Sunday, August 31, 2008

Considering the Court System

By Jason Pyles

After watching a movie like this, it’s nearly impossible to resist the temptation to discuss its target, which in this case, is the American justice system. Indeed, the object of movies like this is to antagonize us into some heated debate with one another or ourselves. We are supposed to be emotionally stirred, as well as entertained.

In this way, “And Justice for All” works, though it’s not without its problems. I liked its “day in the life” approach to showing us defense attorney Arthur Kirkland’s challenges. It’s great when a movie can enable us to step outside our lives and see what another person’s problems are.

But because it’s a movie, with limited time to tell its stories, the cases we see are covered with relative brevity and most of them are fantastical. I know it’s not impossibility, but come on, a judge who’s a rapist — and he happens to be our hero’s arch enemy. Movies “swing for the fence” to ensure that we’re sufficiently entertained, but for me this often detracts from my willingness to become emotionally involved because it’s so unlikely. Also, the insufficient coverage of each of his defendants made it more difficult for us to really become emotionally invested in each person’s plight. Consider how much more perverse it all would have seemed had we gotten to know the rape victim better.

I think what is a little unusual about this film is its peculiar tangents, such as the wacky helicopter ride, and Jeffrey Tambor’s plate-chucking extravaganza, and the suicidal judge in general. Now, before anyone writes me, I realize that these two characters’ mental break-downs were supposed to depict the madness that comes from being submerged in such a flawed system. I get it, but it is still a weird depiction.

At times, this movie is unmistakably trying to be funny, which I thought was bizarre. Perhaps the following comment isn’t too unusual, but I’m always surprised when a serious “message movie” like this takes the time to be goofy.

Let me tell you a story that’s not directly related to this movie:

I am a reporter for my local newspaper, and I cover the criminal courts. Recently I covered a high-profile murder case where two young men got in a fight over a woman and one was shot. It was a remarkably ambiguous case with no smoking gun, and to prove that assertion concisely, I heard more than one lawyer say it was the hardest case they’d ever worked on.

After sitting in on the proceedings, taking careful notes, I concluded that the kid was innocent. It was an unfortunate situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I think it was ultimately an accident or self defense. I personally believe the kid who got shot was the aggressor and the one who brought the gun (which by the way, was never found). But in the end, the jury found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a potential sentence of three to 15 years in prison.

When the defendant heard the verdict, his reaction was one I’ll never forget: He was visibly shocked, and it is my opinion that his horrified weeping and utter astonishment was that of an innocent man.

During the trial, it was more or less established that he was a pretty good kid, insomuch that the judge let him go home with his family on probation to await his sentencing. (How often have you heard of someone convicted of murder permitted to stay at home with his family for two months?) I’ll also be covering his sentencing which is set for September.

Anyway, I was appalled, during the trial, to notice members of the jury sleeping in the courtroom during the defense attorney’s remarks. I believe they had already made up their minds or simply didn’t care too much about this young man’s life that was hanging in the balance.

This experience was enough to convince me, as this movie suggested, that our legal system isn’t perfect (which is reason enough to seriously reconsider the death penalty). But as the movie depicted with Pacino’s character, there are still good people who try their best to get it right, like Andy Howell, for instance.

All that being said, though I’m not completely at peace with the way things work in the American legal system, I haven’t been able to come up with a better idea yet, and I believe we typically try our best to give people a fair trial, so I guess it will have to do for now.

See? The movie worked. It got me ranting. Good selection, Karl.

Note: We've got one more week for this movie, then we'll be doing Barrett Hilton's recommendation, which is "Badlands," starting Sunday. And next week, I think we'll probably go back to weekly movies, instead of biweekly.

Friday, August 29, 2008

And Justice for All - When I discovered Actors

I suggested this movie for several reasons that I will bore you with shortly. But this classically late 70's (even though it came out in 1980) gritty drama is near and dear to heart for many reasons.

And now I shall bore thee!

This was the first movie I ever went to in the theater by myself! I was 16 years old (pushing 17) and already being a staunch idealist and an American loving Irish immigrant (I'd been in America 6 years at this point) - I was hoping for a Jimmy Stewart ala Mr. Smith Goes To Washington experience even though I hadn't seen that movie yet and didn't know it existed until I took a film class in college. But my favorite characters and historical heroes have always been those whose stand up for what is right even if they have to stand alone. So from that perspective Al did not disappoint.

This was also the first movie I had ever seen where I learned and realized that an actor alone - can carry a story and in fact make the story. Most of you who've watched this flick for the first time now - will probably not be able to see the "big deal" of what I'm describing because you had to see in the theater with an audience.

