The Coen Brothers have spent most of their careers as critical darlings, favourites of people like me who love the offbeat sensibility they bring to their films.
Their classic work, which includes O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink and of course, the Oscar winning Fargo dates back to the early eighties with their breathtaking debut Blood Simple.
The Coens made their name mixing off-the-wall comedy with crime stories. Raising Arizona redefined quirky and The Big Lebowski is a cult classic.
The sibling directors set their new film Hail, Caesar! in a fictional movie studio called Capitol Pictures but populated the story with characters ripped from Hollywood history. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s legendary producer and “fixer.” In Tinseltown’s Golden Age Mannix solved star’s problems, allegedly using his influence to keep some of the most notorious crimes and scandals on the LAPD blotter under wraps.
They don’t hit a homerun every time up at bat—their romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty lacked both romance and comedy and The Ladykillers was an ill-advised remake of an Ealing Studios classic—but their genre-jumping resume contains many marvellous films that are as varied, subject wise, as they are entertaining.
Here are three of their movies that translate easily from the arthouse to your house.
No Country for Old Men: The Coens faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel, keeping the dark humor, unbearable suspense and high body count—the ultra-violence would make David Cronenberg proud—while at the same time tightening up their notoriously loose narrative style. This is muscular filmmaking, highly structured but not predictable; it’s well paced and suspenseful. Couple the terrific story with great performances and beautiful New Mexico photography and the result is one of their best films.
A Serious Man: Though billed as a comedy, this may be the bleakest film the Coen Brothers have ever made. And remember these are the guys who once stuffed someone in a wood chipper on film. The story of a man who thought he did everything right, only to be jabbed in the eye by the fickle finger of fate is a tragiomedy that shows how ruthless real life can be. Set in 1967 Minnesota A Serious Man is apparently a thinly veiled look at the early life of the Coens, and if this is true, they deserve the designation of tortured artists. This film is darkly brilliant and funny, but a celebration of life it ain’t.
Inside Llewyn Davis: This one is a fictional look at the vibrant 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Imagine the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan come to life and you’ll get the idea. More a character study than a traditional narrative, Inside Llewyn Davis lives up to its name by painting a vivid portrait of its main character, played by Star Wars’ star Oscar Isaac. Sharp-eyed folkies will note not-so-coincidental similarities between the people Llewyn meets and real-life types like Tom Paxton, Alert Grossman and Mary Travers, but this isn’t a history, it’s a feel. It gives us an under-the-covers look at the struggles and naked ambition it takes to get noticed. Once you get inside Llewyn’s head you probably won’t want to hang out with the guy in real life, but you won’t regret spending two cinematic hours with him.
If you can’t make it to the Toronto International Film Festival but still want to get a flavour of the films, the Reel Guys — Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin — have some movies and some memories for you. They’ve been attending the festival for years and have seen it all, from actors’ tears to classic films to medical emergencies to stars being born. It’s a wild time, but like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Richard: Mark, I’ve been going to TIFF for 30 years and covering it for almost 20 so I can’t even begin to imagine how many movies I’ve seen in the 10 days after the first Thursday after Labour Day. Hundreds? Thousands? Somewhere in between, I’m sure. There have been many standouts, but my mind immediately goes to Lost in Translation. Perhaps because it’s Bill Murray Day (isn’t every day?), but I remember walking out of that theatre thinking I had just seen a star being born. Bill Murray was great, but Scarlett Johansson was memorable. She had been in things before, but that movie and TIFF made her a star that day.
Mark: Great film, Richard, but I saw it on a rainy night in Vancouver. If you want to go way, way back, I saw the gala premiere of The Big Chill at University Theatre in 1983. It was the first film that channeled baby boomer angst and it hit me hard — in a good way. So many great performances, but I still remember William Hurt and Kevin Kline. Meg Tilly has the best line when she says, “I don’t know many happy people. What are they like?”
RC: One of the things that happens at TIFF is you see movies that never open anywhere for some reason. What Doesn’t Kill You, a gritty crime drama set in South Boston starring Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo and Amanda Peet, was one of those. I really liked the movie and I hosted the press conference and that’s where something really memorable, for me, happened. During the conference, I looked over and Ruffalo had his head in his hands. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was he tired? Taking a break from the conversation? Asleep? Turns out the conversation and questions had made him emotional and he was crying. I didn’t expect him to break down into tears and be unable to speak, but Hawke jumped in and spoke about how Ruffalo is a committed actor who completely throws himself into his roles.
