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.

A Movie A Day #90: Red Rock West (1992, directed by John Dahl)


The place is Red Rock, a little town located in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  When a man from Texas (played by Nicolas Cage) wanders into his bar, the owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), assumes that the man is Lyle From Dallas, the semi-legendary hit man who Wayne has hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Wayne gives the man half of his payment in advance and promises the other half after Suzanne is dead.  What Wayne doesn’t realize is that Lyle From Dallas is not actually Lyle From Dallas.  Instead, he is a drifter named Michael who has just recently lost his job.  Michael takes Wayne’s money but, when he sees Suzanne, he tells her that Wayne wants her dead.  Suzanne responds by offering to pay Michael to kill Wayne.  Michael mostly just wants to leave town but his every effort is thwarted, with him continually only managing to get a mile or two out of town just to then find circumstances forcing him to once again pass the Red Rock welcome sign.  Meanwhile, the real Lyle From Dallas (Dennis Hopper) has shown up and he is pissed.

Red Rock West is a clever and energetic neo noir that plays out like the child of a marriage between the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.  Like the Coens’ Blood SimpleRed Rock West is a violent movie that is full of twist and turns and features characters who are often confused and rarely understand what is actually going on.  From David Lynch, it borrows both Twin Peaks‘s Lara Flynn Boyle and Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper.  Red Rock West was made when Nicolas Cage still gave a damn and it also shows why, during his short career, J.T. Walsh was everyone’s favorite duplicitous character actor.  Hopper is his usual crazy self and Boyle is a sultry and sexy fatale.  Red Rock West is one of the best neo noirs of the 1990s.

Let’s Second Guess The Academy: Best Picture 1985


Jonathan Pryce in Brazil

Last week, we reconsidered whether or not The Hurt Locker deserved the title of Best Picture of 2009.

This week, let’s go back to the year of my birth, 1985.  According to the Motion Picture Academy, the five best films of the year were:

1) Steven Spielberg’s controversial adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,

2) Witness, a film about a tough cop (Harrison Ford) who hides out with the Amish,

3) Kiss of the Spider Woman, one of the first independent films to ever be nominated for best picture,

4) Prizzi’s Honor, a darker than dark Mafia comedy from John Huston that starred Jack Nicholson,

and finally,

5) Out of the Africa, the film that was eventually named best picture of 1985.

Despite its victory at the Oscars, Out of Africa hasn’t aged well.  If any year seems to be worthy of a little second guessing, it would certainly be 1985.  If you were a member of the Academy in 1985, which nominee would you have voted for?  Personally, I would have voted for Witness.  How about you?

Now, here comes the fun part.  Let’s say that Out of Africa wasn’t released in 1985.  Let’s say that Steven Spielberg never made The Color of Purple and that Jack Nicholson refused to star in Prizzi’s Honor.  Let’s say that none of the five nominated film had been eligible in 1985.  Which films would you have nominated in their place?

You can vote for five of the film listed below and yes, we do accept write-ins!

(Incidentally, I voted for Brazil, The Breakfast Club, To Live and Die In L.A., The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Insignificance.)

2011: The Year In Film So Far


Greetings from the former home of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Crossville, Tennessee!  Yes, Jeff and I are on our way back to Texas.  It’s been a wonderful vacation but I have to admit, I’m looking forward to seeing a movie at the Plano (or Dallas) Angelika on Sunday.  I’m not sure which movie but, as long as it’s a movie, I’ll be a happy girl.

That’s because I love movies.  Movies are what I schedule my life around.  My birth certificate says I was born in 1985 but I know that I was born in the year of Brazil, Prizzi’s Honor, Blood Simple, and After Hours.  If each year can be judged by the quality of the films then how is 2011 looking now that we’ve reached (and passed) the halfway mark?

Right now, as I sit here in this hotel room in my panties and my beloved Pirates shirt, I’d say 2011 is shaping up to be an average year.  There’s been a few films that I loved and there’s been a few that I’ve absolutely despised but for the most part, this year is shaping up to be comfortable and rather bland. 

Much as I did last year at this time, I’m going to take a few minutes to mention a few high points (and low points) of 2011 so far.  Agree?  Disagree?  Make your opinion known.

Best Film (So Far): Hanna, without a doubt.  Joe Wright’s stylish thriller hasn’t gotten half the acclaim that it deserves.  Runners-ups: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Incendies, Jane Eyre, Kill The Irishman, Of Gods and Men, Red Riding Hood, Sucker Punch, The Source Code, Super, 13 Assassins, The Tree of Life, Win Win, X-Men: First Class

Best Male Performance of the Year (so far): Paul Giamatti in Win Win.  Runners up: Bobby Cannavale in Win Win, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Hesher, Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer, and Rainn Wilson in Super.

Best Female Performance Of The Year (so far): Sairose Ronan in Hanna. Runners up: Lubna Azabal for Incendies, Ellen Page for Super, Amy Ryan for Win Win, and Mia Wasikowska for Jane Eyre.

Best Ending (so far): The charmingly low budget zombie film that runs over the end credits of Super 8.

Best Horror Film (so far): Insidious.

Most Underrated Film Of The Year (so far): A tie, between Sucker Punch and Red Riding HoodRed Riding Hood, as a matter of fact, was so underrated that I had to see it a second time before I really appreciated it.

Best Bad Film: Beastly.  Silly but kinda fun in a really, really odd sort of way.

Worst Film of The Year (so far): The Conspirator, a bore of a movie that was apparently filmed through a filter of grime.  Runners up: Priest, The Beaver, Battle L.A. (sorry Arleigh, Leonard, and Erin), Season of the Witch, Your Highness, and The Green Lantern.

Biggest Example of A Missed Opportunity This Year (So Far): The Adjustment Bureau, which could have been a great Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind-type of film but instead, turned out to be just another predictable and shallow example of new age triteness.

The Get-Over-It Award For The First Half Of 2011: The Conspirator, a film that attempts to be relavent by using the 19th Century to comment on political issues from 2006.

My Prediction For Which Film Will Be The Most Overrated Of 2011: Last year, I predicted The Social Network and, surprise surprise, I was right.  In fact, the folks at AwardsDaily.com are still bitching about how The Social Network lost best picture to The King’s Speech.  (By the way, a few other choice pieces of wisdom from Awards Daily: The Beaver is Jodie Foster’s best film ever and only elitists should be allowed to comment on film.)  This year, I’m going to predict that the most overrated film of 2011 will be the unnecessary remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

My Prediction For What Will Be The Worst Film Of 2011: The winner here is another remake — Rod Lurie is remaking Straw Dogs and this time, he’s setting it in the South.  You know what?  Go back to Vermont and fuck yourself ragged, you dumbass, blue state elitist.  

So, that’s 2011 so far.  There’s still quite a few films that I’m looking forward to seeing: Another Earth, The Debt, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Hugo, and most of all, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.