Movie Review: Miller’s Crossing

Posted: September 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

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Miller’s Crossing (1990/ 20th Century Fox/ Dir. Joel Coen)

I’m going to open with a controversial statement, I’ve never been a huge Coen Brothers fan. They’re okay, but they always strike me as trying just a little too hard to be quirky, rather than just letting it happen. Even when they’re good, you can see this going on. The deliberate attempt to be quirky works so less well than tings that are just plain quirky. Miller’s Crossing has many an example of them trying to hard, but for the most part it works. I think it tends to work because the movie isn’t supposed to be funny, and as such, the quirky characters can be horrifying, rather than comedic. I’m going to tell you now, I almost never laugh as a Coen Brothers comedy. However, let us look at what is good and not so hot in this movie, shall we?


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I like a shot of booze sometimes.

The movie begins with a little nod to the Godfather, were a person describes his problem to the local crime boss, only the situation is different. In this, a lower crime boss is asking permission to kill a bookie, rather than avenge his daughter. He doesn’t get an answer he likes, and he leaves angry. After that scene, we get the opening credits, which contains a genuinely beautiful image, a hat blowing through the air down a leaf covered street. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to have any sort of symbolic meaning, I suspect it might though.

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Look, I’m just saying if you put on that color, you’ll look like a slut.

This is one of the problems with not just the Coen Brothers, but all of these smaller movies of the 90s. They were supposed to be independent, artsy movies, and they often had to present the strange & artsy front in everything they did. The thing is a lot of these movies had official or semi-official studio support and backing. Semi-official came in the form of independent divisions like Sony Pictures Classics or Fox Searchlight, which were supposed to get independent movies for distribution, but would also fund certain projects. As a result, several indie filmmakers started trying to fit a certain mold. I suspect, although I can’t prove this, that said studios pressured those filmmakers into putting the trademark things into their movies so that they could get their quirky merit badge and their artsy merit badge, because if you have enough merit badges, then you’ll get the Indie Stamp of Approval. This is how the minds of people who live in Hollywood think, they actually believe there is a formula to outsider art and that people who enjoy outsider art will appreciate the fact that you stuck to the formula. I think that artifice is part of what killed the Indie Film market and left us with Michael Bay. Now, I’ll admit that The Coen’s are probably not part of the pack on this because A) They’re not actually indie, this movie was made by Fox Studios, just Fox and B) They came early enough that they’re probably part of the template for the formula rather than followers of it. However, they do have certain hallmarks. For example, they do have what I like to call the Kitano Shot. What is the Kitano Shot? Yeah, I know you didn’t ask, but let’s pretend you did. This is a Kitano Shot…

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The Kitano Shot

A character stares directly into the camera silently, remaining unmoving. It’s practically a still shot, only using a moving camera. I doubt anyone else calls that a Kitano Shot, but I do because it’s in every Kitano Takeshi movie I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those little things that gives these movies their quirky, indie edge. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it certainly prevents the Coen’s movies from looking like every other damn thing on the marquee. I understand the importance of that, but the feeling that this is contrived rather than occurring naturally hurts the effect and I can’t get into them as much as I probably should. Still, this is a pretty good looking movie, it’s shot well and the visual assembly is done well.

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Another still shot

Now, how about the story? Well, the story is pretty flawless so long as you like this kind of story. Let’s assume that Film Noir and it’s cooler big brother, Hardboiled Fiction is your kind of thing. If you’ve read a bit of Hammett, you’ll recognize some of the storylines as being reminiscent of those from his books. I would say that they’re not actually lifted from his books, but they are obviously inspired by them. I hate to give away parts of the story, because the joy in a story like this is watching it unfold from square one. I will say that it’s one of those stories where a small thing leads to some very big things indeed. I have no idea if people would call this a complicated story or not, I never seem to know what they’re talking about when people call a story too complicated. You get a large political story with lots of characters and storylines to keep track of, I’ll admit those can get complicated, but a single storyline with single main character?

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This wasn’t in the script. Someone brought Al Finney a ham on whole wheat instead of the pastrami on rye he ordered.

The writing is strong, the characters are interesting, and the story is complete from start to finish. There are moments and phrases that come back over and over again, like people asking “What’s the rumpus?” every time they see each other. The repetition doesn’t hurt the movie, if anything, it helps it. There isn’t a bad actor in this movie, which shouldn’t be something remarkable or worth mentioning when discussing a professionally made product, but sadly it is. Now, I’ll go further and say that there isn’t even a middle ground performance in this movie. One of the things that people like about the Coen Brothers, from what I’ve been told, is that they get a first rate performance from every movie. I’m not sure I can support that statement, because there are some movies of theirs that leave me cold and performances that leave me bored. This isn’t one of them, but they do exist.

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Please don’t make me be in a sequel to Brain Donors Brain Donors!

As a final note, this is one of those movies I’ve often talked about. The early 90s had a profusion of movies with guys in hats, which lead to guys wearing hats out in the real world. I still have a couple of fedoras kicking around the place, even wear them from time to time and the only machine gun I really like is the Thompson. The thirties and forties were sort of popular during an important part of my personal development, but much like Grunge, they faded from popular thought too quickly. I’m still interested in them though, and this movie is a nice thing to sit and watch on a rainy night after having done some dirty deeds out in the streets. You can get it for a song on DVD and Blu-ray. I’d say this is worth watching, although you have to allow for a bit more quirk that you would if you were watching a straight forward gangster movie. Of course, since the only other things that comes close that was made at about the same time was Mobsters, you maybe should stick with this.

Official Score:
45 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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Yes another still shot.

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Comments
  1. chandlerswainreviews says:

    No argument here. Your opinions on the Coen Brothers are astonishingly accurate as is your consideration of this film which is certainly their pinnacle achievement and unlikely to be duplicated (in the quality sense anyway) as they have become far too self-conscious and busy promoting their own publicized (and for some reason, admired) eccentricities.

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