Sundance Film Review: Blood Simple (dir by Joel Coen)

(The 2018 Sundance Film Festival opens tonight!  Over the years, Sundance has become the premiere festival for independent film.  Not only have some of the best American films ever made premiered at Sundance, but it’s become the first stop in many a successful Oscar campaign.  Manchester By The Sea, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Beasts of the Southern Wild: all of them started their journey to a best picture nomination at Sundance.  For the duration of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, from today to the 28th, I’ll be reviewing films that first made a splash at Sundance.)

Blood Simple is an essential film.

If you love American movies, this is a movie that you have to see.  A delirious tribute to film noir, it’s a film that takes place in the darkest corners of America.  This is a film that shows that stories of love, betrayal, and murder can be just as complicated in the middle of America as in California and New York.

If you’re fascinated by the history of indie cinema, Blood Simple is a film that you have to see.  Joel and Ethan Coen, at a time when they were best known for their work with director Sam Raimi, created a trailer for Blood Simple long before they shot the actual movie.  They used this trailer to raise the film’s small budget.  Blood Simple was not only their directorial debut (though only Joel received a directorial credit, while the screenplay was credited to Ethan) but it was also both the feature debut of Frances McDormand and cinematographer (and future director) Barry Sonnenfeld’s first major credit as well.

If, like me, you love films about Texas, Blood Simple is an essential.  Long before they made No Country For Old Men, the Coens filmed Blood Simple in Texas.  Texas is as much a character in Blood Simple as Minnesota and the Dakotas were in Fargo.  Along with their twisty crime plots, Fargo, No Country, and Blood Simple all share a similarly cynical and fatalistic view of human nature, one that is perfectly reflected by the bleak locations where their stories take place.  Watching Blood Simple, it’s easy to imagine that, once the film ended, it fell to No Country‘s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to laconically look over the carnage and try to figure out what the Hell just happened.

Like many Coen Brothers films, Blood Simple starts out simply and then gets progressively more and more complicated.  Almost all of those complications are due to a combination of human stupidity and greed.  Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) are having an affair.  Abby’s husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya), owns the bar where Ray works as a bartender.  Marty hires a sleazy private detective named Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill Abby and Ray.  Visser has other plans.  By the end of the movie, almost everyone is dead but no one’s sure why.

The film largely serves as a showcase for Walsh, so much so that McDormand, Hedaya and Getz run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle.  That’s a shame, because all three give excellent performances.  McDormand brings strength and determination to the role of Abby.  Meanwhile, both Getz and Hedaya play two very familiar types.  Anyone who has spent any time in Texas will immediately recognize the characters played by Getz and Hedaya.  Ray may not be the smartest guy in the world but he’ll keep your car running and your glass full.  He’s probably never going to amount too much but he’s what is universally known as a good guy.  On the other hand, Marty, as played by Hedaya, is perhaps one of the most pathetic characters to ever appear in an American film.  Film noirs are full of betrayed husbands but it’s hard to think of a bigger loser than Marty.  Marty is the guy who tries to act tough but even he secretly knows that no one will ever take him seriously.  With the combination of his northern accent and his pathetic attempts to dress “western,” Marty is an outsider in Texas, one who is too stupid to realize just how far outside he actually is.

That said, the film is dominated by M. Emmett Walsh.  As played by Walsh, Loren Visser is one half sleazy redneck and one half demon from Hell.  Speaking in a sarcastic drawl and seemingly amused by all the chaos he has created, Walsh turns Visser into a truly fascinating villain.  He may be evil but you can’t stop watching him.  Walsh’s best moment is also his last in the film, a sarcastic one-liner that suggests that everything that has happened was caused more for his own amusement than anything else.  Visser is clever but not even he can escape the random whims of fate.

