Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Art Behind Art House Films


For film fanatics The Criterion Collection remains one of the few bastions for the preservation of essential films spanning the globe. Besides being the to go-to place for hard to find releases Criterion is also the premiere leader in film restoration, remarkably in-depth DVD audio commentaries, critical essays and countless other features that actually enhance the overall cinematic experience. Many believe that a trip to the library and a viewing devotion to Criterion’s growing collection makes going to film school seem futile.


While presenting each film at its absolute pinnacle edition is Criterion’s true raison d'être, the collection also serves as a haven for some of the most beautiful DVD packaging art around. From revivals of old and often rare film posters and prints to original layouts from up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, Criterion continues to beg its loyal following to judge the book by its cover.

An entire column could be devoted to praising the countless classics–everything from standards to forgotten gems and everything in between–being released annually through Criterion. For devout film aficionados Criterion is a proverbial name. The company’s token logo, ordered spine numbering system, and expensive price tags make the discs a collector’s Holy Grail–DVD fiends pine over particularly rare or out-of-print discs the way literary buffs seek out that pristine first edition to complete their library. From the filmmaking standpoint, a coveted release amidst the cinematic giants–Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Powell & Pressburger, to name a few–generally means an artistic career high.

Running at around $30 per disc, with special box sets running as high as $650 (for a 50 film/disc art house film retrospective collection), Criterion discs are pricy but the general rule of thumb is you pay for the quality, this includes packaging designed with love and care.

Unlike most DVDs, which provide poster art, film stills or the occasional inspired 
“Special Edition” cover for their packaging, Criterion generally goes a step further by designing carefully thought out images to pair up with the film’s content. Sometimes this means taking a preexisting piece of artwork from the film’s past and doctoring it up, other times it calls for a re-imagining of the film’s central themes or characters to be displayed front and center.

ImageTake for example the beautifully crafted cover of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of Criterion’s first releases (spine #4), which was reissued in a two-disc collector’s edition in 2006. A terribly gifted artist named Caitlin Kuhwald was commissioned to paint what eventually became a mini four-panel mural depicting four scenes from the film in a vibrant, jump off the canvas array of colors that is as much a wink and a nod to the golden age of Technicolor film processing, as it is visually stunning. The artwork is not only showcased on the cover but also spans into the DVD inserts. Kuhwald continues to return to Criterion most recently with their release of the beloved, magical children’s classic The Thief of Baghdad.

For Criterion’s massive DVD release of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the art direction team turned to none other than longtime Thompson collaborator and surreal ink blot illustrator Ralph Steadman. The grotesque drawing of Duke and Dr. Gonzo racing through the desert with looming bats overhead and a dark, art deco “Emerald City”esque fortress in the background is the perfect center piece for the film and story’s equally loony content. The company has also gone to great lengths to give Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil a proper release, with the latter’s box-set packaging also serving as the rare example of a literal “box” set.

ImageSometimes Criterion goes the minimalist route featuring a simple film still or photograph behind carefully chosen typeface. The packaging for the five-disc release of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander features nothing more than a series of slightly grainy photographs of the film’s protagonists. The images portray the children as young, innocent, and naïve to their true bourgeois surroundings, perfectly respecting Bergman’s cinematic intentions for the film and subsequent television mini-series.

The cleverly layout for Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, simply presents an orange haired, possibly inebriated David Bowie (the film’s alien star) in front of a pitch black background. The film’s title, placed over Bowie’s face, is in a typographical descent:
 

Image

Simple but effective, the packaging for Earth is as bleak and dark as the film itself.

ImageFinally Criterion continues to be the exclusive home of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging catalogue, with each release and re-release receiving the royal artistic treatment. From Throne of Blood’s black, white and red cartoon of Tohiro Mifune as a pseudo Macbeth, the simple splatter paint and Japanese character inspired cover for the equally vibrantly colored film Ran, the more modern, metropolis driven front for the Bad Sleep Well (the towering white, art deco office building with a single red X on one window is another clever tie into the film, which tells the tale of revenge set inside the corporate world), to the fabulously blurred shot of the central home in Rashomon, an allegory to the blurred reality of the story being told and retold in the film (think Usual Suspects), Criterion continues to pay its respects to this filmmaking legend.

A new Criterion release is an event all in itself. Discovering what buried treasure of a film they’ll take on next is always a delightful moment for film buffs. What they choose to display on the cover is also part of the fun. Not only does this method give up and coming artists and graphic designers a chance to showcase their talent but it opens up a new level of creativity to an old classic. Often times the art is the sole catalyst for checking out a new and unfamiliar title.

