Intolerable Cruelty (2003)


Written by Ethan, Joel, Robert Ramsay and Matthew Stone; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

A divorce lawyer meets his match when he comes up against a gold-digging wife…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Catherine Zeta-Jones is lovely to look at. But performance-wise? No one comes out of this well.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (2) plays lawyer Miles Massey. Richard Jenkins (2), Billy Bob Thornton (2) and Bruce Campbell (3) have small roles.

Best bit: N/A.

Review: This clearly wants to be a screwball comedy, like something directed by Billy Wilder, but instead it feels like someone inelegantly copying the Coens’ style. It’s forced rather than free-flowing, laboured rather than light. It’s the brothers’ first contemporary movie since Raising Arizona, eight films ago (even Fargo and The Big Lebowski are period, being set in 1987 and 1991 respectively). But sadly it gets more tedious the longer it goes on – and is just not funny at all. If you’re going to make a film about such unlikeable characters being idiots, it needs wit and panache. However, this is just misogynistic rubbish.

Three Tenzing Norgays out of 10.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

A mild-mannered barber discovers his wife is having an affair, so plots to blackmail the man she’s sleeping with…

Seen before? Yes, on 15 November 2001 at the Metro – an independent cinema in Derby run during the evenings in my university lecture room – with Stuart Oultram, Andy Fisher and my ex-housemate Hilary Neale.

Best performance: Frances McDormand as the cheating wife, Doris.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as McDormand (5), there’s Jon Polito (5) as a crooked businessman, Richard Jenkins (1) as a piano-playing teenager’s father, Tony Shalhoub (2) as the slick lawyer, and Billy Bob Thornton (1) as lead character Ed.

Best bit: The scene where Ed ‘invents’ a story about what happened on the night of the murder – the lawyer buying it as a fiction, but both Ed and Doris understanding that he’s telling the truth.

Review: Barton Fink to O Brother was a run of five really entertaining movies, full of vim and fun and especially heart. This, however, harks back to the feel of Miller’s Crossing – both films are lovely to look at (in this case, black-and-white and stylized 1949 design), but it’s difficult to care about the characters or get invested in the story. It’s so cold and detached. Soulless, in fact.

Six Heavens to Betsys out of 10.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Three convicts – Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O’Donnell and Pete Hogwallop – escape a 1930s chain gang and set out to recover some buried treasure. Along the way, they inadvertently become singing sensations…

Seen before? Yes, on 25 October 2000 at a cinema in Derby with my then-housemate Hilary and some university mates.

Best performance: George Clooney’s having an absolute blast playing pomade-obsessed Ulysses. Batman notwithstanding, he’s fantastic every time I see him – From Dusk Till Dawn is still one of my favourite films. He’s a movie star not afraid to take character roles.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Pete is played by John Turturro (4) while Holly Hunter (3) plays Ulysses’s wife. Clooney (1) will be back. John Goodman (5) shows up as a one-eyed Bible salesman, Stephen Root (1) as the blind guy who runs the radio station, and Charles Durning (2) as Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (2).

Best bit: The sirens. Blimey.

Review: Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey (no, I’ve not read it either), this is a madcap comedy with lots of pleasingly bizarre twists. It’s very episodic, so we get a succession of new characters/incidents – rednecks, gangsters, politicians, musicians, the Ku Klux Klan – all entertaining and fun in their own right. It’s also pretty much a musical in disguise and looks beautiful: daytime scenes are dusty, sunkissed, almost sepia, with lots of oranges, browns and mushroom greys. Really enjoyable stuff. I loved seeing it again.

Nine tins of Dapper Dan out of 10.

The Big Lebowski (1998)


Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Jeff Lebowski (aka The Dude, or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into that whole brevity thing) is mistaken for his millionaire namesake and gets dragged into a kidnapping plot…

Seen before? Yes, but not for years. It was the first Coen Brothers movie I saw at the cinema – a quick* flick through my old academic diaries tell me it was on 29 October 1998, in Stoke-on-Trent with Will Haywood and Stuart Oultram. (*Long, exhaustive, bordering on the obsessional.)

