Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Meet Steve Park. You may know him as Sonny, the Korean store owner in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) -- or perhaps as a regular on "In Living Color" during the 1991-1992 season. While recently going through the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" (2009) with an audience for a week during the Ebert Cinema Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs, I came to the startling realization that the Steve Park who played Japanese-American Mike Yanagita in "Fargo" (1996) and the Stephen Park who played Korean-American Mr. Park 13 years later in "A Serious Man" were one and the same.
The Coens sometimes give a single-scene appearance to a relatively minor character who provides the key to understanding (or at least defining) the film's mysteries. In "Miller's Crossing" (1990) it's Mink (Steve Buscemi) who, in a rapid-fire exchange with Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) at the Shenandoah Club lays out the movie's convoluted map of relationships before we can take in everything that's being thrown at us.
In "No Country for Old Men" it's Ellis (Barry Corbin), cousin of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who, in the quiet scene that begins the last movement of the picture, spells out the harsh realities of the past, present and future for the retiring lawman who feels overmatched in the modern world and wants to opt out of it: "You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."
Park has the honor of appearing in two such key scenes for the Coens, years apart. His Mike Yanagita is funny, with a delectable Minnesota accent to bounce off Marge Gunderson's, but he's also a disturbing and even tragic figure. Mr. Park (Clive's father) is one of many forces buffeting Larry Gopnick. And, unlike Larry, he's a man who knows exactly what he wants, even if Larry's rationalist worldview can't comprehend him. (Watch the video, above.)
View image Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't.
(A comment by Phillip Kelly in reply to an earlier post made me chuckle and got me thinking. He wrote: "I guess my theorizing [of] Anton Chigurh as main character doesn't stand now that Miramax is touting him for Best Supporting Actor. Too bad." That's the jumping-off place for this entry.)
The New York Film Critics Circle gave Javier Bardem its 2007 Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Anton Chigurh ("shi-GUR") in Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country For Old Men" (which was also named Best Picture). The funny thing is, so much of the discussion of the of the movie centers around Chigurh that you'd think he was was the lead. And critical reservations about "No Country" tend to focus on interpretations of Chigurh, and whether the critic accepts him as a character or a mythological presence or a haircut or some combination thereof.
"No Country" traces the path of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), from his opening narration to his closing monologue, from his nostalgia about the "old times" and his fear of the violence in this modern world to his account of two dreams about his father. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), sets things in motion by taking the satchel of drug money, and Chigurh spends most of the film relentlessly tracking him down, while Ed Tom follows a trail of blood to catch up with them both. None of these characters is a conventional "lead." We never even see Moss or Ed Tom come face-to-face with Chigurh. He exists in the physical world, but his presence is strongest when it's felt by these other two characters, even though they don't share screen space with him.
Q. Apparently there is a new movie coming out named "An Alan Smithee Film," written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Arthur Hiller, and it has led to a lot of publicity about "Alan Smithee" and his checkered career. What is your favorite Alan Smithee film? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg)