Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Directors: Ethan Coen (Part 2/2)

Ethan Coen - not pictured: Joel
Read the first part of my epic Coen brothers retrospective here.

I don't know what it is about these Director posts, but I love to plan them but when it comes the time to write them, it feels like a chore. So that might explain why this installment is so late (like all its predecessors).

Ethan Jesse Coen (1957-) is the younger of the two brothers. He first got the credit for his directing from The Ladykillers, but in fact he's been behind the camera as much as Joel from Blood Simple on. Because of SWG regulations, he's had to suffice to a mere Producer credit before. One would expect brothers to have quarrels over their projects, but surprisingly no actor working with the Coens has ever seen them argue. It seems the Bros. almost always agree on how things are to be done to create their brand of films. Perhaps it's this hive-mindedness that makes the Coens so great. After all, if there would be another one of you, it would be easier to notice the mistakes you're about to make and to enforce the strengths in your work.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The State: Mississippi



Like they did with Fargo, the Coens messed again with audience expectations by declaring right off the bat that this film, set in the Deep South around the days of the great depression, was based of Homer's Odyssey. And the film's title, of course was borrowed from a Preston Sturges film, also set to the same area and period but having little more to do with the resulting film.

The Coens actually didn't base the film's plot to the Odyssey any more than any other film that features some sort of a quest for the protagonists. Of course, they can't resist throwing in a couple of jokes about the matter into the film, with both character names and having such things as a one-eyed villain and some alluring ladies by the water, that allude to the mythical creatures such as cyclopses and sirens.

Ulysses S. Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are three fugitives on the run from the chain gang. They seek way back to Everett's wife, Penny (Holly Hunter) and to recover the stolen booty they hid before their capture. Along the way they have a wide array of misadventures, that sees them for instance become hit bluegrass artists. Like an old prophet warns them, however "the treasure they find is not the treasure they seek".

The basis of the movie is to have a sort of road film to places where there are no roads. The Coens are visibly having fun with everything old-time-Americana and with the stupidity of their protagonists. The film does have great jokes and set pieces, and with many other directors, this would bring the film to their greatest accomplishments. The Coens, however, are special, and it still does feel like something important is missing. Maybe the problem is the ending, which is a little too Hollywoody for its own good. The film had an important impact, as it brought the world its fine soundtrack full of old-timey bluegrass and folk music. The record went on to become a huge seller, particularly in the US, and brought the music to a whole new generation.
"Damn, we're in a tight spot!"

★★★★

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
The State: California



The Coens then started their three-film and six-year slide, which made all film fans nervous about their career. None of the films from this perios were bad per se, but previously the Coens had never had two underwhelming films in a row, let alone three. And all of them are from genres they should excel in. The first was film noir. The Coens actually shot the film in black and white (and my DVD is for some strange reason re-colorized).

In Santa Rosa, a barber called Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) grows weary of his work, as he doesn't talk much and the job requires him to be chatty. He ventures on a business deal with one of his customers, who is looking for a partner in his dry cleaning business. Ed decides to get the starting money by blackmailing his friend Big Dave (James Gandolfini) who he suspects is sleeping with Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand). But this small act snowballs its way into Ed's life and wrecks everything in its path. The laconic Ed still only shrugs.

The Man has a feeling of being a sort of testing ground for the brothers. The Coens have done so fast-paced films in the past that this one is positively snail-like in its slow storytelling. Even the dialogue has long, awkward pauses. The film is also mixed with some pulp mystery material of the time, which, I think, is another way of fucking with audience expectations. They suspect a traditional noir, where the hapless hero slings one-liners and is in control, and the dames are clever and dangerous, but really all of them aren't that smart by a long shot. It's all well and good, but The Man has actually boring parts altough the storytelling doesn't actually drag at any part. The whole movie is just too laconic.

★★★

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The State: California (yes, again!)



The Coens had never done two sequetive films that were set in the same state, but California seemed to be as good a place for any for the story. It is, after all, a modern romantic screwball comedy featuring beautiful women and handsome men embarking on some witty word exchange. But somehow, the end result may be the most tired of the Coens whole resumee. It's still not exactly a bad film, just disappointing.

Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a famed divorce attorney, that gets a job to handle the divorce of a wealthy real estate developer Rex Rexroth. But the soon-to-be ex-Mrs Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) proves to be more than a match for him. The pair embarks on a flirtatious affair, where each of them can betray the other with a beat of an eyelash.

Oddly, with this comedy it seems that the Coen's funnybone is out of date. They can create good characters, but don't really find enough to do with them (Geoffrey Rush is particularly wasted). The banter between Clooney and Zeta-Jones isn't that interesting and it's only up to the final minutes to salvage the film with some truly unimitable plot turns. But the time before that mostly drags and doesn't really get one's hopes up, which is why it comes as such a pleasant surprise. As it seems that not even the Coen brothers can truly save the traditional romantic comedy, it just feels like another nail to the coffin of the genre.

★★★

The Ladykillers (2004)
The State: Mississippi



Many would argue The Ladykillers is the worst Coen film. I myself understand this view, but I've had an affection for the film ever since I saw it, even though I recognize it's flaws. For The Ladykillers made me laugh, and once I'm amused, it's hard for me to turn my back on the film that succeeded in doing so. It's an update of a classic British comedy, and the Coens turn it so Americanized, it's almost a parody of American comedies. There are plenty of fart jokes in this one.

An innocent-seeming professor Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) rents a flat from an elderly woman (Irma P. Hall) and asks, whether he could use the space for his band's practice. In reality, the professor and his accomplishes are planning to break into a Casino vault. But it seems that a feisty old southern lady
is more than a match for even a gallery of rogues, and their plans keep backfiring.

By far the best thing about the film is character actor J.K. Simmons, who really should be in more of Coen brothers' films. His character has the ridiculous name of Pancake, and he suffers from an irritable bowel syndrome, thus providing the aforementioned fart jokes. He also quarrels a lot with the gang's inside man, former casino worker Gawain (Marlon Wayans of all people). I did see the original British film after this one, and it certainly has more dry humour as well as it's darker in tone. In the Coens' film, as you'd guess, all the robbers are huge idiots and thus partially responsible for their fates. It's not as clear in the British one, as even clever people who turn their skills to the wrong antics tend to get unlucky. But as Irma P. Hall's granny is highly religious, loud-mouthed and not that likeable, the Coens do thread a lot of grey area and it's not as clear, who's good and who's bad. That may be a problem with mass audiences (at least in comedy) and the film was a flop.

★★★
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The State: Texas



The Coens took a few leap years (in which they only did a segment in the episodic film Paris, je t'aime) and came back with a bang. And sweeped the table from Oscars from their trouble in perhaps the best big gong winner of the last decade. It's a wonder the usually conservative Academy voters were so keen on such a dark and multilayered film about the decline of America. Texas somehow always brings the darkest to surface from the Coens.

Hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across a number of dead mexican drug dealers. Among all the bodies he finds a briefcase with millions of dollars contained. Convinced no one saw him took it, he runs off with the money. But actually the case contained a homing device and a freshly escaped hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) starts to relentlessly hunt the hunter down. Chigurh believes only in chance, and has no value for human life save for the chance one might survive an encounter with him. An elderly sherrif Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows the trail of blood well behind the pair, horrified of such disregard for any old-fashioned decent values.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the midwestern Texas is depicted almost like a postapocalyptic field of war. And in this field Chigurh is the Terminator, tirelessly and unstoppably hunting down his target. He isn't in the game for the money, he's in because he is fascinated how human life is so frail it could end in a fraction of a second by chance. And his job provides him with plenty of chances to test this idea. He's cunning enough to preserve his own life, too, so the question eventually becomes whether he could be stopped even by chance? The ending of the film doesn't give much hope, and the plague-like trail of death is sure to go on. The only decent people left are at the end of their journey for sure, and already have dreams of leaving the hellish realm of the living. Maybe in the afterlife one could get another chance.

★★★★ 1/2

Burn After Reading (2008)
The State: Washington D.C./Virginia



After their Oscar success, the Coens returned to the comedy genre they had so lacklustre success with earlier the same decade. The film is still wobbly, and perhaps suffers from having too well-known cast, but is still a marked improvement and very funny to boot.