Violent and, as is typical for the Coens, darkly humorous, Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival.  Though it was only a modest box office success, it not only launched the careers of the Coen Brothers but continues to be on the most influential independent films ever made.  The film remains impressive today.  Whenever I see it, I’m always stunned to see how, even with their first film, the Coens had already developed their own very unique aesthetic.

Blood Simple is an essential film.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Nine Lives (dir by Barry Sonnenfeld)

Much like Warcraft, Nine Lives is another film that came out last year and got reviews that were far more negative than they should have been.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  Nine Lives is technically a pretty stupid movie and it stars a lot of actors who probably should be doing something a little bit more substantial with their time.  That being said, it’s not as if Nine Lives ever promised to be anything more than what it is.

Two facts about Nine Lives:

Number one — it did not make me physically ill, which already makes it a better movie than Hardcore Henry.

Number two — it’s all about cats!  After being more or less pushed to the side by The Secret Life of Pets (which featured only one tokenish kitty), cats finally get a movie of their very own!

It may not be a very good movie but that’s beside the point.  KITTY POWER!

As for what the film is about — well, it’s a concept that is so silly and stupid and predictable that I’m not surprised that it was produced by a major American studio.  (Except apparently, it wasn’t!  Despite taking place in America, featuring a totally American cast, and English dialogue, this is actually a French film, produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp.)  Kevin Spacey is an emotionally cold and ruthless businessman who discovers that he does have a heart when he switches bodies with a cat.  Don’t ask how he switches bodies, it’s just too silly for me to talk about.  The important thing is that he switches and it leads to a lot of litter box jokes that made me, as a proud cat owner, cringe.

BUT — and here’s why this film is not as bad you may think, the cat is really cute.  And if a cat did speak with a human voice, chances are that voice would sound a lot like Kevin Spacey’s.  It may sound like a pretty weird role for a two-time Oscar winner and multiple Emmy nominee (and don’t even get me started on the Golden Globes) but dammit, Kevin throws himself into voicing that feline’s thoughts and good for him!

Plus, this is yet another film that features a totally out there Christopher Walken cameo.  The presence of Christopher Walker automatically elevates any film.

Nine Lives may not be good but it’s not terrible.

(Of course, dog lovers will hate it….)


Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Men In Black 3”


Right out of the gate, Men In Black 3 feels dated. Not like something out of the 1960s, which is when most of this film’s story is set, but like something out of the late 90s/early 2000s. Director Barry Sonnenfeld —- who’s had a hell of a time getting other projects off the ground in Hollywood despite helming up two incredibly successful “blockbuster” franchises (MIB and The Addams Family — just in case, like apparently most studio execs, you’d forgotten) — jumps into this thing with so much gusto that you’ll forget within minutes that it’s actually been 10 years since Will Smith’s Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K ran around chasing men from Mars (and even further afield) across the silver screen.

Oh, sure, a lot’s happened in that decade as far as the principals here are concerned — Smith’s been pretty quiet the last few years, for one thing, and Jones has aged pretty visibly and is more or less consigned to supporting roles these days (including here, given that his younger 1960s alter ego, played with impeccable precision by Josh Brolin, actually gets far more screen time than Jones’ present-day version), but it’s pretty clear that when it comes to carrying the load in big-budget brainless summer fare, neither of them has left a step — nor has Sonnenfeld, who puts his foot down on the gas immediately and never once lets up long enough to allow us to do the one thing that’s guaranteed to pulverize the credibility of any glitzy megamiilion-dollar Hollywood FX extravaganza : think.

And ya know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, there’s some sappy “bromance”-type crap shoehorned in here, and a love-interest subplot involving the Agent Ks of both the swingin’ Sixties and the present day, but that’s all fine and good too in the limited doses tha Sonnenfeld serves them up. By and large, though, to the shock of absolutely no one, this flick is all about big, flashy, lighthearted, comedic fun, and that’s something that’s sorely been lacking in the midst of all these dour summer movies this year, like Prometheus, for instance, that take themselves just sooooooo seriously.

