28 September 2013

Episode 14 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this week's episode of The George Sanders Show Sean and I get depressed talking about Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 feature Hara-kiri and the 2011 remake from director Takashi Miike. We also discuss the career of Akira Kurosawa and select our Cinemassential Samurai Films. And we listen to more rap music. You know, for the kids!

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Feedback on the show can be sent to thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com or @GeoSandersShow.

Next week: Nothing!

27 September 2013

Coen Countdown: Raising Arizona

It has been three long years since the Coen brothers have released a motion picture, a gap of inactivity as long as any in their thirty year career. Thankfully that will all end this December with the arrival of their sixteenth feature, Inside Llewyn Davis. Inspired by a recent conversation on Letterboxd, I have decided to spend the fall working my way chronologically through all of the Coens' feature films and maybe writing something up here on the old whatchamcallit if the mood strikes me.

A man and woman long for a child but when they discover that they are incapable of producing offspring, they resort to the man's preferred form of transaction, theft.

Nowhere is the Coen brothers' unparalleled wielding of the English language more apparent than in the breakneck ten-minute prologue that opens their 1987 comedy, Raising Arizona. The opening section tells us of how a small town police officer named Edwina falls for H.I., a two-bit convict who has an infectious tendency to wax poetical. Describing Ed's former lover, H.I. narrates, "He ran off with a cosmetologist who knew how to ply her feminine wiles." Later, upon discovering Ed's infertility that kicks off the plot, he says, "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." This is what distinguishes the work of the Coens from their contemporaries. That and the invention of a dirty, motorcycle-riding nightmare named Leonard Smalls, a.k.a. The Lone Rider of the Apocalypse. You're not getting that in Splash.

Another film from 1987, Oliver Stone's Wall Street, is often cited as the movie that best took the excess of the Reagan years to task. But to its detriment that film didn't have Nicolas Cage running through a grocery store with a bag of Huggies and a coterie of trigger happy vigilantes on his tail. For my money there is no film that better portrays the hollowness of middle class suburban ideals than Raising Arizona.

Take that chase scene that highlights the middle section of the film. Earlier the Coens take the time to show Cage's former convict H.I. suiting up into the quintessential uniform of the middle class male: slacks, a polo shirt, and some white loafers. He sports the ensemble as he tries to fit in with the family his wife Ed aspires to be but he just can't get on their wavelength. (I blame the Polish jokes, but to be fair, my last name is Strenski.) After he decks his boss for suggesting they spice up their vacuous lives with a wife swap, H.I. returns to his life of crime by robbing a convenience store. At this point he is both trying to assert himself as different from his racist, sexist, entitled boss while also trying to attain the same necessities, namely name brand disposable diapers. The brand actually is a sign of importance as we see once the chase moves from the convenience store to a supermarket. H.I. is running through the aisles, being pursued by all manner of threat: cops, dogs, and shoppers. He bolts down the diaper aisle and carefully peruses the names before selecting Huggies, the same brand he lifted earlier.

The chase also includes an exhilarating run through a multi-story pre-fabricated suburban home. H.I. bursts through the front door and runs rampant through bedrooms, dens, and living rooms. The occupants of the household, who are only glimpsed for mere moments, never once overtly react to the pursuit taking place in their abode. The father sits on the couch across from the television and just casually looks up. The great thing about these moments is that the Coens are smart enough not to draw attention to these peripheral asides. They exist on the edges of the frame, never once is there a close up or reaction shot from the family.

This chase is the scene most often referred to when discussing Raising Arizona and it admittedly is a bravura, high-concept high wire act. But there is another action scene in the film that equals the grocery chase in terms of filmmaking and narrative construction. This scene is the finale which sees H.I. and Ed trying to take the baby Nathan, Jr. back from the clutches of The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. The Coens pull out all of the stops here with an action scene that probably cost more to film than all of Blood Simple combined. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse appears in a mushroom cloud explosion on the horizon and proceeds to ride into the frame, shooting out both the front and rear windows of the couple's car. He then rides by and throws a grenade inside. The Coens then show both characters fleeing for their lives.

The heart of the film is Ed, particularly the hurt and longing exhibited by the great Holly Hunter. After escaping the now obliterated vehicle she grabs Nathan, Jr. and runs into a bank for safety, a mom protecting her kin, even if she stole the child in the first place. H.I. then gets into a brutal bout of fisticuffs with The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse which also ends in an explosion, with H.I. literally destroying the demons that have plagued him since the kidnapping. From here on out, this career convict will do the right thing and we believe it.

20 September 2013

Episode 13 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this week's episode of The George Sanders Show Sean and I don our fedoras and fill up our hip flasks for a journey into the cinematic gangster past with our discussions of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America and The Roaring Twenties from director Raoul Walsh. We also dissect the career of America's Robert De Niro and select our Cinemassential films set in the 20s but not filmed then. Oh, and Sean has many unkind things to say about his local law enforcement.

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Chase us down at thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com and @GeoSandersShow.

Next week: Harakiri & Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai!

13 September 2013

Episode 12 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this wedding-inspired, equine-obsessed episode of The George Sanders Show Sean and I place our bets on Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion and The Killing from our Person of the Week, Stanley Kubrick. We also pick our Cinemassential animals, talk about nostalgia, cinema etiquette, and Hayao Miyazaki's retirement.

