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Tag Archive: Coen Brothers


When we created last year’s preview of 2018 movies we were pretty sure we were going to have some great movies this year, but we were surprised by what ended up being the best.  All year we tried to keep up with what Hollywood had to offer and honed in on the genre content we thought was worth examining.  We went back and looked at it all and pulled together our picks for our annual Best Movies of 2018.

GenredomAs always, we’re after the best genre content of the year–with our top categories from the Best in Movies.  There are thousands of other places that cover plain vanilla dramas and the rest of the film world, but here we’re looking for movies we want to watch.  What do all of this year’s selections have in common?  In addition to those elements that define each part of genredom, each has a good story.  Special effects without a good story is not good entertainment, and we saw plenty of films this year that missed that crucial element.

Come back later this month for our TV and print media picks, and our annual borg Hall of Fame inductees.  Wait no further, here are our movie picks for 2018:

Best Film, Best Drama – Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox).  For the epic historical costume drama category, this biopic was something fresh and new, even among dozens of movies about bands that came before it.  Gary Busey played a great Buddy Holly and Val Kilmer a perfect Jim Morrison, and we can add Rami Malek and Gwilym Lee’s work as Freddie Mercury and Brian May to the same rare league.  But it wasn’t only the actors that made it work.  Incredible cinematography, costume and set recreations, and an inspiring story spoke to legions of moviegoers.  This wasn’t just another biopic, but an engaging drama about misfits that came out on top.  Honorable mention: Black Panther (Disney/Marvel).

Best Sci-fi Movie, Best Retro Fix, Best Easter EggsSolo: A Star Wars Story (Disney/Lucasfilm).  Put aside the noise surrounding the mid-year release of Solo before fans had recovered yet from The Last Jedi, and the resulting film was the best sequel (or prequel) in the franchise since the original trilogy (we rate it right after The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars as #3 overall).  All the scenes with Han and Chewbacca were faithful to George Lucas’s original vision, and the new characters were as cool and exciting, and played by exceptional talent, as found in the originals, including sets that looked like they were created in the 1970s of the original trilogy.  The Easter Eggs scattered all over provided dozens of callbacks to earlier films.  This was an easy choice: no other science fiction film came close to the rip-roaring rollercoaster of this film, and special effects and space battles to match.   Honorable mention for Best Sci-Fi Movie: Orbiter 9 (Netflix).

Best Superhero Movie, Best Crossover, Best Re-Imagining on Film Avengers: Infinity War (Disney/Marvel).  For all its faults, and there were many, the culmination of ten years of careful planning and tens of thousands of creative inputs delivered something no fan of comics has ever seen before:  multiple, fleshed out superheroes played by A-list actors with intertwined stories with a plot that wasn’t all that convoluted.  Is it the best superhero move ever?  To many fans, yes.  But even if it isn’t the best, its scope was as great as any envisioned before it, and the movie was filled with more great sequences than can be found in several other superhero movies of the past few years combined.  But teaming up Thor with Rocket?  And Spider-Man with Doctor Strange and Iron Man?  That beat all the prior Avengers team-ups that came before (and anything offered up from the other studios).  It’s easy to brush off any given film with so many superhero movies arriving these days, but this one was the biggest, grandest, and greatest made yet and deserves all the recognition.  Honorable mention: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Animation), Black Panther (Disney/Marvel).

Best Fantasy Movie, Best Comedy MovieJumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Columbia Pictures).  No movie provided more laugh-out-loud moments this year than last winter’s surprise hit, a sequel that didn’t need to be a sequel, and a video game tie-in for a fake video game.  A funny script and four super leads made this an easy pick in the humor category, but the Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired adventure ride made for a great fantasy film, too.  Honorable mention for Best Fantasy Movie: Black Panther (Disney/Marvel), Ready Player One (Warner Bros./Amblin).

Best Movie Borg, Best Borg Film – Josh Brolin’s Cable, Deadpool 2 (20th Century Fox).  Brolin’s take on Cable ended up as one of those great borgs on par with the Terminator from the standpoint of “coolness” factor.  But the trick that he wasn’t really the villain of the movie made him that much more compelling in the film’s final moments.  Ryan Reynolds was back and equal to his last Deadpool film, and his Magnificent Seven/Samurai Seven round-up of a team was great fun.  If not for all that unwinding of what happened in the movie in the coda, this might have made the top superhero movie spot.  But Deadpool 2 was a good reminder there is something other than Disney’s MCU to make good superhero flicks.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Although the first chapter in the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will have you thinking the new straight-to-Netflix movie is more of the same from the Coen Brothers, the subsequent chapters may have you think again.  It just may be the most thought-provoking, subdued, and effective film from the entire catalog of Coen Brothers films, and it may even eclipse Bone Tomahawk and the Coens’ own True Grit as this century’s best Westerns–at least in parts (and it’s a leap ahead of Quentin Tarentino’s past two efforts).  Netflix’s Mudbound was nominated this year in major categories (but didn’t win) and the studio brought in one documentary Oscar, but can this new Coens release bring Oscar home to Netflix for a major, large-scale production?

