My thought on today

Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.

No. 29: “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Thoreau would have loved “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” You see, barber Ed Crane (portrayed with sly wit by Billy Bob Thornton) is living a life of desperation so quiet that it’s damn near mute. He suppresses every discontented feeling, sucking so intently on cigarettes we wonder if he half expects to find joy, not a smoldering butt, at the bottom. He doesn’t, of course, but neither do most of the people who waft in and out of his life. Nearly everyone — from Ed’s philandering, hard-drinking wife Doris (Frances McDormand, flawless as always) to her scheming boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) — in Ed’s world is just as trapped and miserable as he is. Scene for scene, this sedate stunner of a film plays out like a visual tribute to Thoreau’s most famous soundbite. The desperation, though quiet, is palpable.

However, lose not a moment to thinking such a tight-lipped antihero makes “The Man Who Wasn’t There” an unbearably grim affair. It’s just the opposite; that’s what makes this calculating black-and-white so engrossing. It provides a perfect backdrop for the pitch-black deadpan wit (a Coen brothers specialty) that manages to be disturbing, funny and philosophical all at once. And the cause for that despair (post-World War II fears of communism, the atomic bomb, Roswell, McCarthyism) translates seamlessly, almost eerily, to a post-9/11 society.

But back to the despair. It colors every part of Ed’s life. He chain-smokes it silent while cutting hair at his brother-in-law’s (Michael Badalucco) barber shop, but when he discovers his wife’s affair he sees an opportunity to jump-start his life. The plan? Blackmail her lover,  aptly named department store mogul Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for $10,000, then tap a middleman, the creepy, get-rich-quick drifter Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), to invest the funds in dry cleaning. It’s the wave of the future, Creighton brightly persists. “They don’t use water!”

Part of the fun of any Coen brothers movie is smashing, headlong, into unexpected plot twists, deaths and coincidences, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is chock-full of them. (Mum’s the word when it comes to more plot summary.) The beauty? The shocks don’t come fast and furious; that’s not how Joel and Ethan operate, at least not here (see “Burn After Reading” if you want a zany free-for-all). Slow and steady’s the pace of this film; there’s not one scene out of place, not one line of dialogue that doesn’t fit. When it comes to the technical aspects, like the gorgeous, awe-inspiring cinematography by Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is measured brilliance, an amazing send-up to classic film noir. The barber pole, with its stripes, stands out like a relief map against the bleakness, doing something Ed can’t: move. In any direction.

That high praise extends to the cast. The Coens know how to pick ‘em, and there’s nary a weak link in this cadre. McDormand, a Coen staple, never missteps, and she makes Doris — who could have been an easy stereotype: the drunk, cheating, weeping, put-upon wife — a sympathetic character, one aware of her own shortcomings but unwilling to admit them, even when she’s caught. She’s proud and stubborn but self-aware, this one, and she might really, deep down, love her husband. Gandolfini’s Big Dave is a fearsome creature; he swings from sniveling to scary-as-hell in a way that makes it clear he earned his nickname. Tony Shaloub is comedy gold as pompous, pontificating attorney Freddy “I litigate; I don’t capitulate” Reidenschneider, and he’s the one who parrots what may be the film’s most telling line: “The more you look the less you know.”

Still, it doesn’t get much better than Billy Bob Thornton. This is the role he was born to play, and yet he doesn’t play Ed Crane; he is Ed Crane, from the chain smoking to laconic observations to the eternal disallusionment. No one else could play the part this good. Nobody. With his sad, shifty eyes and craggy face, he’s just what he says he is: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” It’s a fascinating yet controlled performance, and one that taps into that elemental fear: that we’ll sleepwalk through life only to wake up too late. Who, readers, has not felt the same?

Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)

If there’s one thing the Coens love, it’s burying themes in one line of dialogue. In “No Country for Old Men,” it’s “You can’t stop what’s comin'”; in “Blood Simple,” “Down here, you’re on your own.” The backbone of “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is “The more you look the less you know.” Their latest effort, the puzzling, bleakly comic “A Serious Man,” contains the real doozy. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor, has gotten a few mean swirlies in life’s toilet. After filling a board full of indecipherable equations to explain the Uncertainty Principle, he switches to words. “It means that we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” he tells his blank-eyed students. KERBLAM goes the dynamite.

