The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen
The Ladykillers (March 23/04)
The Ladykillers presumably marks the final installment in the Coen brothers' "leading-men-who-talk-funny" trilogy, following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Stepping into George Clooney's shoes this time around is Tom Hanks, who's apparently based his character on Foghorn Leghorn. Longtime fans of the Coen's will probably be disappointed by The Ladykillers, which is admittedly quite entertaining but instantly forgettable. Based on the Alec Guiness film of the same name, the movie casts Hanks as Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, III - a slick and ingratiating shyster who's devised an ingenious plan for ripping off a nearby casino boat. The scheme, which involves tunneling to the underground repository that holds the ship's money, requires Dorr to become a tenant of a sassy old black woman named Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall). Along with his crew - Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), The General (Tzi Ma), Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), and Gawain McSam (Marlon Wayans) - Dorr begins preparing the heist, while keeping Mrs. Munson in the dark regarding their true intentions (accomplished vis-à-vis fake band practice). One's ability to enjoy The Ladykillers is directly proportionate to one's willingness to accept the incredibly broad performances. Hanks, in particular, seems to be having a lot of fun in this role; Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, III is probably the most outrageous and comical character the actor has ever played in his long and varied career. The role is played solely for laughs, and Hanks does a fantastic job of spouting the increasingly absurd dialogue. The same is true of the supporting performances, particularly J.K. Simmons' Garth Pancake - a man who, the first time we see him, accidentally kills a dog by forcing it to wear a faulty gas mask (it's funnier than it sounds, believe me). Sporting a handlebar mustache and some kind of safari outfit, Simmons seems to be competing with Hanks in terms of stealing scenes; likewise, the rest of the Dorr's gang is comprised of equally over-the-top characters. Clearly, we're not meant to take any of this seriously. The storyline is expectedly dark, with Joel and Ethan Coen (sharing a directorial credit for the first time in their careers) bringing their usual blacker-than-coal sense of humor to the proceedings. Though the film's not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, the majority of the jokes are (at least) amusing - more than one can say for most contemporary comedies. And while the movie remains eminently watchable throughout, the film never becomes much more than that; there's nothing terribly memorable or noteworthy going on here (well, aside from the aforementioned off-the-wall performances). As a heist movie, The Ladykillers doesn't really deliver. But that's not really the point; true to its title, the film eventually follows Dorr and co. as they attempt to knock off Mrs. Munson. Though there's no mistaking the Coen's distinctive sense of style, this is far from their best work (ie Fargo). But for those in the mood for an all-too-rare black comedy, The Ladykillers should fit the bill.
No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, & A Serious Man
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True Grit (February 27/11)
Based on the novel by Charles Portis, True Grit follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) as she hires a grizzled U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn) to bring her father's killer (Josh Brolin's Tom Chaney) to justice. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have infused True Grit with precisely the sort of authentic, firmly idiosyncratic feel with which they've come to be associated; as such, the movie, which kicks off with a hypnotically methodical opening shot, generally comes off as a traditional Western that's been augmented with a number of irresistibly off-kilter elements. It's clear right from the outset, however, that True Grit's most valuable asset are its performers, as the Coens have ensured that even the smallest of roles have been memorably filled - though it's just as obvious that the movie belongs to Bridges and Steinfeld. The latter delivers a surprisingly accomplished performance that's never diminished by her commanding costars, while the former's almost impossibly grizzled work stands as an ongoing highlight within the proceedings. (This is despite the fact that a good chunk of Bridges' dialogue is rendered unintelligible by the actor's exceedingly gruff delivery.) There's consequently little doubt that the deliberately paced, episodic nature of True Grit's midsection isn't quite as problematic as one might've feared, although it's worth noting that the film's erratic atmosphere does prevent the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the narrative on an all-too-consistent basis. The inclusion of an undeniably exciting finale ensures that the movie concludes on a thoroughly positive note, which cements True Grit's place as one of the more memorable Westerns to hit cinemas as of late.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis follows Oscar Isaac's title character, a 1960s folk singer, as he attempts to break into the mainstream without sacrificing his integrity - with the movie detailing Llewyn's various personal and professional struggles over a few unusually eventful days. It's perhaps not surprising to note that Inside Llewyn Davis has been infused with as deliberate and leisurely a pace as one could possibly envision, as the Coen brothers employ a narrative that is, without question, unapologetically episodic from start to finish - which naturally does ensure that the film is only really effective in fits and spurts (ie certain sequences fare much, much better than others). There is, as such, little doubt that one's interest level remains at a fairly consistent level throughout, although, by that same token, it's difficult to downplay the effectiveness of a few key moments - with Llewyn's recording of a novelty song, alongside Justin Timberlake's Jim and Adam Driver's Al, standing as an obvious highlight within the proceedings (and indeed a highlight within the Coen brothers' entire filmography). It's clear, too, that Inside Llewyn Davis benefits substantially from Isaac's mesmerizing turn as the curmudgeonly protagonist, with the actor's stellar work here going a long way towards smoothing over the movie's decidedly erratic sensibilities. (The supporting cast, which includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and F. Murray Abraham, perpetuates the film's watchable atmosphere, though it's ultimately clear that John Goodman, cast as a junkie jazz musician, ranks highest among the periphery players.) Inside Llewyn Davis' eventual transformation into a low-key (and thoroughly downbeat) character study ensures that it does, to a certain extent, peter out long before it reaches its ambiguous conclusion, which, to be sure, finally confirms the film's place as an almost prototypically uneven effort from the Coen brothers.
Hail, Caesar! follows Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, a 1950s Hollywood fixer, as he attempts to juggle a variety of problems and mishaps among his various stars, with the movie tracking the movements of, for example, a kidnapped performer (George Clooney's Baird Whitlock), an exasperated filmmaker (Ralph Fiennes' Laurence Laurentz), and an unwed, pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson's DeeAnna Moran). Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have infused Hail, Caesar! with a thoroughly idiosyncratic, far-from-crowd-pleasing sensibility that fares rather well at the outset, as the Coens emphasize a series of vignettes revolving around several old-school Hollywood productions (eg a splashy Busby Berkeley-style musical, a melodramatic weeper, a Roy Rogers-like Western, etc, etc). These sequences are undeniably quite enjoyable and contribute heavily to the movie's initial atmosphere of good-natured fun, and yet it's clear even during this portion of the proceedings that the Coens' inability to offer up a single well-defined protagonist is, to put it mildly, problematic (ie despite Brolin's solid work, Mannix remains a wholly one-dimensional figure from beginning to end). It's only as Hail, Caesar! enters its momentum-free midsection that one's interest begins to seriously flag, with the sketch-comedy vibe paving the way for a progressively erratic second half that boasts few wholeheartedly compelling attributes (ie there is, to an increasingly palpable extent, nothing here designed to hold the viewer's attention) - which ensures that the movie fizzles out considerably before reaching its anticlimactic finish (thus confirming its place as just another promising yet underwhelming effort from the Coen siblings).