Posts Tagged ‘Coen brothers’

Film: “Wild Tales”

May 18, 2015

This Argentinian film was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, and I recommend it, with reservations.

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Erica Rivas in “Wild Tales”

 The writer-director, Damian Szifron, has a jaundiced view of humanity, but is inclined to see the humor in how we pathetic creatures relate to each other. Of the six stories he tells, only one, the last, even hints that something else besides meanness and venality reside within the human breast. And even in that story, total disaster is just barely averted.

All of the tales are told from a comfortably successful middle-class perspective. The six stories are, in brief summary: the passengers in a plane discover a disturbing common element in their background; a waitress has dark memories from her past awakened by a customer; two drivers have a road-rage blow-up, like a Laurel and Hardy nightmare; a demolitions expert’s car is towed; a businessman discovers that his son is a hit-and-run driver; and, finally, a wedding celebration is totally demolished in a jealous rage.

While entertaining, I have to say the film falls short of the mark. The writing is clever, subtle and occasionally, brilliant. Szifron structures each tale skillfully, and has a good ear for dialogue, which is not lost in the subtitles. But, as the legend best put it, in comparison to death, which is easy, comedy is hard. And satire is doubly so, because the characters are not going to be particularly likeable. There’s simply no substitute for laughs, and I sat there, squirming, because they didn’t come.

I don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The performances seemed skillful enough, but, with two exceptions, they weren’t comic performances. All too often we see close-ups of characters who look vaguely distressed, and even angry about their situation, but which seem too mild for the absurd chaos that suddenly confronts them. This was especially hurtful in the hit-and-run story, because it was the sharpest satire. The idea that the law is easily manipulated to let the guilty off, and punish the innocent, is certainly not new. And Szifron’s treatment doesn’t hold back; its as nasty as anything Billy Wilder would have dreamed up. But the acting, both in facial expression and gesture, never threatens to explode into the exaggerated, lashed-out desperation – the wildness, if you will – that pulls out the laughter from us.

Compare this with the performances in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, a film that always makes me laugh. The two films are about the same in terms of the extremity of the situations and the stupidity and desperation of the characters. But Burn wins in laughs because the actors play it “straight”, which, in comedy terms, means they show us the most extreme human behavior in that situation.

This isn’t easy to do. But the Coens knew their clever script wasn’t enough, and they got their talented cast to go all out because farce is funniest when played for total panic; being too “real” is a loser. So even a stupid script, as in Neighbors, can get laughs when its director, Nicholas Stoller, kicks the performances up to that level, and doesn’t lose it by getting too fancy.

But I thought two actresses broke out of the pack because they added enough in terms of expression, or just plain comic shtick, to bring out the fun. Maybe they sensed that the director was just not getting their best stuff so they had to squeeze it in somehow. In the wedding story, Erica Rivas, as the bride, makes her dizzying shifts in mood totally believable, and funnier for it. Also, Rita Cortese, as a cook with a knowing touch with rat poison, is quietly hilarious.

Writer Szifron set a very high bar for his director – himself – but didn’t quite clear it. Based on the film’s reception, I know that’s a minority opinion. But there you have it.

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Film: Inside Llewyn Davis

January 11, 2014

Let me say right off that I  enjoyed this film, with one strong reservation. The Coen brothers know how to present their quirky charmers, and how to make us care what happens to them. Oscar Isaac plays a young folk singer in Greenwich Village, 1961, and the milieu is so perfectly rendered that I felt I could walk through the doors of those coffee shops and settle down for a cappuccino, like I did then. The music, the settings, the fashions and hairstyles, just the overall look of the film is “just right”, and I applaud that.

And the story is pleasing too, right down to the “reprise” ending. The title character is shown dealing with the kinds of problems a lot of young music hopefuls dealt with then: flopping at friends because you didn’t have the money for rent; betraying those friends by sleeping with their girlfriends; random sex with various other girls; paying for the occasional abortion; rushing to music gigs that paid by passing the hat around; listening to your married sister tell you what a bum you are, and assorted other humiliations. Oh, and finding and returning a cat that you let escape from your friend’s apartment. While Llewyn doesn’t really change as a result of these events, we see that his resolve to continue his dream of music stardom is severely tested, but not destroyed. Above all, the film depicts a time and place that we can look back on nostalgically because life, while it could be harsh, was also innocent and simply understood.

The trouble is, it wasn’t. The standard refrain is that America was “innocent” until the shocks of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam; that young people were only just beginning to question middle class values, and stepped outside of them with great trepidation. But actually, the young people in New York at that time were already steeped in cultural and political defiance. It was called the “counterculture” for a reason. As an artistic and educational center, New York was attracting young people who were already openly hostile to a society that glorified war, racism and materialistic excess. Unmentioned in the film, but so prevalent at the dominant academic giants at the time – Columbia and NYU – was the fact that you could attend lectures in those classrooms, every single day, about how America’s future was going to be glorious because Capitalism was dying, and the imminent triumph of Communism would finally bring justice to this country, and to the rest of the world.

My point is that, even for a self-absorbed, insensitive louse like Llewyn, there was the conviction that art would change the world, and there was no finer way to live than to liberate society with one’s “genius”. All of that other “little stuff”, like using and betraying one’s friends, and living off others, was for the greater good. And anyway, an artist should be appreciated for what he’s giving to the “cause”.

I can’t overstate how the omission of politics from the folk music scene at that time, in that place, lessened my appreciation of the film’s virtues. But I think this reaction is largely due to my intimate connection to the world it portrays. Most viewers won’t have that problem, and should have a good time.  The characters are rich and individualized, and the cast was perfect, starting with an electric Oscar Isaac. Only next time, I hope he gets to play a character with some backbone.


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