“Hail Caesar!” (2016) scr./dir. The Coen Brothers

Just saw “Hail Caesar!” … Absolutely loved it!   If the Coen Brothers’ brilliant, but ultra-bleak 2009 film “A Serious Man” was about an absent, or indifferent God, “Hail Caesar!” concerns the opposite.  Easily their sunniest, most upbeat film …  “Caesar” could be the first Coen Brothers film that could be screened in churches.  Of course, it won’t be, because it’s the Coen Brothers and it’s highly irreverent, off-kilter, and weird.  But … it’s the first film in their 32-year filmography that indicates their hearts are not as black as they’ve always implied.  I’m a religious skeptic these days, but if there is a God, you could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix character.  Trust me, this is a VERY deep film if you analyze it, but it’s done with such a light, goofy touch, it’s incredibly entertaining and fun even if you don’t dig deeper.   There’s even some affectionate digs at Hollywood liberalism gone amok … with George Clooney front and center gleefully sending himself up.   Critics and audiences have been lukewarm about “Caesar,” but you need to remember that “The Big Lebowski” had the same reaction when it first came out and is now one of the Coen’s most beloved films.  Mark my words, “Caesar” is one for the ages.

“Raising Arizona” (1987) dir./ scr. The Coen Brothers

I first became aware of the Coen Brothers when their debut film “Blood Simple” was making the rounds and creating a buzz.  I was 15 at the time and saw it at the Circle 6 in Norfolk, VA during the (then) theatrical no-man’s land between February and May of 1985.  These were the days when if you looked vaguely 17 years old, they would sell you a ticket … or not.  To be fair, even from the age of 13, I was never refused a ticket for an R-rated film.  At the time, I thought it was because I looked super-old.  In reality, I don’t think the theaters gave a s–t.  Seriously, I was able to buy a ticket for “9 1/2 Weeks” at the same theater during the same period and no one even remotely asked me if I was of age.   But I digress …

Anyway, I didn’t think much of “Blood Simple” back then.  It was interesting and weird for sure, but I left the theater thinking “Eh …”  In subsequent years, I’ve rewatched “Bood Simple” and think it’s amazing, but as a 15-year old, it didn’t do much for me.  Neither did “9 1/2 Weeks” for that matter.  But by that point, I had already seen “Deep Throat” uncut, along with several porn classics on the Playboy Channel, which … while heavily edited … were still much more explicit than the antics in the allegedly “saucy” “9 1/2 Weeks.”  But again, I digress …

Cut to the Spring of 1987.  I’m listening to NPR (the station my Mom listened to back in the day before she discovered Rush Limbaugh … another sad digression … ARRGH!) and the NPR commentators are discussing this amazingly weird film “Raising Arizona.”  I’m intrigued, but not making the connection it’s by the same people who made “Blood Simple.”  When I visited my Dad in the Washington D.C. area for Spring Break, “Raising Arizona” was the film I chose to see.  That was a great visit, because I also discovered Tower Records near George Washington University and picked up the following albums: “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “For Your Pleasure” by Roxy Music, “London Calling” by the Clash, and “The Best of Elvis Costello” during the same visit, which all changed my life in significant ways.

Anyway, back to “Raising Arizona.”  My thoughts at the time?  It was a fantastically weird aberration / revelation along the lines of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”  It was a film that … on the surface … seemed to follow traditional movie conventions, but went off the rails in several key areas.  On one level, it was one of many Yuppie “we’re having a baby” films that were popular at the time (“Baby Boom,” “She’s Having a Baby”). But it also injected some really dark 1940s-era film noir elements (kidnapping, escaped convicts) that the filmmakers kept just dark enough to keep it interesting, but always pulled back at crucial moments before the film became truly disturbing. It many ways, it was simultaneously the perfect and most perverse major studio debut for resoundingly indie filmmakers.

Watching it now, “Raising Arizona” seems simultaneously like the most perverse and perfect major studio debut for decidedly indie filmmakers.  It rides the line between conventional comedy and truly twisted cinema better than most allegedly “edgy” studio films.  And the fact that it does all of this within the confines of a then PG-13 rating seems even more bizarre. In many ways, you can see elements of the Coen Brothers’ future masterpieces, from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” here.  And oddly, unlike most Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” manages to eke out a happy ending, though not in the ways you would normally expect.  The happy ending is a dream.  And while it may be a dream, unlike the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” where the happy endings may actually be the delusions of the twisted anti-heroes, the dream ending in “Raising Arizona” seems plausible.  And that’s one of the reasons this is arguably the most beloved of the Coen Brothers’ films.

“Milius” (2013) dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson

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Today, John Milius is probably most famous for being the inspiration for John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” But Milius was arguably the first of the so-called “Hollywood Brats” of the 1970s to score big in Hollywood. Milius went to USC film school at the same time George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) did and became one of the most in-demand screenwriters during the 1970s. His larger-than-life, gun-toting, right-leaning persona startled, but also fascinated many aspiring talents of the period, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. Milius has been credited for creating the “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” line from “Dirty Harry.” But he’s probably most famous for penning the script for Francis Ford Coppla’s legendary 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.”