Up next for Criterion is the company’s first foray into the High Definition arena with four Blue-Ray releases, including Bottle Rocket, which completes its devotion to the films of Wes Anderson and yet another re-release of The Third Man, which features arguably one of the most beautifully dark, and menacing packaging art design in Criterion’s catalogue. Criterionco.com lists all of the company’s current titles as well as its back stock of Laserdiscs, which served as a starting point for the extras now common on DVDs. There are also a number of Criterion “completist” blogs of buff working their way through every disc in the collection, for example criterioncollection.blogspot.com and criterionconfessions.com.
 

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Shield: Culminating a Masterful Series Run


ROOTING FOR THE BAD GUY: A Look Back at The Shield

It’s no secret that David Chase’s creation of Tony Soprano changed the face of television. The multi-dimensional anti-hero character was born the minute Tony first entered therapy, presented as both loving family man, and later as a brutal and greedy murderer. Throughout The Sopranos six season run creator David Chase developed Soprano into a complicated television archetype–always empathetic while being equally despicable. As we watched Tony’s inevitable downward spiral into paranoia, anger and (depending on how you view the show’s closing moments) his demise, we couldn’t help but feel compassionate for the man, despite his countless wrong doings. 

The FX original series The Shield, a fast-paced, gritty L.A. cop show, premiered on the heels of The Sopranos, and its countless other spawns, as a show focused around the world of another benevolent anti-hero. The main character, Detective Vic Mackey (played with equally balanced intensity and charm by Michael Chiklis) is the perfect dichotomy–a rogue and effective force against the troubles plaguing his surroundings who is also a dirty, selfish infliction on society. Yet despite constant reminders of his evil, or shall we say his questionable ways, the audience can’t help but root for the guy. 

The series is currently wrapping things up with its final 13-episodes seventh season. While it has a loyal following and has been well regarded by critics since its incarnation, the show remains niche.

To say The Shield is a cop show is taking the easy way out. Like HBO’s late masterful series The Wire, the inner workings of The Shield go way beyond the formulaic cops and robbers serial. At its core The Shield is a character study. It tugs at the recycled themes developed on the cop show–revenge, loyalty, and sense of duty–while also diving into the atypical and more human aspects seldom seen on a show of this nature.

Like Tony Soprano, Mackey is a loving family man, willing to do anything (legal or morally questionable) to ensure his family’s well being. In his job he is an effective enforcement tool, a brute of a man who lets very little stand in his way when it comes to getting the job done. Torture, deception, and murder, all serve as implements of successfully battling crime. 

He and his team of equally complicated but sympathetic Strike Team minions at first appear to be the superheroes of their district but slowly we get the full picture. Cutting corners and taking the easy way out both plague and aid the show’s characters with Mackey using his rampant ways to ceaselessly take down crime-lords while also thicken his wallet. 

ImageSimilarly to The Wire, The Shield also presents the bureaucracy of the war on drugs and the inner workings of the police enforcement agencies that make up L.A.’s fictional Farmington district (although, like The Wire this show could be set in any major urban backdrop as the themes are much larger than its setting). Mackey and his team are not the only pieces of a corrupt system, and are at times miniscule problems in the grand scheme of things. From the politically career driven police Captain Acevada (an equally fascinating character) to the revenge driven Internal Affairs agent in the show’s fifth season (portrayed beautifully by Forrest Whitaker, who is in many ways as corrupt as Mackey, the man he’s intent on crushing), The Shield has also managed to branch out over its run giving us one of the most convincing looking “cop shows” out there. 

This is not to say the show is perfect. Like The Sopranos (which was hindered by running one season too many) The Shieldhas had its low points, specifically with its fourth season, which brought on a convincing Glenn Close as the new operations major for the crew’s district, but ultimately played up a forgettable season long storyline. 

In fact the show’s finest moments were in its initial season, jumpstarted by one of the most exhilarating pilot episodes of any series in the pantheon of the genre, and the past two outings, which have returned to the show’s highlights. The introduction of Vic in the pilot depicts him as a rough but efficient cop and team leader. By the end a shocking murder changes our view of the character completely.

The stuff in between still manages to be one of the more thrilling reasons to tune in to late night FX, besting that of the more formulaic cop show offerings on the market, mainly the many Law and Order incarnations, the overly glossed C.S.I.family and every other mediocre police themed show come and gone in recent years. The minor characters each get their own development with the bookworm detective “Dutch” Wagenbach carrying the most entrancing minor character arc on the show. 

