10/1: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Coen Brothers are drawn to narrators in their comedy: Hi McDunnough in Raising Arizona; Sam Elliott’s “Stranger” in The Big Lebowski; and in 1994, The Hudsucker Proxy. Tim Robbins plays a flustered simpleton who’s placed as a patsy head exec of Hudsucker Industries following its former CEO (Charles Durning’s) hilarious, majestic demise on the New York City pavement. Hudsucker begins with the country rasps of Bill Cobbs’ magical black man, Moses, waxing sentimental on the rejuvenating celebration of New Year’s Eve, even as Robbins’ Norville Barnes trembles outside his office window, seemingly ready to fall to his demise.
There are a number of extra-textual moments in the Hudsucker, even outside of its cribbing of 30s and 40s Hollywood classicism — again, see: magical black man. Titles furiously flip off a job agency’s board, flying toward Norville as literal title cards, overwhelming both the new business school graduate and the screen itself. Newsreel footage, narrated by Coens stalwart John Goodman, lapses in and out of Roger Deakins’ black and white cinematography with an elasticity that blends its chronicling of Norville’s serendipitous success story with the booming American industrialism and entrepreneurship of Goodman’s inflections. Norville’s partly broken rise to fame is, in part, a grand ruse via Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussberger, but it’s also owed to the jaw-dropping simplicity of Norville’s creative wellspring and of course, sheer dumb luck. The American Dream isn’t dead in late 1958, but the Coens seem to be joking that the straight and narrow path really ain’t all that straight and narrow.
As if its reflexive commentary weren’t enough, Moses becomes a literal player in Norville’s fate, too, solidifying a guardian angel presence as he duels with a nefarious custodian inside the Hudscuker building’s gargantuan clock tower cogs; it’s a hilariously on the nose deus ex machina, one that gels with the weighty Gothic noir production design, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s early Batman films.
Carter Burwell, in no surprise, proves his immense worth once again with a wonderfully sweeping score, swirling melancholy and romance in a ornate melting pot of melodrama. It’s that deliberate melodrama that works in spades in the background, but decidedly less so in the fore. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spunky reporter is cut from a Howard Hawkes mold, but her machine gun tongue and broadly classical delivery feel like an act in the worst way. When compared to the woefully underused presence of Bruce Campbell, who eats cheese for breakfast, Leigh looks like she’s enjoying a vacation here.
As for Hudsucker’s intent, the Coens don’t exactly make that clear. At times, Norville’s a sympathetic patsy, a flummoxed dolt, and an infuriating man caught up in the trappings of corporate decadence. Covering an outwardly ambitious man in flop sweat raises issues, though. Amy Archer’s flighty presence as both investigative journalist and faux secretarial assistant to Norville is stowed away and then redrawn whenever the story requires a relationship beat — or a reminder that Norville’s getting played. Still, the lively quality and undeniable “size” of Hudsucker Proxy win out in the end. The Coens and co-writing partner Sam Raimi tackle grand drama and comedy in equal heaps, like a cynic’s answer to Giant.
10/4: Drinking Buddies (2013)
When it comes to “mumblecore,” I don’t adopt the position of Devin Faraci, who famously fought (and lost to) Joe Swanberg in a boxing match as part of a crusade that the director and his subgenre sandbox had little to offer cinema; that’s quite the exaggeration. That said, too often films of this ilk exude a kind of laziness, more a “devil may care” indifference and less a French New Wave modus operandi. Thankfully, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, dubbed by some to be his breakout romantic comedy, instills enough confidence in its actors that the entire affair feels authorial and deliberate, even when breaking in the midst of intimate conversations.
Olivia Wilde plays Kate, a jittery employee of a Chicago brewery, stuck in a dead end relationship with her cultured boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) and engaging in shaky workplace flirtations with friend and co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson). When Chris and Kate invite Luke and his girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) to share a weekend at his cabin home, everyone’s uneasy relationships get all shook up.
Swanberg seems intent on setting up Kate and Luke as equally messed up characters, good friends operating on a juvenile “will they/won’t they” relationship switch. But Wilde, who’s legitimately great here, plays Kate as the far more flawed character. Kate masks problems in her love life by continually faking flights of spontaneity and misguided quick decisions. As hard as it may be to believe given his status on New Girl, Johnson’s the stoic party, capturing Luke’s cut to the chase frankness inside of light horseplay and a magnanimous grasp of craft beer. If only the beginning of Swanberg’s affair felt as natural rather than deliberately unfaithful.