The common thread of the film is classic Americana: 19th century settlers possessed a kind of unique grit, and they paid a steep price, in unique and unglamorous ways, to build a nation.  The film chronicles six fictional fails and near fails that might have happened (mostly), presented as chapters of an anthology dime novel.  The first chapter follows the title character, a goofy but sure-shootin’ singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson, in a story that will have many thinking this movie is another Western parody like 1985’s Rustler’s Rhapsody (it is not).  The next chapter follows a determined thief (James Franco) unsuccessfully robbing a bank in an era before the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment (in a mash-up inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”).  Another story finds a young woman (Zoe Kazan of the famed film dynasty in a masterful performance) on a frontier wagon train just trying to make it to the next town.  The least of the tales comes off more as a one-note Aesop’s Fable, as Liam Neeson‘s character carts a young limbless orator (played eloquently by well-known Harry Potter actor Harry Melling) from town to town carnival style for money.  To round off the anthology, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, and Tyne Daly star in a John Ford-inspired stagecoach bit that would be good source material for a stage play.

But the best of the chapters is an adaptation of a Jack London story about an old gold prospector, a character study starring Tom Waits.  His performance could be seamlessly spliced into any of the best classic Westerns.  And it’s the kind of acting achievement that should earn Waits a supporting Oscar nod, if the Academy gets in lock-step with Netflix as a legitimate moviemaking studio.  The other performance worth Oscar contention is Chelcie Ross‘s trapper in the stagecoach segment.  His rambling story and delivery is laugh-out-loud funny, and you can almost see in the eyes of Rubinek and Daly a real struggle to hold back laughs.

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Hail, Caesar! A day in the life…

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

When I first walked out of the new Coen Brothers release Hail, Caesar! my initial thoughts were that I wanted more.  I wanted more scenes of the characters that just had brief moments.  I wanted more of Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle.  I wanted more of Tilda Swinton as the Thacker sisters.  I wanted more of Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney.  I wanted more of just about everything (and instead of listing each and every wonderful actor, I choose to stop and get to my point.)  A few seconds later, I realized that the movie isn’t about any of those supporting people.  It is barely about the star, Josh Brolin playing Eddie Mannix*, a fictionalized version of a real life MGM fixer and studio head.  It is about a day in the life of Eddie Mannix.  Think about that for a second and then join me in the next paragraph.

*(For more Mannix, march over to MGM Stories from “You Must Remember This.”)

What’s a day in the life for anyone?  Do you see all of your loved ones?  Do you talk to all of your family?  Do you get to pet your pets?  Do you work?  Do you make love?

Channing Tatum Hail Caesar

A day in the life doesn’t have to be miraculous, stupendous, monumental or anything.  A day in the life is.  If you asked me yesterday what my life was like, I’d tell you I walked along the Pacific Ocean, ate fresh seafood at a seafood “shack,” saw clear vistas devoid of pollution due to low humidity and high winds, played a trivia video game against my girlfriend and went 1-1, and I drove people around as a Lyft driver.  Today I duplicated my driving, walked for forty minutes, gave my kittens their morning treats, got a positive phone call from my doctor, got a book recommendation from one of my Lyft passengers and started to write this essay and the day is not even seven hours old.  Maybe I’ll apply for jobs later or read a book or watch a documentary or fix myself a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.  My future is in a state of flux as one of my kitten’s tails wags back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen, obscuring words just like the sands of time obscure the future of today.

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Martin Freeman in Fargo

Did you hear the one about the British actor who played a guy from Minnesooootah?

Following in the footsteps of the dark 1970 Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould comedy flick M*A*S*H, the Coen Brothers are taking their Oscar-winning script from their movie Fargo to the small screen, turning the setting into a new series on the FX Network.  An all-star cast will make TV viewers who might not have liked the Coen Brothers humor in the film give the idea another chance.