Watching Vic and his gang combat the harsh streets of urban L.A., while also battling their inner demons has been a treat over the years and as the current season begins to heat up there is an equal level of anticipation and sorrow for the show’s culmination. Like The Sopranos’ nail-biting final moments, the end of The Shield is already creating an troublesome dilemma–should Mackey receive the justice he deserves, no matter how harsh it may be or do we root for an escape from the deep hole he’s dug over this show’s run. 

The television arena has always and will always have its share of garbage but lately, thanks to the no-holds barred attitudes of programs like The Sopranos, or its predecessor the equally unconventional Oz, television series have been able to serve as visual extensions of great literature featuring multi-dimensional characters. The Shield took the concept in a different direction. 

Tony Soprano is a hard-bitten criminal who also suffers from self-pity, yet he still manages to mesmerize the viewer. The drug kingpins on The Wire reap the benefits from a bleeding society but still we are burdened with empathy once we see the larger picture regarding society’s infrastructural woes. Vic Mackey kills and steals to get his way, yet we can’t help but root for the guy who, after all, is merely trying to support his family (this final season is already looking to show how Mackey’s questionable ways over the years have shaped his family’s dynamic), and continue doing what he was clearly born to do. 

The Shield’s creator Shawn Ryan has since collaborated on some other projects, as have many of its cast members still the series will be a career highlight. While the upcoming finale will most likely not carry the same popular culture weight as The Sopranos final episode, it’ll still be the culmination of a quality television program. It’s difficult to convince someone to jump into a show currently about clear the stage but for those who are tired of the predictable and rudimentary cop shows that most are used to seeing, The Shield is sure to deliver as a one-of-a-kind television experience.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Music Biopics: What's Been Done, What's In The Works, & What We Want


(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

The biopic is a longstanding Hollywood tradition. There are the big budget epics like the now infamous Elizabeth Taylor vehicle "Cleopatra," David Lean's masterpiece, "Lawrence of Arabia," or Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi." Then there are the smaller pictures chronicling the equally gripping stories of those less celebrated. Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the Irish cerebral palsy painter, Christy Brown in "My Left Foot," or Bill Condon's 2004 film "Kinsey" about human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey come to mind.

In recent years, thanks in part to the wide success of the films "Ray" and "Walk the Line," the music biopic has become the new hot ticket in Hollywood-the sure-fire road to an Oscar and one the best ways to rejuvenate or honor a music career. Whether it's the posthumous homage (the aforementioned pieces on Ray Charles andJohnny Cash) or the current reminder of the musical pioneers of our time (the Tina Turner story, otherwise known as "What's Love Got To Do With It"), the music biopic sells.

LiberaceAcclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (currently promoting his Toronto Film Festival audience favorite epic political biopic of Che Guevara) recently announced his rather curious intentions of bringing the life Polish-American musician Liberace to the big screen with Michael Douglas in talks to star as the debonair Vegas pianist and entertainer. A project like this may seem a bit odd coming from someone as well respected as Soderbergh, especially following a biopic about a Latin American revolutionary. And since the Liberace fanbase is mainly comprised of veteran AARP members and lavish Vegas performers the allure of this project for mainstream audiences is also questionable.

The trick of making any sort of successful biopic is a commanding story that is worth telling, generally one with a bit of tragedy to really pull at those Academy members. Taking on someone like Liberace seems strange but when you take a closer look at his life, particularly his debated sexual orientation and legal woes with alleged long-time boyfriend Scott Thorson (set to be played by Matt Damon) the plot thickens.

With the currently untitled Liberace picture slated for a 2010 release and many other intriguing music biopics either rumored or in the works, it seemed fitting to go through and examine some other upcoming projects and also give some thoughts on musicians of past and present who are in need of their own silver screen biopic.

Miles DavisUntitled Miles Davis Project:
Forget his obvious merits as one of Jazz music's innovators and pioneers-changing the face of the musical art form various times throughout his extensive career-Miles Davis has one hell of a compelling and complicated life. His sprawling and juicy autobiography (which one would hope would provide the most information for a biopic like this) tells the story of a genius rising to stardom, falling into obscurity, and battling his various demons-mainly drug addiction, womanizing, and race-fueled contempt-all along the way. You know, the usual attributes of a music biopic. 
Don Cheadle has long been interested in producing as well as starring in this project, which could potentially be split into two films (to fairly cover Davis' life) with the musician's release of the controversial and life changing 1969 jazz/rock album Bitches Brew being the center of the epic film. If Clint Eastwood's forgotten masterpiece "Bird" did justice to jazz master Charlie Parker's short but monumental career, a film covering is Davis is long over due. Possible Titles: Take your pick from his many album titles: "Miles Ahead," "In a Silent Way," "Kind of Blue," or "The Birth of Cool."



