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Top 5 – The Coen Brothers


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From time to time, The Snooty Ushers will be talking about our favourite films, film makers, actors, writers, musicians, TV Shows, comics…. you get the picture 🙂

I am going to kick things off this week. I was thinking about my Top 5 Films from my favourite film makers, Joel and Ethan Coen.  Dan and Chris will no doubt have different opinions, and I look forward to hearing them….

Film making siblings Joel and Ethan Coen have made 16 feature films, starting with the neo-noir thriller Blood Simple in 1984.

Hailing from a suburb in Minnesota, the brothers work as a team, they produce, write and direct their films together. However, up until The Ladykillers (2004), they received separate credits, with Joel credited as Director and Ethan as Producer.  They often edit the films themselves, adopting the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, often work with the same cast and crew, Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) John Goodman, George Clooney and John Turturro have all made multiple appearances and their films are almost always scored by either Carter Burwell or T Bone Burnett and oftern shot by Roger Deakins

To date, the brothers have received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning 4 times.  Best Original Screenplay for Fargo (1996) and Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay for No Country For Old Men (2007).

The Coen Brothers are masters of putting their own spin on classic and established genres.  Film Noir, Screwball, Black Comedy, Western and Gangster.

They have returned to the Film Noir genre on more than one occasion, with Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), although, using the elements of film noir and using updated themes, visual elements and the Coen’s own unique film making style, these are probably better classed in the Neo-Noir genre.

There are many recurring themes that run through the Coen Brothers cinematic out put.  Symbolism, Religious Imagery, Biblical References, quirky dialogue, outlandish characters, slapstick and dark dark comedy.

Their films often feature a deeply flawed central character and evil isn’t always punished, in fact it is more often than not, the innocent and the good who often suffer the most.

I am going to talk a little bit about my Top 5 Coen Brothers Films.  It is important to understand that it has taken me long, long time and many cups of coffee and more than one packet of Hula Hoops to come to this decision…….so here we go.

1. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This is my all time favourite Coen Brothers film.  Splicing the gangster genre with film noir and influenced by the work of Dashiell Hammett, this is a tale of an escalating gang war in an unnamed city in America during the prohibition era.

Gabriel Bynre gives a career best performance as Tom Reagan, friend and adviser to Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), an Irish Gang Boss who runs the City.  Leo goes to Tom for advice when rival gang boss Jonny Casper (Jon Polito) comes to him to announce his intention to kill crooked bookie Bernie Bernbaum (the brilliant John Turturro).  Leo refused to give him up as he is in a relationship with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).  Tom advises Leo to give up Bernie or risk starting a war with the dangerous Casper, suggesting that Verna is playing him in order to protect her brother.  The situation is complicated further by the fact that Verna is also in a relationship with Tom.

Sound complicated?  Well, it is. An extremely complex plot is navigated brilliantly by master film makers.  Bryne and Turturro are fantastic as always and Albert Finney’s portrayal of the Old Gangster who isnt quite ready to be put out to pasture is great too, as illustrated in the film films stand out scene as he foils an attempt on his own life in a burning house, wonderfully set against a scratchy gramophone recording of Danny Boy.  It is however Jon Polito who steals the film as Jonny Casper, a brutal and violent man, who is ruled by a strict sense of ethics, that ultimately cause his downfall.

There are no innocent characters here, although you could make a case for Steve Buscemi’s Mink, each one is deeply flawed, but there is no real villain either, except maybe Bernie.  Each person is doing what they are doing for a specific reason.  Tom is trying to save his friend, Verna, her brother, Casper prides himself on ethics, even The Dane (J.E. Freeman), who in any other film would be the simple henchman is motivated by love.

The film is so densely plotted that Joel and Ethan suffered with a severe case of writers block.  They took a break from Miller Crossing and wrote Barton Fink (a film where the central character has writers block) in 3 weeks before returning and finishing Miller’s Crossing.

The recurring image of a fedora floating through the forest is open to multiple interpretation, as is the ambiguous title of the film, I am not going to comment on that here, as, if you haven’t seen this film, I suggest you get a hold of it and come to your own conclusions.

2. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Coming in just behind Miller’s Crossing is The Big Lebowski.  On the face of things this is a crime comedy, but like many Coen films the crime comedy has been spliced with Film Noir.

Inspired by the works of legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye) whose work features the tough P.I. Philip Marlowe.

The Coens, while keeping the ridiculously complex plots that feature in Chandler’s work, they have swapped the Tough P.I. with a an unemployed slacker with a love for White Russians and bowling.  In doing so The Coens created one of their most endearing and iconic characters.

Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges)  becomes involved in a case of mistaken identity.  He finds that the intended victim was indeed a billionaire who shares his name.  When The Big Lebowski’s trophy wife is kidnapped he hires The Dude to deliver the ransom money and ensure her safe return.  Things go wrong when The Dude brings his bowling partner and unstable Vietnam Vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) into the plan.