MB: There’s more to that story … Just before the press conference, for no apparent reason, I shivved Ruffalo in the left kidney, and he must have been in a lot of pain. But I know what you mean by movies that don’t open. The film immediately disappeared. Then there was the recent Lebanese movie The Attack, which was a harrowing story of a Palestinian doctor who finds out his wife is a terrorist. After the film, the director did a Q&A describing death threats he got and the tribulations he endured just to get the film made. It was almost as good as the film itself.
RC: You never know what will happen at the screenings, whether it’s a wild Q&A or the audience reaction. A few years ago the amputation sequence in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, was so intense several members of the audience required medical attention.
MB: Sometimes the volume of movies you see yields unexpected results. I remember the Saturday night I saw Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air immediately followed by the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. My two favourite movies of 2009, back to back!
Two plus two equals four isn’t really a compelling idea for the plot of a movie, but filmmakers have often turned to mathematics as the basis for a story.
The Coen Brothers focused an entire film around the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics. In A Serious Man Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches his classes the principle, but desperately wants to believe, despite the equation, that life makes sense. It’s not a movie about wave-particle duality and the DeBroglie hypothesis—it’s a very human story about a man searching for answers—but the math is crucial to the story.
The same holds true for Moneyball, the new Brad Pitt movie opening this weekend. The story of a baseball team’s general manager who uses algorithms and computer-generated analysis called sabermetrics to draft his players isn’t strictly about the math, but the story wouldn’t be the same without it.
A Beautiful Mind shows how mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe in the role that won him an Oscar, would visualize math problems in order to identify patterns and solve equations.
The Hangover uses a similar trick. At a Las Vegas casino Alan (Zach Galifianakis) counts cards at a blackjack table as mathematical equations appear on the screen. In reality none of the equations—like the Fourier theory of additive synthesis—have anything to do with cheating at cards, but it’s a funny scene that inspired the facebook page “Alan from The Hangover makes math seem AWESOME.”
A love poem called The Square Root of Three appears in the raunchy comedy Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. “I fear that I will always be a lonely number, like root three,” writes the lovelorn Kumar (Kal Penn), “A three is all that’s good and right. Why must my three keep out of sight?”
The Da Vinci Code famously uses the Fibonacci sequence—1 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 8 – 13 – 21— as a key to unlock the movie’s mystery and Cube sees people trapped in a giant cube with mathematic problems as clues to their salvation.
The John Astin comedy Evil Roy Slade features some frontier math. Schoolteacher Betsy asks Roy, “If you had six apples and your neighbor took three of them what would you have?”
“A Serious Man,” though being billed as a comedy, may be the bleakest film the Coen Brothers have ever made. And remember these are the guys who once stuffed someone in a wood chipper on film. The story of a man who thought he did everything right, only to be jabbed in the eye by the fickle finger of fate is a tragiomedy that shows how ruthless real life can be.
This loosely plotted slice of life involves two very bad weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnick (stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg). In an escalating series of events his life is turned upside down. His neighbor is unfriendly, his son complains nonstop about the poor TV reception, his wife announces she’s leaving him for another man and the committee who decides if he will get tenure at his university has been receiving uncomplimentary letters about him. As if that wasn’t enough, his deeply depressed brother is sleeping on the couch.
Set in 1967 Minnesota “A Serious Man” is apparently a thinly veiled look at the early life of the Coens, and if this is true, they deserve the designation of tortured artists. This film is darkly funny, but a celebration of life it ain’t.
Stuhlbarg does award level work turning Larry’s misery into a compelling and fully formed portrayal of a man in torment and the film is beautifully made but this is one of the quirkier efforts—example: there’s an old Rabbi who spouts Jefferson Airplane lyrics—from the filmmaking brothers. Plotting is virtually nonexistent and the abrupt ending makes “No Country Fore Old Men’s” unexpected finale seem wordy and drawn out.
Gopnick is portrayed as a good man, someone who has always done the right thing for his family and faith but reaped none of the benefits. His kids are indifferent to him, his wife openly contemptuous and he doesn’t appear to be on the fast track at work and that’s what makes “A Serious Man” so bleak. Nobody said life was fair but Larry Gopnick never gets a break, which, I suppose is the point of the film, but the futility of life message, while thought provoking, is a serious downer.