I am bleary-eyed from watching stuff that has come, both directly and indirectly, from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Happily bleary-eyed.
1. Fargo—the television series
This FX series was created by Noah Hawley and is based on the iconic Academy Award winning film, Fargo. It stars Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman and does justice to its cinematic progenitor. I suppose it would have to, since the Coen Brothers signed on as executive producers for the series.
So I checked out the series on DVD from my local public library. From the moment my husband and I watched the first episode, we were hooked. We became Minnesotans.
I’d prepare a dinner for the mister and me and he’d say, “All right, then. Let’s set ourselves down and watch the next episode of Fargo.” And then I’d say, “Jeez, Lester Nygaard‘s in quite a pickle. How’s he gonna weasel his way outta this one?” And then my husband would say, “Well, you and me’s about to find out!” and he’d click the remote and I’d say, “You betcha we are!” as the kinda ominous cello music swells up on the sound system and the equally kinda ominous knitted menu comes up on the screen. “Pass the Uncle Pete’s, would’ya?” And we’d try to get the dinner eaten before the really grisly stuff starts happenin’. Sometimes, we’d have to stop in mid-forkful.
Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) comments to Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) on her chart of the brutal homicides that have befallen Bemidji, Minnesota and beyond: “Nice collage. You take up basket weaving too in your downtime?”
If you are hemmin’ and hawin’ about watchin’ the television series on account of how seminal the movie is, take my word for it—you will NOT be disappointed.
2. Unbroken—the movie (based on the book of the same title by Laura Hillenbrand)
Unbroken is the biography of Olympic track athlete and World War II war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini. Surprise number one: the biopic was directed by Angelina Jolie. Surprise number two: Joel and Ethan Cohen wrote the screenplay. Surprise number three: As of today, Rotten Tomatoes has given Unbroken a barely fresh rating—51%.
Wait, what? (as Molly Solverson from Fargo would say.) I read the reviews after I watched the movie, and I just don’t get it. I really like Rotten Tomatoes and have based movie-going decisions on the site’s reviews. A 70% plus freshness rating will prompt me to consider shelling out money at the local multiplex. After watching it on the small-ish screen, Unbroken turned out to be a movie I wished I’d seen at the theater.
Of course, I had to read some of the comments and I found myself annoyed. “Jolie’s sentimental direction is forceful rather than reflective, stiffly moving from one tribulation to another without pausing to reflect on what any of this actually means. Worse still, the film falls prey to almost all of the most grating bio-pic clichés, none of which helps us to ever really get inside Zamperini’s mind.” (full review here) or “Unbroken is by no means a terrible film. Jolie is a solid director, her cast does good work and the narrative – shallow and conventional as it is – isn’t necessarily unengaging. It is, however, disappointingly safe; the sort of adequate time killer you won’t necessarily regret seeing, assuming you remember seeing it at all. ” (full review here.)
The general concensus is that most RT reviewers wanted Jolie to explore the darker side of Louie Zamperini. They wanted Zamperini to be less of a messianic archetype. They wanted the Japanese to be more human; we did drop the atomic bomb on two major population centers, after all and that was so much worse than what Allied POWs suffered at the hands of the Japanese. At the outbreak of WWII, though, the development of the atomic bomb was over five years away. Japan and the USSR were the only countries involved in the global conflict that had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention. Imperial Japan’s treatment of POWs was in violation of every single article of the Convention. Every one.
In addition, the critics were put-off by the story of Zamperini, found in the book but not in the movie. After the war, he suffered from what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse. His wife, anxious to help him, urged him to accompany her to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. There, he accepted Christ as his Savior, forgave his enemies and lived an exemplary life until he died in 2014 at the age of 97. You know—”shallow and conventional.” But it wasn’t in the movie!
I thought the movie did a masterful job of showing the humanity of the Japanese captors, even Zamperini’s arch-enemy, The Bird. The last image we see of The Bird at the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan is a sepia photograph of a frightened little child standing next to a stern man in a military uniform. The scenes that take place on the bombers are heart-stopping (good Lord, those B-24 Liberators were buckets of bolts!) and the forty-seven days lost at sea are gut-wrenching; every exchange between the three survivors and every scene of the ordeal is compelling. The prison-camp scenes may have been a little dragged out, but that wasn’t something I noticed the first time I watched Unbroken. I watched it a second time with one of my grown children after reading the reviews, trying to jaundice my eye a bit to understand where the reviewers were coming from. I still think this film is magnificent.
So, has anyone out there seen either Fargo or Unbroken? What did you think of Fargo‘s “trueness” to the 1996 motion picture—has creator Noah Hawley done it justice? And can you believe the Coens wrote the screenplay for Unbroken? Could you see any of the signature Coen dark humor? Post your comments—I’d love to hear from you.