Gramercy Pictures via Everett Collection
We can go on and on in our attempts to rank the Coen Brothers movies, but we'll never get anywhere (although the sage Jordan Hoffman has given a pretty good go of it over at Film.com). Instead, the release of the filmmaking polycephaly's latest — and arguably greatest... but like I said, we won't go there — feature Inside Llewyn Davis inspires within us a new ranking challenge. Not a ranking of the movies of the Coens, no, but a ranking of the Coens themselves.
2. JOELHad a small role in Spies Like Us.Went to NYU.His wife is Frances McDormand, who is awesome.Only one kid.Fourteen "Special Thanks" credits on his IMDb page.Six-feet tall, even.September birthday — fifth best birthday month*.Middle name: Daniel.
1. ETHANWrote The Naked Man.Went to Princeton.His wife is Tricia Cooke, who we're sure is very nice and all, but she ain't Frances McDormand, but...Two kids!Fifteen "Special Thanks" credits on his IMDb page.Five feet eight inches tall, which is tall enough without being a douche about it.November birthday — fourth worst birthday month*.Middle name: Jesse (better than Daniel).
See? A lot easier than ranking the films.
*Birthday months in order of descending quality: April, February, May, October, September, March, June, August, November, January, July, December.
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In the summer of 1977 disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) sat down with British TV talk show host and interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) for a series of interviews that Nixon hoped would resuscitate his Watergate-tarnished image and Frost hoped would lift his own career to another level. While it made for good TV at the time it certainly didn’t seem likely fodder for a hit Broadway play and now a major motion picture. Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the play and adapted it for the screen turning it into a riveting cat-and-mouse game between these two made-for-television adversaries. Director Ron Howard emphasizes the behind the scenes machinations and all the negotiations between both camps. The off-camera material is priceless based in large part on speculative research. Whatever the final truth of the story the film gains its real power from it’s the telling. Ron Howard turns to the two original stage stars of Frost/Nixon -- a wise casting decision that almost never happens in Hollywood. It’s true everyone including Warren Beatty reportedly wanted to play Nixon but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Langella in recreating his Tony-winning interpretation of the infamous Tricky Dick. He has all of Nixon’s mannerisms vulnerabilities and caginess down pat. Sheen certainly captures the confident nature of Frost but also his insecurities and the realization that this whole enterprise is one big roll of the dice. And two actors work in perfect concert with one another. Supporting roles are well played including standouts Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s trusted Chief of Staff Jack Brennan and a hilarious Toby Jones aping the inimitable book agent Swifty Lazar. As key Frost aides and researchers Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell do a nice job as kind of the Greek chorus to the situation. On the surface Ron Howard -- better known for his large scale Hollywood productions like The Da Vinci Code and Apollo 13 -- doesn’t seem the right fit for this smaller scale drama but his approach transfers what could have been a flat Broadway screen into a highly cinematic and stimulating two hours. He captures the rhythms of this chess match perfectly and chooses camera angles that catch the sweat behind the cool facades of his two principals. Special mention should go to the beautiful nuanced work of his cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Howard is such a gifted filmmaker he makes it all seem effortless easily coaxing two equally superb performances from Langella and Sheen. Frost/Nixon is a first class achievement.
