Friday, 14 February 2014

Barton Fink (1991)

Tom:
Barton Fink, 1991, USA
Director: Joel Coen
Stars: John Tuturro, John Goodman & Judy Davis
Academy Award Nominations (1992): Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lipnick), Best Art-Directon-Set Decoration (Dennis Gassner & Nancy Haigh), Best Costume Design (Richard Hornung)

*Contains spoilers for 'Barton Fink' please do not read if you haven't seen the film*

Between Heaven and Hell, There is always Hollywood

This is a review I have been meaning to do for a while now. After writing up my analysis for 'No Country for Old Men' I realized I still had my notes from a recent revisit of 'Barton Fink' so I decided to write up an analysis in the same style as the aforementioned 'No Country for Old Men' review, so here it goes.

Does Barton really care about the common man?

Early on the film, Barton makes it abundantly clear that he writes for the common man. ''Strange as it may seem'' Barton tells Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) his friendly next door neighbor ''I guess I write about people like you. The average working stiff, the common man.'' Barton continues ''There's a few people in New York...who feel we have an opportunity now to forge something real out of everyday experience. Create a theater for the masses based on a few simple truths, not on shopworn abstractions about drama that don't hold true today, if they ever did.'' Barton notices a blank look on Charlie's face and states ''I guess that doesn't mean much to you'' a strange little comment from a man who is describing a form of theater that would be targeted at a person like Charlie, who then claims ''Hell Yeah, I could tell you some stories'' before Barton interrupts with ''and that's the point. That we all have stories'' this exchange leads you to believe that Barton is the complete opposite of what he wants to be. Any good writer should relish the chance to hear first hand stories from subjects that are attempting to bring to life via a play. The conversation continues with Barton claiming that theater about the common man should viewed on the same level as plays focused on the upper class, before Charlie states again ''and I could tell you some stories'' as Barton cuts him off again ''sure you could, and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live and trade and from where they fight and love and converse...'' a comment that is dripping with irony as Barton then proceeds to examine the common man in an analytical and condescending manner, almost like they're a different species. Through Barton, it seems like Coen brothers ares taking a stab at writers who try to write about something they have no grasp on.

Ain't Hollywood Hell?

Basically everyone who has ever seen 'Barton Fink' can agree that the Hotel Earle and Hollywood in general symbolizes Hell. When Barton first arrives at the Hotel, he rings the bell to summon the helpful desk clerk, Chet (Steve Buscemi) who makes his arrival from the basement, an early and small tidbit of symbolism. For the duration of the film the Coen's, both in subtle and not subtle ways, bombard us with hell imagery and symbolism, leading us to believe that Charlie may be the devil and his room is the gates of hell, and then almost giving us conformation with the fiery climax. This feels like the Coens are humorously satirizing the Hollywood creative process by linking it to a world of fire and brimstone.

Are the Coens alluding to the Holocaust?

I've always likened 'Barton Fink' to Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', another film centered on a writer in a hotel and also one may have allusions to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. There is plenty of evidence throughout 'Barton Fink' to suggest a focus on Hitler's reign of terror. Firstly, the Hotel Earle offers complementary shoe shines, so in the hallway where Barton's room is, all the patrons have their shoes lined up outside their doors. Apart from Barton and Charlie, we don't know these people or ever see them, so they're basically identified by their shoes, which I took as a reference to the images from the Holocaust where thousands of shoes are piled on top of one another, we don't know who the shoes belong too but we know there is a story behind them. I also have a feeling that Charlie may be an ex-Nazi, which could explain his crying toward the beginning of the film due to guilt for his crimes in WWII. I think this could also explain the dripping wallpaper, which is said to symbolize Charlie's infected ear. I noticed that when the wallpaper is peeling away, it leaves a red wall (representing the blood of the Jewish people murdered?) which Barton proceeds to cover up, although I may be way off there. Another glaring Holocaust reference comes in the form of two detectives, who come to the Earle to question Barton about Charlie and inform that Charlie Meadows is actually Karl ''Madman'' Mundt, a serial killer. During the questioning, the officers Deutsch (which is German for...German) and Mastrionotti are very hostile toward Barton, especially when they find out he is Jewish ''Fink? That's a Jewish name, isn't it?'' ''I didn't think this dump was restricted'. Then there is the film's climax, where Mundt guns down the policemen in the fiery hallway, and just before finishing off the second cop, he delivers the line ''Heil Hitler''

