Friday, March 23, 2012

The Auteurs #9: Joel & Ethan Coen Pt. 2

Part 2

The cult success of The Big Lebowski allowed the Coen Brother to take more chance on what they wanted to do next. During the production of The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers were developing a project that would be an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Setting it during the Great Depression in Mississippi, the Coen Brothers would take Homer’s story of mysticism and redemption based on a long journey and infuse it with their own brand of humor.

Entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers would aim for a film that was quirky but also rooted in mythology as its lead character Ulysses Everett McGill would be the center of the story as part of an unofficial trilogy the Coen Brothers created called the Numskull trilogy as each film would star George Clooney in the lead role. With Clooney on board as McGill, the cast included Coen Brother regulars John Turturro, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, and Holly Hunter along with Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Ray McKinnon, Wayne Duvall, Chris Thomas King, and Lee Weaver.

Shot in Mississippi and South Carolina, the Coen Brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins aimed for a look that was rich as Deakins chose to go for a sepia-tinted look to maintain that gritty yet evocative look of the Great Depression. With the help of various collaborators including production designer Dennis Gassner, set decorator Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Mary Zophes helping to re-create the look of that period. The Coen Brothers wanted to maintain an authenticity to that period as they also brought back T-Bone Burnett to help with the film’s music as he also collaborated with Carter Burwell.

With the film’s music soundtrack helping out to tell the story as it included many traditional pieces of the times. It allowed the film to be more than just a period re-telling of The Odyssey as it included lots of humor and musical performances. The approach to genre-bending allowed the Coen Brothers to make a film that would appeal to an audience that loves these different types of genre. Notably as it included George Clooney in a role that allowed him to be very funny and be able to take some humility in his character.

The film premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to a great reception as it was finally released in theaters in December of 2000 to become a critical and commercial hit. The film’s soundtrack was also released as it became a true major hit winning the Grammy for Album of the Year at the 2002 ceremonies. The popularity of the film’s soundtrack helped the film maintain its popularity as it continued the Coen Brothers winning streak with films that were popular with critics and audiences.

Deciding to take another left turn after the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers decided to return to the dark noir of Blood Simple by going into a different period piece about blackmail, infidelity, and guilt that was eventually called The Man Who Wasn’t There. The film followed a laconic barber who learns about his wife’s infidelity with her department store boss as he tries to blackmail him in order to invest a new invention known as dry cleaning. Instead, things go wrong as the wife is accused of murder as the man deals with the guilt of everything that has happened as he deals with various strange things around him.

Set in the post-war 1940s, the Coen Brothers aimed to go for a film that was reminiscent of the noir films of the 1940s as they also chose to shoot the film in black-and-white. With Roger Deakins helping to provide a look that was very similar to the films of those times, it added to the dark tone of the film while a few quirks were added to play to troubled state of mind of its protagonist Ed Crane. Notably as it also included voice-over narration to maintain Ed Crane’s reflection of everything he’s done and what kind of man he is as just states, “me, I don’t talk much. I just cut the hair.”

Playing the role of Ed Crane is Billy Bob Thornton as he would be joined by Coen regulars Frances McDormand as his wife Doris, Jon Polito as a shady salesman, Michael Badalucco as Ed’s talkative brother-in-law, and Tony Shalhoub as the vivacious attorney Freddy Riedenschneider. The cast also included James Gandolfini as Doris’ lover Big Dave, Richard Jenkins, Christopher McDonald, and Scarlett Johansson along with John Turturro’s wife Katherine Borowitz as Dave’s wife Ann Nirdlinger and a cameo from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a fellow prisoner.

Maintaining that sense of drama that occurs in noir films, the Coens chose to play things straight while the quirks involving Ann Nirdlinger’s belief in UFOs play up to the heightened sense of paranoia as it would later trouble Ed Crane. With a lot of compositions playing up to the style of the times, the film also included a strange fantasy scene late in the film that features Christopher McDonald. The film emphasizes the Coens at their most restraint while the music soundtrack largely consists of piano sonatas from Ludwig Van Beethoven as it serves as a piece of serenity for Ed Crane that is performed by Scarlett Johansson’s Birdy Abundas’ character whom Ed tries to find redemption in only to find out she isn’t exactly who she seems to be. This would to more of Ed’s troubles and sense of guilt as he would face the inevitable for all that’s happened.