And we listen to THE MELVINS.

Therefore no episode of The George Sanders Show will top this one.

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Feedback can be directed to thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com or @GeoSandersShow.

Next week: The Roaring Twenties & Once Upon a Time in America.

06 September 2013

Episode 11 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this very special episode of The George Sanders Show Sean and I list our hypothetical top ten lists as if we were cool enough to get a ballot from the prestigious blowhards at Sight and Sound. Working within a series of self-imposed parameters we both come up with lists that make us sound erudite, cultured, and misogynistic. However, the true revelation of this episode is that Josef Von Sternberg is apparently the director we most agree on. Who knew?!

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Feedback on the show can be directed to thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com or @GeoSandersShow on Twitter.

Next week: The Killing and The Black Stallion!

05 September 2013

Coen Countdown: Blood Simple.

It has been three long years since the Coen brothers have released a motion picture, a gap of inactivity as long as any in their thirty year career. Thankfully that will all end this December with the arrival of their sixteenth feature, Inside Llewyn Davis. Inspired by a recent conversation on Letterboxd, I have decided to spend the fall working my way chronologically through all of the Coens' feature films and maybe writing something up here on the old soapbox if the mood strikes me.

A man discovers his wife is having an affair so he hires a thug to bump them off. However, the thug has other plans, so he kills the husband instead, takes the money, and runs.

Over the course of their three decade career, the Coen brothers have often dabbled in the genre forms of classical Hollywood, from the screwball comedy of The Hudsucker Proxy to the gangster world of Miller's Crossing. The brothers' debut feature Blood Simple is most often described as a neo-noir and the film certainly shares elements with the shady crime films of the 1940s and 50s, as well as with the genre's forebearers, pulp novels. (Blood Simple's title in fact is taken directly from the work of author Dashiell Hammett.) But the film actually plays out more like a horror movie than anything else and is the Coens' most sustained work within that environment. Half a decade later, their film Barton Fink takes a sharp left turn into horror as its protagonist begins his journey into a literalized hell, but Blood Simple, with its low budget aesthetic and pulse-pounding tension, lives more fully within the genre.

The horror elements in Blood Simple range from a brief nod to early Coen-collaborator Sam Raimi's Evil Dead tracking shot to the excrutiatingly tense finale, which sees a relentless monster first killing John Getz's Ray and then terrorizing the adulterous Abby, played wonderfully by Frances McDormand. Of course, being the Coens the murderous villain is not a boogeyman like the masked Michael Myers or an unstoppable killing machine like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. Instead it is the bloated, sweaty body of M. Emmet Walsh as a slimy private investigator named Loren. No bother, the fear is equally palpable.

Also scattered throughout the picture are jolts of unexpected action, akin to a creature jumping out of the shadows and screaming "boo!". In Blood Simple however, it is the innocuous elements of day-to-day existence that come screaming into the frame, pulling the characters (and us) out of our own reveries and back to cold, cruel reality. Twice in the film this alarm comes from the ubiquitous telephone, first as a latent dialtone and later as a jarring, shrill ring. But the biggest jolt in the film's ninety minutes comes when Ray and Abby are standing at Ray's front door, both confused and frightened, when out of the blue a newspaper comes sailing into the frame, slamming against the screen and providing more thrills than a thousand makeshift ghosts.

The film obsessively forces our attention towards mundane objects like telephones and newspapers. A handful of scenes begin with shots of lazily turning ceiling fans, staring down upon the action like bored gods. In fact, a ceiling fan is the only witness to Loren's shooting of Abby's husband Marty. Meanwhile the last shot of the movie is Loren's point of view as he ponders the oddness of a dripping pipe on his way to gunshot-inflicted oblivion. The Coens also populate their film with very specific objects that highlight their famed attention to detail. Be it the glass of Alka Seltzer that inadvertantly tells us all we need to know about Marty's character, to the Zippo lighter inscribed with Loren's name and the words "Man of the Year" that nod to the character's opening monologue, the Coens know exactly what they want and more importantly, what we need.

If we were to boil down the overarching theme of the Coens oeuvre into a single, simplified maxim it could very well be a preoccupation with idiots getting in over their heads. While that description could sum up nearly all of their films, nowhere is it better exemplified than in Blood Simple. At no point in the film does any character have a complete grasp on what has transpired. The lovesick Ray thinks that Abby shot Marty when in fact it was Loren. The film concludes with Abby running from Loren, all the while thinking he is Marty, who is long since dead. She even shoots him under the impression that he is her vengeful husband. This makes a dying Loren laugh. It made me laugh too.

One sign of truly great artists comes from revisiting their earliest work and discovering that all of the elements that make them worthwhile were there on display from the very beginning. This is readily apparent throughout Blood Simple. It extends from the brothers' recurring themes to their nuanced dialogue in this singular screenplay as well as to their visual wit and elegantly framed compositions. If there is any mission statement in Blood Simple, something that signals the Coen brothers' arrival in cinema, it may very well be the tracking shot that runs the length of Marty's bar and takes the time to climb over the drunk passed out in the middle of it. Or perhaps it's the face of the kind stranger that informs Ray, the man who earlier laughed at Marty as the latter got caught on a dead end street, that his headlights are still on.