Fargo (1996)

Fargo

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”

When you watch a lot of Coen brothers movies, it’s easy to spot the patterns. “A regular person gets wrapped up in the world of crime” seems to be the starting point for just about every film, along some other classic Joel and Ethan tropes. These guys haven’t made a lot of bad movies, but some are easily better than others, and that’s dependent on a lot of factors. I think I love Fargo for a lot of the same reasons I love No Country for Old Men: the world-building, the quirky details, and the thematic drive that gives each movie its soul, something you rarely find in similar movies.

In the cold but courteous town of Fargo, North Dakota, Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) seeks a large sum of money for a lucrative real estate deal. He gets involved with a pair of criminals whom he hires to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd), hoping to profit off the ransom that her father will pay. When complications arise on the other end and his wife doesn’t return home safely, Lundergaard is investigated by the savvy Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who aims to get to the bottom of these unfortunate circumstances.

Fargo is clearly the Coens’ best atmosphere piece. Not just the local scope of the story and the entrancing regional dialects, but the cinematography conveys heaps of information about this region and the people who inhabit it without a line of dialogue necessary. This then leads to what I believe is the film’s biggest strength: the contrasts. This is a movie about a wholesome town, nearly pure white, that is tainted by intruders. The geographical differences seem to depict a moral struggle at the center of the movie, one that isn’t too heavy-handed but comes through powerfully nonetheless. It’s easy to forget how much this movie has to say until the very end when Frances McDormand emerges as a shining figure of morality, fending off evil and protecting her home.

On a moment-to-moment level, Fargo also yields more positive reactions for me than a lot of Coen films. The humor arises beautifully from each situation and not just from scripted jokes, and the movie strikes a fun balance between weighty and casual from scene to scene. The movie was also perfectly cast, with Steven Buscemi bringing a slimy, engaging performance opposite Peter Stormare. We get to spend a lot of time with the two criminals, and it helps round out the film’s cautionary tale, exhibiting once more that ambition should never come before humanity, a lesson that many characters end up learning the hard way.

This is a movie ripe with other star-making performances, and it’s great that so many of these actors got to work together again on future Coen projects. I think Frances McDormand is the most engaging performer in the film. She builds such a quirky, unique charm in her character such that you can’t take your eyes off her in any scene. William H. Macy is also given free reign in what is probably his most well-suited role: a character that desperately doesn’t want to be a loser anymore. It’s a specific niche, but he pulls it off better than any actor could (with Boogie Nights being another example).

This is a soothing but captivating film, one that you could turn on for nearly any mood. The Coens demonstrate near technical perfection, but they allow the film to be guided by heart instead of mind, making it one of their most memorable works. Endlessly rewatchable and packed with stunning scenes, Fargo is a really impressive movie that I would recommend as anyone’s introduction into the work of the Coens.


Films Left to Watch: 879

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Seconds (1966)

Seconds

“The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want. Things! Not people, or meaning, just things.”

I’m a big fan of The Twilight Zone, and I’ve always been drawn to concepts that imitate its style. It’s as if American cinema was forever changed in the 60s following the success of the series, and we finally started to see these strange, high concept movies that place the individual in an alternate state of existence. Most importantly, though, these stories always have something to say about the normal world, the one in which we live. Seconds is a film I really enjoyed because it plays out exactly in this style, though I think it’s far from perfect.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a successful but unfulfilled man with a struggling marriage and a bleak daily life. His situation is forever changed when he receives a phone call from a friend whom he thought was dead. Hamilton is informed of a mysterious organization that will provide him with a “fresh start” in life. What follows is a psychologically fascinating sci-fi fantasy with a strong commentary on personal fulfillment, perspective, and the people most important to us. This is one of those movies where the unraveling of the plot is a big portion of the payoff, so I won’t delve much deeper into the story.

Seconds is a slow film but one in which a lot of things happen. It resides in a chilling middle ground where the scenes take their time to play out while still spewing ample plot information. From the outset, this builds a creepy mood. Seconds is both a mystery and a social experiment, and this contrast can be uncomfortable at times. It’s not a relaxing film, and I think you have to be in the right mood to take it in, but it’s well worth your time just to view it technically. The film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, and there’s an unwavering direction from John Frankenheimer that makes me optimistic to view his more famous works.

While I enjoyed the film, I can’t say it’s completely successful in what it sets out to do. It has a lot of flair which I think can detract from the story. At its core, I think Seconds works best when it’s about a man trying to figure out how he should live his life. There are times when this theme is thrown to the wayside for something creepy or strange, and while it builds this effective mood that I’ve mentioned above, I think the story could have been given more attention. The protagonist’s brief fling with the woman from the beach stands out as one example of this. It’s definitely a surreal sequence between the two characters, but it can feel hollow and too “cinematic” when it should be more personal.