In a movie that is nothing if not ambiguous it’s only fitting that the title is misleading: The “ex” is only a former friend/fling. At least something’s mildly amusing. It starts out straightforward enough with slacker Tom (Zach Braff) being fired from his job as a chef after a food fight with his boss (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Paul Rudd). But with his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) about to give birth poverty just won’t do. So they move from Manhattan to more economical Ohio where Tom takes up his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) on a standing offer to work for him in a job that Tom expects to be a regular nine-to-fiver. But as Tom immediately discovers this is no normal desk job and these are not normal coworkers. He gets off to a rough start with his supervisor wheelchair-bound Chip (Jason Bateman) after eating his yogurt. Further complicating matters it turns out Chip had a crush on and one-night-stand with Sofia back in high school—even though he’s the “ex” the title refers to—and is apparently now jealous. So he makes Tom’s life miserable and some off-the-wall variation of the standard formula ensues: Everyone believes Chip over Tom Tom loses Sofia and her father loses his job. Now he has to win back his father-in-law’s job and his wife while proving to everyone that Chip isn’t the saint he appears to be. It’s a television junkie’s dream to have this trio of small-screen leads together on the big screen—well it’s really a nightmare. Come to think of it maybe plucking the bulk of the cast from TV series (Scrubs for Braff; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for Peet; Arrested Development for Bateman) isn’t the best way to pinch millions from the budget. When Braff does his silly-sensitive Scrubs shtick in the movie it’s as funny as it is on the show but it’s totally not right for his character which is when he switches to serious mode a la his recent Last Kiss. Yeah he’s as confused as we are. Peet is uncharacteristically a non-entity in the movie whereas she is usually more vocal in her movies even if in a supporting role. And Bateman comes close a few times to successfully replicating Michael Bluth’s sardonic wit but then he hangs a sharp turn and delivers an inane unfunny line or physical outburst. The constant flux of bad-to-horrific acting can be as difficult to articulate as it is to comprehend. On the other hand veteran actor Grodin’s performance is very easily explained: It’s not only bad it’s irritating to the ear! And the miscasts go on with Mia Farrow an acting legend in a bit part as Grodin’s wife and near cameos from Donal Logue (Grounded for Life) SNL-ers Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen and Amy Adams (Junebug). Let’s revisit that title for a moment. As if the current misnomer wasn’t enough The Ex was formerly called Fast Track. Coincidentally once the movie was pushed back several times—which makes you think how bad this one must’ve been without whatever 11th-hour edits and reshoots were made—the title was changed perhaps in an attempt to dissuade a review from mentioning the irony in the title. But the Weinstein brothers should’ve known long before the title conundrum that this one was doomed. The script from first-timers Michael Handelman and David Guion must have undergone major overhauls as well because no script as bad as The Ex’s would have ever been greenlit. In fact it was probably originally something akin to a Cable Guy/Meet the Parents/Flirting with Disaster/Farrelly brothers hybrid but director Jesse Peretz’s movie is nowhere near those. The tone is just so unclear that it makes the actors look like they don’t even know their places—and yet it’s so damn transparent. And when the director is kind enough to carve out what is supposed to be a comedic scene it's Zach Braff taking a tumble on his bike or that good old wheelchair humor. Usually when a movie is called a “dramedy” there is drama and comedy; thus The Ex starts a new genre: “The attempted dramedy.”
As the real-life 1950's pin-up girl Bettie Page actress Gretchen Mol shakes her moneymaker in this true-American-story drama. Page a Tennessee-raised religious cutie moves to New York in 1949 for a new life when college dreams don't materialize. She's a trusting soul who loves to pose for strangers' cameras and naturally falls into modeling. In no time she's wearing suggestive lingerie and trading spankings with other models. To Bettie the bondage get-ups are silly not prurient. But despite efforts to expand herself and learn acting she remains a pin-up girl. In Bettie's most famous picture she's posing nude in a Santa hat in a 1955 Playboy magazine. After testifying at Congress amid the sexual Puritanism of the '50s Bettie realizes her "notorious" reputation. She quits the biz for her religious beliefs and disappears from the public eye for good. Mol's performance is described in press materials as "incandescent." It is brave to say the least. The actress’ movie career has needed a jolt since she was labeled the next “It” girl in the late ‘90s after starring with Matt Damon in the 1998 Rounders. Her last film was Neil LaBute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. But Mol finds her niche in Notorious. She plays Bettie as she was--a simple-minded and free-spirited character which can be a dangerous combination. The actress doesn't add impresario nuances to the pliable young woman beyond the Southern accents but it is an incandescent performance nonetheless. Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) brings her rough features to Paula Klaw Bettie's tough-minded manager transitioning from the Emmy-nominated success of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Mol and Taylor play off each other very well. Recent Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) also sneaks in there as a Southern senator calling for pornography investigations. In the hands of director/writer Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner Notorious snaps along like an old crime noir quick like a paperback on the beach. It is ironic and biting smoldering with sexuality but the melodramatic intentions are obvious. The dialogue lapses into clunky spots occasionally but they seem deliberate. The script's potency should not be understated. It's a statement about government's role in bedroom matters and the side effects of an American society prudish about its sexuality. Harron seems a sharp-edged journalist a chronicler of 20th century America and recruited Oscar-nominated researcher Sam Green (The Weather Undergound) to strengthen the movie's veracity such as recreating '50s-era Times Square. Bygone technical methods such as Super 8 cameras are used to match the classy black-and-white photography. Notorious is a little rough but fairly successful in its mission.
