The Coen brothers switch gears so often and with such gleeful finesse that their restlessness can no longer qualify as genre-hopping pastiche, if it ever did. At this point they’re simply a style unto themselves, a self-sufficient duo with a built in audience, art-house cred, and, when they want to indulge, box-office potential. Inside Llewyn Davis, then, isn’t a curveball so much as another stopover on a now-two-decade-plus journey that’s taken on noir, slapstick, thriller, western, and everything in between. It’s also one of their strongest recent efforts, an alternately world-weary and hilarious ode to a period of relatively recent vintage that’s nonetheless cherished as an era of new ideas, free-thinking, and artistic progression.
A Serious Man (#1–10 of 4)
[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
True Grit has been rightfully celebrated for the last few months, though few critics have expressed the appropriate surprise at how well this remake turned out. Lest we forget, the last time the Coen brothers remade someone else’s movie, they churned out their unquestionable worst, a juvenile reimagining of Alexander Mackendrick’s scabrous Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Technically, True Grit is less a movie remake than a second try at filming the wonderful Charles Portis source novel, but the irony here is that the Coens’ Ladykillers is a more ambitious, clever concept for a film than their admittedly beautiful western. Alas, the movie itself is utterly half-assed, the only time that can be said of a Coen brothers picture.
The Mackendrick film’s plot and imagery both rely on the timely, English steam trains that always seem to be within earshot of the action, and the Coens found a wonderful cultural-historical parallel by setting the new movie along the Mississippi River. It was equally thoughtful to cast Tom Hanks, a kind of American Alec Guinness, to play the Guinness role, particularly since both actors clearly relish every ludicrous line of dialogue as they play scheming villains against type. And the occasional performance scenes of a black gospel choir are some of the most purely joyful, documentary moments in any Coen brothers film. But the filmmakers apparently made a few excellent artistic decisions and then phoned everything else in.
Don’t let the results of the WGA sway you too much. Quentin Tarantino, as a non-Guild member, was no more eligible for one of their awards than he is likely to be invited to spit punany poetry on a split bill with Maya Angelou. Which isn’t to say he wouldn’t jump at the chance, and which isn’t to say that he wouldn’t have won the WGA were it not for the technicality. It’s as obviously difficult to call him an outright frontrunner for the Oscar as it is to bet on Johnny Weir taking first place in any given ice skating competition. No matter how flamboyantly good he may be, no matter how much higher his profile is than just about anyone else’s in the medium, there’s simply no getting around the fact that there are some judges out there who are just never going to be in his corner. And there are always going to be Academy members who just don’t see great screenwriting in a draft that spent approximately six or seven pages on a tavern parlor celebrity guessing game, to say nothing of the moral quandary Inglourious Basterds’s irreverent alternate WWII history poses to a group whose voting record almost seems to need Adolf Hitler perpetually alive and well.
The White Ribbon: Ever wonder about the ancestors of the murderous jocks from Funny Games? Michael Haneke time travels to rural Germany on the cusp of WWI to find the answer, or, rather, to make the audience’s collective skin crawl at the question. Something of a distant Teutonic relative to H.G. Clouzot’s caustic Le Corbeau, the story traces the “horror and perplexity” contaminating a small village after a series of mysteriously interconnected events inexorably suggests the oppressive rot lurking under the townspeople’s unsmiling, puritanical façade and spreading into the next generation. (Shot in monochromatic tones peculiarly reminiscent of Dreyer’s Gertrud, it’s Haneke’s most visually polished picture yet, though the buzz of flies seeking decay is never far.) Unfolding like a finely wrought adaptation of a sprawling, detail-rich novel, the film showcases Haneke’s undeniable technical mastery and is thankfully light on the filmmaker’s patented hectoring shocks. The lingering feeling, however, is ultimately less of a portrait of encroaching dread than of a Children of the Corn prequel played as rigid thesis.