Friday, October 23, 2009

THE COEN BROTHERS - Crazy like the Ferret

Joel Coen (L) and Ethan Coen (R) : One directs, the other writes. But which does which?

The Coen Brothers have managed what is usually an extremely difficult task in the high pressure world of movie-making. In most cases directors start off making cool movies that get earn critical praise, get people talking and get the attention of the Hollywood heavies. Said heavies then proceed to co-opt them into the system and crush any maverick spirit or creative spice that made their movies interesting in the first place (case study: John Woo). The Coens, however, have somehow managed to avoid the trap of sacrificing their obvious talent for the big money deals, retaining their independence and unique qualities that endeared them to lovers of independent cinema and other fanboy geeks. In the process they have managed to keep churning out critically lauded flicks that somehow also earn them enough money so they can retain creative control of their next project. A rare animal indeed in today's bottom line driven world.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Jon Polito

There are occasions when one has a transcendental experience in a movie house, much like some people experience in churches. For me this happened when I caught Miller's Crossing on its commercial release. I didn't know much about the Coen brothers then. I had seen the trailer for the movie and knew I had to see it. It was one of those perfect movie-going experiences when the theatre is near empty, the projectionist was in his booth to make sure the film was loaded properly (a rare occurrence nowadays) and I was in the right frame of mind to watch something meaty.

As the movie opens and the hat is picked up by the wind and blown into the distance and the music swells, I realised Miller's Crossing was going to be something special. What I didn't know is that it would prove to be the beginning of a life-long love affair with the movies of the Coen brothers. It was so rare to see a film that fairly bristled with intelligence and looked as if the people who made it were truly in love with movies themselves.

The labyrinthine plot involving a mysterious individual who whispers in the ear of a local Irish mob boss is loosely based on the Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key. But in addition to literature the Coens were also pouring dozens of movies into the mixing bowl, chiefly gangster flicks from the 20s and 30s where guys like James Cagney spoke in rapid-fire and blasted dirty coppers with their tommy guns, always getting their just desserts in the end. Of course, when asked why they'd made Miller's Crossing, the Coens replied with the deadpan humour that would become their trademark that they'd always wanted to make a movie where everyone wears a hat. Hence the hat becomes a central icon in the film, the sort of running joke they delight in.

Resplendent with rich art production, costumes, set design and fantastic photography from their long-time collaborator Roger Deakins, MC is so chock full of vivid characters its hard to know where to begin. Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden are both flawless in the lead roles and their snappy dialogue is one of the highlights of the marvellously dense script. Each supporting character is perfectly etched. From Albert Finney's blustery Irish blarney as Leo to John Turturro's slimy unctuousness as Bernie Bernbaum to woefully under-used character actor Jon Polito as the demented Italian mobster, Johnny Caspar - there is much to enjoy.

Throw in a bit of bed and gunplay and even some sterling advice on how to get a really close shave and you have a piece of timeless art that never loses its appeal.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman

Long before The Coen Brothers were a household name and racking up little golden statues on a regular basis, they were obscure geniuses who made movies that true cinephiles hoarded like Easter eggs. Following on from Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy was meant to be the brothers' big commercial debut. It was supposed to make lots of money but for some reason it disappeared from view with barely a murmur. Which is something of a mystery as Hudsucker is a tremendous entertainment, no matter how you slice it. Possibly the Coens' most upbeat film tonally it features several superb comedic performances, notably Tim Robbins as loveable goof Norville Barnes, Paul Newman as the villain and a crackerjack turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh (furiously channeling Katherine Hepburn) as Amy Archer. The script is Coen brothers at their most playful and the yucks flow fast and furious. The sets are superbly realised and the spoofing of the 1950s is a sheer delight. Good comedies are much harder to make than anything else and Hudsucker Proxy is one of the finest ever.

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: William H Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

1997 would prove to be the year of the big breakthrough for the Coens. Fargo would go on to win several Academy awards, including best actress for Frances McDormand and best screenplay. It picked up another five nominations including best picture, best cinematography, best editing and best supporting actor for William H Macy in addition to a total of 50 other awards around the world. The Coens may well have been puzzled by all the fuss over what is in many ways a far less dazzling picture than the two that came before it, but Fargo has many quieter attractions of its own. The frozen winter setting of Minnesota (not to mention the bizarre accents), the banal nature of the horrific crimes committed by the two kidnappers, and of course, the stand-out performances by McDormand and Macy, not to mention Peter Stormare and Coen staple Steve Buscemi all add up to a perfect little cocktail, laced through by the blackest of black humour.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston

Its hard to be objective about Big Lebowski, one of my all time favourites. Settling in to watch it is like catching up with great and slightly crazy friends you haven't seen in years. Featuring two of the most immortal idiots ever created for the big screen, the Coens created a comedy that is so passionately loved, hordes of fans get together every year in the USA to celebrate it at an event called Lebowski Fest, where they dress up as characters from the film, bowl a few rounds and drink vast quantities of White Russian beverages. Suffice to say it is near impossible to resist the charms of the Dude and Walter as they bumble their way through life. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are just outstanding in their roles and every detail of their characterizations is perfect. As usual there is a bizarre collection of supporting characters including a gang of Swedish nihilists, a soulful pornographer, a performance artist stroke landlord, a fine artist who's work has strong vaginal content and a philosopher cowboy. There's never been anything else like it - before or since - and there probably never will be.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Jenkins, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush

At first glance Intolerable Cruelty doesnt seem like a typical Coen brothers movie at all. With its 'rom-com' vibe and disgustingly good-looking leads, it seems like the Coens had sold out to the studios and were chasing the big bucks like everyone else. Oh ye of little faith! If anything Intolerable Cruelty is one of the most enjoyable Coen flicks since Hudsucker Proxy. Set among the shark-infested waters of Los Angeles' divorce lawyers, Intolerable Cruelty is as cynical a rom-com as you'd ever expect to see, with Catherine Zeta Jones excelling as the professional gold-digger who eventually falls for divorce attorney Miles Massey, played with great comedic zest by the disgustingly good-looking AND talented George Clooney. The script is packed with gems and repeated viewings are necessary to catch every little barb and quip. It is also rich with highly entertaining supporting roles by the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer and Julia Duffy, not to forget Jonathan Hadary as the inimitable 'Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy'. Whenever I need a belly laugh, I simply pop this or Lebowski into the machine and sit back - the results are guaranteed.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson

A few years would pass before the Coens achieved similar success to Fargo. This time they would take a story from literary giant Cormac McCarthy that seemed custom made for them. The Coens profess a great love for the speech rhythms of the deep South and Texas in particular, which was one of their motivations for wanting to film this novel. Set in the bone dry wastelands of east Texas NCFOM is indeed replete with some truly wondrous accents. The Coens also make the most of the scenery, their long time collaborator Roger Deakins rising to the occasion to deliver some beautifully rendered landscapes, among other desolate scenes of motels, trailer parks and other familiar features of Texas' vast open spaces. NCFOM also yielded one of cinema's great villains, Anton Chigurh. Played with utter conviction by the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Chigurh marches through the movie like the Terminator with a funny haircut, using a pneumatic cattle gun and a silenced 12 gauge to carve a path of destruction a mile wide. No Country reaped awards aplenty at the Academy awards, including the much coveted Best Picture and catapulted the Coens from critical darlings to major A-list heavies.

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