Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen's first film, provides an accurate prediction of their careers as filmmakers. The movie is funny and dark, self-reflexive and compelling--but also sometimes off-putting and unpleasant. And it marks the debut of Frances McDormand, whose firm jaw and wary eyes grow into wisdom by the time she confronts full-blown human venality, Coen-style, in Fargo (1996). But back in the mid-'80s she seemed as poleaxed as anyone, hating her husband--played by Dan Hedaya, an actor who all but begs for our scorn--and drawn to a hapless bartender. Everybody gets simple after a while, given all that blood.

Except for maybe M. Emmet Walsh's private eye, the supposed observer who becomes the prime suspect, showing the bush-league baddies what real corruption looks like. In many ways it's Walsh's picture, grimy and calculating, glib and world-weary--but not as wise as he needs to be. The final sequence is suspenseful and raw, like late Hitchcock, with more than a touch of their buddy Sam Raimi's panicked glee over imminent doom.

Blood Simple is interesting as a self-assured debut for the Coens and McDormand; but more than that it stands on its own as a rough-edged noir that warns us what happens when bored, sloppy double-crossers fall in love.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Son of Rambow (2008)

As much a movie about movie-making as it is a heartfelt assertion of friendship and family, Son of Rambow surprised me with its willingness to be both subversive and sentimental. In the end, it works.

The movie reminds me of Bill Forsythe's '80s films--the man who practically invented the modern British whimsy-movie, populated by assertive and/or bemused eccentrics, such as Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), Comfort and Joy (1984), and Breaking In (1989). Like Forsythe, writer/director Garth Jennings enjoys the periphery, the places and people off to the side, living unconventional lives--at first played out in relative freedom, eventually challenged by the larger world. In Son of Rambow, two outsider boys--one the child of strictly religious parents, the other a dedicated troublemaker (and aspiring film-maker)--are united in the desire to make a Rambo movie. The plot enjoys its characters and relishes its situations with such honest affection that one is drawn into the game, eager to follow the boys as they discover the joys and sorrows of cinema and friendship.

This kind of PG-13 family movie is rare. It doesn't get lost in the cynical urge to walk to the brink of an R rating, to market a product; instead, it trusts its offbeat plot and characters to take us where it wants to go. The result is indeed fine product, but untainted by the missteps of movies concerned only with demographics. Son of Rambow is as irresistible as its movie-within-a-movie; you'll agree with bad-boy auteur Lee: "This has been my best day of all time."