Monday, September 28, 2009

CoenFest: Ranking the films

As I made my way through the Coens' filmography, I was quite surprised to discover that it includes more comedies than dramas, especially if you include two of the films as "tragicomedies"; after all, Fargo and Barton Fink are more comedic than they are dramatic. Of course, there are more comedies that don't work than dramas, and even the bad films are not that bad. Here then, is my list of Coen films from worst to first, according to rewatchability factor:

13. The Ladykillers - The Coens' take on a classic black comedy had some of the parts together, but it just didn't work as a whole - and Tom Hanks insufferably purring his way through his role didn't help. Rewatchability level: almost nil.
12. Intolerable Cruelty - The Coens did not want to direct this movie, which they wrote and described as one of their most mainstream efforts, about a divorce lawyer and a golddigger. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones work some magic - particularly in Clooney's speech at the lawyers' conference - but it's not enough to overcome a mediocre and predictable outcome. Rewatchability level: one scene on Youtube.
11. Burn After Reading - The Coens' CIA-spoof is notable for three things: bringing in John Malkovich; seeing Brad Pitt get shot in the head; and J.K. Simmons' two tirades on the stupidity of the whole enterprise. I liked it a bit more the second time, but... Rewatchability level: Maybe once.
10. Blood Simple - A simple yet complex debut film in which Abby, the protagonist, gets caught up in an unexpected turn of agendas and double-crossings. The really interesting part of this film is how it prefigures many of the themes and images of No Country For Old Men, which was written twenty years later. Rewatchability level: Medium, particularly in conjunction with No Country.
9. The Hudsucker Proxy - Perhaps the Coens' most family-oriented film about a luckless sap (Tim Robbins) who happens to invent the hula hoop and revolutionize a company trying to tank, headed by Sidney J. Mussberger, the nefarious interim CEO (Paul Newman). It hearkens back to the Jimmy Stewart-Frank Capra era of filmmaking, and it works well. Rewatchability level: as a family film, several times.
8. The Man Who Wasn't There - A direct attempt at film noir (as opposed to other indirect attempts), right down to the black and white film and use of narration. Billy Bob Thornton makes the show as the life-numbed protagonist, and Tony Shalhoub steals every scene he is in as the sneaky high-life lawyer. Rewatchability level: Medium - mainly because even though it's brilliant, it's kind of depressing, and it's hard to take.
7. Raising Arizona - A cop and a petty criminal steal a baby with disastrous consequences and many belly laughs. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are hilarious in these early roles, and the whole slapstick madcap movie works. Rewatchability level: High, especially the chase scene with the Huggies.
6. Miller's Crossing - A 1930s Chicago gangster movie with a requisite number of twists, turns, and ethnic slurs. Gabriel Byrne is the emotionally stone-cold Tom, an Irish self-made man, and the film unfolds beautifully. Rewatchability level: High, particularly for the haunting soundtrack.
5. Barton Fink - An example of the understated genius of the Coens, as the titular writer (John Turturro) navigates his way through moving to Hollywood to write a picture for a major studio. Perhaps the first example of a movie that seems to directly reflect the Coens' lives, it works because Fink's unassuming nature comes up against the roaring studio executive (Michael Lerner) and the buddy-buddy simplicity of a new mysterious neighbour (John Goodman). Pure genius. Rewatchability: High, if not only for one of the all-time great Coen lines: "I'll show you the life of the mind!"
4. O Brother Where Art Thou? - Part bluegrass concert, part literary epic, part depression film - this one has it all and more. Rewatchability level: Very high.
3. Fargo - The blackest of the Coen black humour and almost the funniest. And c'mon: woodchipper! Rewatchability level: Very high!
2. No Country For Old Men - This film is bound to be one of the greatest pieces of American cinema of the past fifty years, along with its lauded release-mate, There Will Be Blood. It's a chilling vision of a stark reality, and it deserves every accolade it receives. Rewatchability level: very very high; it's bleak, but it's brilliant, and Anton Chigurh (admittedly not the Coens' creation, but certainly their vision helped create him) is one of the most chilling movie villains of all time.
1. The Big Lebowski - Sometimes there's a man who seems to embody an era - that man is the Dude. And the Dude abides. I'm glad he's out there taking it easy for all us sinners. Easily the best dialogue, cast of characters, and film homage of any Coen film; it also has the best use of profanity by far. Rewatchability level: I could easily watch this movie twice a year for the rest of my life and still not see it enough. No Country may be a better film, but if forced to choose between the two, I'd pick Lebowski almost every time. So let's drink a White Russian in honour of the Dude and the best Coen brothers movie yet.

