Tag Archives: Frances McDormand

Aeon Flux (2005, Karyn Kusama)

Karyn Kusama can’t direct action, which hurts Aeon Flux a little bit, but she also can’t keep up the pace of her film. It should be a literal roller coaster–there’s some establishing material, which is nonsense, then the film drops Charlize Theron (as the titular character) in a mission. The mission runs the length of the film.

The film’s constantly stopping and starting. Instead of being a problem, Flux‘s pacing is one of its strongest elements. Well, until the third act.

Really awful narration opens and closes Flux. It’s like no one realized the film actually has a lot of good things about it. Kusama has zero confidence as a director.

In the lead role, Theron’s excellent most of the time. When she’s walking around the cheap sets or acting in front of a blue screen, not so much. The budget apparently didn’t go towards competent CG renderers. But she’s believable and sympathetic, even if Kusama can’t direct her fight scenes.

Marton Csokas’s excellent as the bad guy–and Theron’s love interest. Also good is Sophie Okonedo as her sidekick.

Both Jonny Lee Miller and Frances McDormand are awful.

When he’s not shooting CG, Stuart Dryburgh’s photography is good. Graeme Revell’s score has its moments.

Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script is terribly affected in the dialogue department. But they get a lot of credit for laying groundwork on their revelation moments.

While it could’ve been far better, Flux is reasonably compelling. If one ignores the terrible opening narration.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Karyn Kusama; screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, based the television series created by Peter Chung; director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh; edited by Jeff Gullo, Peter Honness and Plummy Tucker; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by David Gale, Gregory Goodman, Martin Griffin, Gale Anne Hurd and Gary Lucchesi; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux), Marton Csokas (Trevor Goodchild), Jonny Lee Miller (Oren Goodchild), Sophie Okonedo (Sithandra), Frances McDormand (Handler), Amelia Warner (Una Flux), Caroline Chikezie (Freya), Nikolai Kinski (Claudius) and Pete Postlethwaite (Keeper).


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Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coens usually write tight scripts. Burn After Reading doesn’t have a particularly tight script. Instead, it’s got a bunch of great performances and funny scenes–astoundingly good dialogue (their use of curse words for humorous effect is noteworthy)–and some great details. But the film isn’t really much of a story. Literally speaking, it’s about what happens after the CIA decides to transfer John Malkovich over to the State Department for no specified reason. In the film’s first uproarious exchange, Malkovich objects to being classified an alcoholic by a Mormon (Burn came before Prop 8, so there–unfortunately–isn’t any mention of alien planets). But the film isn’t really about Malkovich. He’s in quite a bit of it–and is excellent in the film in ways he hasn’t gotten to be excellent in quite a while–but he’s not the lead by any means.

Burn distracts from its lack of protagonist or tight plotting with the funny business. There’s a reasonably traditional first act with Malkovich, but only until it introduces Tilda Swinton (as Malkovich’s wife) and George Clooney (as her lover). Swinton turns in the film’s only bad performance and it isn’t really her fault, it’s the Coen’s. She plays a pediatrician who’s cruel to kids (in front of their parents). Doesn’t seem like she’d make it long in that professional. But it gets a little worse–I don’t think the Coens even bother to name her well in the film. I’m seeing her character’s name in the credits and it’s something of a surprise… like I only would have figured it out through process of elimination.

Anyway, once they show up, it’s not long before Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt arrive. McDormand and Pitt have lots of the film’s best scenes. Pitt shows off why he’s such a great comic actor–they’re both playing dopes, with McDormand a little smarter (only a little). As far as the performances go, Clooney probably comes in second behind Malkovich. While Malkovich gives this great performance, it’s just this technically excellent actor with good material. Clooney–in his Coen Brothers mode–creates this wonderful character, full of tics and idiosyncrasies. Much like the film itself, he exists to amuse.

The only other supporting roles of note are Richard Jenkins, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. Jenkins does very well–but he always does very well–even if he doesn’t have much to work with. Rasche and Simmons have these fantastic scenes together, which is where Burn After Reading is so frustrating. Their scenes together–two of them–are comic gold, but the scenes’ presence in the film itself is what works against Burn After Reading as a solid narrative.

It’s the Coen Brothers making a movie to get belly laughs and not taking anything else into account. I’m sure one could argue the lunacy of the plot is some kind of post-modern spy movie, but it’d be inaccurate. Burn After Reading is a really funny movie. It probably ought to be something more, given the numerous excellent performances (McDormand, who I didn’t mention before, only creates a caricature, but it’s a good one). But its failing in that department actually doesn’t feel like much of a failure.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), Richard Jenkins (Ted Treffon), Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer), David Rasche (CIA Officer), J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior) and Olek Krupa (Krapotkin).


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Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen)

I’m pretty sure I saw the Blood Simple director’s cut twice in the theater. Seems like I did. The second time I helped a couple underage Coen fans get in, and I already knew the recut was a disappointment. I got the original cut from the UK, where it used to be available and might still be found, and waited almost ten years to watch it. I’m glad I did. I can appreciate it more.

What Joel Coen does in Blood Simple is adapt the Western for interiors, visually speaking. There are sweeping camera movements more at home in Monument Valley than in a loft, but there’s Coen using them anyway. It’s impossible to identify every moment of greatness in Blood Simple‘s filmmaking, because it’s probably every frame. From thirty-five seconds in to the film, I was already stuffed–it’s a sumptuous (or decadent, the word the wife prefers–in general, not specifically for the film) experience. Every scene is a wonder. It’s not just the sound, editing, music, cinematography, composition, dialogue–which is the best they’ve ever written–it’s everything together; it’s the experience of watching an endlessly brilliant film. It’s one of the best films of the 1980s, like a combination of late 1970s John Carpenter and early 1980s John Sayles. The tone of both those filmmakers fuses in Blood Simple, creating something different and singular.

Blood Simple is free of the Coen Brothers brand–starting with The Hudsucker Proxy, but almost with Raising Arizona, part of a Coen Brothers film is acknowledging it’s a Coen Brothers film. Except Blood Simple isn’t a Coen Brothers film in that sense. The silliness isn’t there. Usually, the silliness is only absent in their non-beloved films (with recent exceptions), but there’s no fluff on Blood Simple, no fat. It’s a Coen Brothers film about real people, not their standard caricatures. The acting and writing really come together to make something different. She’s the least assuming, but Frances McDormand turns in a great performance. I didn’t even realize, until about half-way in to the film, McDormand’s developed an on-screen persona these days. It’s nice to see her without. Dan Hedaya plays the second most sympathetic character in the film and he’s a complete terror. When the bad guy gets sympathy, somebody’s doing something right. M. Emmet Walsh is good as the villain, John Getz is good as the lover who gets between husband and wife Hedaya and McDormand. The other really great performance, which I did remember from the last two times, is Samm-Art Williams, who’s done little other acting work, but he’s fantastic.

Blood Simple is filled with an energy it’d be hard for the Coen Brothers to keep up these days (they aren’t hungry anymore and haven’t been for at least fifteen years), but what’s so telling is how much they disrespected their first film when they went back to recut it. Either they’d forgotten what made it great, or they hated it and wanted the film to somehow “fit” better with their modern successes. Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the latter. Otherwise, they’d have made some more films approaching this one’s caliber. But seriously, it’d be impossible to surpass it. Blood Simple is stunning… and it’s a tragedy they’ve never made this version available–readily available–on DVD.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen; photography by Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegmann; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Circle Films.

Starring John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Private Detective) and Samm-Art Williams (Meurice).


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