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.
In my review for the recent remake of Oldboy I wrote, “There is no more manly-man actor in the mold of Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef working today.”
I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise given that he was named after the rough-and-tumble character Josh Randall played by Steve McQueen in TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive.
In Oldboy he’s so tough he’s a practically indestructible force of nature; able to withstand physical punishment that would make Grigori Rasputin look like a wimp.
The tough guy angle is one Brolin plays in a number of films, including his latest Labor Day. He plays an escaped convict who hides out in the home of a depressed, widowed agoraphobic, played by Kate Winslet. Over the course of one long holiday weekend she learns of his dangerous past and before you can say the words Stockholm Syndrome has fallen for the ruggedly handsome stranger.
It’s the kind of role that Brolin has mastered; the multi-layered tough guy but according to him, he doesn’t seek out those roles.
He says he wracks his “brain like crazy trying to figure out which films I wanted to be in.”
Some of those films include No Country for Old Men and Jonah Hex.
In the Oscar nominated No Country he plays down-on-his-luck Llewelyn Moss, who stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone wrong. Bullet-ridden dead men litter the landscape along with several kilos of heroin and a suitcase stuffed with two million dollars in cash. When he makes off with the money his life and the lives of those around him are changed forever.
Jonah Hex didn’t earn any Oscar nods, but did get some Razzie attention in the form of nominations for Worst Screen Couple for Brolin and co-star Megan Fox. The story of a supernatural bounty hunter set on revenge against the man who killed his family is as disfigured as its main character’s face but Brolin brings his real-life swagger to the role and has fun with some of the tongue-in-what’s-left-of-his-cheek lines.
One tough guy role got away from him however. On-line speculation had it that he would be cast as the Caped Crusader in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman. Although he would have been perfect for the part he lost out to Ben Affleck. Contrary to his bruiser persona he was gracious in defeat. “I’m happy for Ben,” he said.
“The Counselor” is the feel bad movie of the year.
Bleak and hopeless, it’s an ice-cold crime drama that examines the reasons and consequences of crime instead of focusing on the crime itself. It’s a stylish cautionary tale about the worst of human behavior driven by greed, lust and hubris; a non-action, action movie where most of the fireworks are in McCarthy’s dialogue. Luckily actors like Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez and Michael Fassbender are there to keep the fuse lit.
In Cormac ‘No Country for Old Men’ McCarthy’s screenwriting debut he tells a gritty story about a greedy lawyer (Fassbender) in over his head after dipping his toe into the narcotics trade with charismatic drug lord Reiner (Bardem) and his sociopath girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz).
When the deal, smuggling carrying 625 kilos of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago, goes south after one “we’ve got a problem” phone call, the Counselor finds his life swirling out of control.
Spiraling around this grim vortex are womanizing middle-man Westray (Pitt), prison inmate Ruth (Rosie Perez) and the counselor’s long-distance girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz).
In “The Counselor” director Ridley Scott mutes his usual high-octane visual sense to focus on the words.
And there’s a lot of them.
Talky to the extreme, the entire movie is built around dialogue that sounds like it flowed from the hardest boiled crime writer out there, which I guess McCarthy is now that Elmore Leonard is working from his celestial typewriter. Catch phrases abound—“You don’t know someone until you know what they want,” for example—but it is wordy. Sometimes brilliantly so, but the pacing, particularly in the first hour, will be thought of as hypnotic by some, slow by others.
Scott takes his time creating tension in every scene, which really begins to pay off in the second hour when the themes of truth or consequences really start to pay off. “If you think you can live in this world and not be part of it, you’re wrong,” the Counselor is told, just after it’s too late to change his fate.
Or the most part the acting is top notch. Fassbender’s shift from confident criminal to a man who lands himself in a world of trouble after doing a good deed gives a nakedly raw performance. As his desperation grows his defenses drop and the weight of what he did in the name of greed crushes him.
Perez and Pitt (who’s in his “Killing Them Softly” mode here) are both fine, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else describing a “gynecological” love scene between a woman and a car with as much strange gusto as Bardem. “You see something like that,” he says, “and it changes you.”
These actors bring the words to life. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Diaz, whose cold-blooded take on the character is too detached to be truly effective.