On the whole, Seconds is a really fun movie which plays out a formula that I’ll never tire of watching. It’s dark, brooding, and unapologetic in its commitment to the absurdities of life. I hope to see more films like it in the future, just maybe written a bit more carefully.


Films Left to Watch: 880

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The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line

“Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

Wrongful conviction has always been a fascinating topic for me. If you’ve got injustice in the system, even if it’s just reasonable doubt, I’m there. There seems to be a lot of public interest behind the topic as well, with series like Making a Murderer, The People vs. OJ Simpson, or the Serial podcast, it’s nice to see a widespread interest in the flaws of the criminal justice system, and it hopefully shapes the judicial system into a fairer institution moving into the future. If you want to trace this phenomenon back somewhere, The Thin Blue Line might be a good place to start.

Typically classified a documentary (though director Errol Morris resisted the label), the movie tells the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for a Texas cop killing. The film is primarily composed of interviews with Adams and other key figures surrounding the murder, with the film strongly implying Adam’s innocence due to unreliability of witnesses and other circumstantial evidence that never found its way into trial. The success of the film actually resulted in an overturning of Adam’s case and his release by Dallas County in 1989.

Structurally, The Thin Blue Line plays a lot like the shows I mentioned above. Revisiting the past can be tricky, and all you have in retrospect is interviews and documents. Fortunately, Morris demonstrates strong technical skill and keeps his audience interested with what he has. He uses these interviews to stage and film recreations of the actual murder according to different witness accounts, a technique that true life crime shows have adopted over the last few decades as well. While there is a clear bias on the part of the filmmaker, it’s also noteworthy that Morris allows the clearly unreliable witnesses to speak for themselves, letting the audience witness their shady testimonies in a “show don’t tell” approach to conveying their personalities.

Being a younger person, it’s sometimes hard to parse out where the innovation actually comes in from some of these movies. I’m only familiar with standards that have been around during my lifetime, and I think The Thin Blue Line was one of those realizations that a style I took for granted had to be invented. Watching 48 Hour Mystery and similar shows throughout my life, I never knew how really interesting some of these techniques are, and these programs owe a ton to this movie. If you’re like me and this is your first viewing of the film, The Thin Blue Line may seem familiar and even corny at times, but I feel like it demands some perspective to fully appreciate. Making a bunch of interviews into great cinema isn’t easy, but Morris delivers through careful technique and the movie just zips through its runtime with one engaging scene after another.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to The Thin Blue Line, but I feel indebted to it. Its legacy lives on in lots of the media I enjoy today, and as a standalone work, it holds up to Serial and the rest as a compelling case of miscarried justice in America. It feels like one of the most timeless films I’ve ever seen, and I really admire what it accomplished.


Films Left to Watch: 881

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Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction

“You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you.”

In a sensational milestone of the 80s thriller genre, Adrian Lyne solidified his reputation by combining two of cinema’s most eye-popping topics: sex and crazy. Fatal Attraction is not only an entertaining film but a brilliant marketing ploy. It’s got the perfect title, the big-name leads, and you can sum it up in just a sentence. There’s not a lot under the surface here, and you’re not missing out if you never watch this movie, but I still had a really great time with it. It takes a fun premise and runs with it, building steadily to a cathartic conclusion.

Michael Douglas stars as Dan Gallagher, a successful New York lawyer with a wife and child. His life takes an interesting turn when he allows himself a one night stand with Alex (Glenn Close), an attractive woman who proves to be dangerously obsessive following their encounter. As Dan first attempts to keep things quiet and let her down easy, he soon finds that his very life may be in jeopardy if he can’t rid himself of the past. As mentioned above, there’s not a lot to the story, but it never claims to be more than it is: a two-hour thrill ride with terrific conflict and some unsettling scares.

Glenn Close’s character is clearly what makes this movie special. You know she’s the villain from the premise of the movie and that she’s “crazy,” but the real question is how crazy. It’s often hard to tell how much of this movie is a progression, a descent into madness for her as a character, or whether she just does this kind of thing all the time. The film is also written to give her a compelling (though still unconvincing) moral argument: She doesn’t want to be cast aside; she doesn’t view herself as “one of those girls,” and the movie does a good job of painting Michael Douglas as a morally gray character as well. Fatal Attraction is a simple cautionary tale: Treasure what you have and don’t turn your back on the people who care for you. And watch out for crazy.

The thrills are a bit mild by today’s standard, but if you can immerse yourself in the 80s movie atmosphere, it’s still an effective work of horror. I was reminded of The Gift from 2015, a similar cautionary tale in which the ghosts of the protagonist’s past won’t be easily forgotten. It’s almost the same story, though The Gift feels more modern, and the scares are more shocking and creative as a result of recent trends in horror. In any case, these sort of films owe a lot to Fatal Attraction. The crazy stalker is always a fun concept, but the execution is more nuanced than you’d expect, and this film is a fine example of that.