The film is full of idiosyncratic characters none more so than the films narrator know only as The Stranger (Sam Elliot), quirky dialogue and wonderful use of music.  In one of the films stand out scenes,  The Dude and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) feature in a surreal bowling dream sequence set to Kenny Rogers Just Dropped In.

This is probably the most re-watchable of all The Coen films and this is mainly down to Jeff Bridge’s performance as the ultimate slacker.  The Dude does indeed abide.  He is given great support from John Goodman as the loyal but unstable Walter.  The film is full of great cameos from the likes of Elliott, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Stromare, Tara Reid, Jon Polito and a scene stealing turn by Coen regular John Turturro.

3. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

This comedy adventure is, believe it or not based, albeit loosely, on Homer’s epic poem Odyssey.

Set in Mississippi in 1937, Oh Brother, tells the story of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) as he escapes from a prison chain gang and goes in search of a buried treasure.  Along for the ride, are the 2 convicts he is chained to; Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson).

Shot using digital colour correction to give the find a sepia tinted look as The Coens wanted it to look like an old hand tinted picture.

With 3 great central performances Clooney’s lovable rouge has the most showy role, while Turturro’s Pete is loyal to a fault but with a short temper, it is Blake Nelson as the simple Delmar who steals the show and really is the films heart.  With great support from Coen regulars;  John Goodman, Holly Hunter and Charles Durning this is a wonderfully light hearted jaunt.

The usual Coen trademarks are here, the characters, the dialogue, the religious imagery, literary references (surely you would have spotted Clooney’s character is a nod to the protagonist in Homer’s Odyssey?)

The sound track is a big part of what makes this film work, mostly it is period folk and Virginia blue grass.  The films standout moment for me is when our 3 heroes form an impromptu folk trio called The Soggy Bottom Boys.  If you goggle Man of Constant Sorrow, you wont regret it.

4. Fargo (1996)

The Coens return to the neo-noir genre for the first time since their break out film Blood Simple (1984).

Set in the winter of 1987, this is a darkly comic crime caper with 2 main narrative strands which are ultimately connected.  Minnesota Police Chief Marge Gunderson is investigating a series of local homicides, while put upon Car Salesman Jerry Lundegaard is desperate for money, travels to Fargo, North Dakota to hire two hit men (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stromare) to kidnap and ransom his wife, who is also his wealthy bosses daughter.

Densely plotted and littered with strange characters and sharp and quirky dialogue means we are most definitely in Coen territory.

The film carries a disclaimer at the beginning suggesting that it is based on a true story, in reality, it is completely fictional.

The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won 2.  Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormund.  It truly is a brilliant performance, she is supported by William H. Macy as the down trodden Jerry.

FX recently produced a 10 episode TV series, with the Coens on board as Executive Producers.  It is set 20 years after events in the film, it serves as a great companion piece.  A second season is in the works which will be set 10 years before the film. I await, somewhat intrigued.

 5. Raising Arizona (1987)

I am a sure it isn’t a total surprise to find this in here given the fact that is stars a 22 year old Nicolas Cage but in fact this is actually a very funny, very sweet comedy.

The film concerns Herbert I. McDunnough (Cage), a petty criminal, who, through repeated visits to the county jail ends up falling in love with Ed (Holly Hunter), the officer who repeatedly took his mugshot.

They are married, H.I. gets a job and they try to start a family.  Finding out that Ed is infertile and due to H.I’s criminal record, they cant adopt.  All seems lost until they hear that local furniture magnet Nathan Arizona has recently had 5 children, whom the media have named The Arizona Quints.  They hatch a plan and kidnap one of the babies and attempt to raise him as their own.

Their life is soon disrupted by the arrival of H.I’s old prison buddy’s (John Goodman and William Forsthye) and the fact that terrifying bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) is on their tail.

This was The Coen Brothers second film and after Blood Simple, they wanted to make it as different as they could.  They succeeded.  This is brilliantly comic and has a real heart mainly down to 2 brilliant central performances.  A young Nicolas Cage is kinetically brilliant as the dim witted loser trying to make amends for past mistakes and Holly Hunter provides the heart as the maternal

If you do check it out and  I hope you will, you will be remindeed like I was of just how great Nicolas Cage used to be.

Well, that is my top 5. There were a few that just missed out.  True Grit (2010), No Country For Old Men (2007), Barton Fink (1991) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) are all brilliant.

It is not all good though, there have been some mis-steps along the way.  Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) are well below par by their high standards.

I have a hole in my knowledge as I have yet to see A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

Well, thank you for taking the time to read this.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Feedback welcome.

About Snooty Usher Dave

Favourite Film : Ghostbusters (1984) Worst Film: Left Behind (2014) Guilty Pleasure: Pitch Perfect (2012) 40 year old family man from Hamilton, Scotland. I have settled in Gateshead with my wife and 2 beautiful daughters. Worked as a Cinema Manager (or glorified usher) for 14 years, now I run a chicken shop. Love Sport especially Football and Tennis. Love comic books, especially DC and particularly Superman. I own 58 Nicolas Cage films.

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