With an all-new “true crime” story with a new case and new characters, and that far-North Central U.S. accent that drifts from Wisconsin to Minnesota, The Hobbit and Sherlock star Martin Freeman will play a put-upon local who encounters a troublemaking outsider played by Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade).  Orange County star Colin Hanks plays a Duluth police deputy.  Other cast includes Allison Tolman, Oliver Platt (A Time to Kill, Beethoven), Keith Carradine (The Long Riders), Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Nebraska), Brian Markinson (Arrow, Continuum), Kate Walsh (The Drew Carey Show), and Adam Goldberg (Dazed and Confused, Zodiac).

Here’s the first seven minutes of the new series, Fargo:

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Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers have never made a movie on my favorites list since Raising Arizona, although No Country for Old Men had a lot going for it with great acting by Josh Brolin and Kelly MacDonald.  And I’m probably the only person on earth that isn’t a fan of Fargo.  But a story about the 1960s New York folk music scene might entice me to check out the Coens’ new StudioCanal period flick Inside Llewyn Davis.

The Coens are great at selecting key character actresses and using genre favorite Carey Mulligan in another period film seems to be a great choice as the love interest of what seems to be the stereotypical brooding, misunderstood musician, the title character played by Oscar Isaac.  Isaac has appeared in Robin Hood and The Bourne Legacy, but this is clearly his big leading man break.  Who doesn’t want to be in a movie with Bob Dylan singing the background music?

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Fargo, Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona and Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? fans (you know who you are) will be happy to know a new Coen Brothers flick is coming to theaters before year end.  Written by the Coens and directed by Michael Hoffman (Restoration, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Gambit stars big names Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, and Cameron Diaz along with Stanley Tucci.

Firth drops the dashing and charming for befuddled and put upon as Harry Deane, a British art curator working for an eccentric and abusive billionaire named Lionel Shahbandar, played by Rickman in his first starring post-Harry Potter film role.  Firth decides to take revenge on his boss by duping him into buying a fake Monet.  But it all requires the efforts of… an odd Texas rodeo queen (Cameron Diaz) and her mom, played by an even stranger grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman.

On paper that actually doesn’t sound so bad.  But the trailer is completely over the top, and Coen Brother fans will gravitate toward it, and everyone else… might get dragged along by their Coen Brothers-fan friends.

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By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

I’ve gotten in and out of reading comic books several times in my life.  I couldn’t tell you where the comic book store was when I lived in Columbia, MO.  I found one when I lived in Delaware.  There wasn’t one for miles when I lived in the mountains (but I found a baseball card shop).  I knew of and visited at least six comic book stores when I lived in Kansas City and I visit about the same number in Los Angeles.  I’ve visited them when I’ve made brief stops in London, England and Austin, Texas.  I had subscriptions to several Marvel titles when I was in junior high and didn’t have to worry about getting my parents to take me to the comic store.  One day a comic would arrive in my mailbox covered in the plain brown paper wrapping that I would later associate closely with either comics or porn.

A map of comic book stores across the U.S.

Still, every walk into a store is like a step into a colorful, inedible candy shop and I start to wonder, what I’m going to take home in my brown paper bag.  I like recommendations quite a bit when I look for new things (and that’s why on Free Comic Book Day as I went to a few of my favorite stores, I picked up All-Star Western and Justice League Dark) but since my time in Kansas City, my main focus for when I look on the shelves of whichever store I find myself in, is new material by past favorite authors.  That’s why on Free Comic Book Day I also picked up Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, who has entertained me in several stories like Pride of Baghdad, Runaways and Y: The Last Man.  Saga looks to be a great start to another captivating yarn as I ripped through both issues I bought as I curled up to relax on Sunday night.

However, I must ask myself, is using the past a logical way to pursue entertainment?  Are past performances indicative of future returns, unlike financial instruments?  How can you tell when to jump off the creative train of a favorite author?

This reminds me of a game a friend and I play every now again based on the Fellini movie, 8 1/2.  The film deals with the creative process and my friend and I used it as a jumping off point to analyze the careers of creative people by asking, “Does X have eight unarguable classics to their name?”

It’s tougher than you think.  To be able to create eight works of art is an accomplishment in and of itself, and to make eight super-duper terrific things, well, that’s a rarefied air.  Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what a “classic” is, but we generally know that Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are both Steven Spielberg classics, where War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull don’t come close to reaching the same height.  Even though I’m not a huge Spielberg fan, he gets to eight relatively easily as you could add E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if You Can to Jaws and Raiders and you get seven, though there are a few flaws, but I quibble.  Finding an eighth movie among The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Munich and Jurassic Park should be easy.  George Lucas on the other hand, I think he’s lucky to get two.  I suppose I’m saying that at this point, going to see a Spielberg film may be a bit more of a question mark than it was in the 90s, but if you gave me a choice between Spielberg and Lucas right now, there’s no question I would choose to see a Spielberg film.

