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April movie round-up

The three films that I watched for the first time during the month of April are all, to a degree, “acclaimed”, if not critically, then at least among some of my friends. That last consideration drove my selection a bit, on the few occasions where I did find time to watch a movie.

Fargo1996
Juno2007
The 13th Warrior1999

As always, proceed at your own risk.

Fargo was one of those movies where I could enumerate quite a lot about what I liked, and yet conclude that my overall impression was “meh”. There were moments in it, where I thought the scenery and the visuals were remarkable in an understated kind of way. There are a number of strong acting performances – William H. Macy, especially, but Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi not far behind. There are some chuckle-inducing conversational vignettes that I would rate as outstanding.

And yet, I did not find the movie either especially funny or especially gripping. The chuckles was all I could offer in response to the sitcom bits. I am not particularly fond of on-screen murders of the “in a wrong place at a wrong time” kind. The investigation started brightly enough with Marge’s surprising CSI skills, but then deteriorated into chancy occurrences (culminating with Marge shooting Gaear and then being seen driving him in the back of her police car – can a 7-months-pregnant woman get a wounded 250-lbs guy anywhere by herself?). The suspense for plot resolution was solely in expectation of everything unraveling “Britcaper”-style, but the movie came up short in that respect. And I can only take so many of “Yah” being thrown around before going berserk. If that’s how Minnesotans truly speak, remind me to steer away from that state.

And can somebody explain to me why the movie is named the way it is? The opening scene takes place in Fargo, ND, but nothing else does. The rest of the movie jumps between Minneapolis and Brainerd, MN. The final scene is in Bismarck, ND. Why Fargo?

Subject matter aside, there is practically nothing that I disliked about Juno. Great performance by Ellen Page, complemented by what I thought were strong performances of every member of the main cast. Sharp dialogue, well-developed emotions, nice cinematography, timely comical bits deftly inserted into otherwise serious storyline. If I wanted to re-visit the choices a pregnant high-schooler is faced with, I’d mark this movie for a place on my DVD shelf. Alas, I’d rather wish the girl made some use of contraception. Of course, that would make for a pretty boring movie, I suppose.

The 13th Warrior was enjoyable in a heroic/historic kind of way. I like movies that depict civilizations of old, I like action, I like the idea of a band of selfless warriors saving the day, so a group of Viking warriors rising in defence of a besieged kingdom is a concept I can get behind.

My problem with the film was that it felt simplistic. Once the thirteen warriors started on their way, the action consisted of we fight, we are almost overrun, the enemy inexplicably retreats, we assess the damage, we prepare for the next battle, we fight, we are almost overrun… A daring strike into the heart of the enemy’s camp mixed it up a bit, even if it was seemingly useless to the advancement of our heroes’ cause. Most of the supporting members of the band did not survive the adventure, but the couple of leading ones, of course, did. The leader of the band and the most fearsome warrior of them all fulfilled his task and ensured victory – but was felled in the process. I more or less correctly guessed the fate of each of the warriors before the first of the swords was drawn.

The movie has some poignant moments, memorable lines and well-staged fights. Some scenes gloriously stretched plausibility beyond limits. The title character, Ahmed, quite well played by Antonio Banderas, learned Norsemen language via simply listening to it without translation for a day or so. I loved the way the scene of his learning and finally responding in a new language was filmed, and even though the feat itself was way too far-fetched, I recognize that it was a necessary liberty to take as far as the story was concerned. The Vikings had to respond in kind, so Buliwyf displayed his photographic memory by reproducing an Arabic phrase that Ahmed had wrote in the mud a day before. That was a powerful statement of Vikings’ mental agility in addition to their brawny force, and hugely symbolic in terms of two very distinct civilizations opening up to one another, despite its remarkable implausibility.

But in other aspects, the simplification felt nothing but convenient. The movie toyed with my expectations a little, by unveiling the formidable enemy to be not some fantastic powerful mythical creatures (there were a few hints suggesting that to me earlier in the proceedings), but rather a tribe of relatively primitive cannibals, formidable only because of its number. They seemingly were settled in their caves for quite some time, occasionally bothering the nearby Norsemen with raids, yet they waited to unleash their strongest attack until our warriors arrived. What we learn about them suggests that their society is comparatively unevolved, yet they are fairly organized in their battle assaults. There is no logical explanation to that, it just happens as a background that highlights the heroism of our warriors.

Despite its fairly high subject-matter fascination quotient to me, too many things made me shake my head during the The 13th Warrior, and, ultimately, the movie was no more than a middle-of-the-road viewing for me.

I am not at all sure that I will watch many movies in May…

Posted in Movies

8 Comments

  1. Nathan

    Re: Fargo

    First of all, Fargo is right on the border and most people from the area call it Fargo-Moorhead just to acknowledge the parts in each state. The whole movie takes place along a corridor centering on Fargo.

    And yes, they really do speak that way. When it was first released, my GF (who’s from Duluth, MN) and I got invited to an advanced screening which included a bunch of Minnesota ex-pats in NY. You could tell which folks had spent time in the area because we were all laughing the loudest listening to the characters speak. I suppose that might count as too long of an inside joke, but I just loved it and thought they all nailed it perfectly.

  2. Ilya

    I looked at the map, Nathan, and your explanation makes sense in the context of Fargo being roughly halfway between Minneapolis and Bismarck. But Brainerd is much closer to Minneapolis than to Fargo, and almost everything in the movie happens either around Brainerd or in Minneapolis…

    I did get the feeling that if you were from Minnesota – or had considerable exposure to Minnesotans – your level of appreciation of Fargo would be much higher than mine.

