One of the most impressive things about the Coen Brothers is their ability to succeed in both self-aware comedy and super-serious drama, and their first two movies encapsulate both ends of that spectrum. Apart from No Country for Old Men, their debut Blood Simple is still their most stripped-down and somber effort. There’s only one real moment of self-awareness in that film, when the camera slides along the saloon counter and then jumps over a sleeping barfly before hitting the counter again. Coming only three years after that hardboiled crime drama, the cartoonishly bonkers Raising Arizona seems like the work of a different filmmaker altogether.
And maybe it is, in a way, given how much the Coens owe to Preston Sturges. The Golden Age screwball writer/director is often cited as a Coen inspiration, due in part to a few direct correlations between his Sullivan’s Travels and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Raising Arizona lives more fully under the influence of Sturges, from the pratfalls to the simple-minded characters to the way dialogue reigns as simultaneously elevated and immature. Specific elements of three Sturges films from the most celebrated era of his career — Easy Living (1937), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) — offer some insight into how Raising Arizona came together with the King of ’40s Screwballs in mind.
Continue reading Raising Arizona (1987)
As far as indicators of things to come are concerned, Blood Simple has everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers right there in the opening. Okay, maybe not everything — after all, daring to think you’ve nailed down the Coens is, as critic David Edelstein put it, “a sure way of looking like an ass.” The most immediate hallmark is a somewhat superficial one, what with Blood Simple sporting the same exact opening (drawling narration over barren establishing shots) as later Coen films The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men. But from there, the way light and shadow pass through Blood Simple serves as a solid marker of the artistry for which the first-time filmmakers would someday be known.
After the opening narration, credits roll over Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) having a conversation in the car at night. The credits don’t roll, actually, but flash brightly whenever passing headlights illuminate the car’s interior. The pair have a cryptic conversation about Abby leaving Marty (Dan Hedaya) to be with Ray, and in the next scene they’re rolling around in a motel room bed, headlights from the highway still illuminating them briefly.
Continue reading Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen Brothers’ filmography seems to alternate between “beloved” and “pretty much unknown.” For every Fargo and Big Lebowski there’s a Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. Nonetheless, it’s this writer’s opinion that each one of their movies is carefully crafted to near-perfection. (Okay, the jury’s still out on Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. ) Of course, if I hold all their movies in such high esteem, what’s the point of a review? Well, because first of all I want you to know that The Hudsucker Proxy exists. And secondly because it deserves as much analysis as any of their other films.
In a hyper-Art Deco 1930s Manhattan, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), president of Hudsucker Industries, has flung himself off the top floor of the downtown headquarters. With company stocks about to go public, the board of directors, led by Sydney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), plots to depress stock prices by hiring an incompetent president as a scapegoat and then buying back the company. That incompetent proxy turns out to be oblivious business student Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). But that’s only the beginning of the Coens’ madcap screwball parody that satirizes every rung of the workforce ladder, from the mailroom grunt to the head honcho. Continue reading The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?
Continue reading Inherent Vice (2014)