The final courtroom scene is now famous and because of the many great performances that have graced the screen since this film by other equally great actors - it may seem quaint at this point in time. But Al's monologue when he finally gets up to deliver his opening statement had me on the edge of my seat. Because up until that point - you truly don't know what he's going to do. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.

He literally has you hanging by a thread until you see him getting a little emotional and his voice gets a little quieter - he leans into the jury just slightly, and with his eyes watering a bit and an ever so slight quiver in his voice - he delivers that magical line that only Al could - "Because - she's not lyin'!"

At that moment the entire audience - including me - gasped audibly and your gut instinct about him is confirmed; and then, again as only Al could, he finishes what is arguably one of the most famous and rousing monologues in movie history. When he is being dragged out of the courtroom the entire theater was on its feet cheering. And for a few hours afterward you absolutely love and have faith in the American justice system.

I've seen it a dozens times at least and I still get choked up watching it - because (as Andy pointed out) you realize that he gave up his career to do the right thing. I actually delivered that monologue once myself for an acting class in college and it was very easy to feel that emotion.

I'm sure most of you are thinking - "Uh ...what movie did he see?". As I mentioned, by today's standard, it seems a little dated . And I remembering asking a friend of my step-father's at the time who was a recent law school graduate what he thought of the movie; he responded that while it was fairly accurate, he said the odds of a single lawyer going through all that with the different clients would be almost impossible.

Another thing I learned watching this was how great actors can really draw you in. The scene where Author's partner and friend pull him into the bathroom to tell him why Flemming has been arrested - you find yourself laughing as hard as they are not because what they are saying is that funny but because the sincerity of their laughter is completely contagious.

Oddly enough one of the few critics that really liked this movie when it came out was Roger Ebert. A lot of critics thought it was over the top. And they may be right - but for a 16 year old boy in love with truth, justice and the American way - it was bang -on!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

And Justice for All, or why I hate attorney movies, by Andy

FYI to the group - I'm very hesitant to give up my hotmail email address in favor of a less-easy-to-remember gmail address, so my posts all go on as Jason's posts. Hopefully he's not too embarrassed by me.....

I hate lawyer movies, but it's not just because they don't get it right. Here's my background: I am an attorney. I am a career public defender. I love it, I have no apologies, and I don't want to do anything else. I do get weary from answering "how do you defend someone you know to be guilty," but I smile and give an answer that I hope will reeducate the inquisitor of our fundamental system of government and justice (that he or she should have learned in 8th grade US History). Yes, I'm a little bit of an elitist when it comes to the subject, and if you ask me, I'll tell you that Jesus was the ultimate public defender.

So here's my problem with lawyer movies: the movies either seem to glorify the defense attorney who fights through the stigma of defending someone he/she knows to be innocent but whom the general public believes to be the worst of all criminals; or, the movies vilify the attorney who practices unethically and gets or attempts to get his client acquitted of criminal charges to which the client is unquestionably guilty. The movies never seem to address the attorney who fights hard, but ethically, for a client who may be guilty but where the evidence is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm not sure that it would make a good Hollywood story, but I've got several clients/cases with varying outcomes that would accurately depict the one impossibility in our system of justice: determining the truth. In most case that actually go to trial, the truth is impossible to know. As a defense attorney, it is my responsibility and duty to bring to light any and all facts that might present a defense to a charge, or that might cast doubt on the guilt of my client.

Oh that's right....I was writing about a movie. "And Justice for All" really tries to show the many facets of a law practice. He has an innocent client for whom he is desperately trying to exonerate. He's got a client who has participated in a crime, but for whom a level of culpability was not certain (the tranny). And then he's got the unrealistic high-profile bad man who wants him to cheat and be unethical. The latter, in my experience, doesn't generally exist. I and my fellow defense attorneys do not and would not fabricate evidence or allow its introduction, nor would we knowingly allow our client to perpetrate a fraud on the court. We just wouldn't do it. As much as we believe in the constitution and in protecting people charged with crimes, we believe in law and order. I like cops and prosecutors, and as a citizen, I want them to do a great job and properly prosecute those charged with crimes.

So what really bugs me about this movie is that the story ends with Pacino deciding between continuing with his career (and in so doing cheating through a rape trial) or divulging that his client is guilty and the scum of the earth (and in so doing violating his client's confidentiality and causing his disbarment from the legal profession). It's ridiculous. It never has to be that way, but I grow weary of attorney movies that suppose the dilemma. By the way, the resolve in "The Firm" is a perfect example of how it should work (though I am not ready to comment further on that film).

