Spotlight on the Coen Brothers

(Article originally written for just in time for the release of “Burn After Reading”)

Many things come to mind when thinking about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dark witty humor, highly stylized production and costume designs, reoccurring actors, clever and often poetic dialogue, and above all some of the best character names in celluloid history.

Just look back at some of the brothers’ most memorable characters: The Snoat brothers in Raising Arizona, Bernie Bernbaum and Eddie Dane in Miller’s Crossing, Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Swedish-Americans Marge Gunderson and Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo, Jackie Treehorn and Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski (and let’s not forget video artist Knox Harrington), Delmar, Pete & Ulysses in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Bid Dave Brewster and Creighton Tolliver in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Garth Pancake in The Ladykillers and, well, you get the idea.

Burn After ReadingIt may seem a bit odd to dwell on something as miniscule as name choices for major characters but then again part of the charm of the Brothers Coen has always been their relentless focus on detail, however miniscule it might be.

Today marks the release of the Coen Brothers 13th feature film to date and their first follow-up to last year’s Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. In honor of the release ofBurn After Reading, yet another genre bending, screwball comedy starring a slew of Coen regulars (George Clooney & Frances McDormand) and exciting newcomers (John Malkovich any one!) it seems only fitting to take a film by film look back at the Coen’s evolution to the seasoned filmmakers we know today.

The Early Pictures:

Blood SimpleAll great filmmakers get their start somewhere and some efforts play out better than others. The Coens jumped onto the scene with 1984s Blood Simple, a brilliant thriller set deep in the sleazy haunts of a small Texas town. Fresh out of film school for Joel and Princeton’s undergraduate Philosophy program for Ethan, Blood Simple was made on the cheap but hardly lacked in quality. Featuring one hell of a complicated plot, full of countless juicy twists and turns, Simple is a slick crime piece with elements of noir and subtle helpings of the Coen’s signature dark sense of humor, seen mainly through M. Emmet Walsh’s scene stealing performance as a sleazy private eye. Besides showing that the Coens could do a lot on a small budget (a mindset they continue to follow even as their notoriety rises) Blood Simple showcased these young filmmaker’s fascination with early genre flicks from the dawn of the celluloid.

Proving that the brothers weren’t keen on being typecast they released the quirky, sometimes surreal comedy Raising Arizona to varying critical acclaim. Those expecting another Blood Simple instead got a fantasy about a half-witted stick-up criminal H.I. McDunnough (played wonderfully by Nicolas Cage, still one of his most memorable performances) and his policewoman wife (a sharp-tongued Holly Hunter) who decide to kidnap a newborn infant (one of the “Arizona Quints”) as there own. Arizona is one of those experiences best seen rather than summarized in print. The film was the Coen’s first official foray into straight slapstick territory, a beloved genre they would eventual revisit again in various forms.

International Critical Acclaim:

Millers CrossingBarton FinkTo kickoff the 90s the Coens released their first pair of masterpieces, which are widely considered to be the Brothers’ finest to date. Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink are worlds apart in terms of storyline and genre-Crossing being an epic prohibition era noir gangster picture and Fink, a mysterious and odd character study of a blocked theater writer working in a hellish, profit driven Hollywood circa WWII. But the two films are linked for their underlying social messages, scene stealing performances by John Turturro, perfectly scored soundtracks from Coen regular Carter Burwell, and the Coen’s finest screenplays to date. Crossing’s opening monologue about ethics in an unethical world by Italian crime head Johnny Caspar (the wonderful Jon Polito) or Barton Fink’s plea for the theater of the proletariat are examples of the kind of clever banter the Coens are now famous for. Totally convincing arguments from sympathetic albeit ridiculous characters is a theme carried over through all of the Coen’s post Crossing films.

Millers Crossing and Barton Fink were both well-received by critics and fans (although box office figures still sagged) and Fink even took the Brothers to Cannes Film Festival where they snagged not only the top Palme d’Or, but also Best Director and Best Actor, an industry first sweep of the top prizes that to this day has yet to be upset. Finally as a straight up gangster film Miller Crossing benefits from having one of the best, finely choreographed Tommy gun firefights of any modern day gangster film, set behind Irish tenor Frank Paterson’s gripping rendition of the traditional “Danny Boy.”