Janis JoplinThe Gospel According to Janis:
Janis Joplin biopic has been in talks for what seems like ages. At one point PinkBritney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan were each set to star. Now the much more promising Zooey Deschanel (whose pipes best all three of the aforementioned pop stars) has taken the reins. Joplin's is another tragic story of one of America's most beloved 60s music icons. A parallel project on Jimi Hendrix and or Mama Cass from the Mama's and the Poppas would fit in well with Joplin's memorable Monterey Pop fest highlights.

Notorious:
The tragic departure of two of modern rap's forefathers, 
Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. has received its share of media attention but both have life stories that rival that of Greek tragedy and deserve recognition. This project, set for a 2009 release, stars Anthony Mackie as Shakur, Derek Luke as Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, and newcomer Jamal Woolard as Biggie. The only thing holding this project back are the various recent documentary films about both artists covering not only their subsequent careers but also their deaths, most notably the extremely compelling "Tupac: Resurrection."

Bob MarleyNo Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley:
Here is another inevitable project just waiting to be picked up. 
Martin Scorsese was originally in line to direct a documentary on the reggae star's life and musical career. This has since been passed on (possibly to Jonathan Demme). The Weinstein Company recently picked up the rights to a biopic based on Maley's widow, Rita Marley's 2004 book chronicling Marley's rise to fame. Not much else is known about the project other than the fact that Rita is in line to produce and has recommended Lauryn Hill (who is married to Rohan Marley, Bob's son from another woman) to portray her in the film. Rita has also suggested her grandson Stefan takes on the role of his grandfather since he is, "the splitting image of Bob." Less obvious title: Trenchtown Rocker

What We Do Is Secret:
Punk rockers always seem to have the most fascinating life stories. Alex Cox's loose biopic of 
Sex Pistols crazy man Sid Vicious has since become the epitome of the smaller, independent biopic (last year's "Control," a haunting retelling of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis' short life is another prime example). "Secret" tells the tale of Darby Crash, the charismatic singer for the L.A. punk band The Germs. The production of this film, which stars Shane West as Crash, was overlooked by the Germs surviving members, Lorna Doom and Pat Smear only increasing its level of intrigue and authenticity. Crash's suicide was overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon the day after and his story has never fully been told to a wide audience. While the Germs are less-known outside of the punk community they were an important part of a budding musical scene in the U.S., with Crash serving as one of punks many seminal leaders.

Sex Pistols


Iggy PopThe Passenger:
Another fascinating face in the punk, or better yet, proto-punk arena is one 
Iggy Pop. Lead singer for The Stooges, body building enthusiasts, drug enthusiast, and prolific musician, his is a story worth telling. The scenes portraying his late 70s musical epoch/drug rehabilitation in Europe with David Bowie would be reason enough to seek this film out. Elijah Woodis set to star as Pop in the film, which gets its title from one of Pop's tracks from an early solo LP, "Lust for Life." While some might question the casting choice of Wood, the man who was Frodo, to tackle the Raw Power of Pop, Iggy himself has said in interviews that he regards Elijah as a talented actor.

Other Rumored Projects:

-The biggest rumored piece is a John Lennon biopic ranging from his childhood until his death. Kate Winslet is rumored to portray Lennon's mother, the inspiration for Lennon's devastating song, "Mother," which is jumpstarted with the lines, "Mother, You had me but I never had you." Chilling.

-Jerry Garcia biopic-one of the young stars of TV's "Malcolm In the Middle" is set to produce a biopic of the late Grateful Dead grizzly man musician. The idea of a Hollywood film about Garcia and the dead must send shivers down the spines of aging deadheads across the country.

-Untitled Deborah Harry Project-Kirstin Dunst has been rumored to take on Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry in a biopic on her rise to stardom amidst the CBGB New York punk scene. It's not this is a bad idea since Harry remains an underappreciated 80s pop star with an interesting tale to be told, the problem is Dunst, a so-so actor with very little range whose physical appearance might be her only qualification for the role.