Like “Killing Them Softly,” another thriller that relied on dialogue and ideas to provide the thrills instead of gunshots and explosions, “The Counselor” will polarize people. Some will find it a head scratcher, others will be drawn into its uncompromising look at life and death, cartel style.
Still others, like me, will be left half in, half out, wishing the film’s virtues—it’s dialogue and ideas—were propped up with just a bit more attention to plot and possibly some warmth. But the chilliness of the story and characters may be McCarthy’s point. Early on Malkina says, “I don’t think truth has a temperature,” which sums McCarthy’s ice cold look at primal, criminal behavior.
Cormac McCarthy may not be a household name around your place, unless you live with the Coen Brothers or maybe with the Pitt’s.
Literary critic Harold Bloom called the writer one of the four major American novelists of his time, and he has two all-star movies set for release, which may make his name a little more commonplace.
Later in 2013 James Franco directs, scripts and stars in Child of God, an adaptation of Cormac’s 1973 novel about, “a dispossessed, violent man whose life is a disastrous attempt to exist outside the social order.”
This weekend a star-studded cast lead by Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender headline The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott.
Producer Steve Schwartz says the story of a lawyer in over his head after dipping his toe into the drug trade, “may be one of McCarthy’s most disturbing and powerful works.”
And that’s saying something about the writer who gave us a character like No Country for Old Men’s killing machine Anton Chigurh. Empire.com warned that when, “McCarthy throws “a dark character at you, it’s a safe assumption that you’re not going to be able to get them out of your head for a good, long while—if ever.”
As written by McCarthy and played by Javier Bardem, who earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the part, Chigurh is merciless, a murderer who makes life and death decisions with the flip of a coin.
The Road—a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction—is another disturbing McCarthy novel adapted for the big screen.
The story is simple. A man and his son (Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to survive in a dystopian world. Armed with only a gun and two bullets they must scavenge for food amid the ruins and protect themselves from cannibals who roam the desolate land.
The Road is a movie based on small moments set against a big backdrop. No parent will be able to forget the stark image of seeing a young boy who doesn’t know what a can of Coke is or a father teaching his son how to commit suicide.
It’s tough, no nonsense work from a writer who says he’s “not that big a fan of exotic foreign films,” especially movie with magical realism. “You know, it’s hard enough to get people to believe what you’re telling them without making it impossible,” he says. “It has to be vaguely plausible.”
Javier Bardem dedicated his No Country for Old Men Oscar to a frequent co-star. “Mom this is for you,” the emotional actor said. “This is for your grandparents, for your parents, Rafael and Matilde, this is for the actors of Spain, who have brought, like you, dignity and pride to our job.”
You see, Bardem, the first Spaniard to win an acting Academy Award, comes from a long line of actors. His performing arts lineage stretches back nearly a hundred years but it wasn’t always a given that he would join the family business.
His first acting gig came at age six and even though he continued to work on TV and in films he studied to be a painter. He put down the brush, however, when he realized he’d never be a great artist and tried his hand at writing, construction and even stripping (but only for one night).
His road to Hollywood began at age twenty with an offer to appear alongside his mother Pilar Bardem in the movie Las edades de Lulú. She advised him to take the role seriously and take acting classes. He did, and never looked back.
The young Bardem appeared on TV, worked with Pedro Almodovar, certainly a rite of passage for all future Spanish superstars, and found fame with Jamon, Jamon, a film co-starring his future wife, Penelope Cruz.
If not for the persistence of John Malkovich however, English language audiences may never have discovered the Spanish star. In 1997 Malkovich was planning his directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs. He offered the lead to Bardem who turned it down because he didn’t feel confident acting in English. Continuing to work in Spain, Bardem made two dozen films, collected awards like Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for The Sea Inside and become the first Spanish actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Before Night Falls.
The part made him an international superstar—Al Pacino even left a message on his answering machine praising the performance and Francis Ford Coppola compared him to Robert de Niro.
Meanwhile Malkovich finally had the money to make The Dancer Upstairs, and by this time, 2002, Bardem had becoming fluent in English—he says he sang along with AC/DC to learn the language—and felt confident enough to take on a major English speaking role.