Tomorrow: Favourite actors to appear in multiple Coen films.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

CoenFest 2009

In anticipation of the release A Serious Man, I have finally finished watching through all of the Coen brothers' movies with my recent viewing of Miller's Crossing. Their movie catalog is easily my number one choice to the question "If you could watch films by only one director for the rest of your life, who would you choose?"(I know technically they're two people, but you get the point). There are no others like the Coens in terms of not only executing artistic vision (directing, writing, and editing their films), but also in variety (comedy, thriller, tragedy, period pieces, slapstick, even romantic comedy) and proclivity (14 films in 26 years). There is no end to the discussion that one can have in analysis of their films, which is why I am proclaiming this week to be CoenFest 2009 at Life of Turner. Over the next week, I will be posting thoughts on the Coen's filmography - best comedies/dramas, best characters, most underrated films, etc. So welcome to CoenFest 2009!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Which year of films do you pick?

This is a question that has come up recently in my head, but also on Entertainment Weekly's website. I'm throwing it out there, and I may even try to turn it into a Facebook meme. Here's the question: You have the choice to take a movie catalog from any given calendar year with you on a deserted island. You can have all of the movies released in that year in North America, but no others. Which year do you pick? It's a tough call. EW answers were silly, like 1977 (Star Wars...ugh) and 1984. I think the trick is to pick a year in which there were enough great films as well as enough silly fun films. Here are my top 3:

3. 1967: In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Wait Until Dark, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, The Jungle Book.
2. 1999: Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Galaxy Quest, Office Space, and Dogma for comic relief.
1. 2007: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood (the clinchers right there), Hot Fuzz, Eastern Promises, Darjeeling Limited, Into the Wild, Once, Rescue Dawn.

Possible twists on this question:
A. For whichever year you take, you have to watch the top 10 grossing movies at least as often as you watch your favourites. Do your selections change?
B. Choose any two- (or three, or four, or five, etc.) year period.
C. Choose a decade.

What are your years?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tips for garage sales

I love garage sales - both as a buyer and a seller. There's something about the entire enterprise that is just fun, and a great garage sale find has even more prestige than a thrift store find. But after hosting another garage sale this weekend, I figured it was time to publish my list of tips for buyers and sellers at garage sales. Enjoy.

Buyers:
1. Don't drive by slowly. Either speed by, or stop and browse for a moment. Don't try for the best of both worlds.
2. Don't insult the seller. Just because you're not willing to pay does not mean that the seller should lower his price beyond what is reasonable.
3. Show up at the advertised time; maybe 10 minutes earlier if you really want an item. Sellers are not setting up early.
4. Bring change with you. Don't come with a $50 first thing in the morning for a $2 item!
5. Make your decision and go. You're thinking too much about your purchase unless it's over $20. If you want it, just buy it and clear out.

Sellers:
1. It's not a garbage sale. Yes, one man's junk can be another man's treasure, but don't just put out your broken and unsellable junk - that's no one's treasure.
2. Be willing to haggle. Nothing is more frustrating than a seller who won't budge.
3. Don't have a sale unless you have around $200 of priced merchandise at the beginning of the day. It's really not worth it unless you can make $100.
4. Enjoy yourself and make chit-chat with the buyers. Grumpy sellers can make a great garage sale day miserable.
5. Run your garage sale past 1 pm. A weird quirk of Victoria garage sales is that they all shut down right after lunch. It's a morning pastime - very odd.

Post-script: my best find at a garage sale to date may be the huge box of Fisher Price Construx I got for $4 several years ago. That said, if I finally find an Atari 2600 with games, I'll have a new champion.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Reviews: Skillet - Awake and Collective Soul - Collective Soul

John Cooper and Ed Roland have been two of my favourite songwriters since I was a teenager. They, and their bands Skillet and Collective Soul, respectively, have been a part of my musical consciousness since it awakened in 1996. I remember rocking out to "Precious Declaration" on Big Shiny Tunes 2, and letting the sounds of "Your Love Keeps Me Alive" and "More Faithful" permeate my being in times of trouble. I have seen both bands live several times (C.Soul in 1999 on the Dosage tour and twice in 2005, and Skillet in 2002 on Alien Youth and in 2006 after Collide), and I have kept track of both bands throughout their careers, which have included various ups and downs and band member changes and comeback albums and shifts from independent to mainstream and back. These two artists are linked in my mind, which makes it all the more interesting that their most recent releases came out on the same day. Skillet's Awake debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, whereas Collective Soul's second self-titled album hit number 24 in their first non-independent release since 2000. But how do they actually rate?
Collective Soul's new album sounds like vintage Soul. Their last album, 2007's Afterwords, stumbled somewhat, but their Roadrunner debut recaptures their almost-lost glory. They have a simple yet effective formula: pick a guitar riff, match a bass groove and standard rock beat to it, and let Ed do his rock star thing on the vocals. It's not complicated, but it works. Songs like "Dig", "Understanding", opening track "Welcome All Again", and "Staring Down" would be welcome on any Soul effort, and Ed is allowed, as in the past, to explore a more tender side in songs like "You" and "Hymn for My Father." There are a song or two that do not quite work, but on the whole, this album is a great and necessary addition to any fans of Collective Soul - even casual ones - and it demonstrates that there is a lot of life left in the band.
Skillet's Awake is their most commercially successful effort to date, and arguably their worst album. As they have increased in popularity, they have become more bland and unidentifiable as distinct musicians, and much of what made them such a great band a decade ago has been lost. They have moved to the "modern rock" standard of groups like Evanescence and Flyleaf, complete with female vocals, which might not be a bad thing if they preserved any of their musical or lyrical integrity. Almost all hints of who they were on their early albums are gone, which is evident from their performance catalog, which includes only one song from their first four albums (Invincible's "Best Kept Secret". They have continually progressed further away from clarity and distinctiveness in their sound and lyrics. Cooper's lyrics used to be directly related to his relationship with God, and while I do not believe that bands need to be "Christian" or not, at least they need to say something. These lyrics are bland and uninspired, and many lines are cringe-worthy; even the song titles, which include such lifeless titles as "Hero", "Monster", and "Forgiven", and two of the worst song titles in recent memory: "It's Not Me, It's You" and "Should've When You Could've". Sure, their foray into symphonic integration is at times intriguing, and the album is not devoid of talent or vision and there are one or two songs worth paying attention to, but this is not Skillet as a former Panhead (the moniker for fans of the band) like me knew them. I suppose that, no longer being an adolescent male, that I am not the target audience for their current brand of modern rock, and that I have progressed beyond much of that style of music in my growth as a listener, but I had still hoped that they would offer something that would make me want to listen to Awake. Instead, this is the first Skillet album that I will not buy and that I will not recommend to others. So to Skillet I say: you should've done better and you could've, and remember that it's not me as a listener - it's you.