Kurt Cobain-Kurt and Courtney-Courtney Love has expressed in interviews that she would very much like to see a film about her relationship with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain withScarlett Johansson and Ryan Gosling starring as grunge's first Mr. and Mrs. The status of the project doesn't go much farther than this and knowing Love's history this could be all there is to it.

-Jeff Buckley Biopic-The death of singer songwriter Jeff Buckley following his debut masterpiece, Grace remains one of the most mysterious and unsettling departures in music history. Whether or not there is enough to his story to warrant a biopic is up for debate. Still both Spin Magazine and the Hollywood Reporter have reported that a script of his life is being shopped around.

Dream Biopics:

-Elliott Smith-If they can document the life of Jeff Buckley in a biopic then why not the equally talented and tragically missed vocal sensation from the Pacific Northwest. Sure Smith fans might not be keen a mainstream portrayal of the beloved artist but his is a story worth remembering. Possible title: Between the Bars

-Frank Zappa-Again, Zappa's music and notoriety might be too obscure for the mainstream but his career is unlike any other musician out there and his defense of free speech in the legendary 1985 Senate hearings battling the Parents Music Resource Center is reason enough to warrant a jump to the silver screen. His son Dweezil has already toured covering his father's music and could undoubtedly grow the legendary mustache for a role if one were ever offered. Possible Title: The Grand Wazoo

-Isaac Hayes-This may be too early since the man just passed away but if you look past his recent voiceover roles on Southpark, this man had a pretty prolific career getting his start as a songwriter for some of Motown's finest tunes. Possible Title: Walk On By

-Cat Stevens-Sure he's considered a loony now but Cat Stevens once had a beautiful career as a folk singer/songwriter. His evolution and rebirth as Yusuf Islam is ripe for exploration.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Look Back at Miller's Crossing


The Coen Brothers’ immortal masterpiece Miller’s Crossing is jumpstarted with possibly one of the greatest opening scenes of all time. Seated in a slick, perfectly decorated dark redwood office, Italian crime boss Johnny Caspar (brilliant character actor Jon Polito) spells out his thoughts on ethics in an unethical world of illegal gambling that the Coen’s conjure up for Crossing. Caspar is speaking to the Irish crime lord of the city, Tom O’Bannon (the scene stealing Albert Finney), specifically about his qualms with a small time bookie who is cheating Caspar out of his own fixed fights. The following passage not only perfectly sets the stage for the film about to unfold but is also sums up in a nutshell who the Coen’s are as filmmakers:

It's a wrong situation. It's gettin' so a
businessman can't expect no return from a fixed
fight. Now if you can't trust a fix, what can
you trust? For a good return you gotta go
bettin' on chance, and then you're back with
anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of
the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is
  important. It's the grease makes us get along,
  what separates us from the animals, beasts a
 burden, beasts a prey. Ethics.

This Friday the Coen Brothers unleash their 13th feature film to date. After the success of last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, and the notoriety these art house darlings carry, the release of Burn After Reading is arguably one of the most anticipated films to start the fall season. Much has been said about the Coens in recent years especially following their Oscar glory this past Winter, but its easy to forget their earlier efforts, mainly Miller’s Crossing, which still remains one of their forgotten masterpieces. 18 years after it was released it’s ready to be revisited.

On its surface Miller’s Crossing is a grand homage to the early noir gangster flicks of the 40s and 50s, and in terms of modern day gangster films it ranks high among some the greats such as L.A. ConfidentialReservoir DogsLock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, to name a few. At its core, though, it’s a dark comedy that fuses together not only noir but slapstick comedy, action, historical drama (themes of prohibition are thrown in at throughout the film), and even a bit of romantic melodrama. To understand and truly appreciate the Coen Brothers an appreciation of the many cinematic genres of sub-genres of yesteryears is essential. Few filmmakers showcase their influences with more subtleness and sophistication as the Coens.

While Crossing was the Coen’s third official film it remains not only one of their best but also the film that truly defined who these two indie filmmakers from Minnesota truly were, setting the stage for an impressive and ongoing career that followed.

Getting back to the film’s brilliant opening. Caspar’s observations on the demise of ethics in an unethical world is the kind of the backwards, nonsensical rationale that only a group of crooked gangsters would bring up and only the Coen’s would write. Sly and witty banter dialogue has always been the Coen’s forte and Miller’s Crossing showcases them at the top of their game.

