Tuesday, October 6, 2009
the Directors: the Coen Brothers
Their films aren’t always great (or even that good) but you have to give them credit for experimenting with each passing picture. (I mean, can you believe the same guys that created The Dude also brought Anton Chirgurh (Jarvier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) to life?
Often dubbed “The Two-Headed Director” the Coens never fail to intrigue, and with their new film, A Serious Man out this month, it seems like an appropriate time to examine their work.
Blood Simple (1984)
A simply stunning film debut. Everytime I watch it, I’m somehow tricked by the exquisitely manipulated details. The Coen’s didn’t make another film like this until No Country for Old Men, and damn if they didn’t completely nail the noir tone from the get-go. Never seen it? No matter what kind of movies you like, you will surely enjoy this. A+
Often voted as one of the best directional debuts in film history. Also, Joel met his future wife, Frances McDormand while making this film.
Raising Arizona (1987)
The Coen’s give us the first does of their zany, original humor. Usually these loopy comedies are a hit or miss, and I must admit, Raising Arizona has never done it for me. I think the comedy is forced and half-assed. But, there are several people that would disagree. You be the judge. B-
The only main character to not cry in the film is the baby, Nathan Jr.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
A fantastic gangster film. The dialogue pops just as well as the Tommy guns. Another Coen gem that you can watch over and over without ever being bored. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better ‘20s-era gangster flick. A+
This is one of the few movies that the Coens didn’t edit themselves (along with Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy.) The brothers usual edit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.
Barton Fink (1991)
For this odd outing, the brothers experiment in blending their unique humor with startling suspense, to great results. John Turturro gives a tour de force performance. It’s not for everyone (ie, as the film gets longer, the scenes get weirder), but I’m a big fan. It’s one of their more little-seen films, but if you’re a Coen buff, it’s a must. A-
The brothers wrote this movie in three weeks while suffering an extreme case of writer’s block while penning Miller’s Crossing.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Again, the Coen’s miss with their comedy. Some of this is funny, I suppose. The running gags, the over-the-top-ness of it all. But it doesn’t sit well with me, not compared to their other work. C+
The death of Waring Hudsucker was inspired by a real-life incident. In 1975, Eli Black, the CEO of the United Fruit Company, smashed an office window with his briefcase and jumped to his death from the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City.
What’s to say? A modern film masterpiece. Everything is flawless: the perfectly timed acting, the steely score, the icy cinematography, the geographically-specific dialogue, it’s all utter perfection. I want to highlight one particular aspect of the film that is often overlooked. Pay attention to the editing of the picture (by the Coens, naturally). The assembly of scenes is almost the best part of the movie. We don’t even meet our heroine Marge (Frances McDormand) until 40 minutes into the 98 minute film. Certain scenes seem unnecessary, which, if you’re not bored, is called character development. What’s better than two thugs banging a few hookers then cutting immediately to the four of them watching The Tonight Show? Not to be missed. A+
The beginning of this film comes with a disclaimer saying that it is based on a true story. It isn’t. In keeping with their odd demeanor, the Coens created the “Based on a True Story” bit as a marketing ploy.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
A cult masterwork that lives up to its reputation. This is a strange movie-watching experience as each viewing actually gets better than the previous one. So if you’re off-put by the unusual humor (“Take it easy man! There’s a beverage here!”) don’t fret, just watch it again. Easily the Coen’s most successful comedy. A
The only direction Jeff Bridges wanted before each of his scenes was to know if The Dude had “burned one down.”
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Another successful comic venture. It even holds up well as a folksy musical. Who woulda thunk that George Clooney would be a perfect fit for a zany Coen Brothers picture? Immensely enjoyable. A-
This was the Coens first film not made from an original screenplay. They adapted the movie from Homer’s "The Odyssey".
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
I love that this film is rated R solely due to a 30 second scene of violence; the Coens never let anyone sway their vision, ratings be damned. This black and white, old school noir really hits its mark, with an impeccable Billy Bob Thornton in the lead. Although the highlight has got to be Tony Shalhoub as the fast-talking lawyer. A great, patient delight. A
The movie was actually filmed in color, then printed in black and white via special processing.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
I’m up in the air about this one. It has its moments, but like most other Coen comedies, it falters badly as well. Some subplots are downright unnecessary. The question is, does the good stuff outweigh the bad? Sadly, I think not. C+
I honestly can’t think of anything remotely interesting.
The Ladykillers (2004)
Another tough one to pin down. Tom Hanks is good, sure. But sometimes it feels like the Coens… just try a little too hard. It is entertaining, but it certainly drags on. J.K. Simmons is most definitely the highlight. C+
This is the first Coen Brothers film where Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are both given directing and producing credits. They have shared these duties on all of their films, but Joel has always been listed as the director, and Ethan as producer.
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Well, their six-minute short certainly isn’t the best of the bunch (that would be Alexander Payne’s closing segment), but it is amusing, and clearly marked with the Coen’s comedic stamp. Steve Buscemi is great in a wordless role. Pretty entertaining on its own. B+
Each of the filmmakers had two weeks to write, shoot, edit and deliver their film to the producers of the movie.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Right up there with the Coen’s best. The brothers justly won Best Picture and Director Oscars for their tense, deadly serious work. It takes real balls to completely throw out your style and invent something totally different. The performances are tightly wound and flawless (Woody Harrleson can act? Hmm). A lot of people bitch about the ending, not me. I think it suits the tone of the film perfectly (if you take the title quite literally, it may make more sense to you). One of the most faithful book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. No wonder Cormac McCarthy was pleased. A+
The Coens refused to give Josh Brolin an audition for the movie, so he asked director Robert Rodriguez to help him shoot an audition tape while Brolin was filming Planet Terror. With Quentin Tarantino directing, Rodriguez shot the tape with a $950,000 digital camera. Brolin sent it to the Coen's, their only remark: "Who did the lighting?"
Burn After Reading (2008)
Again, when I first saw it, I was indifferent toward it. During the second viewing, I completely ruined the movie for my girlfriend (her first viewing), as I laughed hysterically every second Brad Pitt was on screen. I’ll swear by this, but Pitt is much better here than in Benjamin Button (which he received an Oscar nomination for the same year). B+
Looks like Georgetown, right? In fact, the film was mostly shot in and around New York City.
A Serious Man (2009)
Watching poor Larry, a regular man with serious problems, try and deal with one shit storm after the other is pure bliss. Definitely not for everyone, (but no Coen brother’s film is)? I can’t promise that you’ll understand the whole thing, but if you’re remotely interested in the Coens’ work, you’re sure to appreciate the philosophical, zany nature of it all. A-
This is the only seemingly semi-autobiographical film the Coen's have ever done. They too grew up in the Midwest during the 60s, to teacher parents under a strict Jewish upbringing.