Thursday, December 13, 2012

Director Retrospective: The Coen Brothers Part 1

With the year winding down and me looking for ways to provide content (only 4 more movies I HAVE to see this year guys, but several others I want to see) I decided to try something new and see if it sticks. The idea: I watch the entire catalogue of a director (in chronological order) and give each movie a little bite size reviews, 3 or 4 movies at a time, and stagger them out over the course of several weeks. So, who else should I kick off this experiment with, but with what I still think are the world’s greatest living directors: The Coen Brothers.

Blood Simple

Let’s be really honest. There are directors that wish their greatest masterpieces, developed after years of perfecting their craft, were this good. But watching it again, with the entirety of the Coen’s career in my rearview, it’s surprises me how poorly it’s aged. It’s still really good, no one is arguing that. Just not as great as some of their others.

I think this is all a matter of the rest of their career. The major themes (of greed and bloodlust making you stupid) are themes they’d cover again, and in a much more mature way, in Fargo. Strip it of its importance of being the first film of a legendary director team and it becomes a straightforward and brilliant put together little thriller.

There are some niggling little issues, mostly in how silly some of the characters can get towards the end, but it still holds up surprisingly well. In the end, there are two types of Coen Brother movies: The weird, offbeat and often surreal dark comedies, and the straightforward but SHOCKINGLY well put together genre exercises. This one is the prototype for the second category, so can we really fault it for not being as good as it’s predecessors?

Raising Arizona

Remember just a moment ago, me talking about the ‘two categories’ for Coen brother movies? Yeah, this is the prototype for the offbeat dark comedies. And like Blood Simple, it’s still good…just not as good.

I think a lot of this is the Coens still figuring out how they wanted their weirder movies to work, and a lot of it doesn’t stick. Most of the issues go back to, weirdly enough, the script. It feels weird to say this, since I consistently point to some of their stuff like Fargo and The Big Lebowski as examples of peerless script writing, but the characters don’t have really distinct voices. Everyone has the same speaking style, which is normally okay (Kevin Smith and Tarrantino do it all the time) but for people who taught me how to write for movies, it’s a little disappointing.

Still it’s funny, it features their first use of John Goodman (who is great with them), the story is great, and how nice is it to see Nicholas Cage downplayed? So it’s not perfect but it’s good. They were still getting their bearings at this point in their career, and if two ‘Good but not great’ films are the price of what comes later, I’ll gladly pay it.

Speaking of which…

Miller’s Crossing

This one, along with the movie that comes next, are the first perfected examples of the ‘Coen brother’ movies, this one being an example of the Genre exercise. At first blush, it’s a simple ‘bootlegging gangster’ story, but when you watch it, it turns out to be so much more than that.

And past that, I don’t know what to say. The music choice is offbeat, along with the script, that it feels a little like it’s actually in the black comedy category. But when it gets going, hoo boy, it is dark. The last few scenes (especially that scene and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene I’m talking about). Probably one of their darker ones, and given they did No Country for Old Men and Fargo, that’s saying something.

It also features the first appearance, in a Coen brother movie, of John Turturro, who is honestly one of the best character actors in the business. He would go on to feature in a lot of Coen brother movies, and even star in a couple, such as…

Barton Fink

Ah, the great missed classic of the Coen’s career, Barton Fink. This is another one that would, in any other director’s career, probably be their masterpiece. For the Coens? Par for the course, might be in their top 5 depending on my mood.

It’s certainly got the weirdest story of any Coen brother movie, to the point where I’m not certain what is legitimate symbolism and what is them fucking with me. Like, the wallpaper, I’m pretty sure that’s symbolism. But the scene with John Goodman at the end? Fucked if I know.

Whatever, it’s brilliantly written, gorgeously shot, fantastically acted, deeply atmospheric (especially the scenes in the hotel) and incredibly imaginative. It’s the first really refined example of the ‘offbeat dark comedies’ and it’s fucking brilliant. I maintain it’s probably the most underwatched Coen film, and that includes Miller’s Crossing, so that’s saying something.

Part 2 later this weekend.

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