Milius also became famous for directing the cult surfing film “Big Wednesday” as well as the box-office hits “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn.” However, despite the box-office success of “Red Dawn,” the film arguably also led to a reversal of fortune in Hollywood due to “Dawn’s” right-wing political leanings (the film’s political stigma alienated many in Hollywood). Coupled with an accountant friend who looted Milius’s vast earnings, Milius was eventually reduced to asking for a staff writing position on the HBO show “Deadwood” in order to pay for his son’s law school. “Deadwood” producer David Milch gave Milius the money and was shocked when Milius paid the entire amount back. Milius had a comeback of sorts creating the HBO series “Rome,” but then had another setback in 2010 when he suffered a stroke. Milius has fought valiantly back and was able to regain his mind and his writing abilities which he hopes to realize with his long-gestating “Genghis Khan” project.

Regardless of where you stand politically, “Milius” is one hell of a documentary about a true Hollywood character and survivor. The fact that so many famous people agreed to be interviewed for this documentary (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, George Hamilton, and many others) only demonstrates how much love and respect he has generated over the years. The one common denominator everyone praises is Milius’s gift for storytelling, which apparently hasn’t been destroyed by his stroke. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson do a splendid job of telling one of the most fascinating true Hollywood stories you’ll ever see. It’s now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

You can also hear an interview with Figueroa on the excellent “Projection Booth” podcast:

http://www.projection-booth.com/audio/Epx31-Milius.mp3

“The Big Lebowski” (1998) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

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I’m a day late, but not a buck short on this 15th anniversary greeting for one of the greatest cult movies of the last 25 years. “The Big Lebowski” was the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the the critically-acclaimed, multiple-award winning “Fargo” from 1996. Having loved “Fargo,” I went to see “The Big Lebowski” on its opening weekend in 1998.

My initial reaction? I enjoyed some parts of it, but ultimately thought this was a kind of “f–k you” film they made after the success of “Fargo.” There were just so many weird parts that (at first) didn’t seem to fit together that I concluded that this was a film that was going to be repository of every weird and cool idea that the Coen Brothers had, but weren’t able to put into their other movies.

It wasn’t until I watched it again a few years later that I (finally) got what made “The Big Lebowski” one of the best films the Coens ever had any involvement with. The film is not a mere depository for strange ideas. It’s a wonderful take on Raymond Chandler L.A. detective noir, only instead of a a cynical detective with a secret heart of gold as the hero, we get an aging, overweight stoner who just wants his damn rug back, man. I don’t know why this second viewing struck me more funny than the first, but it did. And I laugh more and more each time I see it. This would make a great double-bill with Robert Altman’s piss-take on Raymond Chandler “The Long Goodbye.”

“The Big Lebowski” arguably contains Jeff Bridges’ best-ever performance as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, John Goodman’s best-ever performance as Jeff’s gun-crazed bowling partner Walter, and a host of other stellar supporting performances by Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tara Reid.

The scene here is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s porno film fantasy based on his love of bowling and his general dudeness. Nothing too salacious here, but probably not safe for work. The Dude abides!

“Brewster McCloud” (1970) dir. Robert Altman

Like the Coen Brothers’ 1998 classic “The Big Lebowski,”  Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud” is one of those films where you feel the filmmaker had a million different weird ideas that they always wanted to put into a film, but were inhibited due to budgetary, narrative, or time constraints.  When said filmmaker achieves some success and they can do anything they want, they throw all these weird ideas into one sort-of “f–k you” film, knowing they’ll never get another chance to be this far out again.

Like “Lebowski,” when you first see “McCloud,” at best, you may chuckle a little bit, but wonder how it all fits together.  At worst, you’ll roll your eyes and groan at the self-indulgence.  But if you give it a chance and watch it again … and again … the film will grow on you … big time.  And then you’ll really start to groove on the weird humor and characters.

In this case, “Brewster McCloud” was Altman’s first film after the blockbuster success of “M*A*S*H”.  I remember seeing this in a film class I took as an undergraduate and my friends and I left the auditorium scratching our heads and wondering “What the f–k was that?”  However, it was so twisted, weird, and funny, that I rented it on VHS when I came home on break and would pick it up over the years when I couldn’t find anything else to watch.   Watching it again recently, it actually seems ballsier and less politically correct than I remember many years ago.  This is a wonderfully rude, nasty, misanthropic comedy with probably the most tasteless final joke / line in a film … ever.  Seriously, it’s literally the last line in the film after the credits and it will either make you groan in disgust or laugh hysterically.   Dave says check it out.

As a bonus, check out screenwriter Larry Karaszewski’s (“The People v. Larry Flynt,” “Ed Wood”) commentary on the film from Trailers from Hell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntcM7Plwha0