10/5: Kwaidan (1964)
The UW Cinematheque screened Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost movie anthology to kick off their “International Horror Classics” series this month, and judging by the number of walkouts in between each vignette, pitching this collection as “horror” may not have been the best marketing tactic to employ.
Kwaidan, in any of its stories, isn’t particularly frightening, though it continually draws from unsettling atmosphere. Its central thesis — that memory itself is as haunting an apparition as any — isn’t a novel suggestion, but each story revisits that notion with deeply personal twists. “The Woman of the Snow” equates memory with the tacit implications of a marriage vow while “Hoichi the Earless” channels memory’s resurrecting qualities through epic storytelling.
Kwaidan’s strongest story, “The Black Hair,” drapes memory in regret when an ambitious samurai makes the misguided decision to leave his wife and marry up in social status. Having abandoned his first wife, the man is met with pangs of remorse and traumatic flashbacks of his old home, as Kobayashi’s camera slowly floats through its hallways. The man’s memories have been stained with that of his true love, just as her black strands of hair seemingly remain untouched upon his return home. It’s a quality that bleeds into the vignette’s set design, with silks and leaves hanging from walls, mimicking the sable locks of the wife the man can’t seem to forget. In less capable hands, the story’s haunting apex would ring ridiculous, but Kobayashi’s grasp is a steady one, mastering long takes, offset sound cues and then finally, raw silence in meeting a sublimely cinematic end.
10/6: Prisoners (2013)
Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich observed on a recent Operation Kino podcast that Prisoners is rife with religious symbols, and while the crucifixes and icthys tattoos are certainly present in Denis Villeneuve’s procedural, the images evoke very little. That’s really indicative of Prisoners’ problems as a whole, though.
Its plot is basic enough in its initial Law & Order: SVU setup: two girls go missing on Thanksgiving, and it’s up to family man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands when the detective assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) proves inadequate — “taking matters” here serving the place of “kidnapping and torturing your daughter’s suspected captor,” played by Paul Dano. Naturally.
Like the triggering of a handgun, Keller’s missing daughter signals a slow crumbling of his family structure, with grief, anger, and substance abuse corroding the enamel of the nuclear model. Jackman’s plenty fine in a (slightly) softer departure from steelier typecasts (see: Wolverine, The), but Prisoners jam packs its premise with two-second notes on guilt, faith, and paternal responsibility as if it were crossing items off a “Great American Values” grocery list. Its thematic territory feels almost as scattershot as the baffling investigative logic of its characters. Almost.
Side note: The comparisons to Fincher’s masterful Zodiac are as informed as Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, which is to say to an embarrassingly small degree. Swap out the Detective with Tom Hiddleston doing Loki shtick for two and a half hours and Villeneuve would’ve had me.
10/6: Short Term 12 (2013)
Blending disarming melancholy and hopeful lightheartedness, Short Term 12 isn’t the sappy white guilt drama it seems poised to be. Those intentions are quickly dispatched with an early gag involving Rami Malek’s newbie mistake of calling the foster home’s kids “underprivileged.” Brie Larson plays the head supervisor of a short term foster home and as her character adheres to, neither parent nor therapist to the children who come and go.
Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is one such child who shares a great deal with Larson’s Grace. The two come to an uneasy truce after a rocky introduction, bonding over freehand sketches and similar histories of abusive parents. Grace’s typically firm authoritative hand is offset by boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) as the foster home’s intuitive goofball and occasional beat machine, but when Grace’s connection with Jayden spirals out under the weight of her own personal baggage, her actions are handcuffed by the shackles inherent in the foster care system. To paraphrase Grace’s boss, ‘I see these kids that come in and the parents who did these things to them and I wish I could hunt every one of them down and beat them half to death.’ Like her complacent supervisor though, Grace can only do so much within the system.
Short Term 12 never twists into idealistic fantasy, and Grace never has all the answers. What she does have is a genuine connection with Jayden, and that pays dividends for both characters during emotional low points. There’s rarely an easy fix, no matter how much experience these foster-care employees have been steeled it. What Short Term 12 offers is empathy, whether it comes by way of drum beat or a smashed windshield. There is no finish line to trauma.