Day 118-- on the Coen brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen are two gifted contemporary filmmakers. I think I'd say they're my favorites that're still alive (since John Ford and Billy Wilder are certainly not alive). So, let's look at their films in order of chronology.

-Blood Simple: The Coen's first movie is both a homage to film noir and great, subtle, and fantastically realized thriller on its own. The plot: wife has affair, jealous husband hires hitman to kill them. Things don't go as planned. Great use of low-lighting, great minimalist score, great plot. Disturbing in some ways (especially the ending sequence), it's still riveting.

-Raising Arizona: If Blood Simple was the brothers in their "dark" mode, Raising Arizona is the weird opposite: it has much of the thoughtful, weird humor that the Coens put in their movies, but is a slapstick and completely absurd comedy. Two petty criminals steal a baby off of a wealthy couple to raise on their own. Mayhem ensues. It's a very funny film, though I think I appreciate the Coens' darker humor better.

-Miller's Crossing: One of the brothers' best films. A gangster film set in the 1920s, it follows Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) in an increasingly complex web of crossed loyalties and secret manipulations. It's a very different film than, well, any other "gangster" movie I've seen; it's very indebted to the work of Dashiell Hammett (one of my favorite authors), and the dialogue, camera work and acting are just breathtaking. Second favorite Coen film.

-Barton Fink: Probably tied with Fargo as the brothers' best. John Turturro is fantastic as the title character, an award-winning playwright hired by Hollywood to write wresting pictures. He gets writer's block. And then things get weird. It's a brilliant designed movie that the brothers are very tight-lipped on, with possible allusions to everything from Hollywood's neglect of Nazism of WWII to the literal Hell writers go through. My parents liked this, amazingly. The brothers also manage to riff on poke fun at lots of Hollywood sacred cows. A very funny, complex, and stark movie.

-The Hudsucker Proxy: A screwball comedy and--honestly--my vote for the Coens' funniest movie. It has gentle, loving touch that makes it a fun watch for most of the family. Co-written with bedfellow Sam Raimi, it balances gallows humor with a clever riff on 1940s news reels. And it's about the fictional invention of the hula hoop. I could watch this for days on end and not get tired.

-Fargo: The Coens' best movie, methinks. It's a short neo-noir meditation on the violent result of a man's greed, interspersed with black humor. So black, in fact, that many don't even find the movie funny. It has a very redemptive message running through it, though it's easy to miss if you dwell on the violence (David Dark does a great job of talking about it in his book Everyday Apocalypse). And goodness, I love the film's score (done by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell).

-The Big Lebowski: A stoner bowler gets mistaken for a millionaire, hilarious chaos results. A slight take on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (one of my favorite novels), the brothers use the ridiculously complex hardboiled plot to poke fun at everything that they can. Definitely not a movie for children, but man--the brothers manage to cram some wonderful themes in between the nihilists and dream bowling sequences and profanity outbursts (thanks primarily to John Goodman's complex, sad character).

-O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Probably the best known film and breakthrough to mainstream audiences, O Brother... is, well, I'm not sure what it is. Take on a Homer epic? Sepia-toned musical? Political allegory and homage to Preston Surges? It's a madcap movie, though, and one of the ones I'm still trying to get a grasp on. And, as a bonus, the Coens put great Christian musician/music archivist T-Bone Burnett to good use with the soundtrack.

-The Man Who Wasn't There: The brothers' most misunderstood movie, I think. It's a black and white period piece influenced by the work of James M. Cain. Murder, jealousy and blackmail collide in a California town in the late '40s, centering on the life of a stoic barber (played by Billy Bob Thorton). A lot of people didn't get it. It's an easy film not to get, especially as it deals heavily with emptiness and hollow lives. Not an uplifting movie, but a fine motion picture (and, since it's from the Coens, you find yourself laughing and wondering if you should laugh).

-Intolerable Cruelty: The brothers' worst film, and here's my defense of them--they didn't write the screenplay. They did some touch-up work, the result a fairly funny movie that could've been done by any fresh-from-television director. The only Coen movie I'm not interested in owning. Maybe I need to give it another try. Maybe.

-Ladykillers: I haven't seen it, so I can't comment. I'm still holding off since it's a remake, and I'm scared of the slump they got into with Intolerable Cruelty.

So that's the Coens in a nutshell. They're currently working on Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, a novel that I'm currently reading. It's a grim novel, but I think they're the only ones that could bring it to the screen and capture the glimmers of hope amidst the darkness.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 1/01/2007 11:36:00 PM,

3 Comments:

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Qere Ketiv said...

I have seen Ladykillers. It has its moments, and is typically Coen Bros, but it really leaves you with a "huh" feeling at the end. It is worth at least one watch.

 
At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You summed up the Coen Brother's well. Intolerable Cruelty sucked. I think Barton Fink requires more than one viewing (I didn't like it initially). Ladykiller, is way better than Intolerable...and the music for The Man Who Wasn't There is their best choice...
I love the Coen Brothers...thanks for the reminder.

 
At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Big Lebowski has to be the funniest movie of all time. And John Goodman gets the Lifetime Achievement award for his portrayal of Walter Sobchek. That movie never gets old to me. Barton Fink is excellent as well, just in a very different way.

 

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