The film premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival where Joel Coen won the festival’s Best Director prize that he shared with David Lynch for his film Mulholland Dr. The film came out to American theaters later in November to excellent reviews though the box office was modest. While it would yield another Oscar nomination for Roger Deakins in the cinematography category, the film would often be considered to be one of the Coen Brothers’ more overlooked films as its reputation would later grow in the coming years.

When plans for an adaptation James Dickey‘s novel To the White Sea failed to get into the pre-production stages, the Coen Brothers teamed up with producer Brian Grazer for a more mainstream project. Known for producing many hit films including a profitable collaboration with Ron Howard, Grazer would be the man who the Coen Brothers hoped would give them a big commercial hit. For this collaboration, Grazer gave the Coen Brothers a script that would fit in with the themes of the Numskull trilogy that was entitled Intolerable Cruelty. The film is about a divorce attorney who meets his match in a gold-digger.

The Coens would re-write the script to fit in with their own sensibilities as they reunited with George Clooney for the film as he plays the role of Miles Massey. With regulars Richard Jenkins and Billy Bob Thornton making appearances along with a cameo from Bruce Campbell, the cast also included Catherine Zeta-Jones as the gold-digger Marylin along with Edward Herrmann, Cedric the Entertainer, and Geoffrey Rush for a quirky romantic-comedy.

With locations set in Los Angeles as well as Las Vegas, the Coen Brothers aimed to create a more sunny yet lavish look to explore the world of the rich and its divorce attorneys. While the duo infused a lot of their quirky humor into some of the characters and situations they created. The Coen Brothers also aimed for a more straightforward approach to the comedy in order to appeal to a wide audience. Notably as they wanted to focus on the attraction between Massey and Marylin which would appeal to female moviegoers as the chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones in their respective roles proved to be a winning formula.

Released in October of 2003, the film did score very good reviews while its box office take gave them another major commercial hit. While the film is largely considered to be one of the Coen Brothers’ weakest films in terms of its lack of unconventional ideas. In comparison to a lot of the romantic comedies that Hollywood has put out, it is a cut above a lot of those films which often deviate too much to that formula. Particularly as the Coen Brothers manage to inject more humor than what is expected in the genre.

The Coen Brothers’ next project would have the duo reunite with old cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld but in the role of a producer. Originally meant to be a project helmed by Sonnenfeld, the remake of the 1955 Ealing black comedy The Ladykillers would be taken over by the Coen Brothers as it would be the first project to official have both of them credited as producers and directors.

Wanting to update the revered 1955 film for a new audience, the Coen Brothers chose to set the film in the American South of the present as they brought in T-Bone Burnett to assemble a soundtrack filled with blues and gospel along with bits of hip-hop to appeal to a younger audience. For the casting, the film would include appearances from associates like Bruce Campbell and Stephen Root while it would be lead by Tom Hanks in the role that was played famously by Alec Guinness. Along with J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Tzi Ma, and Ryan Hurst as the gang Hanks leads for the heist, veteran actress Irma P. Hall plays the old lady who would become a liability in the heist they plan as they would try to kill her.

With some of the location shot in Mississippi, the Coen Brothers wanted to capture the world of the American South as well as its gospel community. While wanting to pay tribute to the original 1955 film that was directed by Alexander Mackendrick. The duo added a few quirks as well as recreate the infamous body-dropping scenes in tribute to the original film. Yet, they wanted to create a film that would appeal to a wider audience by infusing hip-hop and lots of profane dialogue often spoken by Marlon Wayans’ character. While the overall result is a pretty entertaining film, it’s also a messy one due to the Coen Brothers to make something that was very faithful but also commercial.

The film was released in March of 2004 in the U.S. to mixed reviews though it was a hit in the box office. While it would also play at the Cannes Film Festival later that spring where Irma P. Hall won the festival’s Special Jury Prize. Many stated that the film is the weakest film the Coen Brothers have released. Particularly with longtime fans of the duo who felt the Coen Brothers were trying too hard to win over a wider audience. Despite its box office success, the Coen Brothers would take a break after its release as they would ponder what to do next.

In between the feature film projects the Coen Brothers were doing in the aftermath of The Ladykillers, the two decided to create two different short films for anthology film projects. The first would be for a 2006 anthology film called Paris Je T’aime which invited many of the world’s best filmmakers to each make a short film set in a location in Paris that revolves around love. For their segment entitled Tuileres, the Coen Brothers decide to short at the Tuileries metro train station as it features longtime Coen Brother regular Steve Buscemi.

