Wednesday, May 15, 2013

15. O Coen Brother, Where Art Thou True Grit?

It's no secret to anyone who knows me how much I love movies, and my friends often ask me to name my favourite movie of all time. I'm afraid to say, I disappoint them everytime. It's too hard to pick just one! Instead, I name my favourite filmmakers - again, hard to narrow it down to just one - but almost always at the top of my list is the ingenious duo, the Coen Brothers.

There's something about the way they tell a story that's so captivating and unbelievable in the most entertaining way, that even a Western (a genre I usually dislike) keeps me glued to the screen. Their everyday characters are exaggerated to the very edge of believability, and yet never lose the quirks that made them lovable in the first place.

So, to satisfy a few of my friends' curiosity, here's a list of my favourite Coen Bro's movies.

With seven Oscar nominations, six BAFTA nominations, and three wins across the board, Fargo is a close second to No Country for Old Men in terms of industry acclaim. And deservedly so. This is the epitome of the Coen Bro's niche genre: violent crime involving everyday American characters, set in what could easily be your home-town. How do they do it? To take a slice of American home-life and make it the most unbelievable thing you've ever seen. Brilliant.
There are so many memorable elements in Fargo. Frances McDormand's wonderfully exaggerated Minnesotan accent, is one. The image of bound and hooded Kristin Rudrud as the kidnapped wife, attempting to hop an escape while blindfolded is another. There is a reason why this film is so famous, because it's moments like those that stay with you, long after the novelty of quoting McDormand's drawl catch-phrase "Ohh yahhh" wears off.

The Big Lebowski
If I could pick just one movie to be my favourite of all time, this would be up there for sure. The Big Lebowski has everything I could ever want in a film. Love, sex, comedy, action, violence, plot twists, drug-fuelled dream sequences, a kick-arse lead character and Steve Buscemi. Trust the Coen Bro's to take a genre as done-to-death as a ransom movie and turn it into one of the most original and star-laden films of the decade. To me, this is one of the best works of film the Coens have ever made. The dark way they make fun of life and death (think The Dude pouring Donny's ashes into a wind that blows them right back into his face), makes you feel like it's okay to laugh, because one day all you'll be is a coffee tin full of ashes too.
This movie is damn near perfect and if you haven't seen it yet, you better get cracking, 'cause you can't call yourself a Coen Brothers fan until you've seen this movie.

Burn After Reading
What do you get when you put George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich in a movie with the Coen Bros writing and directing? Pure cinematic gold, that's what. In true Coen Brothers' style, there are numerous sub-plots pushing the characters around in the film like pawns in a game of chess, clashing and changing the direction of the film to form one big, intricate web that ultimately becomes it's story. It's ingenious, and just a little bit wacky, and you're left thinking "what the bleep happened in that movie?", yet with a feeling of utter plot satisfaction. The CIA supervisor sums this movie up perfectly in the epilogue-styled ending: "What a cluster fuck!" But an incredibly entertaining one at that.

A Serious Man
Though not as rich in story as previous Coen Brother's films, I found this movie arrestingly intriguing. I don't know much about Jewish culture further than the stereotypes depicted in American sit-coms of accountants with large noses, and I knew how unreliable a source that was, so I was suprised while watching this movie to realise that it didn't matter. Jewish or not, Larry Gopnik is just a man at a crossroads, trying to find someone or something to tell him what to do. And the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen could make a midle-aged, Jewish professor of math relatable to a mid-twenties, Australian girl was wonderfully impressive. An incredible story of finding your own version of God while defining yourself through strength of will, or lack there of, this movie is proof above any doubt that the Coen Brothers are the masters of characterisation.