The recent wave of universal acclaim paved the way for The Hudsucker Proxy, a grand Frank Capra/Preston Sturges-eque Hollywood epic comedy, which was also the Coen’s first big budget effort (a whopping $25 million). Hudsucker is often perceived as the Coens first bomb although the film is terribly underappreciated for what it is-a beautifully filmed ode to the everyman fantasy comedies of the 1940s. All the elements are there: Extravagant set pieces of New York City, lighting fast dialogue (delivered best by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer character), quirky and surreal moments (for example the menacing Blue Letter scenario) and a nod and grin to the simple consumer products of the time (“you know, for kids”).

Cult Status Coens:

FargoIt seems that every time the Coens come even remotely close to some level of failure their follow-up is a brilliant return to form, 1996sFargo being their first. This is arguably the Coen’s timeless classic, a nearly flawless film that will only improve with age. On the surface it’s a brilliantly told tale about why crime doesn’t pay, at its core though, its so much more. The film is as much a character piece as it is a run of the mill thriller. From the doomed nitwit Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) to Steve Buscemi’s career turning performance as “kind of funning looking” small-time crook Carl Showalter, Fargo showcases the Coen’s fascination with sympathetic anti-heroes. Too much has been said about the film’s use of the “Minnesota Nice” dialogue and frigid backdrop, a crucial element of Fargo that does not poke fun at Minnesotans but rather pays homage (after all the Coens are natives of the Gopher State). Fargo put the Coen Brothers back at the top and granted them complete control over future projects, mainly their next one the odd but now immaculate cult favorite, The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski is arguably the Brothers’ most fascinating success story. Following on the heel of Fargo this should have been a huge success but was instead panned by critics, was a flop at the box office and didn’t really find its audience until its run on video where it is now a cult phenomenon (there’s even an annual Lebowski Fest for hardcore fans). Most people hip to popular culture are familiar with the bizarre adventures of “The Dude”, and even if you haven’t actually seen the film, chances are you can draw from memory at least one of its many quotes and catch-phrases.

A New Millennium Decline:

O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coens started the new millennium with a bang. O Brother, Where Art Thou remains their biggest and most successful film to date (TBS/TNT syndication alone is proof enough). This loose adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey set in depression era middle America was a return to the screwball comedy of Hudsucker and Raising Arizona, while also serving as a time capsule for all the juicy details of life during the 1930s. From the countless tins of Dapper Dan hair pomade to Clooney’s Ulysses getting banned from the Woolworth, O Brother is one of the Coen’s true period pieces, despite its fictional backbone.

2001s The Man Who Wasn’t There is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Shalhoub shine) film that unfortunately lacks a truly convincing or memorable storyline. Masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins, who took the reins from Barry Sonnenfeld after Miller’s Crossing, soaks the film in noir black and white standards. Pillows of cigarette smoke, characters draped with shadows, and carefully crafted 50s era set pieces make this one of the Coen’s most visually stunning films to watch but its uninspired script (for Coen standards mind you) keeps the film from being one to revisit time after time.

Then came the super mainstream. Despite star studded casts and memorable moments Intolerable Cruelty andThe Ladykillers remain the Coen’s most unsuccessful projects, not financially but artistically. Many link the problems plaguing the films to the fact that both were co-written from preexisting scripts (The Ladykillersbeing the Coen’s first film remake originally slated for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct), thus not quite an original Coen vision. It can also be noted that unlike past Coen films that were set in the near or distant past, these two efforts were the most currently set.

Intolerable Cruelty was undoubtedly influenced Sturges style situational comedies brought to a modern stage. Clooney’s tackles the role of Miles Massey, an overly zealous divorce attorney and forger of an immaculate prenuptial agreement, with conviction, and Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers as the gold digging thorn in his foot. Overall the film feels like nothing more than a showcase for some more firecracker dialogue, void of a truly memorable story. While people will still be quoting from Lebowski and Arizona for years to come, the chances of said timeless happening to Cruelty is slim.

Ladykillers too many visions packed into what should have been a simple comedy remake. Tom Hanks is funny as the quirky southern gentleman G.H. Dorr, Ph. D, but his over the top performance is distracting at times, never truly meshing with the supporting players. The film’s inclusion of church music seems like an attempt to do for gospel what O Brother did for Americana folk and bluegrass, but again breaks the films flow. FinallyMarlon Wayans, a talented actor when he wants to be (see Requiem For a Dream) turns in a performance fueled solely by in-your-face slang dialogue and predictable, unnecessary curse words that only hinder what could have been an excusable failed experiment.