I also didn't care for the arc of the friend who loses it when a guy he gets off of a murder charge "because of a technicality (or as I like to call it the "constitution")" turns around and kills a couple of kids. Preposterous, but without the underlying facts it's too difficult to make an appropriate comment.

Beyond those small little complaints that nobody else will care about, the movie was fascinating. I loved the many arcs that the movie carried, and I thought Pacino was masterful. The movie was delightfully uncomplicated despite its many twists and turns.

Nice pick Karl. Great movie- especially if you are almost legally insane and feel the urge to chuck plates down a corridor at various government officials.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sunrise, finally?

With the exception of Jason and Karl, I've never met the contributing members of the discussion group. I'm not a film critic, student, or even a well-read ("seen" as it were) cinema goer. Frankly, I only picked "Sunset" because I saw it recently (in my pursuit to watch the AFI 100) and I wanted to appear somewhat sophisticated. How did I do?

I've been busy, but my delay in writing a comment about "Sunrise" was mostly due to failing to come up with something interesting to say. Obviously it's a brilliant film. I thought it was daring of the film team to write a story about a man wishing to kill his wife and get away with the murder so he could live with his paramour. It all seemed too 21st century to me, and my wife. Who hasn't thought about murdering their spouse for the insurance money? I mean, it would be so easy, right? Yeah, the cops always suspect the spouse, but if you just planned well enough...and got a little lucky....and were patient and appropriately bereaved...

The brilliance, for me, of "Sunrise," was that I started watching the film believing the wife would be killed and the story would be about whether husband got away with the crime, and I was pleasantly surprised the story went in the opposite direction. In its silent glory, the cast was able to convey a sense of innocent beauty on the initially unsuspecting wife, who, although sensed there was difficulty in her marriage, loved her husband and was almost immediately willing to forgive and trust her husband. I'm not sure that kind of relationship exists today, but it was heart warming, if not dangerously ridiculous.

So there you have it. My brilliant comment. I do enjoy silent films, and although I concede a silent film would never make it with today's viewership, I do think several silent films are among the best films I will ever see (if you have any doubt, watch some Charlie Chaplin and/or "The General").

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Perhaps Travis Was Right ...

Well, maybe Travis and Andrew had a point: Maybe we should try a two-week rotation for each movie, as opposed to just one week. We hardly had any comments on "Dancer in the Dark," and it's quite discussion-worthy. And this last week, I was the only one who commented on "Sunrise." In fact, even those two films' "recommenders" didn't have a chance to comment yet.

Besides, I didn't read where anyone else wanted to keep it on a weekly rotation. So, I'll humble my over-zealous self and see if an extra week helps. Maybe no one had anything to say about the last two films, but I doubt that.

And I know what you mean: I'm pretty busy, too, working two jobs, a kid, lawn care, etc. It was even tough for me to watch and comment on "Sunrise" before today. So, whenever you get a chance, enjoy "Dancer in the Dark" and "Sunrise." The latter is available for your viewing pleasure two posts back.

Thanks again for your useful suggestions. You all are the best.

Friday, August 15, 2008

F.W. Murnau: A Pioneering, Germanic Coen Brother

by Jason Pyles

First, I’d like to welcome Casey Hicks and Josh Ligairi to our film discussions. I’m happy to have their contributions.

I really like F.W. Murnau. How could you not like him? This German director gave us cinematic gems like “Nosferatu” (1922), “The Last Laugh” (1924) and “Faust” (1926)—and, of course, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927). Supposedly, Murnau was extremely tall, somewhere around 6’9’’ (though many people say he was 7-feet tall), and a closet homosexual. Murnau was killed in a car wreck on his way to Paramount Studios in 1931 and did not get to see the premiere of his last film, “Tabu: A Story of the South Seas.”

I had to smile at the beginning of “Sunrise” when I read on the title card that this story is one we might hear “anywhere at any time.” Then, two title cards later, we’re informed that this takes place during “summertime … vacation time.” It struck me funny that the point was made that this story was universally applicable in its time and setting, then Katherine Hilliker and H.H. Caldwell, who created the titles, proceed to establish the specifics of when it took place. Not a big deal, just peculiar.

