(Article originally written for Starpulse.com 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.
It 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:
All 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:
To 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:
It 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:
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.
Like 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.
The Dark Knight fever is beginning to die down. Arguably the most anticipated and biggest film of 2008 has made its splash and now the question is, what’s next? Is there another upcoming film this year that will be as well regarded as The Dark Knight? Will Heath Ledger get those posthumous awards everyone is buzzing about? While financially the newest Batman flick will undoubtedly be the victor of ‘08 there are some intriguing films left for this year, especially before Christmas when the slew of Oscar bait films are unloaded. Here are ten fall films to look forward to.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
So begins Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, soon to be a major motion picture. The veteran American author, whose prose is often compared to the likes of Faulkner, Melville and Joyce, has been a household name in the literary world for a number of years but is just starting to move into the mainstream spotlight thanks to some recent and upcoming page to screen adaptations.
It’s been a surprisingly busy past couple years for the mysterious author. The observant moviegoer might recognize McCarthy’s name from last year’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning film adaptation of the author’s 2005 novel of the same name. Though the film was very much in the Coen tradition the story, complex dialogue and underlying message/critique of violence in society was all McCarthy.
NCFOM was not the first film to take on McCarthy’s literature, nor will it be the last. Billy Bob Thornton directed a not-so-well-received screen adaptation of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novel and National Book Award winning, All the Pretty Horses, in 2000. An adaptation of McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, is supposedly in production according to Imdb.com. Next fall fans of the author will get to see The Road, the author’s latest novel, come to life on the big screen and there’s also a proposed and possibly worrisome film adaptation of McCarthy’s most brutal but arguably his finest work,Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, slated for a tentative 2009 release.
Those familiar with McCarthy’s varied canon–starting with his Tennessee Appalachian period, followed by a move to the Southwest where he would take on the Western genre–will know that NCFOM and The Road, the author’s last two novels, were the most celluloid friendly. They lacked the author’s usual dense and sometimes cumbersome flow and were both dealt with a current or not so far off time period.
The Coen’s take on NCFOM was respectful of McCarthy’s original text while also adding a bit of the filmmakers’ signature sense of style, use of quirky supporting characters and sly dark humor. The Road, McCarthy’s haunting post-apocalyptic thriller just finished production and has the potential to be yet another successful film thanks to a unique, lesser-known director and a perfectly assembled cast of strong character actors.
The post-apocalyptic film has morphed into its own genre over the years with horror films ranging from 28 Days Later to this year’s I am Legend, not to mention past sci-fi staples such as the Mad Max trilogy and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which used the threat of nuclear proliferation as its canvas. Where McCarthy’s The Road differed from the more extreme stories mentioned above is in its chilling sense of realism and constant reminder of hopelessness, page after page.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the filming of The Road and the difficulties of recreating a desolate American landscape in today’s world (the crew settled on Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie region for it’s crumbled America backdrop). The film was directed by the rising Aussie filmmaker, John Hillcoat, whose gritty take on the Western set down under in 2005s The Proposition, just so happened to be one of the closest film portrayals of the brutal violence depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. With The Road, Hillcoat directs Viggo Mortensen and newcomer child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son walking a mysterious unnamed road through a desolate and crumbled post-disaster America.
Joining Mortensen is Charlize Theron as the Wife (who in the novel is only mentioned in back story), Robert Duvall,The Proposition’s Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams aka Omar from HBO’s late series The Wire and possibly one of the best character actors working today, Garret Dillahunt, who had a small but memorable role as a slow-witted deputy in NCFOM. Aussie musician Nick Cave, who scripted and scored The Proposition, is also hard at work on the soundtrack for the film.
While normally a story as dark as The Road might turn moviegoers away, the post-NCFOM Oscar sweep and the fact that Oprah picked McCarthy’s novel in her book club two years ago gives the film version of the book the potential to be one of 2008s best films.
Then there’s Blood Meridian, quite possibly the white whale of film adaptations. Little is known about this project other than the fact that the film’s scribe is William Monahan, a rising name who won an Oscar two years ago for The Departed, and the person helming the director’s chair is veteran Ridley Scott. While both talents backing this film are notable and have the filmmaking chops (Scott has proved time and again that he has a knack for onscreen violence) there is a greater underlying question of whether or not Blood Meridian should make the leap from page to screen.
It is rarely the case that films best the books that they’re based on. That goes without saying. With Blood Meridian many believe the story is simply too densely written and overly violent (even for today’s standards) to come alive on the big screen. Others argue that if done well it has the potential to be one of the best and most historically accurate portrayals of the “real” Wild West ever seen on film.
For those unfamiliar with the story McCarthy tells the stomach turning tale of the Glanton gang, a group of weathered, blood-thirsty soldiers just out of the Mexican-American War in the mid 19th century who are contracted to travel through northern Mexico collecting the scalps for a price. Led by a larger than life character known as the Judge (if you thought Javier Bardem was creepy as Anton Chigurh in NCFOM read about the Judge to see what true heartless evil really is) the gang of misfits roam the desert landscape leaving a sanguinary trail of destruction behind them.
While the violence in the book is often unimaginable it serves as a reminder of the horrors our American forefathers unleashed on the North American natives and of the blood that built this country. To justly recreate the sort of mayhem McCarthy weaves in Blood Meridian it’s safe to say a film adaptation of this tale has the potential to be one of the most violent films ever made, making Mel Gibson’s biblical lesson in torture seem tame in comparison. To give you a taste of the madness McCarthy unleashes on his readers during one early scene the gang stumbles upon a tree riddled with the corpses of infants and children. This brings up another dire question about the making of this film: is there an audience for such brutal, in-your-face violence? Should a story like this, no matter how historically relevant, be brought to life for the movie going audience? If so, how do you stage a scene like the one just mentioned?
John Hillcoat’s The Proposition took the concept of Western film iconography and turned it upside down with its portrayal of Australia’s brutal, blood-soaked past. The film was, again, a reminder that the chapters in history aren’t always pretty. Ridley Scott has too dabbled in violent historical fiction with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but unlike Hillcoat’s more subtle and refined style, Scott seems stuck in the big budget Hollywood spectacle mindset, which is exactly what Blood Meridian the film should avoid.
McCarthy fansites and message boards have been flooded with dream casts/directors for Blood Meridian with many saying the only true filmmakers to tackle the project would be the late John Huston or Stanley Kubrick or someone like Terrence Malick, all of which could bring to life such an epic story. Many worry that Scott will destroy the project’s potential by opting for a movie star filled cast with the likes of someone like Russell Crowe. Perhaps the film adaptation just wasn’t meant to be.
For fans of Cormac McCarthy the recent production news and photographs from the set of The Road is a breath of fresh air since the project seems to be in good hands and will most likely be worthy adaptation. It’s hard to say how many more books McCarthy has in him as he–he just turned 74 this year–but hopefully his new foray into the mainstream eye might encourage curious minds to check out this literary master’s collection of tomes. His work is difficult to read and sometimes stomach but his style and comprehension of the English language is unprecedented.
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 Amazon.com’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?
In 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.