ImageCaspar believes in his argument for a return to ethical principals, despite its absurdity, just like Fargo’s Jerome Lundegaard believes that arranging the kidnapping of his wife will solve his problems or The Big Lebowski’s The Dude believing his life of leisure is the only life there is. The Coens have always excelled in creating worlds that are not quite attuned with reality but nevertheless come off completely convincing and mesmerizing. The fantasy town inhabited by the characters of Miller’s Crossing, though quirky at times, could pass as any part of America circa the prohibition stricken 1920s
 
Crossing is the complicated tale of one man, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), caught between two warring crime lords. Caught amidst the chaos Reagan must choose examine the definition of loyalty and decide which, if any, side he falls on.

Gabriel Byrne is one of those actors with the face that everyone recognizes, but few know about. In terms of shear talent he’s not one of the finest actors of his generations but was perfectly cast a Reagan in Crossing. Not only does his cool demeanor and perfectly calibrated Irish-American accent fit the role perfectly but he also manages to provide the film’s slapstick elements (his character is literally slapped around at least a dozen times throughout the picture).

While Byrne successfully carries the film’s plot the real stars are the auxiliary characters, specifically Polito’s take on Caspar, J.E. Freeman as the towering mob gun for hire Eddie Dane, and John Turturro’s sleazy and hunted bookie Bernie Bernbaum (Coen’s have also always had a knack for naming their characters) who is the catalyst for Caspar’s ethical woes. Then there’s Albert Finney as the dominating town crime lord with the romantic heart for the film’s dame, Verna Bernbaum, played equally wonderfully by Marcia Gay Harden.

Finney, who eventually becomes a minor character as the film unfolds, was fortunate enough to be given one of Crossing’s most memorable scenes–the Tommy gun showdown at O’Bannon’s estate. Forget Scarface’s closing shootout at casa Montana or Sonny Corleone’s ill-fated tollbooth demise, Miller Crossing has one of the finely choreographed and graceful firefights of any modern day gangster film, set behind Irish tenor Frank Paterson’s gripping rendition of the traditional “Danny Boy.”

As for Miller’s Crossing itself, the title refers to a menacing final destination for doomed gangsters and unlucky innocents in the middle of the woods. It’s the kind of final resting stop of gangster lore–the shear mentioning of the place brings terror to a number of the characters in the piece, especially with Turturro’s weeping plea for his life in one crucial scene.

For cinephiles and Coen fanatics Miller’s Crossing is often considered to be the brother’s finest film to date, and in many ways this argument is concrete. It was made before the Coen’s had officially established themselves as the go-to indie/art-house filmmakers of time, thus making it the kind of film made entirely from the creative minds of Ethan and Joel, with no external or internal pressures looming overhead. For fans of American noir, British gangster, Preston Surges comedy and a slew of other the classic cinematic genres, Miller’s Crossing is a spectacle for the senses. Even for the casual viewers, few gangster tales match its twisty storyline, sly dialogue and gorgeous set designs.

The Coens hopefully have many more years ahead of them and countless other genres to tap into (after the thrills of No Country For Old Men, partially a chase/action film, some might be curious to see if the Coens could take on a straight thriller or horror film). While they’re post Fargo (arguably their most well known and admired film) pieces remain the most seen it’s important to look back at their filmmaking roots, starting early on with Blood Simple and the comedy Raising Arizona, but with close attention paid to Miller’s Crossing, one of the finest films of modern times.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Spotlight on the Coen Brothers

(Article originally written for Starpulse.com just in time for the release of "Burn After Reading")

Many things come to mind when thinking about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dark witty humor, highly stylized production and costume designs, reoccurring actors, clever and often poetic dialogue, and above all some of the best character names in celluloid history.

Just look back at some of the brothers' most memorable characters: The Snoat brothers in Raising Arizona, Bernie Bernbaum and Eddie Dane in Miller's Crossing, Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Swedish-Americans Marge Gunderson and Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo, Jackie Treehorn and Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski (and let's not forget video artist Knox Harrington), Delmar, Pete & Ulysses in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Bid Dave Brewster and Creighton Tolliver in The Man Who Wasn't There, Garth Pancake in The Ladykillers and, well, you get the idea.

Burn After ReadingIt may seem a bit odd to dwell on something as miniscule as name choices for major characters but then again part of the charm of the Brothers Coen has always been their relentless focus on detail, however miniscule it might be.

Today marks the release of the Coen Brothers 13th feature film to date and their first follow-up to last year's Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men. In honor of the release ofBurn After Reading, yet another genre bending, screwball comedy starring a slew of Coen regulars (George Clooney & Frances McDormand) and exciting newcomers (John Malkovich any one!) it seems only fitting to take a film by film look back at the Coen's evolution to the seasoned filmmakers we know today.