Best performance: Jeff Bridges as The Dude. It’s a fantastic creation, even if he’s possibly the least proactive lead in all of cinema. He gets pulled through the film by all the other characters – he just wants to placate people and pour himself a White Russian. Bridges plays him with charm, humour and hilarious bursts of anger.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (4) and Steve Buscemi (5) play the Dude’s bowling buddies, Walter and Donnie. There are cameos from Jon Polito (4) as a private eye, John Turturro (3) as paedophile Jesus, and Peter Stormare (2) as a nihilist. It’s a first Coen movie for Jeff Bridges (1).

Best bit: The surreal, gleeful music video of a dream sequence – the Dude bowling, flirting with Julianne Moore and flying through women’s legs – which is scored by Kenny Rodgers’s Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was in).

Review: Being both a film geek and someone who was born in the late 70s, I guess I was presupposed to love 90s American cinema. To me, the movies of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer and others (and Brit Danny Boyle) are all part of the same glorious, joyful, bold and distinctive period. Films were fun and full of character; they knew and played with conventions; they told oddball stories about interesting people. It’s part personal taste, part teenage nostalgia – and The Big Lebowski sits slap-bang in the middle of this phase. It’s effortlessly cool; has crisp, quotable dialogue and a great soundtrack; and is generally just enormous fun. Like most of the Coens’ movies, we get a reasonably standard setup, which then spins off into increasingly eccentric and downright bonkers areas. Two hours pass by so enjoyably that when it had finished I very nearly just put it on again.

Ten rugs that really tied the room together out of 10.

Fargo (1996)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Desperate for cash, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard arranges for two criminals to kidnap his wife so they can split the ransom money from her rich father. Things don’t go to plan.

Seen before? Yes, on VHS when it came out and a few times since.

Best performance: Frances McDormand won an Oscar for playing police officer Marge Gunderson. Quite right too. She’s ace.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Frances McDormand (4), we get Steve Buscemi (4) and Peter Stormare (1) as kidnappers Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, while Bruce Campbell (2) plays a TV soap actor.

Best bit: How can I choose just one?! How about heavily pregnant Marge leaning over, hands on knees, to look closely at a snow-covered crime scene? “You see something down there, Chief?” asks her colleague. “No,” she replies, “I just think I’m gonna barf!”

Review: Absolutely brilliant. This is my favourite Coen Brothers movie (unless one of the six I still haven’t seen usurps it, of course). It’s a conventional crime plot – kidnap goes wrong – but with so many surprise kinks in the storytelling that it’s constantly entertaining. The cast, especially William H Macy and Frances McDormand, are fantastic: quirky yet believable. The Scandinavian-accented milieu, meanwhile, is so interesting that frankly anything could be going on and it would be watchable. The script is full of telling details, such as Marge’s pregnancy, which most thrillers wouldn’t even consider but give the whole film a unique tone and vibrancy. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny – occasionally slapstick, but usually macabre – while melancholy is never far away either. I could watch it over and over.

Ten wood-chippers out of 10.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)


Written by Ethan, Joel and Sam Raimi; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

When a company’s boss commits suicide, the stock is due to be sold to the public – so the board appoint Norville Barnes, an imbecile from the post room, as CEO in order to artificially reduce the price…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Jennifer Jason Leigh as feisty, sassy, quick-talking, sexy yet occasionally klutzy newspaper hack Amy Archer. Her rat-a-tat-tat dialogue is a constant delight – it’s like watching Lois Lane played by Rebecca from Cheers. I wanted the whole film to be about her.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Steve Buscemi (3) plays a barman in a beatnik bar. John Goodman (3) provides a newsreel voice. Jon Polito (3) has a cameo as a businessman. Bruce Campbell (1) is Amy’s droll colleague, while John Mahoney (2) is her boss. Charles Durning (1) is the guy who commits suicide and sets the plot in motion.

Best bit: The slapstick scene where Norville sets fire to an important contract then tries to put it out in increasingly comic fashion.