No Country for Old Men
And here we are: the one Western to so far to except itself from my dislike of the genre. I think more so than any of the Coen Brothers' movies, this film would not have been the same without the brilliant casting. Javier Bardem as the soulless Chigurh was chilling, but equally as impressive were Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson, complementing the roles of the everyday man doing extraordinary things with their subtle acting ideosyncracies.
I loved this movie so much after it came out I went out and bought the book by Cormac McCarthy, on which the movie was based, and the only voice I could hear while reading the narration was Tommy Lee Jones'. That's saying something. No Country is one of those films that stays with you, that you pull off the shelf and pop into the DVD player on a regular basis, because it doesn't matter how many times you've seen it before, it never gets any less brilliant.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I love that this movie was loosely based on Homer's The Odyssey (a book I have read, even if it took me 18 months). I mean, what's better than the Coen Brothers writing and directing an adaptation of a thousand year-old Greek fable? They seem to be able to take any facet of culture, American or otherwise, and turn it into pure hilarity and entertainment, while never losing the audience with characters that are unrelatable or unrealistic.
The South seems to be a bit of  a niche for the brothers, and that's fine by me as long as I get to keep reciting lines of dialogue as fun to say as "I don't want Fopp, goddamit! I'm a Dapper Dan man!"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

14. Big Nothing - 2006 (USA)

An indie film that's part crime thriller and part black comedy, Big Nothing is about a blackmail plot that goes wrong. Then wrong again. Then even more wrong.

Set in a relatively small town in everyday America, struggling writer Charlie (David Schwimmer) takes a job at a local call centre and befriends Gus (Simon Pegg), a bitter, but ever loveable cynic. After a pathetically dismal first shift, Gus talks Charlie into partnering on his blackmail scheme. It seems simple enough: use internet search records from the IT support call centre to find and blackmail people browsing illegal porn. Pay dirt comes in the form of a Reverend Smalls, having frequented not only illegal but under-age porn sites. So with the help of Gus' ex-lover, the street smart and once crowned Miss Teen Oklahoma, Josie (Alice Eve), they make the call.
This is where the black comedy part kicks in, with the pick-up being the first of the aforementioned wrong turns their plot takes. As the bodies start to pile up, the trio must reform their plan, numerous times, while also contending with the Reverend's vengeful wife, a suspicious detective, the accidental discovery of a snuff film ring, and Charlie's good-guy conscience.

Darkly funny and thoroughly twisted, this is an indie film through and through: consistently clever with a great soundtrack and the potential for a cult following. In fact, clever is the word of the day for this film: clever plot, clever characterisation, clever dialogue. Despite the gruesome events, there's always a playful back and forth between the characters, which sets the tone for the black comedy nature of the film perfectly. And co-writers Billy Asher and Jean-Baptiste Andrea have mastered their story, tactfully tying the loose ends of a previous mystery together before asking the audience to figure out the next big twist.

Fairly unknown Eve as the surprisingly blood-thirsty Josie, sets the pace for both the escalation and the unravelling of events, and becomes both loveable and hateable when the situation calls for either. Schwimmer and Pegg are brilliantly cast, and despite a fairly large difference in character, fall into step with each other seemlessly once they find themselves in over their heads.

This is a highly entertaining film in all respects, one I find makes a regular spin in my DVD player. Knowing how this film ends doesn't seem to stop watching how that comes about from still being shocking, or funny, or impressively clever. Big Nothing is definitely one to put on your list.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

13. Trouble With the Curve - 2012 (USA)

For a movie starring Clint Eastwood, but not directed by Clint Eastwood, Trouble With the Curve is a very Clint Eastwood-y film. It has all the emotionally stunted stoicism of Million Dollar Baby, the well-timed light-hearted funny moments of Gran Torino, and all the research-heavy, industry know-how facts his films always surround.

Pretty impressive for writer Randy Brown, who has only ever been credited with this film. Or is it? The script is very formulaic, making you laugh just as the emotion starts weighing too heavy, or reminding you of Eastwood's character Gus' mortality just as you start to run away with his almost super-human baseball knowledge. It's got the romantic sub-plot, the rocky father-daughter relationship, and enough baseball facts and lingo to keep any avid fan interested, all without losing the everyday audience.

My money's on the script being written with Eastwood in mind, and I'd double that bet to say Eastwood had a lot to do with any in-production changes. After all, director Robert Lorenz has assisted Eastwood on numerous previous projects, including Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River and Absolute Power. This was pretty much stock-standard stuff for them.