  3. Eric

    I’m inclined to say you should watch Fargo again, but maybe that’s my own bias as an enormous Coens fan showing itself. Fargo really is a pretty brilliant film.

    One point if you do give it another shot: as with most Coen Bros. movies, the main plot itself is really sort of a McGuffin; that is, Fargo may present itself as a movie about a murder investigation, but it’s really no more about a murder investigation than The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona are really about kidnappings or Miller’s Crossing is about the Mob. Fargo is really (and this will sound cheesy, sorry) about the characters in it. What they’re actually up to is really only significant to the extent that it shows who they are (e.g. William Macy’s plan to kidnap his own wife isn’t important because it’s a plot point, it’s important because it gives us a chance to observe and study the kind of man who would plot to kidnap his wife; the kidnapping itself is almost incidental). This kind of bait-and-switch is so common to the Coens’ work that it can almost be considered an artistic signature.

    Which isn’t necessarily for everyone, I’ll admit. I’m just pushing on it because I’m a big enough fan to wish evvvvverrrrrybody loved the Coens’ work as much as I did. (In general, I should say: they’ve made a few dogs over the past twenty years or so, though interestingly enough, I’m not sure anyone ever agrees what they are–I know people who love The Man Who Wasn’t There, but personally I don’t think it works, and I know a few Coen fans who somehow don’t get how made-of-awesome The Hudsucker Proxy is. And No Country For Old Men just seems to divide people so much I even hate to bring it up for fear of starting an argument similar to one that took place over at Jim Wright’s place a few months ago. But anyway….)

  4. jason

    I’ve somehow managed not to see Fargo, but I’ve found all the other Coen Brothers films that I have seen almost uniformly frustrating. I want to like them, I really do, but for some reason, I just don’t. They always seem a little too clever and a little too self-conscious of themselves as movies, if that makes sense. Oh, and they’re frequently just weird, too.

    As for The 13th Warrior, I remember seeing it when it first came out and that I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I no longer recall any specifics about why I didn’t like it. Possibly it was another case where I preferred the book (Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, a “realistic” retelling of the ancient Beowulf story) to the movie. But I honestly don’t remember now.

    And finally Juno. I loved it. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that’s genuinely sweet rather than merely saccharine. The writing was sharp and the performances top notch, and I found myself developing a little crush on the title character. Ellen Page is immensely appealing. There are some who’ve tried to politicize the movie as having a pro-life message, and you yourself express discomfort about the subject matter, but I see it as simply proceeding from an honest admission that kids are impulsive and even smart ones often do really dumb things, then have to figure out what to do about the consequences. You can argue that the ending is a little too artificially happy (although I read it as bittersweet, myself), but Juno does have her breakdown and her periods of emotional hell earlier in the movie. The fact that she emerges from crisis still relatively happy and confident is just another bit of honesty; teenage pregnancy isn’t desirable, but it is survivable, if you have good parents and a strong constitution. And I think that’s a good message to send to kids, even as we’re counseling them not to get into Juno’s situation in the first place.

  5. Ilya

    Eric, I understand what you’re saying, and I did, first and foremost, enjoyed the acting and the characters about Fargo. In my non-connoisseur entertainment-first way of approaching movie appreciation, though, I’m afraid I am not wired to emphasize character study over things such as plot…

    In any case, I am not generalizing being for or against Coens’ movies. I missed the week of No Country For Old Men on satellite TV while we were away on holidays, but I’m still looking to catch it one day…

    Jason, I suspected that I might have liked the book better than the movie in case of The 13th Warrior. I often wonder if I am missing some important perspective whenever I watch an adaptation of a book that I have not read myself.

    And I agree with you on Juno. I guess were I not a father of a teenage daughter myself, I might have felt less uncomfortable about the subject matter.

  6. jason

    “I guess were I not a father of a teenage daughter myself, I might have felt less uncomfortable about the subject matter.”

    Sure, that makes perfect sense…

  7. Brian Greenberg

    Fargo: No offense to Eric, but the reason I’ve never seen it is that, despite all of it’s commercial success, just about everyone I know well that has seen it has walked away non-plussed. If a movie requires a “coach” to explain to me why it’s awesome, my (somewhat arrogant) opinion is that it’s not that awesome…

    Juno: I also loved this movie. In fact, I was somewhat taken aback at the political/social objections to it. To me, it’s all about the two sets of parents: Juno’s parents, who are not very smart/educated, but care deeply for their daughter, and do their best to guide her as best they can, and the adoptive parents, who are more educated, but less experienced with children – especially teenagers – and can’t really give good advice, despite their education. Add to that a headstrong teenager who’s got a sharp mind, but doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know, and watch as she figures out the strengths and weaknesses of the adults in her world. The pregancy itself, I think, could have been any teenage problem (drugs, alcohol, bullying, getting into college, etc.) and the story would have been basically the same. In fact, I think that the pro-life stance of Juno’s rather soft-spoken classmate is a nod toward how the movie isn’t about pro-choice/pro-life.

    Of course, if you had to know all of that to like it, then I’ve probably just violated my own rule from the top of this comment. 😉

  8. Ilya

    I feel awfully inadequate with my “how much entertainment” approach to movies, seeing as I am surrounded by deeply analytical types 🙂

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