Gym workers Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) come across a disc containing the memoirs of a disgrunteled ex-CIA worker Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). They intend to blackmail him for the money, but as Cox was a mere pencil-pusher, he refuses. The gym workers also try to get the Russian embassy to buy out the secrets, but as they too refuse, they realize they need to dig up more dirt on Cox to have a prayer. At the same time Cox's wife is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a State Departement Marshall, who gets tangled up to the blackmail plot in several ways.

The film is initially about a bunch of middle-aged people dissatisfied with their lives and waiting for something turn them around. They see their opportunity in blackmail, cheating on their spouses, drinking heavily and excercising. Unfortunately, the only thing driving their "grand adventure" is their own and other peoples' stupidity. The film also lightly mocks the modern foreign affairs, that have become so complicated, they need excessive bureaucracy and have no secrets worth keeping. A simple layman doesn't have any idea of the actual power structures. The great characters (the hilarious Brad Pitt especially) and unexpected plot turns keep the film fun for a while, but there's actually not that much to return to. 

★★★ 1/2


A Serious Man (2009)
State: Minnesota



To underline their middle-aged crisis, the Coens made next a lot more ponderous film about the same age period, but this time kept it in a strictly Jewish point-of-view. It's one of their most brain-twisting films, but I feel the mysteries are just another way of them to hoax the viewers. The questions they present don't really need elaborate answers (altough they probably have them), one only needs to focus to the central ideas of the film.

Physics lecturer Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a miserable life that goes from one ordeal to another. He's a serious man and a devout jew, but still his children are no-good, his wife wants a divorce and his troublesome brother stays over indefinately. He is also confronted with the problem when one of his student's father offers him a bribe to give him a better grade. The Coen's smart and layered writing works like a charm with no famous Hollywood actors around. Their humour is a lot more dry this time around, and nearly as black as in No Country.

Larry tries to search for a meaning for all of this from mathematic impropabilities and religion, seeking multiple times to consult a God-like all-knowing Rabbi. He is refused, and only his son gets to hear words of wisdom from him on his bar mitzvah day. The Coens also suggest that all of this may be due to a family curse by having a weird prelude about a jewish monster that may have taken the form of a Rabbi. But, once again, I would see this as playing with the audience expectations, and the real aswer being somewhere within "bad luck" and Larry's own behaviour. It's not a coincidence that the film is set on the eve of the Vietnam war.
“I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action.”

★★★★1/2


True Grit (2010)
The State: Choctaw territory (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana)



Hats off to the Coens by not playing too postmodern games with their first true western. Indeed, True Grit is pretty traditional for its genre, but it is a feisty one and not to be swallowed too easily. For this is a film about memories, as is presented in the very first scene. We shouldn't take our narrator's point of view for granted. The film is also a story of feistiness and guts that don't ask for an age or gender. But the film had the poor chance of coming out the same year as an arguably even better film about the same qualities and a similar central character in an even harder situation, Winter's Bone.

The 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a farmer's daughter, loses his father to a drunken farmhand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Seeking vengeance, Mattie comes to town to hire the toughest available sherrif to lead her to an expedition to find Cheney, who's joined a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Ned Pepper. She settles for Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), an old drunk, who has a habit of delivering wanted men to the judge more dead than alive. But things get complicated as also a Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) wants to capture Pepper, and is willing to work with Cogburn but not with Mattie.

The film does have it's share of clich├ęs, and not everything about the storytelling flow of the source novel (by Charles Portis) has trangressed smoothly. In fact, the basic Hollywood structure of quarrel and redemption at a crucial moment reminds of the films of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. But the Coens do a great job in bringing the novel's down-to-earth and character-based humour as well as grittiness to the big screen. I suspected the Coens would be the perfect directors for the source material and was certainly not wrong. The bittersweet ending of pining and realizing the cost of living one's life with true grit as guidance is a billion times better than the one in the previous adaptation.

★★★★
Joel and Ethan Coen score 3,93.

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