Tag Archives: Coen brothers

Bridge of Spies (2015)

bridge of spies

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is to me this year’s version of The Imitation Game. I went into it anticipating a good wartime drama with strong performances, but never did I expect a home run that would definitely end up on my top 10 list for the year.

That’s how much I loved Bridge of Spies, a true story set in the paranoid Cold War era about a lawyer “chosen” by the US government to defend a suspected Russian spy. The lawyer is James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and the spy is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and I’m willing to bet now that both will be nominated for Academy Awards next year, with Rylance taking home the prize for Best Supporting Actor.

Award-worthy performances aside, Bridge of Spies is fantastic in every other way, a truly intriguing and fascinating story about a heroic man whose pivotal role in history has been largely forgotten. I don’t want to give away too much for those not familiar with Donovan, because one of the best things about this film for me was the experience of going on this strange and thrilling adventure with him.

Spielberg is the greatest cinematic storyteller in the world, and he proves it once again by making a deeply moving and inspirational film that can resonate with and be enjoyed by everyone.

To be honest, I was initially not that hyped to see the movie. Political intrigue, courtroom drama, Tom Hanks doing his usual thing, etc — it just didn’t seem that exciting to me. I thought it would be like another Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the slow sensibilities of Spielberg’s previous film, Lincoln, meaning I would probably need a strong coffee beforehand to stay awake through the 141-minute running time.

Instead, Spielberg has crafted a surprisingly accessible film, one that perfectly captures the tit-for-tat and absurd posturing of the Cold War period while educating those less informed in a simple and non-condescending manner. And for those thinking it might be a contemplative (ie, boring) drama, think again, because something interesting is always happening on screen; the film is constantly moving along at just the right pace and neither feels rushed nor slow. It is rare for such a long film to feel like it’s the exact length it should be.

Credit must also go to screenwriters Matt Charman and my favourites, the Coen brothers, who somehow manage to tie together the various strands of the seemingly complex historical storyline with minimal confusion but without dumbing it down too much for more sophisticated audiences.

Contrary to what I thought it would be (judging from the title, poster, etc), Bridge of Spies is not a slick thriller full of twists and turns and clever dialogue. It was never aiming to be such a film. Rather, it is surprisingly funny, with that devilishly dark Coen brothers style I think is the most hilarious thing in the world. It is driven by well-developed characters, with even the minor ones leaving lasting impressions because of the way they’ve been written and/or the memorable performances. The tone is also masterfully controlled, light when it needs to be, heavy when it should be, and subtly “f@&@ yeah!” when it has to be done.

When it’s all said and done, Bridge of Spies isn’t going to be remembered as fondly as say Schindler’s List or even Saying Private Ryan, though it certainly belongs in the conversation of the top movies of 2015. I think it’s Spielberg’s best-directed film since 2002’s Minority Report.

5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

inside_llewyn_davis_ver2

My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.

Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words  may be.

It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.

And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.

The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.

I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.

In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

They say remakes seldom better the original, but it’s hard to imagine the 1969 John Wayne classic (which I haven’t seen) being better than the new version from my favourite filmmaking duo.  True Grit is vintage Coen Brothers, more No Country For Old Men than The Big Lebowski but still funny and quirky.  And when it comes to dialogue, human interactions and suspense, few can compare with Joel and Ethan Coen.

Based on Charles Portis’s 1968 novel of the same name, this version of True Grit is supposedly truer to the original source.  It tells the story of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a wise-beyond-her-years 14-year-old who seeks to avenge the death of her father by tracking down and killing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  To do so, she seeks the assistance of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a merciless but drunk and out-of-shape Deputy US Marshal.  Tagging along for the ride is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is chasing Chaney for an unrelated crime.

I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, but True Grit had me hooked from the beginning.  It moves with at a pace similar to No Country, which might be on the slow side for some, but whichever way you look at this film — whether it’s the screenplay, the performances or the direction — it’s top notch.  And all through out was that trademark Coen Brothers touch, that unexpected, random hilarity that I can never get enough of.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon were expectedly excellent (as were Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper in smaller roles), but it was the remarkable performance of young Hailee Steinfeld that carried the film from start to finish.  Good to see that she received an Oscar nomination, but how it was for Best Supporting Actress as opposed to Best Actress (considering she was in just about every scene) beats the hell out of me.

My only complaint was that it felt like the film needed subtitles at times because of the excessive mumbling (mostly by Jeff Bridges) which made the conversations difficult to follow.  But apart from that, an awesome experience.

4.25 stars out of 5

DVD Review: A Serious Man (2009)

I am admittedly biased when it comes to films by the Coen brothers.  After all, they are the creators of one of my favourite films of all time, Fargo, and plenty of classics such as The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.

Their latest project, the black comedy A Serious Man, has received little commercial fanfare despite being widely acclaimed by critics as well as receiving multiple award nominations (including Best Picture at the Oscars).  I wouldn’t say A Serious Man ranks right up there as the Coen brothers’ best work, but I think it is certainly one of their better films, one that will almost certainly achieve cult status (if it hasn’t already).

