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Three Films by the Coen Brothers

February 27th, 2009
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I often get obsessed with watching movies linked by a certain theme — sometimes I like to track down different films featuring a particular actor, or different films by a certain director.  A few months ago, for example, I wrote about my exploration of the films of David Mamet.  Over the past few months I’ve written about several films by the Coen Brothers, Burn After Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy, and, more recently, The Big Lebowski.  No surprise, my great enjoyment of those two flicks prompted me to seek out several other Coen Brothers films.

Blood Simple (1985) — I had never seen this film before, and I was bowled over — it is phenomenal!  Despite being the Coen Brothers’ first film, it is now, without question, one of my favorites of their work.  A Texan bartender named Ray (John Getz) launches into an affair with Abby (Frances McDormand, terrific in her first role).  Unfortunately, her jealous husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), who is also Ray’s boss, finds out and hires a hit-man (M. Emmet Walsh) to get rid of them both.  What transpires is a tale of spreading ripples of crime and chaos.  As in most films by the Coen Brothers, the twisty tale of mistakes and double-crosses is engaging, but also subordinate to the fun with all of the unique, colorful characters filling out the film.  Dan Hedaya (Cheers, The Usual Suspects) hasn’t appeared in many movies lately, but his angry, scenery-chewing turn here reminds me of why I love watching him so much.  And the great M. Emmet Walsh (Serpico, The Jerk, Blade Runner, and so many other great films) simply dominates every scene he’s in.  This film is a blast.

Miller’s Crossing (1990) — This might be the first Coen Brothers film that I ever saw, and as such, I’ve always had fond memories of it.  (I love gangster movies, so that helps, too).  It had been a while since I’d last seen it, and I wasn’t sure how well the film would hold up.  I am pleased to report that it holds up mighty well, indeed!  The film follows Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the right-hand man of Leo (Albert Finney), the Irish gangster who is top dog in his town.  But when Tom and Leo fall for the same woman (Marcia Gay Harden) who may or may not be manipulating them both in order to protect her brother (John Turturro); and Italian underboss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) begins challenging Leo’s control of his territory, Tom has to rely on his wits and his quick-talking skills to stay alive and, hopefully, in control of the spiraling-out-of-control events surrounding him.  Miller’s Crossing is one of the most beautifully filmed movies that the Coen Brothers ever made — its lush, sepia-toned look as well as the gorgeous, memorable score creates a distinct feel for this movie that is quite spectacular.  That’d be meaningless, of course, if the story wasn’t also good — and this story is very, very good.  The Coens play things pretty straight here — this is a far cry from their lunatic comedies like The Big Lebowski — and they keep things tense for the viewer pretty much from start to finish.  I love this film.

Fargo (1996) — This is one of the Coen Brothers’ most successful and well-know films.  And that is not undeserved.  While I prefer both of the movies discussed above, Fargo remains a pretty terrific little picture.  Loser Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) comes up with an elaborate scheme to solve his money problems, involving the staged kidnapping of his wife.  Needless to say, things go pretty wrong, pretty immediately.  When several dead bodies turn up, sweet, pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) begins investigating the violence that has suddenly entered her world.  McDormand’s performance (and her accent!) really captured people’s attention, and rightly so — she is a delight, and creates a truly iconic character.  (It is interesting to note, looking back now, that Marge doesn’t enter the story until WELL into the movie.)  As always, there are a lot of colorful, bizarre characters filling in the edges of the story, most notably the two different-as-night-and-day hit-men played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, who are very funny and also very dangerous.  

All three of the above films are top-notch, and definitely worth your time.  Can you believe I’ve never seen Raising Arizona?  I need to remedy that ASAP…

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