Tag Archives: Joel Coen

Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)

Halfway through Raising Arizona is this breathtaking chase sequence. Until this point in the film, while there’s been a lot of phenomenal direction, it’s all been brief. Raising Arizona starts in summary, with lead Nicolas Cage narrating, and it doesn’t start slowing down the narrative pace until just before the chase sequence. But then the chase happens and it’s amazing and Arizona seems poised to just keep going with that precise, outrageous filmmaking.

Then it doesn’t. Instead it gets lost in its supporting cast for a while before getting back on track, which is too bad. But there had been warning signs–like the film never really giving Holly Hunter reasonable character motivation, instead letting Cage’s narration–and charm–sell their romance. Though, at the halfway point, it certainly doesn’t seem like Hunter and Cage are going to get the narrative shaft for supporting cast members John Goodman and William Forsythe. Yet they do.

It’s during Goodman and Forsythe’s tedious time in the spotlight one has time to reflect on just how few of its promises the film has fulfilled.

The starting narration is long. Arizona runs about ninety minutes (without end credits) and it’s got a long, narrated opening summary sequence, then the lengthy chase sequence right in the middle. And then a substantial “epilogue” but more wrap-up.

Cage is front and center, literally–he’s getting his mug shot taken–right at the start. Hunter is taking his mug shot. He robs convenience stores (without bullets so it’s not armed robbery). She’s a cop. They fall in love. Without her saying very much. It’s all from Cage’s perspective, which is great. He’s a lovable, well-meaning recidivist. Right from the start, Cage’s performance is amazing. His narration and his regular performance. It’s all amazing.

No one else is amazing. There are some other excellent performances, some quite good ones, no bad ones, but nothing compares to Cage’s. So it’s really too bad the Coen Brothers’ script gives him so little to do in the second half of the film. Better than Hunter, of course, who doesn’t really get to show any personality until the prelude to the chase sequence–and then barely anything the rest of the film. And that epilogue demotes her importance, which she’s sort of been clawing to get.

Cage and Hunter get married. In the narrated summary. Cage has been in and out of prison, but he settles down once they’re married. Hunter wants kids. Only she can’t. It’s not a story arc for her. It’s a plot detail in Cage’s story. Hunter becomes scenery for a while until they hear about some quintuplets and decide to kidnap one. This decision isn’t discussed in any scenes, it’s all covered in Cage’s narration. Because apparently the Coen Brothers couldn’t figure out a way to get Hunter to go from cop to kidnapper in scene.

Cage–and the film–can cover it. It’s shocking how much it can cover, which just makes it even more shocking when it no longer can cover. Even though Goodman and Forsythe give fine performances, it’s stunning how much lost the film gets in the weeds with them.

See, once they kidnap a baby–from unpainted furniture king Trey Wilson (who’s fantastic) and his wife, Lynne Kitei (who gets a scene and a quarter)–Goodman and Forsythe break out of jail and visit old buddy Cage. They need a place to lie low, unaware there’s a bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) after them.

Pretty soon Cobb sees the news about the kidnapped baby and decides to go after it too.

Then there’s a throwaway subplot involving Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a couple Hunter wants to be friends with. It’s a contrived, connective subplot, just there to move things around and to be funny. There’s some gorgeous photography from Barry Sonnenfeld during that sequence; the photography’s always good, always great, but the couples picnic sequence is about the only time Sonnenfeld gets to shoot exteriors during the day. It’s also a place where Hunter could get some material.

She doesn’t. Instead, the Coen Brothers focus on McMurray’s dipshit, who’s Cage’s boss; that detail comes out of the blue, since the only person Cage is ever working with is M. Emmet Walsh in a two scene cameo.

Eventually everyone wants the baby. The script uses it as punchline, not actual character motivation. It’s during that weedy period in the runtime when it doesn’t seem like Arizona is ever going to get back on track.

It does, finally, because it puts Cage and Hunter together in scenes and as a team. Despite the film being all about their whirlwind, glorious romance, they don’t get to establish actual chemistry–between the actors, not chemistry created through editing–until the third act. Way too late.

But then there’s this great action showdown in the third act, with a small but excellent chase scene, and director Coen, cinematographer, Sonnenfeld, and editor Michael R. Miller work some magic. Not as magical as the chase sequence, but magic enough to find the movie in the weeds and get it out onto the road again.

There’s some great writing. But most of it is in the first act. Wilson ends up with better scenes than anyone else in the second half. The movie doesn’t just sacrifice Hunter for Goodman and Forsythe, it eventually sacrifices Cage.

Great music from Carter Burwell. The whole thing is technically marvelous. It just doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot for the story it says it’s going to be telling. Even if the Goodman and Forsythe stuff were good, there’s not enough of it.

Raising Arizona has got plenty of problems, but it’s still a fairly thrilling success. You just have to wait through a lot of second half of the second act lag. But the filmmakers do come through. It just doesn’t make any sense why they don’t for a while.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Ed), John Goodman (Gale), William Forsythe (Evelle), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Leonard Smalls), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Lynne Kitei (Florence Arizona), and T.J. Kuhn (Nathan Junior).