Though “Sunrise” is a silent film, there are scenes where sound creeps in, particularly in segment 5 of these YouTube excerpts, where Anses and Indre are scolded with screaming and honking for disrupting traffic. I don’t know much about these insertions of sound to comment intelligently on them, but I can say this: “Sunrise” was made at the height of the silent filmmakers’ powers, just as sound film was clumsily taking the stage. Right around this time period, films like “The Jazz Singer” (1927) were intriguing audiences by implementing scenes demonstrating sound. But I cannot say whether the sound portions of “Sunrise” were inserted when this film was made or later. Does anyone else know?

“Sunrise” is remarkable for a number of reasons: It has flashbacks, like the one of the good old days, when two newlyweds were blissfully in love, when the husband paused with the oxen to shake the baby. It has scenes that depict the characters envisioning or imagining something, like the pre-meditation of pushing Indre out of the boat to “drowned” her. There are a few superimposed scenes, as well as what appears to be a zoomed-in close-up of the villainous bulrushes. (Was that shoot really zoomed? Surely not.) And the bulrushes, by the way, end up being the object of a set-up and pay-off, where the filmmakers have us take note of something earlier in the film that later comes to have additional significance.

The dog in this movie might be the first great animal actor; the pig reaches a little, and overacts. I’m only kidding. I like the shots of Indre in the boat. The camera angle is high, shooting down on her, filling the remainder of the screen with water, giving us the impression that she is hopelessly surrounded by water. It seemed to me that while riding in the trolley car, especially the first time, the passing scenery was back-projected and not actually the goings-on filmed outside the streetcar, right? Could one of you filmmakers explain that famous scene where they wander through the traffic, lovingly looking into each other’s eyes as the cars whiz past them (not the first “Frogger” street-crossing, but the second one).

“Sunrise” is neat because we see the husband change his mind. He sees the aggressive dangers of the not-so-innocent city when contrasted with his sweet, timid, innocent wife. It is a nice touch when they attend the wedding and more or less decide to renew their wedding vows. As they depart the church in place of the real bride and groom, it is as if it’s their own wedding day again.

This films is also unusual in its tone. Much like “Fargo,” “Sunrise” has sobering moments, such as the husband’s deadly threat to his wife on the boat, then it turns to comedy and give us a drunken pig. As the couple rediscovers their love, “Sunrise” turns into a playful, joyous comedy. We have a ghost pig, sliding pig and even a musical dance number. “Sunrise” even gives us a wardrobe malfunction scene that is meant to be humorous. Later the film returns to a solemn tone with its fairly convincing stormy water and what seems to be the fatal loss of Indre.

Yes, with its shifting tones, humor, horror and oddities, I might go so far as to say that the Coen brothers could be considered somewhat “Murnau-esque.” In any case, “Sunrise” is a wonderful film from the semi-silent era and a great recommendation for our discussion on Considering the Cinema. Thanks, Andy. Nice pick.

P.S. I loved the roller coaster, too.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

View "Sunrise" (1927) Here

Thanks to a brilliant YouTuber who calls himself or herself "SilentFilmDemocracy" (and thanks to YouTube, of course), you can still watch this week's film selection, even if you're in a film history-less town like mine.

SilentFilmDemocracy, who gets all the glory for this, divided the film into nine parts. I've posted them all below. Enjoy. My post on this movie will come soon.











Friday, August 8, 2008

Just thinking out loud...

This is Travis/Grabloid. I just had a thought/suggestion. I wonder if we ought to move to doing a film every other week as opposed to every week. I personally feel like it takes until Thursday/Friday to watch the film and to really be ready to react to it and analyze it very deeply. We then spend several days discussing it and digesting it after that, and by that time it is time to watch another film. For instance, I just barely got out of "Fargo-mode" and just started being able to react to, and think about "Dancer in the Dark", and it is already Friday. It might take me a day to feel ready to post about it confidently, and then the discussion of the film will be shortened by the necessity to watch/think about the next film. Maybe I just work/think too slowly??? 

Alternatively, I would propose that we work on a two-week cycle. We could make it a goal to have the film watched early in the first week, and have posted about it by the end of the first week. The second week could be the week to discuss the films in-depth... I would personally prefer the experience of depth in discussion to quantity of experiences watching. This change might strike a good balance between analyzing deeply, and experiencing a variety of films. We would need to be careful about this, though, because we may be tempted to just procrastinate and put-off watching and posting, which would just defeat the whole purpose of giving us more time to discuss. Just something I've been thinking about...what does everybody else think?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Regarding Censorship and Next Week's Film

Hello Friends,

This is Jason Pyles, the man who couldn't be more pleased with the spirited participation of the intelligent people who contribute to this blog. This post will address the question of my censoring the profanity on the blog with asterisks, and I need to talk to you all about next week's film:

Addressing the latter first ...