Oscar Glory:

No Country For Old MenLike they did with Fargo after the misunderstood and less-reveredHudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers followed their two comedic outings with a mesmerizing, cold-blooded crime thriller with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’sNo Country for Old Men. Fans of McCarthy were wide-eyed with glee when it was announced that the Coens would helm this project because it was the perfect fit.

The film was in many ways a return to form of their gritty masterpieces like Fargo and Blood Simple-part thrilling chase genre flick (the closest they’ve ever gotten to strict action) and part philosophical meandering on the ruthless capabilities of man. By adding an extremely subtle level of dark humor to the story (the original novel was as serious a story as they come) the Coens showed a newfound knack for adapting novels, in this case improving on the preexisting text (McCarthy fans find the book to be one of the author’s minor works).

It’s hard to say where Burn After Reading will fall in the Coen’s gamut. From the trailers it appears to be a crime comedy with some larger than life characters to add to the long list of Coen Brothers’ favorites. The return of Frances McDormand is exciting for fans as is the casting choice of John Malkovich, a well-seasoned actor who is ripe for a Coen part. What is known about the Coens of today is that they pretty much have free reign to try their hands at any type of film idea they can conjure up. With many more prime years of cinematic exploration and maturation ahead of them, it’ll be interesting to see where the Coen Brothers fall in the history of motion pictures.

This is Not ‘Nam. This is Bowling. There are Rules

Not too long ago some friends and I sat down for a nice little dose of The Coen Brother’s immaculate ode to all things leisurely. It’s been ten years since the The Big Lebowski hit the theaters and even a decade later the film remains one of the finest cult classics ever. Repeated viewings never cease to shed Lebowski’s one of a kind sense of humor. The script and long list of memorable quotes still feel as fresh today as they did back in the 90s and above all the film is one of those rare cinematic treats that can truly be savored properly amongst a group of equally adoring fans. As I sat back and soaked in the film’s one-of-a-kind narrative and bizarre group of characters I began realizing that we really haven’t been treated to a really classic cult film in quite some time.

I suppose in order to ponder over recent films destined for cult status it’s important to define what it is that makes a movie a cult classic?

For some it’s defined by niche genres. Everything from horror, exploitation, dubbed martial arts flicks, anything from teen film maestro John Hughes to films that embody that “so awful it’s good” mentality. For others cult status is determined by simple economics. How a film is received in theaters (generally sub-par) versus home consumption (record breaking sales)? What kind of budget was used? Finally cult films are the ones that garner a loyal following, for example hordes attending midnight screenings or entire festivals dedicated to a classic’s onscreen world. And most importantly these are the classics that can be revisited time after time and always seem to improve with age.

The Big Lebowski was the Coen’s follow up to the duo’s acclaimed baby Fargo, the Minnesota set dark comedy that helped launch the indie darlings to their Oscar winning status they have today. Upon its release Lebowski was a flop, both critically and financially. I distinctly remember seeing the film in a fairly empty theater and beforehand being disappointed by the film’s fair share of mediocre reviews. Still in typical cult film fashion when Lebowski hit the video racks it slowly became an underground phenomenon. 

Today the film is still screened around the country on college campuses and late night art house theater showings. DVD sales continue to be strong (the film is one of’s best sellers) and the film even has its own national festival,Lebowski Fest, which holds its seventh annual gala this July in Louisville, KY and also tours other major cities. When was the last time you saw a film that had this much potential for cult grandeur?

ImageIn all my pondering of this question the only recent cult classic I could come up with was 2001s Donnie Darko, a film which, personally I think is overrated but nevertheless has established an impressive underground following. LikeLebowski the film was a dud in the box office and baffled most critics but is now a staple at most midnight screenings. 
In fact this may be the only true cult film this side of the new millennium. 

Sure 2004s Napoleon Dynamite was quickly labeled cult upon its release, mainly because the film seemed like one giant homage to all things that have made films cult classics in the past, particularly 80s pop culture. Ultimately though the film more comfortably joined the ranks of low-budget indie success stories like The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I mean honestly when was the last time anyone mentioned these films. 

