Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Movies Spotlight – December 2013 – The Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) are maybe the quintessence of the new breed of American auteur to emerge in the late 1980s through the 1990s; filmmakers that now command respect  and praise in American Cinema (filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and David Fincher) among critics and filmgoers alike. They blend pop-culture sensibility with a great aesthetic style. The Coen Brothers do this maybe better than any other, as they tackle any and all genres. Their films, serious or hysterical, always employ fantastically written characters and engrossing narratives with a specifically unique style.

This month, their new film Inside LlewynDavis comes out. It is a love letter to the 1960s folk scene in Greenwich Village, starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake. It looks to feature wonderful music from T-Bone Burnett and cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel. It is already an Oscar favorite and critical darling. Check out the trailer here.

Early Career:

Joel Coen attended New York University’s undergraduate film program, while Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton University. After college, Joel worked as a production assistant and film editor where he met Sam Raimi who was looking for an assistant editor for his first feature The Evil Dead. Raimi and Coen also appeared together in Spies Like Us (as guards outside at the drive-in movie). Raim next directed the Coen Brothers’ second produced screenplay Crimewave.

In 1984 with the help of Raimi to fund-raise, the Coen Brothers made their feature directorial debut with Blood Simple. Blending horror and film-noir genres, the film was an instant success among critics. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival and Best Director and Best Male Lead (for M. Emmet Walsh) at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Next, the brothers wrote and directed the crime comedy Raising Arizona about an unlikely couple who steals a baby to raise as their own. It stars a wacky Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. While Blood Simple more or less flew under the radar with most movie fans, Raising Arizona quickly became a cult comedy classic.

Strange But Wonderful Films:

The 1990s saw the Coen Brothers really find themselves as filmmakers, churning out what is probably their best set of films – films that are very different but all feel aesthetically and thematically ambitious, and a bit odd. First among them, the gangster genre film Miller’s Crossing, which is highly underrated and brilliantly written. I would argue that it is one of the best films of the decade.

Barton Fink was their next. It is about a critically acclaimed New York playwright who comes to California to write movies for the money, but finds that he is descending into Hell while in Hollywood. The film features a great performance by John Turturro, and is a nice wink by the Coens at Hollywood filmmaking. Nominated for three Oscars, Barton Fink won the 1991 Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Actor, Director, and Film (Palme d’Or).

Teaming up again with Sam Raimi (who co-wrote and served as the second unit director), the Coens next made The Hudsucker Proxy. It is a film that feels like a classic screwball comedy, with lots of great nostalgic throwbacks (like a fast-talking Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a nod to Rosalind Russell). While the film never seemed to resonate with moviegoers or critics at the time of its release, it has since found its audience and is much adored. It was their first Hollywood film, and viewed as an utter failure (losing lots of money). This was the film that really introduced by to them. I had seen Raising Arizona, but The Hudsucker Proxy struck me as something special made by skilled filmmakers. I have been a fan ever since.

For their next film, the Coen Brothers retreated back into more familiar thematic territory, again making a crime film (with a black comedy edge). Fargo was a critical and commercial success, introducing the filmmaking brothers to many new fans. It won two Oscars (while being nominated for seven, including Best Picture) for Best Writing and Best Actress (Frances McDormand – Joel’s wife). It also won the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Director. The film caused some problems for the Academy Awards, however. Firstly, the film exclaims that it is based on a true story during its opening, but that is untrue. Thus, the Academy did not quite know whether it should be placed in the adapted or original screenplay category. Secondly, the Academy nominated Roderick Jaynes for Best Editing, but that is merely a pseudonym for the Coen Brothers, who edit most of their own films. To this day, Fargo is thought of as the Coens’ best film by many (though, I would argue their next film is).

Today, The Big Lebowski is a cult classic that has fully become a part of pop-culture (see the many reference in Veronica Mars for example). It is beloved by many fans that have probably never seen another Coen Brothers’ film (or even know who they are) and the fans of the directors who have been there for each film (I, myself, saw The Big Lebowski upon its release in 1998 while in Paris in an empty theater on the Champs-Elysees and immediately fell in love). When it came out, it played to mixed criticism and almost no box office receipts. However, Jeff Bridges’s The Dude is now an iconic character. It is one of my favorite comedies of all-time as it brilliantly blends almost absurdist comedy with a hard-boiled detective narrative.