Back to the sackbut

My wife and I have talked about joining a community band, and last night was the first rehearsal we attended. So yesterday, for the first time in nine years, I played the trombone. I had picked it up once, very briefly, in my first year of university, but not since then. I was moderately concerned about what would happen if I went in cold, so I took about half an hour to review a slide positions chart and go over my embouchres ahead of time. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it all came back to me. It was like speaking a language I had once been fluent in but had left dormant - it came back as soon as I had a chance to speak it again. And so I played at the rehearsal, entirely sight-reading, and actually succeeded in following and playing through several songs over the two hours. I am excited to be reviving an old hobby and to bring it in to who I am now - I currently play trombone, rather than saying I played it in high school. So I am again a trombone player, and I am happy to let things slide.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

There are a lot of words that can describe Quentin Tarantino's latest venture into cinema: audacious; revisionist; hyper-violent; fantastic (in the true sense of the word, meaning "not real"); adolescent; juvenile; unfulfilling. QT's much-hyped foray into revisioning World War II history is, at best, a moderately entertaining movie that leaves a lot of promise unfulfilled; at worst, it is an overly simplistic, juvenile, unfortunate mess of a movie that makes the audience wonder if he is going to make another real movie again. Allow me to explain.
QT is famous for hyper-violence, rapid-fire dialogue, unique characters, and cinematic awareness; all of these characteristics are present in IB. It is almost immediately identifiable as a Tarantino movie from the opening credits, which are presented in the form of a spaghetti western - an intriguing choice for framing a WWII flick. But although the movie is undoubtedly Tarantino - that much was evident from the trailers - it is a mishmash beyond that. QT dabbles in conventions of war satire, war epic, spaghetti western, drama, farce, camp, and romance without doing any of them very well but doing them all enough that it is confusing what he is trying to do. Perhaps that is the biggest problem of this movie: its point is unclear other than it is a QT movie starring Brad Pitt about a group of hyper-violent American soldiers in Nazi-occupied France. Call it Reservoir War Dogs, if you will. It does not present anything very compelling or even new for fans of QT. Sure, it has the trademark quotable dialogue - Lt. Aldo Raine is easily one of the most quotable characters in recent movie history, even if he is completely undeveloped and one-dimensional - but it offers little more than rehashes of themes and scenes Tarantino has already explored in a better way.
There is something to be said for the performances of Christoph Waltz as SS Col. Hans Landa, Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escapes Landa only to be given an opportunity for revenge later on, and Daniel Bruhl as Private Fredrick Zoller, a young Nazi war hero who struggles with his image. They are nuanced and compelling, and their collective story arc far exceeds the scenes with the Basterds in terms of cinematic interest. The fact that their characters are mistreated by the director is not their fault; nor is their fault that their performances are balanced by scene-chewing from Brad Pitt, Mike Myers, and Eli Roth - yes, the director Eli Roth - who by all accounts should leave acting to actors like his doppelganger Zachary Quinto. But I digress. The pacing of the film is such that for every significant cinematic scene shown, the audience is subjected to a scene that seems like QT and his buddies wrote it on napkins the night before filming, with characters about as thinly drawn.
This movie could have - and arguably should have - been so much more. By the time it reaches its predictably unpredictable (or is that unpredictably predictable?) conclusion, it has used all of the grace given by the audience and more. Basterds has inspired moments, but that's all they are: moments. And from QT, we expect more. I don't care what he has his characters say: this is not Tarantino's masterpiece. It is a valiant attempt at something - I don't know that even QT knows exactly what - and an ultimately unfulfilling film. I may need to go watch Dr. Strangelove soon to get some real satire.

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