Andy Howell selected F.W. Murnau's 1927 film titled "Sunrise" (aka "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans") for next week's screening. Nice.

When I had access to UVU's library, I used to be able to rent films from the pioneering days of the cinema, but now that I'm in Wheeling, W.Va., things are different.

Neither Netflix nor my local video stores have "Sunrise," so I'm not sure that I'll be able to screen it. Do any of you know of any Web sites that enable one to watch films like this online? If so, do tell.

Are any of you having trouble getting a copy of "Sunrise"? Let me know.


As for censoring the dialogue of this blog ...

I'm thankful you felt comfortable enough to ask about it.

My fervent goal was to have as few rules as possible on this blog. It is true that one of those very few rules was that we would avoid typing profanity, even though many of the films we'll be discussing are replete with profanity.

I can see where that wouldn't make sense.

Here are the reasons for my request:

1.) In July 2009, I'm "releasing" a movie review yearbook called "Considering the Cinema 2008." As part of the addenda-type back matter, I'm considering including some of the debates from this blog (crediting you, of course, with your permission), and I don't want profanity in my book.

2.) I am a newspaper man who is striving to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook. I like to incorporate AP Style in my writing about film because that's a necessary part of my film-writing career, so I'm learning how to do it now. In AP Style, "obscenities, profanities, vulgarities," if printed in a newspaper, are usually printed with hyphens (not asterisks) replacing the letters. I looked it up again for this post, and I was mistaken; I thought it was asterisks, and I should have used hyphens. See? Still learning. So, though I don't edit anything else you write (I wouldn't dream of it), I'd like to refer to the AP Stylebook when these issues arise.

3.) My third reason will probably upset some people, but it's the honest truth: Many LDS people don't watch R-rated films. I'm LDS and I do watch R-rated films. I never try to persuade an LDS person who chooses not to watch R-rated films to watch them. Indeed, much of the content of R-rated films (including profanity) is offensive to me. But alas, I am a movie critic. Nevertheless, I think many R-rated films have substantial merit, and I think it is regrettable that everyone cannot comfortably choose to enjoy any film. Therefore, in an attempt to discuss these great films with LDS people and other conservative film lovers, I hope this blog can be a way for those people to engage in those kinds of films. In short, I don't want to alienate those who avoid profanity. And those who wish to convey profanity are not alienated, either. They still can, but hopefully, they will through the AP Style method. And yes, anybody can plainly understand what is meant by a--hole, but the point is, my site doesn't actually have the word itself, and will not therefore come up on search engines. In other words, I don't want my blog to pop up anytime somebody Googles the "F-word."

4.) Lastly, and this could be debated till the cows come home (which, presumably, is pretty late), but I give it strictly as my opinion that there is a level of professionalism associated with those who can communicate effectively without such color metaphors (which is not to say that people who swear are not intelligent). But this group of contributors is remarkably scholarly, and quite capable of vigorous writing sans swearing. Yes, there are times when we'll need to quote from a film laced with profanity, which is fine, because the AP Style method allows us to sufficiently portray the quote.

5.) And I would note that I was never critical of any of you who have already posted or quoted profanity, I just quietly (though incorrectly) changed it with asterisks, preserving the original concept evidently, though not precisely. My censoring isn't meant, in any way, to be judgmental. Naturally.

I hope that answers your question. As always, feel free to comment and disagree.

Monday, August 4, 2008


So, here's my take on Fargo, at last. For those of you eager to read this, sorry for the delay. Despite my previous facetious post, Fargo is actually one of my favorite films of all time. I love the characters and the dialog and the moral simplicity and the beautiful photography by Roger Deacons, but I also feel that this is a film with many layers and only multiple viewings could ever do it justice.

In his post, Travis mentions the term, "Minnesota nice" and gives some examples of local vernacular. I'd like to take this a step further by saying that the upper mid-western culture represented in Fargo is actually a main character in the film - weird, quirky, and nice. Bloody nice.

The "niceness" of the culture is passive-aggressive, setting the tone for every single action taken by every single character. "Minnesota nice" represents the status quo and the criminals represent the underbelly of "polite" cultures. Often times, overly polite cultures tend to be more oppressive, more intolerant, and more violent. Fargo is not only a great morality play, but a commentary on cultures and societies that alienate large portions of their citizenry through arbitrary customs like being overly polite. Jerry and his accomplices are citizens on the fringe of that culture, unable to connect; alienated by smiling faces and winterly landscapes.