Of course, Hollywood came calling—he turned down the Witwer role in Minority Report which eventually went to Colin Farrell—and he finally made his Hollywood debut in a cameo appearance as a crime lord who hires Tom Cruise to dispatch some troublesome witnesses in the thriller Collateral.
He made his strongest impression as No Country for Old Men’s sociopathic assassin, Anton Chigurh. Entertainment Weekly called him one of the “50 Most Vile Villains in Movie History.”
Then he switched gears, playing a comedic role in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, a part which made him a Hollywood romantic lead, on screen and off. Reunited with his old Jamon Jamon co-star Penelope Cruz in Allen’s film they quietly started dating in 2007. The couple kept a low profile—when asked about their relationship in 2009 all Cruz would say is, “He’s a friend and the best actor in the world.”—but married in 2010 in front of family members during an intimate ceremony at a friend’s Bahamian home. In January 2011 the actress gave birth to their son, Leo.
Professionally Bardem also kept busy. In 2010 he proved he could do it all. In the same calendar year he released two movies back to back, Eat Pray Love, a big budget romance and Biutiful, a gritty Spanish language drama that cemented his rep as the movie’s most versatile leading man.
Speaking with him the night before Biutiful made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival I asked if his preparation process varies from role to role.
“I think it is the same process but of course there is more weight in this,” he said. “There is more emotional weight than in Eat Pray Love because the character has to carry a lot of things with him but I think at the end it is about trying to understand who the person is, being honest and trying to put that on the screen.”
Biutiful’s story of a low-level criminal in Barcelona trying to put his life together in light of unbearable guilt over a tragic accident and a death sentence from his doctor grabbed Bardem right away.
“Most of the scripts [I get] are very boring,” he told me. “They are the worst reading material you can have. When you are in to too many scripts you don’t read a good book for a long time and you realize you need to get a good book and lose yourself in those words. In this case [the script] had an emotional impact on me.”
Biutiful offered up one of the biggest challenges of his career. “To take a man that you are not actually liking from the first moment [and make an audience] understand that behind that is a man who really needs compassion, who really needs to love. That is the challenge.”
Biutiful which airs on TMN this month, earned Bardem his third Oscar nomination. He calls the movie a “a gift” and acknowledged to me that his performance wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“I think he is one of the greatest actor’s directors,” he said, adding that Iñárritu provided a detailed, written character sketch before shooting began.
“When he handed that great work to me I was pleased because I am lazy. It helps you to more or less have the image. We work with imagination so we have to understand who [the character is]. Even if the others don’t get it you need to know where you are when he says action, otherwise you are up in the air.”
The Coen Brothers have spent most of their careers as critical darlings, the favorites 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 new millennium, however, hasn’t been kind to the brothers or their fans. An attempt at romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, lacked both romance and comedy and The Ladykillers was an ill advised remake of an Ealing Studios classic. Happily, they found their footing with their new film, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men, featuring a serial killer with a Beatles haircut, a title borrowed from the first line of W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and some of their best work in years.
The story begins when down-on-his-luck Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hunting near the Rio Grande, stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone wrong. Bullet-ridden dead men litter the landscape, and a several kilos of heroin and a suitcase stuffed with two million dollars in cash have been abandoned. When Moss makes off with the money his life and the lives of those around him are changed forever.
In hot pursuit of the runaway and the cash are disillusioned Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who vainly tries to contain the situation, a cocky bounty hunter played by Woody Harrelson and an enigmatic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).
Bardem’s performance as Chigurh (ironically pronounced “Sugar”) is the film’s secret weapon. The movie is top heavy with good performances—Jones is at his world-weary best while Brolin continues his comeback winning streak with another strong outing—but it is the quiet menace that Spanish actor Bardem brings to the film that gives it is oomph. His diabolical killer cavalierly flips coins for people’s lives, speaks in a monotone when he does speak, but usually he just lets his weapons—like a pressurized air gun usually used to stun and kill cattle—do the talking for him. His near catatonic countenance, Prince Valiant haircut and seeming indestructibility make him the best and strangest on-screen villain of the year.
The Coens have faithfully adapted 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 not only their best film since 1996’s Fargo, but also one of the best of the year.