A Serious Man tells the story of an ordinary, rather spineless Jewish man in the 1960s who is struggling with everything that is happening in his life, from his health to his family to his job as a physics professor.  It is supposed to be loosely based on the book of Job from the Old Testament.

Don’t let that rather dry description put you off this film.  To be honest, there isn’t all that much of a ‘story’.  A Serious Man is really more like a series of interconnected events that keep happening around the central character Larry Gopnik (played by the brilliant, but largely unknown actor Michael Stuhlbarg).

But somehow, the Coen brothers manage to make A Serious Man compelling and compulsive.  I couldn’t stop watching as one thing after another hits poor Larry, seemingly at random.  You simply don’t know what to expect.

I love the Coen brothers’ brand of humour — that insanely dark, quirky, random humour that pops out of nowhere and is equally hilarious and disturbing.  In A Serious Man, the laughs are somewhat sporadic, but they are always brilliant and strangely insightful.  My favourite sequences involve Larry and a Korean student named Clive (as well as Clive’s father), who is trying to reverse an F grade that would cause him to lose his scholarship.

As much as I enjoyed A Serious Man, I can understand if others hate it.  The Coen brothers often make such polarising films and it’s never possible to please everyone.  Parts of the film are slow, and on the surface at least, it sometimes feels like the narrative has no direction.  There is a very odd prologue set in the early 20th century at the beginning that has seemingly no connection to the rest of the film.  And if you thought the ending in No Country for Old Men was messy and unsatisfying, wait till you see this one.

Having said all that, I enjoyed every minute of A Single Man.

4.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those light, quirky, darkly amusing comedies very loosely based on real events.  It features an all-star cast including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  It’s enjoyable, fascinating, and in no way meant to be taken seriously.  It’s not memorable, and is unlikely to win any awards, but it’ll give you a laugh and a good time for 94 minutes.

The film is told through the eyes of Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a journalist who ends up stumbling across the story of a lifetime – the US army’s attempts to develop psychic spies with super powers.  Yes, the US military actually tried to do this (and who knows, may still be trying to do this)!

You could be forgiven for thinking that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a Coen brothers movie in the vein of The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.  It has that quirky feel from start to finish; you wonder what the heck is happening and what might happen next.  Every character Bob Wilton comes across is fascinating and hilarious, especially Lyn Cassady, perfectly played by the “so serious it’s funny” George Clooney.

But actually, The Men Who Stare at Goats is written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), loosely based on the book of the same name by Jon Ronson.  It’s directed by Grant Helsov, who hasn’t done much directing and is more of an actor.  Hopefully Helsov will have more opportunities to direct after this film.

Anyway, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the film.  It’s constantly amusing, but the big laughs are less frequent.  That said, it is clever, and somehow manages to stand on the fence when it comes to psychics.  The movie doesn’t endorse them as genuine, but it doesn’t exactly ridicule them as frauds either.  It does, however, suggest they may all be crazy!  My favourite thing about the whole film is that it makes constant references to Star Wars, especially because it stars young Obi-Wan Kenobi himself!

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: and yes, goats are stared at in this movie]

Top 5 films of 2008!

I was just doing an online poll (www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/) of the top 5 movies of 2008.  The site provides a long list of films released in Australia in 2008 (which means some more recent films may not have made it – eg ALL of the best picture nominees for this year’s Oscars), from which users would first pick a shortlist.  And from that shortlist, the top 5 would be selected.

I was surprised.  2008 will always be remembered as the year Obama became president and the world economy went to hell.  But it also had some very decent films.  Very memorable ones.

So without further delay, here’s the 5 films I ended up with, in no particular order (drumroll please):

  • There Will Be Blood (5 stars)
  • Taken (4.5 stars)
  • The Dark Knight (4.5 stars)
  • Iron Man (4.5 stars)
  • Burn After Reading* (4.5 stars)

* I had picked Lust, Caution first, but switched at the last minute.  I suppose Lust, Caution was the better film, but I enjoyed Burn After Reading more, so there.

The results were totally unexpected.  There Will Be Blood was a classic, so that was a no-brainer.  I don’t usually rate action films that highly, but Taken was the best action film I had seen in a really long time.  I surprised myself by having 2 superhero movies in the list, but these (The Dark Knight and Iron Man) are undoubtedly 2 of the best superhero movies ever made.  Burn After Reading is the type of movie people either loved or hated, and I think to some extent it depends on the mood you’re in at the time of viewing.  I was in one of those moods, I guess, so I found it absolutely hilarious (though I may not get the same result on a second viewing).  Plus I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers and Fargo is one of my favourites of all-time, so there was also a little natural bias.

I should say that this is really more a list of my 5 favourite films of 2008 rather than necessarily the 5 best films.  Nevertheless…

What were your top 5?