Here we have a box office sensation with a lot of cinematic merit, and it still holds up as a fun two-hour thriller with some big names attached. It won’t change your life, but I guarantee you’ll be entertained. I certainly was.


Films Left to Watch: 882

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Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

With its Best Picture win and heaps of praise over the last few months, I feel like Moonlight is a fairly obvious inclusion to the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, so I figured I’d write about it now after seeing it fresh for the second time yesterday.

My first viewing of Moonlight was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in a movie theater. Having worked for Cinemark a few years ago and after analyzing all these movies over the last year, I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel the magic of going to the movies like I did when I was younger. Well, I heard a few words from a professor that Moonlight was well worth seeing back in December, so I drove 40 minutes to a small alternative theater, and I caught it before it had much of a following, before I had any ideas of what this film was about. I sat alone with my popcorn and was captivated for two hours. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t thought about cinematography or sound mixing, and I just watched the movie. It was magical.

Moonlight tells a three-act story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Liberty City, Miami. He comes to learn valuable lessons about identity as he faces hardship in all aspects of his life. As Chiron ages and takes on new identities, so do the people around him, and it culminates in a beautiful coming-of-age story unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s not a plot-heavy story.

Where anything is beloved, of course, there are bound to be detractors. Moonlight is an important movie for its treatment of both race and sexuality, but that’s not the only reason it deserved Best Picture, though some people have made this claim. Its presentation is so beautiful, so unique, that you can really allow yourself full immersion in the film. Every moment holds meaning. Writer and director (though it was adapted from a work of theatre) Barry Jenkins allows us to toss aside conventions of storytelling and instead focuses on conveying a human life. Identity is at the core of Moonlight, and though in different forms for different people, the film is universally relatable for this reason.

There’s something so confident about Jenkins’ direction that allows you to comfortably settle into the movie. As we’re conditioned to do, I often keep my guard up at the start of a film, challenging it to lull me in. Moonlight is so honest, so genuine in its treatment of events, that this cynicism is dispelled almost from the opening logos. We’re allowed to take our time in each scene. The final act has so few scenes, and one very long one (my favorite in the film), that we’re able to get truly personal without any “movie tricks” that a lesser film might sneak by us. This is a movie that reaches out a hand, allows us to marinate in its ideas, and leaves us wholly satisfied.

I can’t speak enough praise about Moonlight. My second viewing wasn’t nearly as magical, and in some ways it was nice to go back to the cold technical critiques, but the beauty was still there, and I hope to see this movie again in the future to get all the magic that I can out of it. It’s power resides in the personal. Every beat kept me mesmerized, and I am beyond relieved that Moonlight came out of nowhere to be my favorite film of 2016. No matter who you are, you owe yourself a viewing of this movie.


 If you’re interested, I wrote a longer critique of Moonlight here.

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Pink Flamingos (1972)

pink-flamingos

“Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

There are a handful of movies on my list that I really don’t want to see. Had I known what Pink Flamingos would be like before I watched it, then it would have been lumped right into that category as well. There were times I wanted to give up on Pink Flamingos, even right towards the end when I was nearly free. Thankfully, something always keeps me going in these situations; I can’t allow myself to stop a movie that I’ve already started, and if I’m really serious about completing this list, I wouldn’t want to put myself through retreading half of this movie again sometime in the future. I’m all about what I think this movie represents, but no, I did not enjoy Pink Flamingos.

Subtitled “An Exercise In Poor Taste,” the film follows the antics of Divine, an underground criminal living in a trailer with her eccentric family. When a couple known as the Marbles become envious of Divine’s reputation as “the filthiest person alive,” they attempt to sabotage her life and reclaim the title for themselves through a number of despicable acts. The film is low budget, disgusting, and narrated unapologetically by the film’s director, counterculture icon John Waters.

I think it’s tempting to write this movie off as important but horrible as Roger Ebert and many film buffs have done. You can’t discount the following this thing has generated, however, finding cult success in midnight theaters across the country. As an unflinching stab at transgressive filmmaking, Waters builds the greatest film of its kind. It’s also an admirable landmark in the low budget DIY sector, and I’d wager that Pink Flamingos’ production style has influenced movies and inspired filmmakers that I enjoy very much. But on a moment-to-moment basis, Pink Flamingos offered nothing I wanted to see. I’m not sure that you’re supposed to try and invest in these characters, and I don’t know that John Waters would even disagree to say that the plot serves first and foremost as a framework for the filth at the center of the film, but it’s almost impossible to really get into this movie.