On the other hand, distilling a movie as complex and opaque as “A Serious Man” into one sentence seems a tad foolish. But there are many elements in this film, a snapshot of 1967 in the suburbs of Minneapolis, that don’t appear to make the least bit of sense: most of the characters; what they say; what they do; what they don’t do; that dimly-lit, oddball, total head-scratcher of a prologue involving an early 20th-century Jewish couple (Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson) and a guest (Fyvush Finkel) the wife believes to be a dybbuk, or evil spirit, in the body of a dead neighbor. At the hub of all the confusion is Larry, a man who infuriates us by doing nothing — nothing to deserve the way people mistreat him, nothing to deserve his bad fortune and, even worse, nothing to fight it. Larry Gopnik is a man who takes things lying down. His default setting is anguished befuddlement.

Can we like a man like this?  Eh. Heroes and bad men we root for because they have courage or gumption, but the ones who live their lives as an apology? That’s a tougher sell. Still, Stuhlbarg lends Larry a kind of barely contained, Jonah-in-the-whale desperation that is understandable if not endearing. A tidal wave of despair might freeze any man. Actually, it isn’t so much a tidal wave as a flood that’s got Larry down. It starts with his wife Judith’s (Sari Lennick) announcement that she’s leaving him for his best friend Sy (Fred Melamed) and wants a gett, or Jewish divorce. His children — the whiny Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff), preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking lots of pot — don’t help matters. Neither does his loser brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a gambler with a perpetually draining sebaceous cyst who won’t get his own place. Larry’s shot at tenure may have been ruined by his lack of published work and anonymous hate mail, and then there are his feelings about a neighbor’s wife who sunbathes nude. Every breath Larry takes just fills up his lungs with more water. The film’s last scene is the gulp that might end him. It’s a lyrical yet pithy combination of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the Coens’ faultless ear for pop music (hello, “Somebody to Love”).

Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, is the reason why Larry curries our favor. His endless quest for an answer is often funny, but in ways that makes our guts churn. This is dark new territory for Joel and Ethan Coen — and these are the men who dream up lines like “he was alive when I buried him.” In fact, this might be their darkest film yet, maybe darker than “No Country for Old Men.” They show no mercy to Larry and make him about as pitiful as a man can get without being duct-taped naked to a flag pole. Why? Probably there isn’t an answer to this, though I’ve heard “A Serious Man” called a modern retelling of the Book of Job. Perhaps the directors simply intend to show that bad things happen to average people. When they do, we demand answers; there must be a reason and we figure we deserve to know what it is. Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) doesn’t think so. “We all want the answer! But Hashem* doesn’t owe us the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything.” If you buy that, you’ll buy “A Serious Man.” It’s not the Coens’ best, but you can’t say it isn’t their deepest.

Grade: B+

*Hebrew for “The Name”; a term for God many Jewish people use in conversation.

Review: “Bad Santa” (2003)

Don't worry -- Mrs. Santa understands that !@#&@! happens when you party naked.

Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has a very reasonable explanation for why his Santa beard’s an obvious and cheap fake: “It was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy Thurman (Bret Kelly), the friendless wimp who’s latched onto him like a thirsty tick, Santa elaborates: “I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Apparently Mrs. Santa’s sister, though a tomcat in the sack, has a few … faults.

Shocking, isn’t it, to hear such frank, fresh talk in a holiday film? That all depends on your definition of “Christmas movie.” Terry Zwigoff’s warped “Bad Santa” is a Christmas movie only in the sense that it takes place in December. And there’s a guy wearing a Santa suit. And an elf and some reindeer. But all that noise about joy, peace, happiness, sugar plums and fruitcakes? That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” Sage advice indeed. Three sheets to the wind (a given) or stone sober (a rarity), Willie T. Soke is nothing if not philosophical.

“Bad Santa” brims to the top with such observations, shaped to twisted perfection by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and delivered just as expertly by Billy Bob Thornton and the ace team of comedic actors who play off him. Talk about a match made in heaven — if there exists another actor better suited to play the boozy Willie than Thornton, well, I can’t name him. Thornton, with his craggy face, downturned mouth and vacant but vaguely menacing stare, nails the mixture of desperation and disgust at the core of Willie. Part of that desperation stems from his job: An expert safe cracker, Soke has created a highly profitable scam with fellow con man Marcus (Tony Cox, a potty-mouthed delight). Soke and Marcus, posing as a Santa-and-elf duo, work a different department store every Christmas. In less than a month they case the store, find the safe and rob the place blind on Christmas Eve.

Everything works fine until their latest scam in Arizona, where Willie’s constant drinking — as well as his tendency to diddle women in the plus-size dressing room and show up to work falling-down drunk — raises the eyebrows of the store’s fussy manager Bob (John Ritter, bringing a nice comic flair to his last big-screen role). Store security chief Gin (Bernie Mac) hears of Marcus and Willie’s plan and demands a hefty cut. Then there’s the matter of Thurman Merman (Kelly), a lonely weirdo who plops into Willie’s lap and then proceeds to stalk him. Ever the opportunist, Willie sees a chance to rob the house the kid shares with his grandma (Cloris Leachman). “Is she spry?” he asks, pulling on a face mask. She’s anything but. Before long, though, the house becomes a crash pad for Willie, somewhere to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy nightly hot tub sex with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender for whom a Santa hat is akin to Spanish fly.