What's scary about Fargo is that Jerry is such a schmuck. Yet, he's an every-man, and we identify with his predicament. He's caught in a system created by his locality (including his family and his inability to stand up for himself) and he feels trapped. People do really stupid things when they feel trapped. In this way, the real villain of Fargo, is the culture of upper mid-western America. Ignorance breeds sin and Jerry illustrates this very clearly. He's been insulated by his culture and is totally unfamiliar with real crime, even ignorant of his actions. Jerry commits his crimes without a clear sense of reality and because he lives in a "polite" culture, Jerry is virtually unfamiliar with criminality.

As Jerry's plan keeps getting fouled up by "nice" people, you begin to sense the doom that awaits him. This sense of dread is also a product of "Minnesota nice." There is something quite eerie about people who smile and act polite all the time in such a dreary environment. Their behavior has a "big brother" feel. As a result, the only characters in Fargo that feel real to audiences unfamiliar with the culture of upper mid-western America are the criminals. Audiences feel alienated by the politeness of the culture and laugh uncomfortably when Jerry and the two criminals don't play along.

I guess every town in America has its criminals. What's interesting is that the criminal behavior in Fargo actually says more about "Minnesota nice" than all of the smiles and accents. Fargo brilliantly uses criminal behavior as a kind of cultural analysis. The Cohens appear to be saying that "Minnesota nice" is actually kind of bloody. In this sense, I guess one could argue that the violence represents tensions in the culture that have been masked by the niceness.

I could say more, but I'm getting tired.

Bjork Thrives Best Hermit Style

by Jason Pyles

“I used to dream I was in a musical, ‘cause nothing dreadful ever happens … ”

This ironic line of dialogue from “Dancer in the Dark” should be enough reason for none of our Considering the Cinema members to pass on watching this film. Our weekly films aren’t mandatory, but this one should be.

Here Eleanor has selected what could be a poster child for unusual, discussion-worthy films. Bravo, El.

Filmed much like a documentary, “Dancer in the Dark” has a convincing appearance of verisimilitude; in other words, as we watch, it is easy to believe that we are watching real people behave, not just actors acting (which is also a credit to the cast).

And yet, the first musical number (of the seven total, full-blown musical productions) doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film. Neat.

But what is remarkable about this musical is its seeming realism. Most chirpy musicals have an unashamed artificiality to them. In this way, when the characters in these typical productions burst forth into song, we can kind of just go with it.

When “Dancer in the Dark” (an atypical musical, to say the least) derails for its musical numbers, it’s a little startling. But what keeps the contrast from becoming a train wreck each time is the fact that the song-and-dance performances aren’t actually happening in the film, they are only a part of Selma Jezkova’s (Bjork) coping-mechanism, escapist’s dream world.

And as a musician, I offer my useless opinion that the best song of the film is the second one, “I’ve Seen It All.” I particularly love the line, “You haven’t seen elephants, kings or Peru,” which was supposedly performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, not Peter Stormare (“Fargo.”)

Speaking of cast members, I also enjoyed seeing the great French actress, Catherine Deneuve, of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “Belle de Jour” (1967) fame. This may be reaching, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of her character, “Kathy,” and the name of the son, “Gene,” had anything to do with “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)? … Kathy Selden … Gene Kelly … another nod to musicals, perhaps?

Along with little tidbits like this, at times I couldn’t help but think I was seeing an homage to “Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory” (1895), as well as the brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896). I wouldn’t put it past Lars von Trier. (That last sentence could be preceded by almost anything.)

“Dancer in the Dark” had me thinking on loftier matters, too. It is sweetly sad how the selfless mother in this film (Selma) sets aside her dreams, her safety and ultimately her own life for her son’s well-being and happiness. I don’t claim to have gained any special wisdom from my son’s birth, but as a new father of six months, this character’s sacrifice struck a chord with me.

And, as a new father, I also noted and felt somewhat comforted that this selfless mother also allowed herself brief episodes of escape into her dreams — outside her noble, parental duties. Ah, justification.

There is also a lot to be said (perhaps not by me) about the correlations and symbolism between vision and blindness. This film reminded me of the scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) And I suppose one could insert “Justice is blind” in this movie somewhere, too.

Indeed, this film seems to be a blatant critique on the justice system — and the death penalty. Isn’t it fascinating (and frustrating) that everything said during Selma’s trial is the exact opposite of the truth? I am presently covering a murder trial for my newspaper, and I couldn’t help but think of this film today during the testimonials.