The short involves Buscemi playing a tourist as he waits in the station where he breaks a cardinal rule when he makes eye contact on a young couple kissing. The short features a lot of humorous moments as the couple fights while a young woman would end up making out with Buscemi’s character. The anthology film premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival as it was among one of its standout pieces proving that the Coen Brothers could still pull off the funny moments.

Another anthology film the Coen Brothers would be involved in was a special project for the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival that was called Chacun son Cinema (To Each His Own Cinema) as many of the world’s great filmmakers were invited to make 3-minute segments expressing their love for cinema. The Coen Brothers were among the many filmmakers invited for the project as they created a short that would star actors Grant Heslov and Josh Brolin, the latter whom was already working with the Coens for their 2007 film No Country for Old Men.

The short entitled World Cinema involved Brolin’s cowboy character walking around a small Texas town to a theater showing art films as he chats with Grant Heslov’s usher character about what movie to see. Heslov would suggest Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates over Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game for the cowboy to see. The aftermath would bring a very surprising revelation as the Coen Brothers revealed the power of cinema when one goes to a film not knowing what to expect. Though the short was not featured in the anthology film’s DVD releases, it would become available on the Internet as it is considered to be one of the Coen Brothers’ finest films.

In need to boost their reputation following the dismal reaction to The Ladykillers and finding time to get their creative juices going through the two shorts they made. The Coen Brothers decided to go back to darker territory as they read Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men as they decided to develop it for their next project. McCarthy’s tale of nihilism set in 1980 Texas about a hitman who goes after a man who had stolen money while a sheriff is on the trail. Since the story fits in with the Coen Brothers’ exploration of dark violence of films like Blood Simple and Fargo. The Coens got the chance to helm the project with producer Scott Rudin who would help develop the project with the Coen Brothers.

With the exception of Stephen Root as the man who hires hitmen, the film wouldn’t feature any Coen Brothers regulars as the duo decided to start anew with the casting. For the role of the laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Tommy Lee Jones was cast while Spanish actor Javier Bardem was cast in the role of the villainous hitman Anton Chigurh. For the role of the thief Llewelyn Moss, Josh Brolin was cast after several auditions. The first of which was an audition tape directed by Quentin Tarantino and shot by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez during the production of the Tarantino-Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse. Along with Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Barry Corbin, Tess Harper, and Garrett Dillahunt to play big parts for the film.

The Coen Brothers also added new collaborators as Jess Gonchor was hired to be the new production designer while sound designer Craig Berkey joined the team to aid Skip Lievsay in the sound department. Shooting on location in New Mexico and Texas, the Coen Brothers aimed to create a film that was reminiscent of the western as they cite Sam Peckinpah as an influence for the film. Wanting to maintain a suspenseful mood of the film, the Coen Brothers asked Lievsay, Berkey, and music composer Carter Burwell to help create sound textures for the film instead of going for a traditional score often displayed in suspense films.

While the Coens chose to remain faithful to McCarthy’s novel, it allowed the duo to interpret McCarthy’s novel without doing too much as they wanted to keep thing separate from the book. While the film is a study on violence, the Coens allowed the violence to be more gruesome than in previous films while playing with the theme of changing times. Notably in Jones’ Bell character who is a man seemingly lost in this world as it had become more violent. Since the film had none of the quirks the Coen Brothers had done in previous films, they made a film that was more entrancing in its approach to violence and crime.

The film premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival where it received great acclaim as it garnered a theatrical release in the fall of that year. The film would prove to be the Coen Brothers biggest hit since Fargo as they would also receive numerous accolades. Notably eight Academy Award nominations where they would win four big prizes. Among them was a Best Supporting Oscar to Javier Bardem plus adapted screenplay and directing honors to the Coen Brothers as well as the coveted Best Picture prize. The massive critical and commercial success of the film had finally put the Coen Brothers on top of the film world as it would increase their stature with the film world.

Wanting to take another left turn from the nihilistic No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers decided to return to the world of comedy. This time around, it would revolve around an embittered CIA analyst whose life is falling apart when two gym employees obtain his CD files in hopes to blackmail him. Entitled Burn After Reading, the film would have the Coen Brothers go back to zany comedies revolving around idiocy and devious schemes.