The further we follow Willie down into his vodka bottle, the more clear it becomes that Zwigoff has no intention — ha! none! — of softening all this misery’n with a cocoa-and-candy canes last act. Zwigoff isn’t really a happy ending kind of director (see: “Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World”), so he never lightens the mood of sheer, abject hopelessness. In a way, that’s almost admirable, his stubborn refusal to change course. He means to make a bitter, bad-tasting movie about a mean drunk and he does it. The good news is that Zwigoff also makes this movie singularly entertaining. The razor-edged dialogue proves as uproarious as it is profane (Marcus to Willie as Santa: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass”), while the actors — particularly Kelly, who’s all google-eyed creepiness, and Thornton, never better — turn in spot-on performances. These are people for whom “goodwill” is a dirty word. Considering all the holiday mush being peddled this time of year, that’s cheerfully refreshing.

Grade: A

No. 11: “Blood Simple” (1984)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.” ~~Ray

What is it about best-laid plans crumbling to hell that fascinates us so endlessly? Is it the thrill of watching greed and lust pollute the simplest of schemes, careful blueprints drawn up with what seems like attention to detail? Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe there’s something comforting about maintaining distance, assuming a stance of superiority that allows us to say — and believe — “I’d never let that happen to me.”

The perverse magic of Joel and Ethan Coen’s stylish, enormously disquieting “Blood Simple,” what shakes us to the core, is that the opposite is true: Easy plots like this get dreamed up by normal people, and they unspool in crazy ways that boggle the mind. For every hairline fissure that surfaces, there are hundreds more underneath, slowly working their way to the top. The bitter end, the Coens understand, is always so much closer than we think.

It is the illusion of control that sets in motion the undoing of most every player in “Blood Simple,” which begins with a seemingly simple plan (code for “something’s about to hit a fan”): Slimy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand in her first big-screen role) is having an affair, so he hires Private Detective Loren Visser (a skin-crawlingly good M. Emmet Walsh) to tail her. When Marty discovers Abby is bedding Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders, he’s glad to pony up dough for a hit. Marty’s out for blood. Problem is, Visser’s out for money — as much as he can get — and he knows the location of his client’s safe. That was Marty’s first mistake.

Since this is film noir, the initial mistake leads to another … which leads to another … which unleashes a slow-building hurricane of potential and totally unforseen complications. Suddenly nobody, not even Abby, so wide-eyed in her protests of “I ain’t done nothin’ funny,” is able to walk away from this mess without making bloody getaway tracks. There are dead bodies and very-nearly-dead bodies and mistaken identities. The whole business might be downright comical if it wasn’t so damn sleazy.

But wait! This is Coen brothers film noir, so comedy abounds. “Blood Simple” is where the Coens introduced their brand of nefarious tomfoolery, so the jokes sneak up on us like Jack the Ripper. Consider Ray’s summary of what happened on a midnight trip: “He was alive when I buried him.” Gulp. Or Visser’s response to Marty, who says the Greeks beheaded bad news carriers: “Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” Yipes. Humor doesn’t get much blacker (note the song that announces the final credits). Barbed observations like these are the kind that clump uncomfortably in the throat, yet they spotlight human folly too good not to laugh at: Every man thinks he’s gripping the reins, and not one of them actually is. The actors time these lines faultlessly, with Walsh, who sweats menace, and Hedaya, perfectly cast as the fiendish Marty, doing heavy lifting. McDormand, all innocence, shows early promise she’s more than made good on. And Getz might have the best job of all: He shows us how easy it is for the straight man to nosedive into depravity.

More brilliance reveals itself as “Blood Simple” rumbles toward the finish. The staggering cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfield, transforms the dusty Texas landscape into a character with its own motivations, its own agenda. The desert turns an unforgiving eye on these miscreants, offers not a moment of solace. Behind the camera, the Coens do their part to make their film a dark visual masterpiece. They amplify that desolate feeling with artful, pointed shots: a blood drip here, a thumping ceiling fan there, a close-up of dripping sink pipes. Matter of fact, that last shot pins the film’s thesis, squirming, to the wall: If you’re dumb enough to think something’s just what it seems, prepare to suffer the consequences.

No. 9: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis

There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.

And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.

This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.

Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.

Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.

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