The Early Pictures:

Blood SimpleAll great filmmakers get their start somewhere and some efforts play out better than others. The Coens jumped onto the scene with 1984s Blood Simple, a brilliant thriller set deep in the sleazy haunts of a small Texas town. Fresh out of film school for Joel and Princeton's undergraduate Philosophy program for Ethan, Blood Simple was made on the cheap but hardly lacked in quality. Featuring one hell of a complicated plot, full of countless juicy twists and turns, Simple is a slick crime piece with elements of noir and subtle helpings of the Coen's signature dark sense of humor, seen mainly through M. Emmet Walsh's scene stealing performance as a sleazy private eye. Besides showing that the Coens could do a lot on a small budget (a mindset they continue to follow even as their notoriety rises) Blood Simple showcased these young filmmaker's fascination with early genre flicks from the dawn of the celluloid.

Proving that the brothers weren't keen on being typecast they released the quirky, sometimes surreal comedy Raising Arizona to varying critical acclaim. Those expecting another Blood Simple instead got a fantasy about a half-witted stick-up criminal H.I. McDunnough (played wonderfully by Nicolas Cage, still one of his most memorable performances) and his policewoman wife (a sharp-tongued Holly Hunter) who decide to kidnap a newborn infant (one of the "Arizona Quints") as there own. Arizona is one of those experiences best seen rather than summarized in print. The film was the Coen's first official foray into straight slapstick territory, a beloved genre they would eventual revisit again in various forms.

International Critical Acclaim:

Millers CrossingBarton FinkTo kickoff the 90s the Coens released their first pair of masterpieces, which are widely considered to be the Brothers' finest to date. Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink are worlds apart in terms of storyline and genre-Crossing being an epic prohibition era noir gangster picture and Fink, a mysterious and odd character study of a blocked theater writer working in a hellish, profit driven Hollywood circa WWII. But the two films are linked for their underlying social messages, scene stealing performances by John Turturro, perfectly scored soundtracks from Coen regular Carter Burwell, and the Coen's finest screenplays to date. Crossing's opening monologue about ethics in an unethical world by Italian crime head Johnny Caspar (the wonderful Jon Polito) or Barton Fink's plea for the theater of the proletariat are examples of the kind of clever banter the Coens are now famous for. Totally convincing arguments from sympathetic albeit ridiculous characters is a theme carried over through all of the Coen's post Crossing films.

Millers Crossing and Barton Fink were both well-received by critics and fans (although box office figures still sagged) and Fink even took the Brothers to Cannes Film Festival where they snagged not only the top Palme d'Or, but also Best Director and Best Actor, an industry first sweep of the top prizes that to this day has yet to be upset. Finally as a straight up gangster film Miller Crossing benefits from having one of the best, finely choreographed Tommy gun firefights of any modern day gangster film, set behind Irish tenor Frank Paterson's gripping rendition of the traditional "Danny Boy."

The recent wave of universal acclaim paved the way for The Hudsucker Proxy, a grand Frank Capra/Preston Sturges-eque Hollywood epic comedy, which was also the Coen's first big budget effort (a whopping $25 million). Hudsucker is often perceived as the Coens first bomb although the film is terribly underappreciated for what it is-a beautifully filmed ode to the everyman fantasy comedies of the 1940s. All the elements are there: Extravagant set pieces of New York City, lighting fast dialogue (delivered best by Jennifer Jason Leigh's Amy Archer character), quirky and surreal moments (for example the menacing Blue Letter scenario) and a nod and grin to the simple consumer products of the time ("you know, for kids").

Cult Status Coens:

FargoIt seems that every time the Coens come even remotely close to some level of failure their follow-up is a brilliant return to form, 1996sFargo being their first. This is arguably the Coen's timeless classic, a nearly flawless film that will only improve with age. On the surface it's a brilliantly told tale about why crime doesn't pay, at its core though, its so much more. The film is as much a character piece as it is a run of the mill thriller. From the doomed nitwit Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) to Steve Buscemi's career turning performance as "kind of funning looking" small-time crook Carl Showalter, Fargo showcases the Coen's fascination with sympathetic anti-heroes. Too much has been said about the film's use of the "Minnesota Nice" dialogue and frigid backdrop, a crucial element of Fargo that does not poke fun at Minnesotans but rather pays homage (after all the Coens are natives of the Gopher State). Fargo put the Coen Brothers back at the top and granted them complete control over future projects, mainly their next one the odd but now immaculate cult favorite, The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski is arguably the Brothers' most fascinating success story. Following on the heel of Fargo this should have been a huge success but was instead panned by critics, was a flop at the box office and didn't really find its audience until its run on video where it is now a cult phenomenon (there's even an annual Lebowski Fest for hardcore fans). Most people hip to popular culture are familiar with the bizarre adventures of "The Dude", and even if you haven't actually seen the film, chances are you can draw from memory at least one of its many quotes and catch-phrases.