Having said that, this film was incredibly enjoyable. It's clear Eastwood has stuck with this movie-making formula because it works. Chuck in a couple big - but safe - names like Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake, and you've got a seller. Not necessarily Oscar material, but a movie that will sell tickets.

Timberlake and Adams were very well cast, and of course Eastwood has the grumpy old man routine down pat by now. And for all my cynical ticking of boxes, this film does have solid characterisation with very relatable relationships. You do become invested in the characters, and of course one of the things Eastwood does best is make you see the character, rather than the actor playing him/her. And that's truly one of the most successful things a filmmaker can do.

This film might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you've enjoyed one of Clint Eastwood's more recent films (that is to say, in the grumpy old man genre - a la Gran Torino), then chances are you'll enjoy Trouble With the Curve. After all, the only reason this film seems a little bit formulaic and tired is because Eastwood perfected movie making a long time ago.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

12. The Messenger - 2009 (USA)

Another thought provoking Iraq War drama. OK, Jarhead was poignantly brilliant and The Hurt Locker won a bunch of awards, with merit, but can't we just leave the soldiers to the war and go back to not thinking about it?

Not when movies like The Messenger are there for watching. Everything about this film screams "war is ugly", and in the tradition of Iraq War dramas, focuses on a unique but sad reality of war: notifying the next of kin. The story follows Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster). Home on a hiatus after a road-side bombing, Montgomery is assigned under recovering alcoholic and career-soldier Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to a Casualty Notification Team. His job: to beat any media story, uploaded photo or soldier's blog to the family of a war casualty and notify the next of kin. He has to do it without saying "passed or "no longer with us", anything that could be misunderstood, and he has to do it even if they scream, slap him across the face, beat him with their shoe or reach for their gun. And it all happens.

The direction from Oren Moverman (who also served as co-writer) is just as provocative. Placing juxtaposing shots of children running after the ice-cream van with Montgomery during a call out, Moverman never lets the viewer forget how unfair life can be. Similarly, the pairing of emotionally shut-down Montgomery with emotionally spent Stone incites a lot of questions as they go down their respective roads (I really didn't want to use the words "emotional journey"). Why does one soldier live while another dies? What kind of family is more deserving to have their loved one come home over another? How do you make your life count, fighting in a war no one believes in? It's provocative stuff.

The film is shot with very little colour but plenty of metaphor, very cleverly reflecting the moral grey areas of the subject matter. With two emotionally stunted lead characters who are on duty 24/7, there is little conveyed in the dialogue or body language of the effect their job has on them, however Foster and Harrelson brilliantly milk every long silence and slight change of expression to show every detail of what's going on behind the mask. Foster is far from his teen romance roles here, excellently portraying the silent and brooding young soldier, while Harrelson compliments as the larrikin captain trying to hide the disappointment of an unfulfilled war career.

For a war movie that has no explosions flipping cars in the air, or limbs flying across the screen, this film is incredibly entertaining. After Jarhead it was hard to believe another action-less war movie could be so darn good, but The Messenger ticks all the boxes.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

11. The Last Exorcism - 2010 (USA)

From it's title, The Last Exorcism tells you it's going to be a shocking horror. The same way Texas Chainsaw Massacre tells you there's going to be a lot of hacked off limbs, The Last Exorcism evokes images of freaky little girls running around with their heads twisted backwards, vomiting a lot and killing people. Well, there's all that in there, but don't be mistaken in thinking this film is just a cheap attempt at a movie about demon possession, hoping to ride off the back of The Exorcist. This film is much more than that.

In fact, this is the best exorcism horror film I've seen since The Exorcist. And to be honest, I'd expect nothing less from producer Eli Roth (Hostel I and II). Filmed as a mockumentary, the storyline follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), an evangelical minister who is very good at putting on a show, and very good at making people believe whatever he says. After having performed numerous exorcisms throughout his career, he decides to make a documentary unveiling exorcism as a money-making scheme after reading a story of a young boy who was killed during an exorcism. Until now he had used tricks like smoking crucifixes, jewellery that cause small electric shocks and hidden iPods playing "demon sounds" to make the experience seem real, thereby curing the "possessed" by giving them some sort of closure in what is really a psychological issue.