But what are we to make of that horrific, shocking murder scene? Somehow one of cinema’s gentlest caricatures of humanity is compelled to administer a grisly murder. I have to contest this and assert that Selma’s deed really pushed the credibility envelope. Despite her desperate mission to provide for her son’s surgery, I just can’t see this character doing such a thing. Can you?

On the other hand, I guess it’s neat that this blind character had such a clear, precise tunnel vision when it came to her primary objective. Here’s another believability question: Do we all believe that the son really did receive the surgery? Or were they lying to appease Selma? Tell me if I’ve missed something.

“Dancer in the Dark” is unsettling, to say the least, particularly the ending. But what else did we expect from a Bjork musical? Finally, she has images to match the brooding mood of her music.

“Dancer in the Dark” is somewhat of a paradoxical thing: a downbeat musical. Most musicals are syncopated, or upbeat … That was a little musician’s humor there. Very little.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Ahhh, Fargo. If only all movies were this good. I remember seeing this film for the first time on DVD about 6 years ago and I knew right then and there that it was a masterpiece.

Story: Check.
Editing: Check.
Acting: Check.
Directing: Check.
Cinematography: Check.
Masterpiece: Check.

But seriously, Fargo is just awesome. And man, I love awesome movies.

Friday, August 1, 2008

-FARGO- (by Travis/Grabloid)

The Coen brothers have mastered the art of illustrating their characters through environment, pace, speech, and tone rather than strictly through dramatic action. The environment that we are taken through in the beginning (and throughout the whole film) sets everything up so well. We are placed in a setting so desperate, so unusual (and at the same time completely real/believable), that the Coen’s are permitted to do almost anything with their characters and we will be convinced by it. The midwestern accent and attitude (sometimes known as ‘Minnesota nice’ [‘darn-tootin’, ‘you-betcha’, ‘ah-sher’, ‘alrighty now’, and on and on]) adds to this greatly.

We are also heavily convinced by the disclaimer at the beginning which tells us that all of the events are exactly true to fact, etc. But in fact, that events are not completely true. The events are very loosely based on some police reports, everything else is imagined and created by the Coen’s. This was brought to my attention by Torben, who also posts on this site (as Torben B), which I’m sure he’ll also mention in his post (hopefully I’m not stealing his thunder). I think he discovered it on some insight while watching the movie ( would’ve anybody known where/how Carl hid that money out in the snow by the barbed-wire fence...he hid it without telling anybody, and soon after was put into the wood-chipper). Torben’s questioning was validated by the extras he watched on the DVD. And as I look around online it appears to be was just a tactic by the Coen’s to get us to suspend our disbelief that much more. Some people may be bothered by this, feeling deceived or betrayed, but I don’t mind it at all. There has recently been a big uproar about this in the publishing world about things being "published appropriately/honestly". Like, for instance, the James Frey books that you all probably heard about. Things can’t be published as “memoirs” (or as being ‘true’/’factual’) if there is any doubt to their ‘factualness’ or ‘truth’ whatsoever. I personally think that any amount of remembering and recording personal/historical events requires a certain amount of imagination and invention on the part of our fallible memories. That is what makes art interesting...a degree of mystery/creation/imagination. There was an interesting article in Harper’s Magazine that was recently brought to my attention that applies to this discussion...I posted it over on my blog, if you’d like to read it just click the link. I highly recommend it, it is called “A Lie That Tells the Truth” by Joel Agee. The title comes from a quote by Picasso: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

The only reason I would object to this kind of method is if it were to harm somebody else, put somebody else in the way of harm, or to intentionally deceive or cover something up that was important. The film Hotel Rwanda for instance, omitted some imperative facts (or I should say got the facts wrong...or just straight lied about/covered up certain things) about the Rwandan genocide, which disturbs me very much. Particularly, how it portrayed the UN, and certain factual events concerning the UN's involvement. A story that horrific and important should be told as close to what really happened as possible, otherwise it shouldn't be masked as being factual, or relating to an actual incident. If you are interested in this stuff concerning Hotel Rwanda, to start, CLICK HERE. I could (and would love to) go on about this, but it’s a bit to tangential here. So, if you are interested in either of those conversations, we could go on about it in the comments.