With a cast that would regulars Frances McDormand, George Clooney, J.K. Simmons, and Richard Jenkins along with Tilda Swinton, David Rasche, and Brad Pitt. The film would have the Coen Brothers explore the world of blackmail, paranoia, misunderstanding, and selfish opportunities that have people do stupid things. While some feel that this film is the third part of the Numskull trilogy, it is often disputed for two reasons. One is that there is no true lead character as George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer character isn’t a nitwit but a paranoid US marshal who is juggling various affairs. The second reason is that the idiot in the film is played Brad Pitt whose Chad character is a dim-witted personal trainer with bad hair and always moves around to music.

While the film was set in Washington D.C., the Coen Brothers chose to shoot the film largely in Brooklyn Heights so they can stay close to home. With regular cinematographer Roger Deakins unable to shoot the film due to various projects, including consultant work for the 2008 Pixar animated film WALL-E, renowned Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was hired to shoot the film. Wanting to maintain lots of quirk and suspense, the film was intended to be off-the-wall while the characters that J.K. Simmons and David Rasche play would comment on all of the shenanigans that went on in a few scenes during the film.

The film premiered at the 2008 Venice Film Festival in September of that year as it was later followed by a wide theatrical release in the U.S. Despite being a commercial hit and garnering good reviews, the film also received some lukewarm reaction from some fans and critics who felt that the humor was forced and a lot of the characters were too cartoonish. Still, the film continued to raise the Coen Brothers’ profile as hit-makers who can get people into the theaters no matter what kind of film they’re making.

With back-to-back commercially successful films, the Coen Brothers decided to go back to their roots to Minnesota by exploring their life as children. Along with delving into their Jewish background and life back in the 1960s, the Coen Brothers decided to tell a modern story of Job set in that time period entitled A Serious Man. In version of Job, the film focuses on a physics professor whose life unravels when his wife leaves him for another man while his job is being threatened by a student as well other things leading him to question his fate.

Shooting on location in small towns in Minnesota near their hometown, the Coen Brothers and their collaborators chose to certain place that retained a look of the late 1960s while shooting in actual synagogues for some key scenes in the film. With production designer Jess Gonchor and set decorator Nancy Haigh helping to recreate the homes and furniture of that period while Mary Zophres chose specific clothes for the characters to wear. Shot in the summer, the Coens wanted to maintain that Summer of Love vibe that was happening as Roger Deakins chose different lighting schemes to maintain that free-flowing look for the film.

With Ellen Chenoweth assembling the cast for the film, her job was to look for various unknowns or actors who hadn’t had much exposure. While associates like Steve Park, Michael Lerner, and Katherine Borowitz made small appearances, the rest of the cast were filled with lesser-known actors with the exception of George Wyner, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, and Fred Melamed in supporting roles while Fyvush Finkel makes an appearance in the film’s opening prologue scene set in the early 20th Century. For the lead role of Larry Gopnick, Michael Stuhlbarg was cast as the role would be the breakthrough of his career. Many of the casting was for the Coens to recreate the world of a Jewish community in Minnesota as it would allow them to explore bigger themes in the film.

Among them was faith as Larry Gopnick would delve into different crises in his encounter with two different rabbis where each would tell strange stories that would further Larry’s confusion. Even as he faces some tragedy where he is losing everything just like Job furthering his own emotional and mental anguish. While the film is largely a dark comedy filled with a lot of questions on existentialism and faith, the humor often revolves around the Jewish faith as well as many references to the music of Jefferson Airplane as the song Somebody to Love is played early in the film. Most notably in a scene where Larry’s stoned son meets with an elder rabbi who then recites the lyrics of that songs as well as naming the members of that band in a very comical yet understated scene.

The film premiered at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival to a great reception while it got a limited theatrical release in late October. The film would become a modest box office hit while yielding two Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. The surprising critical reception helped the film reach into several top ten critics polls and other accolades furthering the Coen Brothers status as one of the world’s best filmmakers working today.

For their second collaboration with No Country for Old Men producer Scott Rudin, the Coen Brothers was asked to be involved in another adaptation. This time around, it would be in the form of a book that had already been made into a film in True Grit. The 1969 film directed Henry Hathaway was considered to be one of the finest westerns of the genre as it would win its star John Wayne an Academy Award for Best Actor. While the Coen Brothers enjoyed the famed Hathaway film, they decided to go on a different approach to the story by basing it on Charles Portis’ actual novel.