The biggest problem today is too many films make attempts at establishing themselves as cult classics before the film is even released. Case in point 2006s overly hyped serpents riding the friendly skies action flick, Snakes on a Plane. Here’s a film that really did have potential to be one of those so-bad-it’s-good action films but once all the internet rumors started flying regarding Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement and admiration for the script’s title the film went from a potentially low-budget, straight to video action film to a “cult film” pet project for a major studio. More money was allotted to the budget, extra more “risqué” scenes were added, and Sam Jackson was even spoon fed a “soon to be memorable catch phrase.” Still two years later, does anyone really give a damn about those “motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane?” 

The Snakes experiment ultimately showed that you couldn’t force the process of a film gaining cult status. It’s the same way these big Hollywood remakes of once cherished cult horror classics–a Paris Hilton take on the classic Vincent Price filmHouse of Wax or the upcoming Michael Bay and Co. helmed remake of Friday the 13th–will never truly capture the mass appeal that the originals still hold. There is even an upcoming remake of Death Race 2000, that 1970s era lethal muscle car cult favorite, by the guy who made Mortal Kombat into a movie. 

Even certain directors deemed cult film Gods–Tarantino, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, and John Waters–couldn’t seem to reclaim their early cult status with newest endeavors. Some have moved into the mainstream eye (The Coens, David Cronenberg), some have been completely forgotten about (Mike Judge’s last film Idiocracy was actually pretty funny but failed to make any kind of splash). Even a television show like Lost, which often garners comparisons to Lynch’s 90s cult classic turned mass phenomenon, Twin Peaks, is just too soap operatic and mainstream to truly be considered cult, despite its loyal following and hundreds, if not thousands of internet message boards dissecting every moment. 

There is something cool about a film or show or musician that can create such niche but loyal fan base and can stand the test of time. Perhaps Hollywood needs to let another Lebowski or Spinal Tap just come out on its own. Until then I’ll always have the dude, or his Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. 

Cinema For the Holidays

Festive string lights are going up all over town, Christmas trees are hanging off the roofs of cars and consumers are lining up ready to be hearded into various retail giants like sheep. Yes it’s safe to say that the Holiday season is officially in full swing. Normally I get turned off of all the post Thanksgiving holiday mayhem, however, one part of this season that is consistently a high point for me are holiday movies, particularly holiday comedies. Just as Thanksgiving marks the beginning of shopping nightmares or the eating of foods with words like nog and log, the television waves are chock full of holiday films of present and yesteryears. Some are good, others not so good (anyone know why the savvy individuals in the DVD industry decided we needed a reissued special “Family Fun” edition of Gov Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way) but one thing is for sure, certain holiday films can be revisited and enjoyed year after year. The following is a short-list of some of my favorite holiday flick picks. 

A Christmas StoryOkay so this one goes without saying. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up watching this film and have seen it more times than I can remember but for me this is the best Christmas film out there. Where to begin: Ovaltine, the little orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring, the furnace fighter, the luminescent leg lamp, Skut Farkus’ red eyes and yellow teeth, the Chinese Christmas, and of course the Red Rider bee-bee gun. This is a classic that actually spawned a sequel, the lighthearted, “It Runs in the Family.” Please seek this movie out if you haven’t had the pleasure yet. Standout scene: the creepy department store Santa Claus and his posse of nasty elves..

The RefReleased when Kevin Spacey was still a great character actor, this Holiday dark horse about a fast talking burglar (the always good Denis Leary) who takes a highly dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas eve is one of the most honest looks at the stress of the holidays on the modern marriage. The film is also a wonderfully scathing look at life in suburbia made long before CAmerican Beauty. Standout performance: Glynis Johns as one of the vilest mother in-laws ever brought home for the holidays. 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—Remember when John Hughes was a master of the family and teen comedies of the great 80s? Remember how funny, charming, and warm the late great John Candy was? This may be one of the funniest films ever and is without a doubt the best comedy about the horrors of holiday travel. Set right before Thanksgiving, this odd couple story of a family man (Steve Martin) who partners up with a highly obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman (Candy) with hopes of getting home for the holidays by any means of transportation possible. Made long before Tommy Boy, a somewhat similar travel comedy, this situational comedy is a classic that has aged well. Standout performance: Character actor Dylan Baker’s brilliant bit role as Owen, the tobacco-chewing hillbilly who drives the duo to Wichita. 