Men In Black 3, quite clearly, doesn’t, and that’s perhaps its greatest virtue.The plot’s pretty basic time travel stuff — J goes back in time to prevent K from being killed, various hijinks ensue — but this is one of those films that isn’t so much concerned with doing anything new as it is just doing what everybody and their brother (or sister, or cousin) knows it’s there to do and doing it well. Give us a likable cast, some cool eye-candy effects, a couple little nifty quirks like Andy Warhol actually being a “Man In Black” himself, and you know what? You’ve got the recipe for a very familiar, but nonetheless pleasant, little serving of celluloid. It’s not at all filling on an intellectual, or frankly even artistic, level, but come one — does everything absolutely need to be? Sometimes you just want to go out to the movies, shut your brain off, and have a good time. If that’s the kind of mood you’re in, there’s nothing else out there this summer that will satisfy you quite like Men In Black 3.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Men In Black 3 (dir. by Barry Sonnenfeld)

Men In Black 3, which was released into theaters last month, is an unexpected surprise, a genuinely entertaining film that breathes some new life into an old franchise. 

If you’ve seen the trailer then you pretty much know the plot of Men In Black 3.  An alien war criminal named Boris (played, in wonderfully over-the-top fashion, by Jermaine Clement) escapes from imprisonment on the moon.  He goes back to the year 1969 and kills the man who originally imprisoned him, Agent K.  In the present day, Agent K (played, of course, by Tommy Lee Jones) vanishes from existence.  The only person who remembers him is his longtime partner, Agent J (Will Smith).  Agent J and Agent O (played by Emma Thompson) quickly figure out what has happened (one of the best things about Men In Black 3 is that everything happens quickly — there’s very little padding) and J is sent back to 1969 where he ends up teaming up with the young Agent K (now played by Josh Brolin).  Together, J and K attempt to prevent Boris from changing history.

As I hinted at earlier, I wasn’t really expecting much from Men In Black 3.  Yes, the trailer was cute and I was looking forward to seeing Josh Brolin’s impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones but otherwise, I had no reason to suspect that this film would be anything more than a somewhat disheartening collection of CGI and superstar egos.

But you know what?

Men In Black 3 isn’t half-bad. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Men In Black 3 doesn’t rewrite the rules of a familiar genre (like Cabin In The Woods).  And it’s certainly not an idiosyncratic expression of one man’s personal artistic vision (like Moonrise Kingdom).  No, Men In Black 3 is pure Hollywood entertainment but, at the very least, it’s a well-made example of pure Hollywood entertainment.  This is the type of film that could easily have been made (and watched) on autopilot but director Barry Sonnenfeld and his talented cast have actually made the effort to make an entertaining film and they’ve succeeded.

Both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have reached a point where they could play their roles in their sleep (and, in other movies, that’s what they both often seem to be doing) but both of them seem to be having fun in Men in Black 3 and they’ve got such a strong chemistry that they’re enjoyable to watch.  Jones even brings a sense of reality to his character’s world-weary resignation and, if Will Smith’s main talent seems to be the fact that he’s likable, he still does likeable pretty well.  The new additions to the cast — Emma Thompson, Jermaine Clement, Alice Eve, and especially Michael Stuhlbarg and Bill Hader — are all fun and interesting to watch.  The film, however, is truly stolen by Josh Brolin, who not only perfectly captures Tommy Lee Jones’ voice and mannerisms but also manages to hint at his sense of gravitas as well.  Sonnenfeld keeps the story moving quickly and, for once, the impressive CGI is used in the service of the story as opposed to just providing an excuse for that story to exist.

As usually seems to happen with franchise films, the whole thing ends on a sentimental note and, I have to admit, it actually brought tears to my eyes.

Then again, I’ve been told that I cry at anything.

Regardless of whether my tears were honestly earned or if they were just a Pavlovian response, Men In Black 3 is an entertaining film and I’m glad I saw it.