Looking at my favorite movies over the past few years, Midnight in Paris has reinvigorated my belief in Woody Allen and I’m more likely to see his next film.  The quality of Marvel’s movies Thor, Captain America and The Avengers makes me more likely to go see non-sequels put out by Marvel Studios.  (Iron Man 2 still leaves a poor taste in my mouth. That’s what I get for licking the screen).  True Grit cemented my love of the Coen brothers, which I had before the movie as I’ve seen every one of their films.

My point?  If you like the creative work of a person, you’ll probably like their other work.  Looking at my bookshelf filled with several novels from Kurt Vonnegut, quite a few selections from Alan Moore and most every film by Wes Anderson, I probably didn’t need to do much thinking about it.  Still, it’s nice to come to that conclusion and know that when I roll into a comic store, I can find some Brian Michael Bendis, some Matt Fraction, some J. Michael Straczynski, some Neil Gaiman, some Jason, some Craig Thompson, some Daniel Clowes, some Kurt Busiek or many others and be happy when I get home, turn on the lamp and snuggle beneath my covers.  Plus, there’s always a chance I can stumble onto many more authors in the future through sheer luck, the recommendations of friends or the recommendations of the people I meet while wandering the aisles at my local comic book stores.

Hype schmype

We’ve all been there… your friends, co-workers, boss, agent, and big brother can’t stop talking about some hot new “must watch” (or read) film, TV show, book, whatever.  They are aghast, sympathetic, and even evangelical when you admit you’ve never seen Highlander or read Harry Potter.  Thus convinced by people whose opinion you respect, you jump on the bandwagon, eager for a great ride.  When the ride comes to a stop, however, you wander off, vaguely nonplussed.  Did I see the same movie?  Is my brother on drugs?  What’s happening here?  Yep: You’ve become the victim of hype that fell flat.

With the theory that intelligent pop culture consumers can have different but equally valid opinions, we’ve asked the borg.com contributors to sound off about their single biggest hype failures.  What highly-anticipated, universally-praised properties didn’t work for us, at all?

Elizabeth Bunce:  This one was easy: The Matrix.  I consider myself an intelligent fan of intelligent science fiction (Gattaca, The Adjustment Bureau), and can appreciate the fun the genre has to offer, too (who doesn’t love Total Recall or Tron?).  Heck, I even thought  Inception was OK!  But, man, did I ever miss the boat on The Matrix.  Admittedly, I was handicapped coming in, as I’m not usually a big Keanu Reeves fan, although I thought he was perfectly cast in Bill & Ted and Speed.  I know the super-slow-mo, bullet-dodging SFX are much admired (not to mention imitated), but I found them just plain silly.  Any minute, I expected them to start spouting stilted, dubbed-in English like some vintage Kung-fu send-up.  But my biggest problem with the film is a thematic one.  I just can’t get behind the premise.

Ok, I can believe that our world is just a virtual reality recreation foisted upon us by energy-hungry robots.  That’s not my problem.  What I can’t get around is everyone’s eagerness to shed that illusion and return to the drudgery of real life.  Sure, freedom fighting is all very noble, and 150 years of fantasy have convinced us there’s no place like home, but come on!  If I have to choose between riding a motorcycle with Carrie Ann Moss or slurping rations in some dingy 23rd century version of your mom’s basement, along with the other gamer geeks who haven’t showered in three days… Yeah.  I’m gonna let those metal squids suck out my brain.

Art Schmidt:  The first thing that popped into my head was a movie I saw last year.  I had been reading about this movie for a year.  The director had directed three of my favorite movies from the last ten years, and this time he was writing the screenplay, too!  Bonus!!!  The early hype on this movie was phenomenal, and the trailers that trickled out onto Facebook were mind-blowing.  This movie was going to absolutely R-U-L-E!!!  And then it didn’t rule.  In fact, the movie was a certifiable train wreck.  The director was Zack Snyder, and the movie was, of course, Sucker Punch.  However, I can’t list this as my pick for the thing that I hated that everyone else liked, because no one liked it.  The studio “suckered” me into giving them my money, so I have no close friends to conveniently lay the blame for that lost ten dollars on.  Now for my real pick.  The Millenium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels).