Home For the Holidays—Paired with the above mentioned, this is another classic Thanksgiving film that also shows the stress and horrors of large family gatherings. Directed by Jodie Foster (weird huh), this film is about how even in the most dysfunctional, chaotic reunions families can come together and embrace what they have. While this film is a dark comedy it is also a very mature and realistic look at what goes into dealing with a family and the love that is often overshadowed. Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Claire Danes all shine still the one standout performance has to go to the always great Robert Downey Jr. who was apparently struggling with his addiction to drugs during the filming. 

Scrooged—Richard Donner’s brilliant 80s comedy starring Bill Murray in his prime is a modern retelling of Dickens. While the film deals with greed and bah humbug Christmas spirit, it is the film’s portrayal of absurd commercialized televised Christmas specials that really makes this film a gem. Murray’s Frank Cross, a wretched network exec out to milk as much money from the holidays by commercializing/butchering Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol is priceless. Besides the extremely funny casting of spry gymnast Mary Lou Retton (remember her) as Tiny Tim, Cross’ Carol for the modern age is an intense big budget disaster with the tagline, “acid rain, drug addiction, international terrorism, freeway killers. Now more than ever it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don’t miss Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, Scrooge. You’re life just may depend on it.” The network also has a TV spot for Robert Goulet’s Old Style Cajun Christmas. Priceless. Standout performance: 80s comedy icon, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There you have it. All of these films are on DVD and most will no doubt be littering the cable networks during the upcoming weeks before Christmas.

Film Review: Little Man

To honor the recent DVD release of the Wayans’ romp of a comedy, “Little Man,” I decided to post my original review of the film from the IDS circa July 20, 2006. I’ll preface by saying, films don’t get any worse than this.

Crazy Little Thing Called Crap
By C. Warner Sills

It’s fair to say that my expectations going into “Little Man” were about as low as the main character’s center of gravity. A movie like this is going to be stupid. We know that. But stupidity, if done right (see “Airplane!,” silver fox actor Leslie Nielson or Monty Python’s entire career), can be very funny. Unfortunately the Wayans Bros. decided to go beyond stupid, entering a world of, wait for it, shit-fueled unadulterated suck.

Calvin AKA Little Man (Marlon Wayans) is vertically challenged. Calvin also chose a life of crime. After being released from a stint in prison, he robs an extremely valuable diamond from a poorly run jewelry store with his friend/driver Percy (Tracy Morgan, whose only funny line, “word.” may also be the only funny part of the film).

After Calvin and Percy flee the scene with the police on their backs they stash the bling in the purse of a random woman in a pharmacy.

The random woman is Vanessa (Kerry Washington) who, believe it or not, just found out that she wasn’t pregnant with the child that her husband Darryl (Shawn Wayans) desperately wants to have. Calvin, overhearing this discussion, decides to shave, dress like a baby and show up on the poor couple’s doorstep to infiltrate an elaborate forced adoption scheme to get back the diamond. Badamn! We now have a plot folks.

Eventually a mob boss (Chazz Palminteri, who I’m guessing has a child to put through college or just wanted a wicked yacht when he signed on for this role) pops up who also wants the diamond. Enter the poorly delivered suspense element.

I wish that I could tell you that stupidity tries, and that “Little Man” has its funny moments. I wish I could say that, but I can’t. Instead of utilizing the clever parody and social satire that made the first two “Scary Movies” somewhat funny, the Wayans instead rely on poop and booby milk jokes and seven, count them, seven moments where someone is hit in the balls.

Then there is the creepy CGI miniature Marlon Wayans, whose size at times rivals that of a toddler or a My Buddy doll but then will magically grow in size (take the scene where the little man drives an automobile in the film’s little car chase scene) dwarfing even the Stonehenge midgets from “Spinal Tap.” But hey, who said continuity was important.

Judging by the stellar box office results of the Wayans’ last film, “White Chicks,” and the two giggling pre-pubescent mall urchins sitting two rows ahead of me at the matinee, “Little Man” will probably do quite well, maybe even warranting a sequel–“Bride of Little Man” for example. This is unfortunate since if I were given the choice of screening this film again or falling off a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle going 50MPH on a gravel road, I’d lean towards the crotch rocket.