Hotel Rwanda told lies that covered up the truth, harm done. In the case of Fargo, I would say "no harm, no foul". So, in light of Fargo's newly discovered (to me) not-so-true-to-fact nature, I don’t think it changes the power and amazing-ness of the film. In fact, I would only say that even more credit is then due to the Coen’s for constructing and creating such a well filmed, perfectly edited, tightly knit story. The Coen’s shoot scenes in an incredibly economic way. Almost every shot is set-up in such a way that a minimal amount of cutting and shifting around has to be done, while also giving the maximum amount of necessary information in each frame. The way that they are able to build suspense is beyond me. Fargo is very masterful and methodical suspense. The Coen's really perfected it in their newest film “No Country For Old Men”. In "No Country For Old Men", they take suspense to a whole new level, AND with no identifiable musical score or tension building sound! (Outside of the field sound they gather and the sound that is directly connected to what appears on screen.) The absence of music and sound effects in that movie actually ends up increasing the tension.

Something else that I wanted to talk about in response to some of the other posts is Fargo’s dark humor. I think the humor in Fargo is brilliant, not to mention ridiculously funny. The silly little moments of humor like...:

Carl: Shep said you'd be here at 7:30. What gives, man?
Jerry: Shep said 8:30.
Carl: We've been sitting here an hour. He's peed three times already.

...are countless, and are due to incredible writing. I have to also mention the hilarious exchange in the car where Carl endlessly threatens Grimsrud:

“I don't have to talk, either, man...........see how you like it...........just total f****n' silence................two can play at that game, smart guy................we'll just see how you like silence.” Hahaha!

But outside of this sort of easy going humor, Fargo has a lot of humor of a much more visceral type. The interesting dark humor, where we laugh in ugly and cruel situations is rather disturbing to some. I think that our response to laugh in these situations is rather complex. Laughing at it can be a way of distancing ourselves from the horror of what we are experiencing. If we can’t laugh, or if we repress laughter, then we have to really deal with the horror of what is on screen...and who wants to do that? It can just be the silliness of a strange juxtaposition (comic relief), for example: Jean looking stupid and blindly running around in the snow in the midst of her kidnapping by two heartless/murdering bastards. Of course, this is a very intentional tactic executed by the directors. In my mind this doesn’t suggest the “twisted-ness” of the directors, or the material itself. Rather, it is projected (quite literally) upon us as viewers and we are now in the “situation”. What is our response? Does our reaction to the material say more about us than it does about the material/makers of the material? I think so. We might be a little sick if we were laughing at Jean because we know her fate (Carl). We might only be silly if we are laughing at the way she’s running around, which seems absurd in the situation she is in (also, Carl?). If we don’t laugh at all, and we get scared, maybe we have some deep rooted fear of being victimized in a similar way. Or, if we don't laugh maybe we are deeply disturbed...Grimsrud isn’t laughing, and I think it is because he is inhuman, he’s a cruel, barbarous person who doesn't laugh at anything. (LATER ADDITION: or was Grimsrud really laughing? On my second thought I can't recall for certain....)

When you really think about it, most jokes we make are on account of somebody else’s misfortune or loss, what is that about?

I’d like to go on into the character development and so forth, but the other posts did a good job of that. I just want to quickly point out that almost every one of the major characters is sort of acting out of their stereotype in complex ways. Most interestingly (in my opinion), Jerry, the iconic car salesman who will do whatever he can to make the deal, and to make a buck...including using his wife as a hostage/decoy.

What a great film!

I'm looking looking forward to the Coen’s next film, "Burn After Reading"? I think it is coming out in September. (Click this link to see the trailer for it, which looks great). I would have to say my favorite Coen brothers film so far is "The Big Lebowski", what do the rest of you think?

Fargo - Coen Brothers at their finest

"Oh My! He's fleeing the interview!" It's brilliant lines like this - one after the other - that just make the characters as rich as they get in moviedom. Andy and I watched this together and were commenting all along the way... about it's brilliance.

I mentioned that you know the directing and acting are superb when for example the scene where Marge and her old high school friend are having lunch and you literally feel as awkward as they do!

I've often wondered if Joel Coen knew Francis McDormand would be perfect as Marge because he is married to her (and had been for 12 years prior to making this film) or if he had her try the role out to make sure :)

Every character is this film is so well cast, that by this point you cannot imagine anyone else playing them.

Not being a film critic myself (other than my own usual meandering insights) there is not much more to say about this movie other than it is one of the most engaging character studies I have ever seen. Not to mention a primer on how not to conduct a kidnapping!

I think my favorite point is how most outsiders would dismiss Marge as bumbling mom-to-be and yet her keen insights and gut instinct help her solve what could easily have been an unsolved mystery.

If only more movies were this perfectly written, directed and acted.