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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Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, stumbling from sofa to sofa in early 1960s New York. He used to be part of a semi-successful duo, but for reasons explained in the movie the pair are no longer together, and everything Llewyn owns he carries with him and dumps at the next person willing to put him up for the night. He isn’t really going anywhere in life other than downwards, so he plans to head to Chicago in search of a record deal. Also, there’s an accidental pregnancy, and a cat.   strugglinginthesnow_insidellewyndavis
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The Monuments Men

During World War 2, it becomes evident that the Nazis are not only collecting countries, but famous pieces of artwork too. Not only that, but if Hitler is killed he has ordered that some of the hoarded pieces will be destroyed as well. In order to prevent this, a small team of art experts – none of whom are overly fit for duty – are sent in to retrieve and save the art. Continue reading

Argo

In the last days of the 70s, Iranian militants take over the US Embassy in Tehran taking everyone inside hostage. Unbeknownst to them, six Americans managed to escape, and were able to covertly make their way to the Canadian ambassador’s house (after being turned away by the New Zealanders and those pesky Brits). After hiding out their for weeks, never going outside for fear of being seen and executed on sight, it soon becomes clear that the CIA must make a move to ‘exfiltrate’ these citizens. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), their top exfiltration specialist, comes up with a plan to pull them out, by pretending to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new sci-fi B-movie called Argo, and to make the story more convincing, Hollywood needs to get involved.
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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 Big Lebowski

I’ve made the point before that the list contains films of three varieties; great, popular and important. The greats arrive via the Empire 5-star 500 list, the popular from the two lists voted by the general public, and the important ones are provided by the 1001 Films to See Before You Die. Many films, though arguably important, aren’t actually very good, so one could argue that they should be remembered and acknowledged for their gifts to cinema, but not necessarily watched, as was the case with the Jazz Singer, marking the introduction of spoken dialogue to the big screen, which nowadays is dull, racist and features too many unnecessary songs. The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, is also an important film, spawning a cult following so vast there is a fan club (the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers), several books and an annual festival (creatively named Lebowski-Fest, I hope to attend one day). And yet, it does not appear among the important list, appearing here after being awarded a 5-star review and obtaining positions on both nominated lists. This is less a crime and more a cultural injustice, as the impact this film has had on society is measurable from space. Hell, they even played clips of it recently on Something for the Weekend.

So just what is it that resonates so much with the public? Maybe it’s the snappy, endlessly quotable dialogue (“Obviously you’re not a golfer), particularly everything said in the bowling alley. Or perhaps it’s the borderline caricature roster of characters on display, from John Turtorro’s lilac-hued pederast Jesus (whom nobody fucks with) to Julianne Moore’s naked yet cultured Pollock-esque artist Maud and of course John Goodman’s psychotic ‘Nam vet Walter. It’s probably got something to do with the extremely crowded plot that bears little effect upon the characters it happens to. But mainly, it has to be Jeff Bridges turn as The Dude, a man shambling and smoking his way through life, following the flow it leads him on via nihilists, urinating Chinamen, porn moguls and private detectives. That, and it’s the first great film to feature a pot-smoking lead since Cheech and Chong, and one must conclude that many of those attending Lebowski-Fest, drinking white Russians in their dressing gowns and sunglasses have similar feeling towards the weed as his Dudeness.


Me? I love it because it’s a quintessential Coen Brothers movie. It features everything you need to make a great film – a twisting plot, stellar cast (I haven’t even mentioned Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Sam Elliot, David Thewlis, Aimee Mann or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea), terrific performances all round and a cracking soundtrack. The film introduced me to my cocktail of choice – Vodka, Kahlua and milk, easy on the Kahlua and heavy on the ice – and every time I watch it I either see something new or am reminded of a moment of pure gold I’d previously forgotten.
Choose film 9/10

The Artist

That’s right! I’ve been to the cinema twice in 5 days! Haven’t done that since I was single! Anyway, I managed to convince Aisha to come with me to see the Artist, the modern made silent film about the birth of the ‘talkies’, currently bothering awards ceremonies and set to win big at the Oscars next month. The film was excellent; it didn’t overplay the silent gimmick, even using it for some well timed and perfectly executed comic beats, and the performances were flawless, especially from leads Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, and the adorable dog Uggie.
The plot was a tad predictable, concerning Dujardin’s silent movie star losing his way amid the encroaching sound-laden future, whilst Bejo’s struggling extra finds spoken dialogue could lead to a promising career, but then the plots of silent movies often were, especially by today’s standards, where 99% of stories are entirely made from previous pictures. The supporting cast of well known or know-the-face actors, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Malcolm MacDowell, was a little off putting, as many had wordless roles I was waiting to crop up again, but other than that this was a near perfect film that’s my current frontrunner for best picture.

Choose film 9/10