psycho) and Marlene Dietrich as the brothel owner and Quinlans ex-lover.  This is the movie I’d like to see again on the big screen if I have the opportunity.

Note: I watched the 1998 version of the movie that was edited to Welles’ specifications.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Scarface (1932)


Title: Scarface
Release Date: April 9, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: The Caddo Company
Summary/Review:

Scarface is classified as the first gangster movie so it’s one of those situations where the tropes and gimmicks that are all so familiar are done for the first time.  It’s also full of ethnic stereotypes.  You get a good sense of what movies like the Godfather were reacting against, while also being influenced by it. For a film from 1932, it has some excellent action scenes including car chase, gun battles, and gun battles from racing cars.  The pre-code violence can be explicit, but there’s also some artistry in its depiction.  Particularly impressive is scene where a rival gang leader is shot while bowling and the camera follows his bowling ball to show that he still got a strike.

Paul Muni brings a kind of goofy charm to his performance hiding the monstrous violence of a Chicago gangster. Inspired by Al Capone, Muni plays Tony Camonte, a lieutenant in a gang who goes well beyond his boss Tony Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) orders in carrying out hits on rival gangs leading to an all-out war.  Muni also pursues Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).  It’s particular hilarious when Poppy insults Muni and he’s too dumb to realize it.

The introduction to the movie claims that everything is based on real-life events and exhorts the audience to a moral panic over gang violence.  This is a lie. This movie revels in the violence, and enjoys the spectacle.  And no matter what you say about this movie, you can’t deny that it is entertaining.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Today’s classic film is too fancy for Hoboken and too hot for church. On the Waterfront introduced a new style of naturalistic acting and pioneered a filmmaking style that inspired the New Hollywood movement a generation later.  It’s most famous for an oft-quoted monologue, but I don’t think that scene is quite so great without the context of the film around it.

Marlon Brando stars in this film as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey and sometimes serves as “muscle” for the mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, once again being George C. Scott’s doppelgänger).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man, so Terry gets special treatment in assignments.

Terry begins to be aware that his good life is built on lies and must make difficult decisions after inadvertently playing a part in the murder of a longshoreman who was willing to talk to the police.  The victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is outraged by everyone willing to be “deaf and dumb” about the crime and inspires the parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action. Edie and Terry also grow close which affects his changing heart.

The romance between Edie and Terry is the one thing I don’t really buy about this movie because Terry gives off a million red flags that someone like Edie would see right away.  Other than that this film is a compelling drama with terrific acting by all the leads and interesting staging and camera angles that take advantage of the gritty Hoboken locations.  Not only is this a great movie that realistically depicts the issues of working class people but it also reminds me of how Catholic social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan stood with the people like Father Barry in the mid-20th century.

The movie is great drama, but it also metaphorical.  There are all too many real life examples of organizations, even ones that should have positive uses like unions, falling victim to corruption. In more recent years things like the push for Iraq War, the rise of Trump, and the current efforts of the Republican party to suppress voting rights are all built on the ability of people in power to use fear, greed, and indifference to manipulate people into going along with something that they know is wrong. Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan also made this film to justify his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ruining the lives and careers of  several people who ended up being blacklisted for being labeled “Communists.” Comparing so-called “Communists,” usually people who tried advocating for economic equality and against racial discrimination to the murderous mobsters who were American capitalists at heart is just wrong.

On the Waterfront is a case where the art is greater than the artist, but it remains a spectacular film.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)


Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
Summary/Review:

In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes.  15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it.  But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.  There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman).  In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.

Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).  I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension.  There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle.  All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him.  I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.

The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs.  Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child.  It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background.  Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it.  By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.

Rating: ***1/2