Here today with an edition of my summer movie list is a pair of directors that I admire greatly and whose filmography I’d very much like to complete. Of Ang Lee’s filmography, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution still rank as two of my favorite movies ever while Brokeback Mountain is an admirable feature. Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers have a sprawling filmography that I somehow have barely touched on. True Grit and No Country for Old Men are the only films that I’ve seen and while I admired the former for its undeniable beauty and entertaining structure, the latter was definitely bleak and a struggle to get through. Still, I’d like to expand my relationships with both of these directors and I chose films that feature actresses I like: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Frances McDormand.
Fargo (1996) – dir. Joel Coen
From the very beginning with the opening shot of a car coming out of a snowstorm, the film caught my attention. The diner scene with Jerry (William H. Macy), Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) made me laugh and awe at the vileness of Carl, the intimidating quietness of Gaear, and the desperation of Jerry. The kidnapping is one terrifically shot scene, and the directors never dilute its impact by drowning it in music and clunky edits. But this is just the first half of the story, when the kidnapping gets out of hand, the very pregnant Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a local police chief, gets involved.
What’s amazing about McDormand’s performance and Marge as a character is the essential simplicity of the performance and her story. Marge is a perfectly sweet and normal woman, whip-smart, and decent. She doesn’t cheat on her husband and never feels the need to do so either. What fascinates on first viewing is McDormand’s shifting facial tics. The wheels are turning in her head as she tries to solve the case, all with a sunny smile that belie the intelligence. That whole scene where she interviews the girls who slept with Carl and Gaear is hilarious while her last interrogation scene with Jerry reveals just how intelligent and intuitive she is without once breaking a sweat. McDormand shows that a character does not necessarily have to have a drug problem, a bad marriage, or any sort of crisis to be interesting. Essentially, she makes a very normal character compelling onscreen.
And that is ultimately what I find so incredibly fascinating about Fargo. It sustains its deftly balanced comedic and dark tone throughout the whole film. But underneath the gruesomeness of the crime, the Coen brothers remain interested in these people’s private and personal lives that even if the kidnapping and murders happen, I can sit and watch Marge’s perfectly happy and normal marriage, Carl and Gaear’s one-sided conversations, and Jerry’s customer service. Grade: A
Sense & Sensibility (1995) – dir. Ang Lee
I’ve only ever read one novel by Jane Austen and that was Pride & Prejudice, which I really loved. The richness of the world the Austen brought to life with her words is simply incomparable. Joe Wright’s 2005 film of this novel was something of a qualified success, and something that I’m quite fond of, especially for Keira Knightley’s justly Oscar-nominated work, the costumes, the beautiful music by Dario Marianelli (such a recognizable sound), and the romantic cinematography. Even better, however, was the Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle, who I thought perfectly embodied Darcy & Elizabeth. In choosing this film, based on another novel by Austen, and by a director whose films I rank highly on my personal list, with actresses I generally adore, I thought I was going to get a home run.
In short, I was wrong. I found this movie to be a gentle snooze. To be fair, the film is rather picturesque, the music appropriate, and the writing adequate, but nothing seemed urgent about this film, least of all the performances by Kate Winslet and especially Emma Thompson, who play sisters searching for a little romance. Whereas the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth seemed so well-drawn, with their blossoming relationship so delicately laid out, the romances here seemed inadequate, and at worst, poorly conceived and improbable. Winslet may acquit herself well with the performance but I found her, interestingly dull, especially for a part that’s meant to be sort of a troublemaker. Her romance with Willoughby & Brandon feel almost half-assed on screen because they felt like such small chapters in the story. The marriage to Brandon, although I can see from a mile, felt almost depressing because she never indicated in her prior choices the affection for him nor did the film really try to show it. Meanwhile, Thompson is too old to play Elinor, and her styling seemed generally unattractive. But that’s not the only problem for her, Elinor is written as an extremely reserved woman, rational and practical about her feelings and actions, that she shows little emotion. Thankfully, Thompson can telecast so many withheld emotions with her face that no words are needed to show them. But at the same time, Elinor feels so poorly shaded as a character, lacking anything interesting to say, and mostly robs Thompson of the ability to sustain interest in her. Overall, I think this film was a bore. Grade: C+
Next Up: When Harry Met Sally, Akira, & The Philadelphia Story