Set in 1949 in the quiet California town of Santa Rosa the story centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who is a second-chair barber in his brother-in-law Frank's barbershop (Michael Badalucco). Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with
her boss hotshot department store owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When Ed gets an investment tip on the future of dry cleaning he decides it's time to cash in his chips so he blackmails Big Dave. Big Dave married to wealthy heiress Ann (Katherine Borowitz) is not about to let this
financial pressure get the better of him (come on now this is Tony Soprano Ed's messing with). Things quickly spiral out of control (someone's murdered) slow down (Ed narrates Ed smokes narrates smokes some more) and then just get weird (something involving UFO sightings and a teenage pianist) before coming to an electrifying end.
The film's lineup is impressive: Thornton McDormand Gandolfini Badalucco Scarlett Johansson Tony Shalhoub. Yet the cast seems as constrained as a prisoner in jail waiting for breaks in Ed's narration to shine. The reliance on voice-over narration
to get the story across impedes the dramatic and comedic timing and much of the acting except of course that of the Bogart-like Ed. We're captivated by him whether we like it or not--he is the only one that can tell us what the hell is going on. Unfortunately he loses a lot of credibility because although he assures us he's a quiet man of few words he never shuts up.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Fargo) did what they set out to do--which was create an impressive smart modern take on '40s film-noir classics like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Watch this movie for the unprecedented black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins who takes inspiration from the Coens and turns what many moviegoers expect from a black-and-white picture on its head. Mainstream audiences may have difficulty with the slow methodical pace of this movie and some things drag the film down like the UFO subplot. But the Coens have a reason for all things leaving much to the viewer's interpretation. Perhaps the directors employed the same theory as the defense attorney does in the movie the 'uncertainty principle'--the more you look at something the less you know.
In a lighthearted riff on Homer's epic poem set in the Depression-era South verbose
charmer Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and two dimwitted cronies (John
Turturro Tim Blake Nelson) break free from a Mississippi chain gang only to face
a long series of trials including a trio of seductive laundry-washing sirens
and a fearsome one-eyed Bible salesman (Homer's Cyclops of course creepily portrayed
by John Goodman). Unlike the original Ulysses Everett also must contend with
pursuing cops Southern-friend politicians and the KKK if he is to prevent his
less-than-faithful former wife (Holly Hunter) from marrying a rival suitor.
Leading goofs Clooney Turturro and Nelson gamely get into the Three
Stooges-ish tone of the piece with Clooney in particular delivering a
winking self-mocking turn that must be his broadest screen performance to
date. Nelson ("The Thin Red Line") is also a riot as a mild-mannered yokel
for whom every slow-moving thought requires visible effort. Disappointingly
Coen veterans Goodman Hunter and Charles Durning have less to sink their
teeth into than in previous outings with the brothers.
Writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan Coen rack up yet another enjoyable
romp featuring all of their signature elements - playfully stylized camerawork
offbeat music colorful characters distanced by dripping irony. Evoking the road
comedies of the '30s and '40s this easygoing comic adventure has an old-fashioned
flavor and (for a Coen picture at least) a relative lack of graphic violence
that links it to the brothers' underrated 1994 Frank Capra homage "The Hudsucker
Proxy." Amusing as it is however "Brother" rarely achieves the same hilarious
heights as previous Coen laughers such as "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski."