January 28, 2014

Catching Up With The Coen Brothers, a.k.a. Raising Miller's Serious Blood Proxy

My first introduction to Joel and Ethan Coen was the frostbitten crime film Fargo, a.k.a. the film that earned the pair their first Oscar and truly propelled them into the mainstream.  I enjoyed Fargo immensely, although I'll admit that it's one of those films I'm happy I own but rarely sit down to watch.  I think that most people would probably identify The Big Lebowski as the Coen film that really won them over and I certainly can't argue with that choice, but in my case it was actually Barton Fink that turned me into a lifelong Coen devotee.  Not only is it beautifully dark and funny, but it also contains perhaps my favorite career performances from the Johns Goodman and Turturro.  While I've done a fairly good job of keeping up with the Coens over the years, there are still a few gaps in their filmography that I've let fester for far too long.  When the Brattle Theatre announced that they'd be showing every Coen Brothers film in the month of December leading up to the release of Inside Llewyn Davis, it seemed like an ideal time to plug those gaps. I actually ended up watching most of these courtesy of Netflix due to scheduling reasons, but still, hooray for motivation!

"If I see him, I'll be sure to give him the message."
The Coens' first film is an exercise in sharp simplicity.  It's a straightforward tale about a woman (a very young Frances McDormand) who's leaving her jerkoff husband (Dan Fucking Hedaya) for the tall, soft spoken bartender (John Getz) who works at his local dive.  After an attempt to take matters into his own hands ends with a pair of seriously bruised testicles, the husband hires a fat, sweaty PI (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill the cheating couple, leading to a darkly comic series of double crosses, cover-ups and misunderstandings.  With the exception of the loquacious Walsh, who pontificates with a sinister folksy charm, much of the dialogue is pretty sparse.  Like so many episodes of The Wire, there are long stretches of the film that play out in virtual silence, which was pretty surprising considering the Coens' keen ear for dialogue and love of the spoken word.  There's also very little of the quirkiness that would eventually become the brothers' calling card, with the focus instead on crafting a lean genre tale with enough twists and turns to give the audience some serious whiplash.  The Brattle showed an pretty beat up 35mm print, but that only added to the film's appeal.  Bonus points go to Carter Burwell for his haunting score, Dan Hedaya for not even remotely attempting any kind of accent, and Frances McDormand for pulling off a role that's equal parts femme fatale, damsel in distress and kickass final girl.  No wonder the Coens love her so much.

Title: Blood Simple
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams
Year Of Release: 1984
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theatre

"Nothin' more foolish than a man chasin' his hat."
I've taken to bringing a small Moleskin notebook into the theater with me so that I can jot down some notes and capture a clever line of dialogue or two that I can use as a pull quote.  With Miller's Crossing, my notes consist almost entirely of pull quotes, because the writing is just that damn great.  (Honorable Mentions include, "Nobody knows anybody, not that well," "If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?" and "Maybe it's injuns.")  Without any knowledge of the Coen's venerable talents, you'd be forgiven for assuming that this thing was ghostwritten by the likes of David Mamet.  It certainly helps that they've got folks like Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, and Coen regular Jon Polito doing most of the heavy lifting, and while it's fun to watch them all leave each other beaten and bloody, the real joy comes from the copious verbal sparring throughout.  And that's saying something considering the splendid rapture of watching Albert Finney slowly walking down a tree lined street dispatching would-be assassins with a tommy gun while "Danny Boy" plays on the victrola.  Jon Turturro is at his weasely best here, and while Marcia Gay Harden plays a fabulous dame, she's a bit self serious and I wish the character was a tad more playful.  Brattle Creative Director Ned Hinkle mentioned in advance that the story is a very loose adaptation of a Dashiell Hammet novel, referring to it as a sort of "cover song."  Prohibition Era gangster tales are the best and I have no doubt that I'll find myself turning to Miller's Crossing to fill the Boardwalk Empire-shaped hole in my heart this time next year.

Title: Miller's Crossing
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, J.E. Freeman, Mike Starr
Year Of Release: 1990
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theatre


"We're about ready to pop here, honey."
Ohhhhhhhh.  THERE'S the quirkiness.

If you had asked me in advance I would have sworn that Miller's Crossing came before Raising Arizona, if for no other reason than Miller's feels like the natural follow up to Blood Simple.*  But the opposite is true and, quite frankly, easily explains why Miller's didn't exactly catch fire at the box office.  I can only imagine the bewildered reactions from audience members who loved Arizona and were looking forward to more of that heightened comedy world only to get a pinstriped, violent mob drama instead.  In that way, I'm glad I watched these two out of order.

Crazy Nicolas Cage is the best Nicolas Cage and this is easily one of his greatest performances.  The man simply shines as Hi, a reformed convenience store stick up man who marries a lady cop named Ed and, when she turns out to be barren, helps her steal a baby from a local furniture salesman with newborn quintuplets.  Then hijinks of the highest order ensue involving his oafish boss who loves jokes denigrating the intelligence of Polish folk, a bounty hunting biker who may or may not be from hell, and of course John Goodman and William Forsythe as escaped bank robbers with a penchant for pomade and a tendency to forget babies on roofs.  Raising Arizona is probably the wackiest of all the Coens' movies that people actually enjoy.  Sorry, Ladykillers.  A bit too wacky?  Perhaps...at times it does sometimes feel like quirk for the sake of quirk.  But Holly Hunter does a marvelous job of keeping things somewhat grounded.  And that car chase with the Huggies?  Poetry in motion, my friends.

*It's also easy to draw a line from these two films all the way up to No Country For Old Men, which I can't wait to rewatch with these two in mind.

Title: Raising Arizona
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Trey Wilson, William Forsythe, Frances McDormand, Sam McMurray, Randall "Tex" Cob
Year Of Release: 1987
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

"Ya know...for kids."
This is where the Coens begin to go a bit off the rails.  Tim Robbins is in "Aw, shucks" overdrive as Norville Barnes, a mailroom boy/inventor who's drafted into the role of CEO by the board of Hudsucker Industries for the express purposes of driving down the stock price in order to make a killing in the market.  But it turns out that Barnes' big idea, the hula hoop, is a massive success, transforming Barnes into a famous "idea man" while the board, led by a scheming Paul Newman, is thrown into a panic once their plan backfires and they end up losing money hand over fist.  Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a gumshoe reporter who goes undercover to prove that Barnes is a fraud, but predictably ends up falling in love with naive dupe.  Her character is such a broad, over-the-top caricature that it almost feels like a massive overcorrection for the smokey but sullen performance of Marcia Gay Harden in Miller's Crossing.  I love Leigh and she brings a lot of energy to the screen, but eventually her motor-mouthed ramblings and cartoonish accent become downright distracting.  On the other hand, evil Paul Newman is mesmerizing and the short but memorable appearance of Charles Durning might be my favorite thing in the movie.  While Huduscker has its fans, it's widely considered one of the black sheep of the Coens' filmography and rightly so.   Then again, if I had seen the movie closer to its initial release when I was in middle school, I probably would have found the whole thing much more charming.

Title: The Hudsucker Proxy
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Mahoney, Charles Durning, Bruce Campbell, Jim True, Bill Cobb
Year Of Release: 1994
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

"Look at that parking lot, Larry.  Just look at that parking lot."
Because I went to Catholic elementary school, I didn't really have any Jewish friends as a child.  In fact, the only bar mitzvah I've ever attended was for someone I'd never met, the little brother of a friend in high school.  (My buddy got to invite a handful of his own friends to the affair, which is how I ended up there.)  Oh yeah, and one time I worked security for Yom Kippur services in Beverly Hills, during which I was expressly instructed not to eat any food in front of all the hungry, fasting clients.  Other than that, I've had very little exposure to the intricacies of the Jewish faith and culture, which A Serious Man is downright drowning in.  I wouldn't say the film was impenetrable for a goy like me, but I do feel like my Catholicisim-turned-atheism means I missed out on a lot of the film's specific humor.  For example, the stoned kid reading the Torah is pretty funny because stoned people doing serious things are always funny.  But I suspect that it's infinitely funnier for someone who's actually sat through both sides of that particular ritual.  I've absolutely fallen in love with Michael Stuhlbarg the last few years (he's the second best part of Men In Black 3 behind Josh Brolin's impeccable Tommy Lee Jones impression) but here he's mostly stuck in one gear as the constantly exasperated Larry Gopnik.  And talk about a weird downer of an ending.

Title: A Serious Man
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer,
Year Of Release: 2009
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD


And that's it!

I've now officially seen all the Coen Brothers films.  It's always nice to check something off your list.  Next I'll kick off my Oscar movie coverage with the Coens' latest and my favorite of theirs in quite some time, Inside Llewyn Davis.  As I mentioned in our recent podcast, it's the film that is probably the most snubbed of the myriad incredible films of 2013, and it left me excited to see where the Coens take audiences next.

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