Slavery

The Coens also seem to be referring to Hollywood as a form of creative slavery. Showing that, through Barton, when writers are hired by production companies they lose any sense of personal input and they're simply writing for the company, like slave. Barton was a promising playwright in New York, but as soon as he is hired by Capitol Pictures to write a wrestling picture, he struggles and can't get going. When Barton finally produces a script he is proud of, ''with all due respect sir, I think it's the best work I've done'' The studio head, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) berates him and tells him it ''won't wash''. ''This is a wrestling picture. The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling and plenty of it. They don't want a guy wrestling with his soul - well alright, a little bit for the critics'' proclaims Lipnick, verbally ripping apart Barton's attempt to make something unique and meaningful. Lipnick continues ''He tried to convince me to fire you too but that'd be too easy. You're under contract. Anything you write belongs to Capitol Pictures, and Capitol Pictures isn't going to produce anything you write.'' ''You think you're the only writer that can give me that Barton Fink feeling? I got 20 writers under contract I can ask for a Fink-type thing from.'' this just gives an assembly line type thing, the studio just has dozens of writers at their whim and mercy. It should also be noted that the name of the film that W.P Mayhew is working on is called ''Slaveship'', as seen on his bungalow door.

What's in the box?

I'm still of the opinion that it is Audrey's (Judy Davis) head in the box. I've heard claim that it could be Barton's creativity in the box, seeing that he's writer's block is gone soon after Charlie gives him the box, which is a very interesting theory, but I still believe it is Audrey (or one of Charlie's other victims) head in the box.

Hotel Earle = Hotel California?

Okay, this one can be seen as a little ridiculous but I still love it. I once read someone claim that the Hotel Earle was actually Hotel California from the famous Eagles song of the same name. The song in question focuses on a ousider who ends up at a hotel in California, while it is nice at first it soon turns into a nightmarish place from which he can never leave, I guess you could say he's a RES. I know it's a little far fetched but I still think of 'Barton Fink' every time I hear the song. It can be noted that The Dude has a thing against The Eagles in 'The Big Lebowski' and when John Tuturro's character, Jesus, first appears in that film, a rendition of 'Hotel California' is actually playing.
"We are all just prisoners here of our own device"

These are only a few discussion topics from a film filled with them, the others I may try to analyze on a rewatch. The Coen's film are just so dense when it comes to thematics, It's a joy to try and analyze them. 'Barton Fink' is a truly wonderful film and my third favorite of the Coen's filmography.

*****

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Tom:
No Country for Old Men, 2007, USA
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem & Josh Brolin


''Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.''

NOTE: I have never read Cormac McCarthy novel, so the following review refers only to the 'No Country for Old Men' universe the Coen's have created

*The following write-up contains spoilers for 'No Country for Old Men'*

A few nights back, I rewatched 'No Country for Old Men' for the first time in a couple of years. The film was still as brilliant as ever and for the last few days it has consumed my thoughts, I knew I had to watch it again as soon as I could. This viewing I was really trying to take note and pick up on things that I may have missed on previous viewings. This is my rough analysis/review of 'No Country for Old Men' (emphasis on rough because this could be all over the place)