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Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Much–probably most–of Fargo is exceptional. The Coens take over half an hour to bring their protagonist into the movie. They spend that first half hour with the villains, even having time to make said villains simultaneously lovable and even more dangerous. William H. Macy isn’t just some loser who schemes to rip off his father-in-law, he’s a dangerous sociopath. It’s amazing what the Coens can fit behind those goofy accents and the folky talk.

And those levels of Fargo are what make it so fantastic. Frances McDormand isn’t playing a silly sheriff, she’s playing this incredible investigator who just happens to sound like she lives in a waffle commercial. All of the police work in the film is thoroughly executed; the cops aren’t of the Keystone variety.

But the Coens don’t engage with this situation. They don’t force the viewer. They don’t even acknowledge it. They’re playing it straight.

Until the end. McDormand stumbles across the bad guys by accident. Even worse, there was a plot point earlier to set up an actual investigatory discovery of the bad guys and the Coens skip it. Very disappointing.

Otherwise, the film is fantastic. Great photography from Roger Deakins, wonderful score from Carter Burwell. Fargo speeds along too. There’s never a slow moment.

The supporting cast–Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch–is great. Buscemi has some exceptional rants throughout.

McDormand and Macy are both excellent. McDormand even manages to sell the questionable stuff at the end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson) and Steve Park (Mike Yanagita).


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True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

By doing a faithful adaptation of the source novel, the Coen brothers ignore what True Grit does really well. It’s the incredible adventure of a girl, told without any gloss and at times rather harsh. It features one of those great child actor performances (from Hailee Steinfeld). And with their faithful adaptation, the Coen brothers take the role away from Steinfeld and give it to Elizabeth Marvel, playing the role as an adult.

Even worse, they end the film with way too thoughtful narration as a coda. It serves to establish True Grit as a “serious” Western instead of just a Western, something the rest of the film doesn’t really do. There’s nothing profound about the film’s narrative, it’s just what the Coen brothers do–they make really good films.

Their composition here is fantastic. With Roger Deakins shooting Grit, I don’t think there’s a single bad shot in the film (until the overlong third act, which also gives the viewer time to calculate story implausibilities and contrivances). There are many wonderful shots.

Bridges is good but his essaying of the role is a little abrupt. Matt Damon has less to work with and does more. The film’s mostly Steinfeld for the first act, the trio for the second, then the third introduces Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. Again, Brolin’s got the showier role and ostensibly more material, but it’s Pepper who shines.

It’s very well made and very entertaining. They just didn’t make the profound film the ending suggests.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, screenplay by the Coen brothers, based on the novel by Charles Portis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by the Coen brothers and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie).


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Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen)

I’m pretty sure I saw the Blood Simple director’s cut twice in the theater. Seems like I did. The second time I helped a couple underage Coen fans get in, and I already knew the recut was a disappointment. I got the original cut from the UK, where it used to be available and might still be found, and waited almost ten years to watch it. I’m glad I did. I can appreciate it more.

What Joel Coen does in Blood Simple is adapt the Western for interiors, visually speaking. There are sweeping camera movements more at home in Monument Valley than in a loft, but there’s Coen using them anyway. It’s impossible to identify every moment of greatness in Blood Simple‘s filmmaking, because it’s probably every frame. From thirty-five seconds in to the film, I was already stuffed–it’s a sumptuous (or decadent, the word the wife prefers–in general, not specifically for the film) experience. Every scene is a wonder. It’s not just the sound, editing, music, cinematography, composition, dialogue–which is the best they’ve ever written–it’s everything together; it’s the experience of watching an endlessly brilliant film. It’s one of the best films of the 1980s, like a combination of late 1970s John Carpenter and early 1980s John Sayles. The tone of both those filmmakers fuses in Blood Simple, creating something different and singular.

Blood Simple is free of the Coen Brothers brand–starting with The Hudsucker Proxy, but almost with Raising Arizona, part of a Coen Brothers film is acknowledging it’s a Coen Brothers film. Except Blood Simple isn’t a Coen Brothers film in that sense. The silliness isn’t there. Usually, the silliness is only absent in their non-beloved films (with recent exceptions), but there’s no fluff on Blood Simple, no fat. It’s a Coen Brothers film about real people, not their standard caricatures. The acting and writing really come together to make something different. She’s the least assuming, but Frances McDormand turns in a great performance. I didn’t even realize, until about half-way in to the film, McDormand’s developed an on-screen persona these days. It’s nice to see her without. Dan Hedaya plays the second most sympathetic character in the film and he’s a complete terror. When the bad guy gets sympathy, somebody’s doing something right. M. Emmet Walsh is good as the villain, John Getz is good as the lover who gets between husband and wife Hedaya and McDormand. The other really great performance, which I did remember from the last two times, is Samm-Art Williams, who’s done little other acting work, but he’s fantastic.

Blood Simple is filled with an energy it’d be hard for the Coen Brothers to keep up these days (they aren’t hungry anymore and haven’t been for at least fifteen years), but what’s so telling is how much they disrespected their first film when they went back to recut it. Either they’d forgotten what made it great, or they hated it and wanted the film to somehow “fit” better with their modern successes. Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the latter. Otherwise, they’d have made some more films approaching this one’s caliber. But seriously, it’d be impossible to surpass it. Blood Simple is stunning… and it’s a tragedy they’ve never made this version available–readily available–on DVD.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen; photography by Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegmann; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Circle Films.

Starring John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Private Detective) and Samm-Art Williams (Meurice).


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