There are some really troubling images from the film that have lingered in my mind in the last week or so since I watched it. (I really needed some time to process this one.) Maybe Pink Flamingos is the carnival show that Roger Ebert makes it out to be, a sort of “can you stomach this” cinematic dare. I think Waters might also be questioning our sense of normality, pushing the envelope until it bursts and then pushing it some more to make us question our rigidness. But I think he, too, would call it a disgusting movie, so maybe I just don’t know how to pin down the goal of this thing. I’d say in situations like this that I’ll have to revisit the film later, but I don’t know that it would help me understand anything more, and it’s also just something I’ll never do.

I do appreciate, though, how Pink Flamingos complicates how we think about film criticism. How do you slap a number onto this movie? There are great movies that unsettled and discomforted me as a viewing experience, but this movie “goes there” like no other film has “gone there” before. While I know that filthier films exist (and are probably somewhere down the road on my watch list), as of right now, this is the grossest movie I’ve ever seen without question. It makes no apologizes, and it marks a high (low?) point of the counterculture movement that cemented its legacy, but I would never say that I like Pink Flamingos. It impacted me, but I would never want it on my Blu-Ray shelf.

Unless you, too, are trying to give yourself a complete film education through a list of 1001 movies, I would pass on seeing Pink Flamingos. It will test both your patience and your stomach, and I would gladly avoid it for the rest of my life, because I’m not sure that I could ever learn its lessons if I haven’t already.


Films Left to Watch: 883

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Elephant (2003)

elephant

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

I’m pretty sure I watched the wrong movie because there wasn’t a single elephant in this thing. Either way, I guess I’ll just review what I saw.

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant chronicles the events leading up to a school shooting at the fictional Watt High School in the suburbs of Portland, Oregan. The film is partly based off the Columbine shootings of just a few years prior, which one can only assume directly inspired the film. Van Sant naturally received some criticism for his depiction of such a timely tragedy, especially one that shook the country like Columbine did, so there’s already a question of necessity and responsibility when it comes to the movie. However, I think any subject matter is open to exploration through cinema, and I think Van Sant makes enough key artistic decisions so that Elephant isn’t an exploitative cash grab in any sense, and it’s more of a clear passion project in which Van Sant tries to make sense of school shootings through the events directly leading up to them.

From the outset, there’s a deliberate glacial pacing to Elephant. We open with a long shot of a flagpole for the opening credits with the bright blue sky in the background, a recurring motif throughout the film. Van Sant then begins to play with both time and perspective, showing us a day in the life of various high school students, all of whom are unaware of the fate that will soon befall them. This perspective-hopping takes up most of the film, and it maintains its fascination through some fun cross-connections between the characters. We may see a character rush nervously through the background of a scene and then later, through a different perspective, come to find out what that was all about. It’s a neat way that Van Sant holds your interest as you come to understand the greater chronology of the day (which will be important later in the film).

While I think the obvious meat of the movie is the final sections focusing on the killers and their actions, I found the earlier portions of the film to be equally powerful because of how Van Sant toys with audience expectations. I knew nothing about Elephant except a one-sentence synopsis from Google, and that’s all it took to keep me on the edge of my seat. You spend scene after scene waiting for that next step, the leap towards something out of the ordinary. Perhaps Van Sant is helping us understand human nature in this way, methodically asking us to reflect on how much we really want to see this horrible massacre take place. Especially due to Columbine’s extensive media coverage, the frenzy among the American public surrounding the tiniest of Columbine details, I found Elephant to be a reflection not just on school shootings but an experiment in how we (the audience) think about them.

I really appreciated the adherence to realism throughout the film as well. Van Sant uses some neat tricks with the camera, often for a creepy foreshadowing effect that further play on our expectations, but the movie otherwise feels like a genuine day of high school. Elephant features nonprofessional actors who don’t look like Hollywood actors. Instead, they look like people that I actually went to high school with, and that adds to the chilling realism. The film is also strikingly well-lit, creating an interesting visual aesthetic that complements the movie’s dark subject matter.

I have yet to discuss the second act, which sadly can be viewed as the exciting payoff to the monotony of the first half. I’d rather not discuss it as much, though I’ll say that Van Sant delivers on his promises and pulls no punches. Even in this violent sequence, however, we get insight into these characters that you wouldn’t find in a lesser movie. I don’t think that Elephant ever captures who these killers are completely, perhaps conceding that a 90 minute film couldn’t scratch the surface, but there are some key moments that flesh out the assailants and make for a more interesting narrative at the least.

I have a lot more thoughts on Elephant that I hope to share at a later date, and because it’s so rich and open to evaluation, I found that I really enjoyed the movie. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s careful in its construction and it sticks with you as great art should, so I would really recommend seeing Elephant if you get the chance. Even if it doesn’t have any elephants.


Films Left to Watch: 884

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