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the central character

Even those who like 'No Country for Old Men' are willing to criticize the film's ending, I think this discontent is misplaced though. I am firmly of the belief that, despite the majority of the focus being placed on Moss and Chigurh, It is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is the film's central character (after all it is called 'No Country for Old Men', right?), thus making the ending a fitting way of closing the story, Bell says the first and the last words of the film. Bell is the films driving force becasue he is used as a vehicle for the film's central theme, the decline of civilization. Bell is a lawman who is very clearly tired and not able to keep up with current crop of criminals. As he states in his opening narration '' I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand.'' enter Anton Chigurh a psychotic who truly scares and baffles Bell. As we see Bell and his deputy follow Chigurh's trail in the early parts of the film, we see the sheriff is clearly one step behind Chigurh at all times and the lacks the killer's edge that it takes to catch such a criminal. For a remainder of the film, the Sheriff is usually sitting behind his desk or at a table in the local coffee place and whenever he is offered the chance to investigate further into the crime by visiting the scenes, he declines and finds a way to skip it.  In the end, we see that Bell wasn't able to prevent the demise of Llewelyn Moss. After which we see Bell visit his Uncle Ellis were he finally admits that he feels ''outmatched''. It feels only fitting that the film ends with Bell and his dream. The character actually reminds me a lot of Marge Gunderson from 'Fargo' a dedicated cop who is just at a loss at what society has become.

Llewelyn Moss vs. Anton Chigurh 

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, after Anton murders the police officer and leaves the station, he uses a stolen police car to pull over a innocent citizen. He gets the confused man to step out of the car and tells him to ''Hold still'' as he uses his captive bolt pistol (cattle gun) to shoot a whole through the man's skull. The film then cuts to the cross heirs of Llewelyn Moss' rifle, in which we see he has a deer targeted, Moss then echoes Chigurh's phrase ''hold still'' as he fires off a shot at the unsuspecting deer. With that, we are introduced to the cat and the mouse of our story, one hunting deer, the other hunting people, It's an age old story of good versus evil. Moss (Josh Brolin) is the unconventional hero of this situation, he really isn't all that heroic but  we see that he has a conscience (which makes him one up on Chigurh in the hero department), the good guy on the run from evil. Chigurh (portrayed faultlessly by Javier Bardem) is one of the most convincing and frightening psychopaths cinema has ever seen, he's mere presence make us rout for Moss to overcome him, While the characters are seemingly on different sides of the spectrum, it can be noted that they aren't all that different (i.e the hunting scenes) there is a strong sense of duality between the two aswell as contrast. It seems like the Coen's are making a statement about how the line between hero and villain is becoming blurred.

Who or What is Anton Chigurh?

There is strong speculation as to what Chigurh is, is he the grim reaper or a ghost? I believe that claims can be made for both, but to me it just seems like he is a psychopathic killer that the world around him isn't ready for. His presence strongly compliments the theme of the decline of civilization, he is a killer who is so emotionally dis-attached and calculating, he is articulate and almost mechanical in his actions and execution. Throw in the fact that he's motives are unknown and you have an antagonist that won't soon forget.

The decline of civilization

This is, to me, the main theme of the film. There is so much evidence of this throughout. Even small moments like the gas station attendant where he attempts to make some small talk with Chigurh, only for Anton to reply with ''what business is it of yours?''. 'No Country for Old Men' is definitely a tale of the old world meeting the new one.

Fate

There is an incredibly strong sense of fate in the film, characters playing with their destinies and fate closing in. This is evident in an early scene where Moss spots some blood on the ground and sees an injured dog in the distance, this can be read as a foreshadowing to the pain he is about to be put through. Also the scene at the gas station where Chirguh talks about how the attendant who life has been leading up to this moment, and how the coin has been travelling for 22 years just for this moment.

Did Chigurh kill Carla Jean?

Absolutely! Throughout the film there are several instances of Chigurh going out of his way to avoid messing up his footwear, so the fact that he checks his boots after leaving Carla Jean's mother's house, presumably for blood, is a dead giveaway to the fact that he murdered her.

Was Chigurh in the hotel room? 

This is one of the most interesting and loading questions of the entire film. When we see Sheriff Ed Tom Bell return to the scene of Moss' death, we see that the doorknob has been blown out, by Chigurh's cattle gun, Bell sees a little bit of movement in the reflection of the golden doorknob and we get a shot of what Chirgurh standing behind the door (seemingly) and when Bell opens the door to investigate, there is nothing there. We see that a vent has been unscrewed and a coin is left on the floor (a trademark of Chirgurh), a very mysterious scene, was Chirgurh actually a ghost or a figment of Bell's imagination?