With Some Hollywood Mixed In:

In Preston Sturges 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, John Sullivan plans on making a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? – the Coen Brothers make it a reality with their narrative loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. The film opened to the Coen Brothers’ biggest box office debut at the time, but the film’s soundtrack featuring great bluegrass and old time music was an even greater success. The film’s music was created with the help of T-Bone Burnett and is credited by some as assisting in the resurgence in interest in American folk music – Burnett is again working with the Coens on their new film about folk music, Inside Llewyn Davis.

For their next film, the Coens decided to make a strange crime drama about a barber who blackmails his wife’s boss for money so that he can invest in dry cleaning – but it all goes wrong. The Man Who Wasn’t There features maybe the best black and white photography since films became universally color in the 1950s. Roger Deakins work is phenomenal. The film itself was almost unseen when it came out, but is secretly a fantastic movie.

Returning to more Hollywood fair, though still a little strange narratively and stylistically, the Coen Brothers then made what are probably their worst two films (and really the only two films that are not genuinely good). Intolerable Cruelty was meant as another throwback to screwball comedies of the 1940s, but it just never really works (though, there is a great scene that feels like a reference to Network). The Ladykillers saw the Coens go from meh to just straight up bad. Firstly, they remake one of the great comedies of British Cinema; and secondly, nothing in the film seems to work all that well – especially Tom Hanks who just goes way too big.

After taking a three year break, the Coen Brothers returned in 2007 with No Country for Old Men, a modern western that exhibited all the best qualities of their work: electric, well-written characters, stark violence, dark comedy, and wonderful aesthetics. It is a film that just grabs you from the start, winning four Oscars (while being nominated for an additional five) including Best Picture, Best Directors, Best Writing, and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem). It is one of the best films of the decade.

Now once again in the acclaim of critics, and with a somewhat newfound following among mass audiences, the Coens decided to make a very strange comedy – Burn After Reading, mixing a spy thriller with black comedy. The film played to mixed reviews, but it is fairly hysterical. Every character is their worst self, ruled by idiocy. Its strangeness though did not immediately isolate fans, as it debuted at number one its opening weekend. But again with A Serious Man, the brothers seemed to continue to try and push away their newer Oscar-bandwagon fans with an even stranger story about a math teacher’s decent into madness.

However, in 2010, the Coen Brothers returned to the western genre with True Grit (a remake of the John Wayne Oscar-winning film). The film played to huge acclaim (garnering ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but winning zero) and their biggest box office numbers to date. The film features wonderful performances, and feels like a classic western – only slightly warped in the Coens’ style.


Like many of the auteurs in cinema, the Coen Brothers work frequently with the same actors and crew members. Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jon Polito, and John Turturro have all worked with them more than four times. Other notable actors that have worked with them more than once include: Bruce Campbell (appearing usually in cameo or very small roles), Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, and Billy Bob Thorton (the Coens also, oddly, produced Bad Santa).

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld shot their first three films (before becoming a director himself), while Roger Deakins has shot nine of their films. Composer Carter Burwell has scored fourteen of their films. Production designer Dennis Gassner designed six of their films, while Jess Gonchor has designed their last five.

Upcoming Projects:

The Coen Brothers provided the screenplay for the remake of the 1966 film Gambit. The new version directed by Michael Hoffman stars Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. They are also rewriting director Angelina Jolie’s new war drama Unbroken. A TV series based on Fargo is in the works for 2014, which will involve the Coens as producers. They are also in talks to write a script for director George Clooney called Suburbicon. Finally, it is reported that they are working on a new musical comedy.

Career Highlights:

1)      Blood Simple. (1984) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Trailer)
2)      Raising Arizona (1987) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
3)      Miller’s Crossing (1990)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      Barton Fink (1991) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
6)      Fargo (1996) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      The Big Lebowski (1998)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
9)      The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
10)   No Country for Old Men (2007)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
11)   Burn After Reading (2008) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
12)   A Serious Man (2009) – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
13)   True Grit (2010)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)

*Editor’s picks

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