A New Millennium Decline:

O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coens started the new millennium with a bang. O Brother, Where Art Thou remains their biggest and most successful film to date (TBS/TNT syndication alone is proof enough). This loose adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey set in depression era middle America was a return to the screwball comedy of Hudsucker and Raising Arizona, while also serving as a time capsule for all the juicy details of life during the 1930s. From the countless tins of Dapper Dan hair pomade to Clooney's Ulysses getting banned from the Woolworth, O Brother is one of the Coen's true period pieces, despite its fictional backbone.

2001s The Man Who Wasn't There is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Shalhoub shine) film that unfortunately lacks a truly convincing or memorable storyline. Masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins, who took the reins from Barry Sonnenfeld after Miller's Crossing, soaks the film in noir black and white standards. Pillows of cigarette smoke, characters draped with shadows, and carefully crafted 50s era set pieces make this one of the Coen's most visually stunning films to watch but its uninspired script (for Coen standards mind you) keeps the film from being one to revisit time after time.

Then came the super mainstream. Despite star studded casts and memorable moments Intolerable Cruelty andThe Ladykillers remain the Coen's most unsuccessful projects, not financially but artistically. Many link the problems plaguing the films to the fact that both were co-written from preexisting scripts (The Ladykillersbeing the Coen's first film remake originally slated for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct), thus not quite an original Coen vision. It can also be noted that unlike past Coen films that were set in the near or distant past, these two efforts were the most currently set.

Intolerable Cruelty was undoubtedly influenced Sturges style situational comedies brought to a modern stage. Clooney's tackles the role of Miles Massey, an overly zealous divorce attorney and forger of an immaculate prenuptial agreement, with conviction, and Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers as the gold digging thorn in his foot. Overall the film feels like nothing more than a showcase for some more firecracker dialogue, void of a truly memorable story. While people will still be quoting from Lebowski and Arizona for years to come, the chances of said timeless happening to Cruelty is slim.

Ladykillers too many visions packed into what should have been a simple comedy remake. Tom Hanks is funny as the quirky southern gentleman G.H. Dorr, Ph. D, but his over the top performance is distracting at times, never truly meshing with the supporting players. The film's inclusion of church music seems like an attempt to do for gospel what O Brother did for Americana folk and bluegrass, but again breaks the films flow. FinallyMarlon Wayans, a talented actor when he wants to be (see Requiem For a Dream) turns in a performance fueled solely by in-your-face slang dialogue and predictable, unnecessary curse words that only hinder what could have been an excusable failed experiment.

Oscar Glory:

No Country For Old MenLike they did with Fargo after the misunderstood and less-reveredHudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers followed their two comedic outings with a mesmerizing, cold-blooded crime thriller with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy'sNo Country for Old Men. Fans of McCarthy were wide-eyed with glee when it was announced that the Coens would helm this project because it was the perfect fit.

The film was in many ways a return to form of their gritty masterpieces like Fargo and Blood Simple-part thrilling chase genre flick (the closest they've ever gotten to strict action) and part philosophical meandering on the ruthless capabilities of man. By adding an extremely subtle level of dark humor to the story (the original novel was as serious a story as they come) the Coens showed a newfound knack for adapting novels, in this case improving on the preexisting text (McCarthy fans find the book to be one of the author's minor works).

It's hard to say where Burn After Reading will fall in the Coen's gamut. From the trailers it appears to be a crime comedy with some larger than life characters to add to the long list of Coen Brothers' favorites. The return of Frances McDormand is exciting for fans as is the casting choice of John Malkovich, a well-seasoned actor who is ripe for a Coen part. What is known about the Coens of today is that they pretty much have free reign to try their hands at any type of film idea they can conjure up. With many more prime years of cinematic exploration and maturation ahead of them, it'll be interesting to see where the Coen Brothers fall in the history of motion pictures.