Instead of focusing on the Rooster Cogburn character that Wayne had made famous, the Coens chose to focus on the Mattie Ross character who hires Cogburn to go after the man who had killed her father. In this approach to the narrative, the Coen Brothers found something appealed to their humorous sensibilities as well as their love for well-intended yet flawed characters. Most notably, the project would finally give the Coen Brothers a chance to tackle the western genre head-on without going into the heroic idealism of John Wayne.

For the role of Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges was selected to play the iconic role while Matt Damon was cast as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin as the villainous Tom Chaney. The casting for Mattie Ross was very specific as the Coen Brothers and Ellen Chenoweth wanted someone who was the same age as Ross as it went to 13-year old Hailee Steinfeld. Along with appearances from previous Coen Brothers players such as Leon Russom, Elizabeth Marvel, and J.K. Simmons in a voice cameo, the cast included Barry Pepper as the villainous “Lucky” Ned Pepper.

Wanting to create a look and feeling that was different from the Hathaway film, cinematographer Roger Deakins aimed for different looks to complement a style that was true to the Western genre. Notably as the Coen Brothers wanted to create something that was authentic as a tribute to the genre while adding a few of their own quirks into the film. Notably as it includes scenes where Cogburn and Ross encounter a strange man wearing all sorts of fur and a scene where Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to see who can shoot objects up in the air without missing. Yet, the Coen Brothers wanted to maintain a sense of adventure and suspense that occurs in the film while giving the audience a whole lot more of what is expected for the western genre.

The film premiered in late December of 2010 to rave reviews and also becoming a surprising hit in the box office. Notably as it was the tent pole Christmas film of the year that gave audiences a lot to root for. The film would garner ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture though it would get shut out at the ceremonies. Yet, the film did help maintain the Coen Brothers winning streak.

For their upcoming film entitled Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers decided to return to the world of music as they had done previous in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the 2004 remake of The Ladykillers. This time around, it would be on the early 1960s folk music scene in New York City revolving around a young singer-songwriter. While the film is to be inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougall Street, it is likely that it won’t be some conventional film about a music scene as nothing the Coen Brothers do is safe.

The film will reunite the Coen Brothers with actor John Goodman while its cast mostly revolves around young actors such as Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake. The film will also be the second time Roger Deakins won’t be shooting the film due to his involvement to shooting Sam Mendes’ James Bond film Skyfall. French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel will fill in for Deakins as the film is set for a late 2012/early 2013 release.

With fifteen films and another one on the way, there’s no doubt that Joel & Ethan Coen have created a library of films that anyone can enjoy. Notably as it ranges into various genres and themes that the Coen Brothers have often revisited and find some way to say something new about it. They have made enough films and have created enough characters and moments where someone can point to a scene and say it’s a Coen Brothers film. Whether it features a screaming John Goodman, a pregnant cop, a guy named the Dude, an idiotic George Clooney, a quiet barber, a guy from Indiana doing a school fight song, Brad Pitt as a dancing personal trainer, a talkative Steve Buscemi, or anything else that is absurd. You can always count on Joel and Ethan Coen to deliver all of that and more.

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

There's way too much to comment on with this and Part 1 since they cover the Coens' whole careers. I'll just say that O Brother Where Art Thou is probably the film that I enjoyed on the most different levels.

thevoid99 said...

Well, I originally wrote it as one part. Yet, it was much more complex than I thought and considering how many films they've made in nearly 30 years. I decided to make it into a two-part piece.

Chip Lary said...

@thevoid99 - a clarification: I did not mean my first comment as a criticism. If it was taken that way that was not my intent. It was merely an observation that my comment was going to be minimal compared to the content in the post.

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-That's OK. I know what you were trying to say.

There's so much that is said about the Coens.

Diana said...

I am curious to see Inside Llewyn Davies- I happened to stumble upon the script and it is weird, much weirder than what we've seen so far, and if it were made by any other director than Coen, I wouldn't see it, but I think they could do it justice! Great posts, I love the Coen brothers!

thevoid99 said...

@Diana-I'm eager to see this as I'll pretty much watch anything they do.

Especially since it's about that whole folk music scene where Bob Dylan honed his chops.