He takes on one last case and has the film crew follow him to a farm out in Louisiana to see the Sweetzer family, including overly-protective and uber religious father Louis (Louis Herthum) convinced a demon has possessed his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), making her sneak out at night and slaughter their cattle, with no memory of it the next day. Cotton performs the exorcism, employing all the usual tricks, and the case is presumed closed. That is until Nell shows up at their motel down the road in the middle of the night, catatonic and vomiting all over herself. Cotton and the crew realise the story isn't over, and decide to stay at the farmhouse until they figure out what's really going on with the Sweetzer family.

What follows is a very well written plot that keeps you guessing right up until the credits start to roll. While all the usual elements of an exorcism movie are there - creepy drawings, animal slaughterings, strange noises and unnatural body movements - nothing is so supernatural that it can't be explained one way or another. And Cotton and the crew certainly entertain numerous theories to explain away Nell's psychotic behaviour. But none of them can ever tie off all the loose ends, and you never can tell if she's actually possessed or if there's some psychological or medical explanation to it all. Is it religion, or science? Just when you think you've figured it out, something happens to change your mind. It's compellingly entertaining.

This is definitely a very creepy and compelling horror movie, and if you're a fan of The Exorcist, Eli Roth or horror in general I'd highly recommend picking this one up. I was hooked from start to finish and can't sing the praises of it's realistic, table-turning storyline enough.

Monday, June 20, 2011

10. Mr Brooks - 2007 (USA)

In your local DVD rental store, this little gem will be found in the thriller section, but what makes this different from your everyday, run of the mill thriller is that usually you don't tend to like the killer. You might know who the killer is, you might understand why they kill, but you don't like them. You definitely like Mr Brooks. And not only that, you like his split personality Marshall (played brilliantly by William Hurt) who acts as Brooks' personified addiction to killing.

So I've already set up the story a little: Kevin Costner plays Brooks - a rich businessman who is addicted to killing and has it down to a fine art. Dubbed the "Thumbprint Killer" from his habit to leave behind a singal thumbprint in his victims' blood, he has all Portland's homocide detectives stumped. His alibi is his intense pottery hobby, which also serves as a good way to destroy evidence when it's done (a kiln is a great idea for any aspiring serial killers.) He wears a bag over his hand and gun, catching the bullet casings, and uses the victim's vaccuum to get rid of any possible hairs or fibres he might leave at the scene before destroying it all, including his outfit right down to his undies, in the kiln back at his pottery studio. Seriously, this guy is good.

BUT this time Brooks swears he's done with killing, and turns his attention to pottery for real, eating icecream with his wife (played by C.S.I's Marg Helenberger, how appropriate) and his AA meetings to get him through his addiction. All until his daughter unexpectedly comes home from college, turning his controlled life inside-out, at the same time as a peeping tom (Dane Cook) decides to blackmail him with pictures of his latest killing. To make matters worse, a smart detective with nothing to lose (Demi Moore - sidenote: I usually despise her, but rather enjoyed her performance in this movie) seems to be the first making any headway in the Thumbprint Killer case. Brooks' bad side, personified in Marshall, knows how to make all his troubles "disappear", however nice-guy Brooks is determined to find solutions to all the above without having to kill again. Their compromise is truly an entertaining watch.

I picked this up for $6 as an ex-rental at my local video store and never looked back. I've since recommended and lent it out to many of my friends and family answering their inquisitive "Oh yeah, what's this about then?" with my go-to reply of "It's just good, watch it 'cause it's just damn good".

Sunday, October 24, 2010

9. Five Tips to Survive a Horror Movie this Halloween

Any horror movie fan can tell you, there are certain things guaranteed to get you killed, and certain elements that separate the hero or lone survivor from all the blood-splatteringly gory deaths along the way. So, being a major horror fan, I thought I’d compile a little list of do’s and dont’s for Halloween, just incase an infectious virus turns your loved ones into zombies, or an estranged family member escapes from the mental asylum and comes after you with a machete.

