O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series over at French Toast Sunday.

Everett, Pete and Delmar (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) have just escaped from a chain gang in 1930s Mississippi, with the intention of recovering the loot from the burglary that resulted in Everett’s incarceration, before the area within which it is hidden becomes flooded in a few days time. The three men – at least two of whom are amongst the stupidest creations the Coen brothers have ever concocted, which is saying a great deal – have a long way to go and a short time to get there, and their journey isn’t made any easier by the lawmen on their tails and the various obstacles that must be overcome, not least of which is coping with each other’s company. Continue reading

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Raising Arizona

It’s hard to imagine a sharper left turn taken by a director than from the Coen brother’s debut, Blood Simple, to their sophomore picture, Raising Arizona. Where Blood Simple was dark and mostly serious, Arizona is the closest a film has ever come to capturing a Tex Avery cartoon in live action – with the possible exception of some parts of The Mask.

in the role that possibly best combines his often underrated acting ability, comedic potential and trademark brand of insanity, Nicolas Cage gives one of my favourite performances of his as H. I. McDunnough (‘Hi’ for short), a serial petty convict whose ineptitude at evading the law is only matched by his love for police photographer Ed (Holly Hunter). On at least the third time Hi is released from the prison where Ed works he proposes, and the two settle down for a life of happiness in a trailer park in Arizona. But all is not well in the McDunnough household. When Ed discovers she is unable to have children she falls apart, not helped by Hi’s criminal background leaving them unsuitable for adoption, so the only logical solution is, of course, to kidnap one of a famous batch of quintuplets born to a local unpainted furniture magnet, Nathan Arizona. To add to Hi’s woes, two of his former cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) escape from prison and attempt to crash on the couple’s sofa, Hi’s boss at the metalworks attempts to entice him into swinging, and there’s Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), a bounty hunter from Hell, on the path of the stolen baby.

This is a film with no intentions of meandering along at a gentle pace. The opening ten minutes or so, setting up the couple’s initial meetings, Hi’s triple incarcerations, their engagement and marriage, runs along at such a breakneck pace you’re liable to get whiplash once the credits roll and a more sedate step is taken. The change in speed is almost jarring, but is helped along with ample amounts of comedy and terrific, perfectly pitched performances, especially from Cage. His Hi, sporting a now standard ridiculous feathered hairdo, is a manic, OTT oddball with more Hawaiian shirts than sense. Hunter’s performance is good, but Ed doesn’t really get to do an awful lot other than reprimand Hi at every turn.


If the characters feel like exaggerated caricatures, then this is exactly the point. This film doesn’t take place in any kind of recognisable reality as much as it does in the heightened, prison-crazed mind of the lead. At times though I felt it went a little too far. The two escaped convicts are maybe a little too stupid – though often to hilarious results, as in their ill-planned bank robbery – and their incessant screaming throughout the entire film became beyond grating. No-one can yell like John Goodman. Leonard Smalls, on the other hand, wasn’t enough of a badass. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I always felt that he was a guy pretending, Cobb never inhabited the role quite as fully as I’d have liked, so his presence was very much under felt. It’s a shame, as the Coens can do great work with the right actors in the antagonist roles – check out Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, or Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. Smalls should have been larger than life, and could have been the best part of the film, but remains sadly forgettable. Which in itself is impressive seeing as he is a guy who will happily grenade a fluffy bunny just for being alive.

The fight scenes are tremendously enjoyable, and really cement home the cartoonish nature of the film. Most of the characters involved would have received serious, possibly fatal injuries several times throughout the film – particularly Hi – yet they mostly just walk it off with little more than a plaster stuck to their face. And the film’s solitary death scene is so ridiculously over the top and insane that it is very much a moment of explosive comedy, regardless of whether you can see it coming or not.

I think that one of the overall messages from the film is that Hi and Ed, though they seem incredibly unsuitable to take on the task, are possibly the best parents of all the film’s characters. Of the various people who assume the role of the kidnapped baby’s guardian throughout the story, Hi and Ed are the only ones to not immediately name the baby after themselves. Granted, they name him after each  other instead, but at least they’re thinking about someone else, not just themselves.

Whilst this is in no way one of the best Coen brothers film, it is still hugely entertaining and definitely worth a watch, if only to see some classic comic Cage before he went off the rails.

Choose film 8/10

The Piano

First off, an apology for the forthcoming review. I watched the film three months ago, and have gotten so far behind on my post writing that I’ve not had any real desire to review it, as to be honest it wasn’t that inspirational of a film. Nonetheless, I shall do my best, but I’m relying almost solely on the notes I made during the movie, as I can’t for the life of me remember very much of it. As you can probably guess, this isn’t going to be much of a recommendation to watch the film.
Holly Hunter plays Ada McGrath, a woman who, aged six, willed herself mute, and has since never spoken a word. She moves from Scotland to New Zealand for an arranged marriage with Sam Neill’s landowner/writer Alisdair, and brings her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin in her first live action picture) and their piano, Ada’s pride and joy. Neill is less than impressed with his new bride-to-be (“You’re small, I never thought you’d be small”), and refuses to cart her piano across the difficult swampland between the beach and his home, so they abandon it on the sand, much to Ada’s discontent. Fortunately local plantation worker George Baines (Harvey Keitel) takes a shine to Ada, and trades some land with Alisdair for the piano, and agrees to trade it back to Ada in return for ‘piano lessons,’ during which George will get to know Ada far more intimately than she’d like.

Hunter and Paquin both won Oscars for this film, and Hunter at least thoroughly deserved hers (Paquin is excellent for an 11 year old, but though I haven’t seen any of the performances she was nominated against I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the actresses, including Emma Thompson and the aforementioned Hunter, performed more capably). Hunter’s Ada is utterly repressed, yet still emotive and expressive, all pursed lips and passive eyes, her skin a deathly pale against the stark black of her dresses and bonnet. Keitel is also good, though his proclivity for whipping his pecker out is always a distraction, and is for the most part unnecessary.
I got the feeling that the film was made to prove the point that a lead character doesn’t need to speak (see also: Dumbo). There isn’t too much of a story here, with the events built entirely around the character and her very existence rather than the exciting or emotional events in her life. Her character is well realised, especially the bond with her daughter, and her slowly breaking down walls against Baines’ advances. Communicating only through sign language, facial expression and a small chalk-board locket, she says more than any other character, and with far less.
Despite the poetry of the film, such as Keitel’s Baines being willing to just sit and watch the piano hammers dancing gaily along the strings, I didn’t take much away from this film, and it has had little to no lasting impact on me. It’s very slow, and the message is muddled, though I think it has something to do with choosing the correct way to woo someone. Alisdair goes about things in entirely the wrong way with Ada. If only he’d coerced her into, essentially, prostitution, he’d have been much better off. Oh, and the best part about the film? It features an actress called Geneviève Lemon.
Choose life 6/10

Crash (1996)

I’ve previously mentioned that I’m not overly squeamish about violence and mutilation in films, but I’m afraid this was more than I really wanted to take. This is a story of a movie producer (James Spader) who, after surviving a car crash, discovers a cult of car crash enthusiasts and proceeds to have as much sex as possible with every member of the cast, predominantly in cars. The sex is far more graphic than it needs to be, and involves, if not is stimulated by, the wounds and scars of the crash victims. Other than joining the club, there is no real narrative drive of the film, as the characters move from one orgy to another. Elias Koteas however is hypnotic as crash club leader Vaughan, but I’m not a big fan of nudity in general, and this film is little short of needlessly pornographic.

Choose life 3/10