Critics said it was cutting-edge, gritty and brilliant.  My neighbors who read it said it was awesome (I have one neighbor who is from Ireland, and he said they were “brilliant”).  My favorite entertainment magazine said the novels were better than anything being written out there.  They were going to make a movie out of them, even though movies had already been made out of them in Europe.  I read all three, and I’m still confused about why everyone is so gaga over them.  I mean, all I really got from those books was that men are pigs, Europeans think women cheating on their husbands is just fine, and Swedes drink a lot of coffee.  I mean, really, what’s with all the coffee?  I like coffee, I drink coffee every day, but seriously, all anyone ever drinks in those novels is coffee (okay, twice someone drank mineral water and I think I recall a couple of scenes where someone had a beer but wished they were drinking coffee).  The majority of scenes are literally defined by the presence or lack of a coffee maker, whether someone turns it off when they leave the room, and by what type of coffee cup the people in the scene are drinking their coffee out of.  And the first book, seriously?  The climax is the discovery that the ‘murder’ being investigated never actually happened, but no worries, there is a murderer to be apprehended anyway.  I give up.

Jason McClain:  I have to agree with Elizabeth: hype is the most dangerous thing to my possible enjoyment of a movie. I often wonder how my opinion of The Blair Witch Project would have changed if I would have seen it three weeks later.  It goes beyond hype, though. If I know I want to see a movie, I avoid everything about it.  I learned this trait from Entertainment Weekly when Seven came out. I had no clue Kevin Spacey was going to be in the movie until I read an Entertainment Weekly article.  I still remember how upset I was when he came on the screen and that moment of surprise had been ruined.  So, I avoid trailers. (Yes, I will put my head down and hum to myself while in a theater.)  I avoid commercials.  I avoid everything if it is a movie that I know I want to see.  If it isn’t, I don’t care.  If it isn’t, I will listen to people, watch all the funny moments in a trailer, get excited when a commercial comes on the TV and probably try to go opening weekend.  I may as well cover the movie in bacon grease and throw it in a pen of tigers, because at that point the movie is doomed to fail in my eyes.  When I started to think about the movies I remember being ruined by hype, I thought about movies that I don’t find funny (Shrek 2, Old School or The Hangover) but comedy is subjective and it is possible I was in a bad mood the day I saw these.  (A bad mood, after hype, is the second most dangerous filter with which to view a movie.)  I could mention an overly long nature documentary that anthropomorphizes animals that live in the furthest south region possible, but these aquatic birds can’t defend themselves.  Only one movie made me throw things in anger and yell at the TV screen during the Academy Awards, Gladiator.

That movie still makes me angry to this day.  Sure, it was a crappy year for movies when it won (except for Almost Famous), but that doesn’t excuse it.  I have no clue how anyone ever in the history of all recorded time found this movie to be anything but awful.  Because my jaw is clenching right now and I want to punch a CGI tiger in the mouth, I think I’m going to sign off.  I’ll just say this one last thing: Gladiator made me laugh more than Shrek 2, Old School and The Hangover combined.  I’m not too sure which side that reflects poorly on (or if it is on me) but only one of those things won Best Freaking Picture of the year.

C.J. Bunce:  There are so many over-hyped films that grate on me to this day that I’ve mentioned here before, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), then there are so-so movies that critics rave about, like almost all the Coen Brothers movies (Raising Arizona excluded).  I have wanted to like The Big Lebowski, but I don’t know what it is supposed to be.  Funny?  Nope.  Serious?  Nope.   But to force myself to choose one big hit that everyone liked except me–I ultimately land at the Coen Brothers’ Fargo as my biggest hype disappointment.  Why?  Some background on how I think:  Part of the test the U.S. courts used to determine whether something qualified as obscene included a test referred to as the Miller test.  Basically, the work would be shown to have no socially redeeming value if it lacked “any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (I’m leaving out a bit but this is the main part).  Fargo has none of this, at least for me.

Is it supposed to be funny?  I’ve known people from Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Dakotas and they never talked with such an overdone, obnoxious accent as the actors in this movie.  Innocent people in a wood chipper as entertaining?  Bad acting, bad story, absurd antics, preposterous murder plot, a film that left me wanting my money back.  And the movie claims it is based on a true story, but that’s nonsense other than a guy once really put his his wife in a woodchipper.  Macy and McDormand have done better.  Seven Academy Award nominations and a win for McDormand for her acting in this film?  The National Film Registry and American Film Institute Lists?  Oh, Coen Brothers, make a film I like, please.  At least Wes Anderson had The Fantastic Mr. Fox.