1. Do NOT investigate the sound outside.

This should be a given, right? Well you’d think with years of unnecessary deaths after checking what that loud bang, or dark shadow, or twig snapping outside was, people in horror movies would have learnt it means death. But they haven’t. A classic mistake often made by the dumb hot chick or babysitter when she hears something other than her popcorn popping while settling down to watch a movie in her darkly lit mansion of a house (all the more rooms to chase her through.)
Halloween 2010 tip: Mansions, popcorn and scary movies on your own is just asking for suspicious creeky sounds to investigate. If you find yourself being chased by a crazed psychopath in a hockey mask this Halloween, take a page out of Shaun Riley’s book and hole up in your local pub with plenty of beer, a jukebox playing Queen and a shotgun. Go the Winchester.

2. Do NOT be the token funny guy.

A hard one to dodge, but crucial none-the-less. This one is really important to keep in mind on those group road-trips up to who-ever’s dad’s cabin for graduation weekend. This is your warning reader: while all the couples are in their rooms having sex and you’re left trying not to think about how lonely you are, do NOT compensate average looks for charming humour by planning to dress up as an axe-wielding maniac to scare your best mate while he’s spending “alone time” with his girlfriend. It will only end up one way: with the real axe-wielding maniac heading you off at the pass and claiming you as first victim.
Halloween 2010 tip: If you find yourself in this situation with the stark realisation that you’re the girlfriend-less funny guy, and there’s no chance of taking on the good looking and sensitive hero role anytime soon, try and refrain from any practical joking that could put you in harm’s way.

3. Do NOT show your breasts or have sex/lose your virginity.

There’s a theory that horror movies of the 1970’s and 80’s purposefully killed off any young character that had pre-marital sex to try and scare teenagers from popping their cherries with their classmates. I’m not sure how true this is, but what is definitely true is that while your best bet in a horror film is to prove yourself as the good looking sensitive hero by finding true love with the kind bookworm who is secretly a fox; if you have sex, you die. Simple. You’ve reached your climax (in more ways than one) and the movie no longer has use for you except an entertainingly gory death. This also goes for any easy girl who gets drunk and flashes her chest too early in the film. Sorry honey, if you’re even a little bit slutty, you die too.
Halloween 2010 tip: By all means let your romantic sub-plot run its course, just refrain from “going all the way” or popping that shirt off too quick. If you can, keep your nudity to a classy shower shot from the back (this much you can get away with.) This is another good tip to keep in mind for those group camping trips or weekends at dad’s cabin.

4. DO carry a weapon, but don’t waste your ammo on a rustle in the bushes nearby.

This is my biggest pet hate in any movie, let alone a horror when ammo is your most important commodity. Your body can go without food for over a week, without water for days, but if that escaped mental patient is coming at you with a machete, or a pack of zombies have you cornered, what the hell are you going to do if you’ve just emptied your clip on a rabbit that startled you when it jumped out of a nearby bush? Granted, most of the time characters just get over-confident once they finally get their hands on a gun and, when finding themselves staring at their enemy, just let fly in a rush of relief to finally kill the bastard and have the whole ordeal over. But we all know where that gets you: a few lucky body shots and he drops, and you run away for help without confirming the kill.
Halloween 2010 tip: If you’re lucky enough to come across a gun, aim for the head, and ALWAYS confirm the kill. Don’t be soft and try and spare his life just so he can get locked up again. You just know he’s going to escape in the sequel.

5. DO be prepared to kill a loved one if they fall behind/get infected/turn into a zombie.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m always the one shouting “No! You might find a cure!” (I learnt my lesson well from Steven King’s The Mist) but the hard truth is if there is a cure, it will always come too late. More importantly though, if you wait for it anyway, your loved one will slow you down and put you in a compromising position, or they’ll eventually turn into a zombie and eat the brains right out of your skull. Consider the brave hero (he’s easy to pick out because he’s the one making creative weapons from random objects on the ground.) He’s sensitive enough to pause, but realises what will happen if he doesn’t bite the bullet and shoot Mum in the head. Harsh, yes, but the simple fact of the matter is the brave hero always survives.
Halloween 2010 tip: Always shoot Mum in the head. She’s dead anyway.