Ok, so this review kind of turned out like an IMDb FAQ page, but this film is so dense in symbolism and themes that it is so hard not get caught up in theories and interpretations.

Oh and the film is an absolute modern masterpiece. The Coen's are two of the very best minds in the history of cinema.

*****

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Dark Knight (2008)

Tom:
The Dark Knight, 2008, USA
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Hetah Ledger & Aaron Eckhart

‘’Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.’’

‘The Dark Knight’ is a portrait of a city that has been pushed to the point of destruction by one man and his strive for nothing more than all out chaos. That man is The Joker, a villain that is a stable of pop culture and an icon of comic book lore, maybe even as much as his arch nemesis, that was before the release of Nolan’s 2008 film though, after which he became something entirely different. Heath Ledger’s tragic death several months before the release created a sense of anticipation that doesn't come around very often, everyone and their dog was excited to see that ‘’Batman movie with Heath Ledger” and I still remember vividly the unanimous praise the film and Ledger’s performance received.

I myself was a big fan of this film at the time and after 6 years and several hundred rewatches I’m still a fan of ‘The Dark Knight.’ This is the kind of film whose power you expect to deteriorate after the buzz and hype has died down, and I’ve heard that is the case for some. For me though, the film is still the amazing spectacle I remembered. Sure, like any other larger than life comic book superhero film, ‘The Dark Knight’ has its fair share of scripting problems, plot choices can be a little confusing, character motivations don’t always make sense and a few scenes here and there become a little convoluted. This is all forgiven though when the films hits its strides and gives us scenes and moments that are head and shoulders above any other action film in the last 10 years. Although it feels weird to say, I’m not the biggest action fan. I will take character and story over action filled set pieces every day of the week and twice on Sunday, which is why all out action blockbusters are not my cup of tea, I find Christopher Nolan to be a filmmaker who finds that right blend of character focus and enthralling action in a mixture that greatly satisfies me (I fucking hate ‘Inception’ though) There isn't an action scene in ‘The Dark Knight’ that I don’t find riveting or immersive. From the brilliant opening where The Joker orchestrates a heist of a mob bank to the final confrontation between Bats and Mister J. The action sequences are both fun and edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

Nolan creates a remarkable atmosphere that drips chaos and danger, a testament to the power of the films antagonist. As good as this film is technically, it wouldn't be anything if not for Heath Ledger and his performance. The story of ‘villain takes over city and only the hero can stop him’ has been done many a time and is as predictable as anything, but the power of Ledger’s character makes you believe that The Joker has the upper hand and it is Batman who is the underdog. This is a remarkable aspect to the film and makes it all the more memorable.

In one of the most unsung and overlooked performances of recent times, Aaron Eckhart portrays Harvey Dent. I really enjoy Dent’s character ark, I love that he is Gotham’s last great hope and ‘’White Knight’’ and the hero that doesn't require a mask. I also like that the prescience of the character opens up a moral conflict for Bruce Wayne and becomes an example of the Joker’s power and destruction. Eckhart excels as Dent, selling the dissension of a confident powerful heroic character to a heart broken sadistic one. This performance would get a lot more praise if it wasn't in a film that featured Heath Ledger acting up a storm.

A bulk of the cast from ‘Batman Begins’ returns, I say a bulk because Katie Holmes has been mercifully replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is as  good as usual. Christian Bale returns as the Caped Crusader, while doesn't have same chance to show off his dramatic chops like he did in ‘Begins’ he still does a fine job as both Wayne and the Batman.

I would definitely say that Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ is my favorite action film of the 21st century, not to mention my favorite comic book film of all time. The film is still an exhilarating experience, which boasts an excellent lecture by Mr Ledger in ‘How to lose yourself in a character 101’

*****