Thursday, January 3, 2013

Director Retrospective: The Coen Brothers Part 3

Yeah, I haven’t forgotten this feature. I just figured I’d try to burn through the remaining Coen brothers movies in one go. Also? First post of 2013. So, with introductions out of the way, away we go.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

This is one of the least visible of the ‘Good’ Coen movies, partially because it’s very weird, even by their standards (I think the whole alien thing throws people off). It also lacks most of the Coens recurring favorite actors (with the exception of Frances McDormand, who is only in about half the movie) and a lot of actors who wouldn’t be seen in any of their other movies. It feels a bit like a growing up movie, a necessary (if occasionally awkward) step on the road that would lead them to the latter half of their career. It’s also, weirdly enough, the most recent Coen brother movie to not recoup its budget at the box office.

Taken on its own merits, it’s a weird, but exceptionally well made, neo noir film, with an exceptionally good lead performance from Billy Bob Thorton (who’s career took a nose dive after this movie) and an interesting pace. It manages to move slowly without it feeling slow, and despite being a crime thriller, it seems to move almost leisurely. The only issue is, being a crime based movie with a twisted plot and an occasionally weird tone, it feels that they’ve covered those concepts before, separately and better, than they do in this movie.

Whatever, it’s still a cracking good movie, highly entertaining and interesting to watch. It’s occasionally hard to judge the Coen’s movies on their own merits, because they make such good films so regularly. If it is, as I postulated, a step in the direction that would lead to their career from 2007 onwards, I’m glad they took it.

Intolerable Cruelty

This movie, and the one that follows it, are slightly weird, because they feel like the Coen brothers directing someone else’s ideas…which they are. This one is probably the better one, as it retains enough of the Coen’s signature style to make it worth watching, or at least generally entertaining.

A lot of this movie is being carried by George Clooney. He’s a talented actor, always has been, and he usually gives it his all when he’s working with the Coens. It’s got a twisty and entertaining plot, it just doesn’t have the…oomph most of their better work has. Does that make any sense? No I guess not. It just doesn’t have the quality that draws me in about other Coen films. It’s enjoyable, sure, but it doesn’t enthrall and fascinate me the way their other movies do. Does that make it bad? No, but it does limit how interesting it is to talk about. So I guess I’ll shut up about it.

The Ladykillers

This, this right here, is the big anomaly in the Coen careers. A remake of an Oscar nominated British film (starring Sir Alex Guiness!) would seem to be right up their alley, but unlike their other bad-to-mediocre films, this one doesn’t…feel much like their other movies. Again, that’s a hard to quantify thing, but the Coen movies have a unique style and technique to their directing, that this film seems to lack. I suppose it’s kind of impressive that they can turn their signature style off, but like Tim Burton’s attempt to do the same thing with Planet of the Apes it leaves a nearly visible hole in the entire production. Some directors signature style is key to their success.

As for the movie itself, what do you want me to say? It’s not bad, it’s just kind of nothing. As of this writing, it’s been 5 hours since I saw it and I can’t think of a whole lot to say about it. It was originally supposed to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, a talented cinematographer who used to work with the Coen brothers, and even made some very good films like Get Shorty and Men in Black but who’s career went straight to fucking hell afterwards. Since they were essentially doing it for a friend, I don’t think their hearts were in it. I’m already bored talking about it, so let’s move on to more fun things.

No Country For Old Men

This is the big one, the Oscar sweep, the one that gave them free reign to do whatever the hell they want. And what’s weird is that it’s nothing like a typical Oscar movie. Mind you, the 2000s weren’t exactly big on typical Oscar faire, but even amongst that, No Country stands out. A dark, violent and depressing film is not typically what the Oscar voters like, but this one is so brilliant that it got through.

There is so much good in this film that it’s hard to list, from the savagely brilliant direction, to Javier Bardem’s almost inhuman performance, to Tommy Lee Jones’ tragic performance to the strange and almost non-existent soundtrack. It’s also easily the best Cormac McCarthy adaptation to date (The Road, while quite good, was not without it’s issues and All the Pretty Horses just did not work…on that note, Cronenberg, Coens, even Lynch? Think you could take a stab at Blood Meridian or Outer Dark?). It’s probably one of the best films of the last decade, and the only Coen movie that has a stab at beating out Fargo. It’s probably the darkest one they’ve ever made, and that’s saying a lot.

Burn After Reading

Burn is a movie that I don’t know if a lot of people like. It made a ton of money at the box office and was generally well received, but people don’t talk a lot about it. It’s a breather movie, a come down off the incredibly dark themes, story and content of No Country. Good thing it’s still well made and funny, eh?

The thing that I think sells this movie is the weirdness of the genre or rather, the character’s perception of genre (hush, I’m going somewhere with this). Some of the characters think they’re in a spy thriller, Malkovich’s character thinks he’s in an inspirational drama, but what they’re all actually in is a dark comedy. There’s also the weird character interaction, where the main characters are, technically speaking, the villains. Watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean.

Is it one of the better Coen brother’s better movies? No, but their lesser movies are still better than most people’s good ones. And I personally love it to pieces.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brother movie this most resembles is Barton Fink. It’s a dark and often surreal period piece/comedy, primarily about the universe shitting on one guy for 2 hours. The similarities end there, as Serious Man has more in common with the Book of Job than anything else (without the Religious aspect) but also contains references to Quantum Physics and Jewish Folklore.

It’s not as outright surreal as Barton Fink, but in a way I think it’s more alienating. The cruelty inflicted on the lead character is more pervasive, more brutal and even seems more groundless. Several of the characters don’t even seem to act human, in particular the lead’s wife, and Michael Stuhlbarg (who is brilliant) is a great rock to anchor the entire film. It’s one of their best movies, in my opinion, and a criminally underrated one at that. Definitely worth seeing.

My review of this movie is still there, and unlike Lebowski, I don’t have a lot to say beyond that review. The movie is so straightforward that I’m left without a ton to say. An excellently made, superbly acted Western, easily the best of its genre in going on 2 decades. So I’m just going to redirect you to my review again and suggest you read that if you want my thoughts.

And now, my top 5 favorite Coen Brothers movies:

No Country For Old Men
O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?
Barton Fink
A Serious Man

Well, this was fun. I’m definitely going to do this again, probably multiple times. And since I want to keep it varied, I’m going to alternate between directors I like and directors I don’t like. So, what am I going to do next on this feature, you ask?

M. Night Shyamalan

Oh yeah.

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