Review: Part screwball comedy, part satire on big business – this is very, very entertaining. It’s the Coens’ third period movie on the trot, and has lots of striking Art Deco architecture and 1950s style (it reminded me of both Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Tim Burton’s Batman). It’s inventive, light-on-its-feet and often really funny.

Nine hula hoops out of 10.

Barton Fink (1991)


Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

A successful Broadway playwright moves to LA to work on the movies. He faces writer’s block, but a gregarious neighbour comes to his aid when tragedy strikes…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Seeing Steve Buscemi in these films – he had a small role in Miller’s Crossing too – reminds me pleasantly of when I was a teenager and he seemed to be in every other great movie.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (2) plays Charlie, the larger-than-life neighbour. Buscemi (2), Jon Polito (2) and John Turturro (2) all return from Miller’s Crossing. John Mahoney (1) and Tony Shalhoub (1) also feature.

Best bit: John Goodman’s first scene. It covers menacing to hilarious and the skillful gear changes are a joy. Goodman and Turturro are both terrific.

Review: It’s fun seeing how these films are developing. Blood Simple had mood but no complexity; Raising Arizona had panache but no truth; Miller’s Crossing had genre conventions but no soul. Thankfully the Coens’ fourth feature, Barton Fink, combines style *and* substance into one really entertaining film. Instead of 80s noir or Prohibition gangsters, this is 1940s Hollywood glamour and sleaze. It’s still an off-kilter Coen-esque world, but everyone in it feels more plausible than in previous movies (there are great actors in every role, although women are shortchanged again). This gives the film a solid foundation for the quirky stuff to build on and/or undermine. Therefore it’s all the more enjoyable and – especially after the story takes a dark turn halfway through – all the more effective. It’s often very funny too.

Eight wrestling movies out of 10.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Mob consigliere Tom Reagan is caught in the middle of a turf war between two gangster bosses during the Prohibition era…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: John Turturro as slimy bookmaker Bernie Bernbaum.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Turturro (1), there’s Frances McDormand (3), who has a cameo as the mayor’s secretary; Steve Buscemi (1), who plays a nightclub dude; and Jon Polito (1) as gangster Johnny Casper.

Best bit: The tense scene when Tom is forced to march Bernie into the woods to kill him.

Review: This does for gangsters what Blood Simple did for film noir. It’s pure pastiche. The opening scene is a (presumably deliberate) echo of The Godfather’s, and after that we get a full-blooded exercise in mafia style – Prohibition, Tommy guns, wisecracking hoodlums in hats, jazz music, sassy dames, street slang, eccentric nicknames and every other cliché you can think of. And it’s all played so straight: whimsy and silliness are virtually absent. The whole film is beautifully shot – but like a lot of exercises in style, the fact the characters are so stock means it fails to totally satisfy. (True to the genre, there’s only one female role of any note and sadly she’s rather dull.) At various points, we’re told that Tom has no heart. Neither does the movie.

Seven machine guns out of 10.

Raising Arizona (1987)


Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Recidivist H.I. and policewoman Ed get married and want a baby, but she’s infertile so they decide to steal one…

Seen before? I honestly don’t know. I either saw it as a child, soon after it came out, or just sitting through the trailer 700 times on various VHS rentals has tricked my brain into thinking I watching the whole film.

Best performance: Holly Hunter as Ed, the smarter but even more deranged half of the couple.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Holly Hunter (2). Frances McDormand (2) is unrecognisable from her role in Blood Simple, here playing a loud, OTT mum-of-brats. John Goodman (1) plays H.I.’s prison buddy Gale Snouts. M. Emmet Walsh (2) has a cameo as a boring work colleague.

Best bit: H.I.’s attempt to steal some nappies and the subsequent police chase.

Review: This is exuberant stuff, especially to begin with – a great opening 10 minutes is a banjo-scored montage of backstory, which is pacey and funny. Whereas Blood Simple was po-faced noir played straight, this is cartoon excess. No one in it has even a toe, let alone a whole foot, in reality. We get laughably inept bank-robbers, a Mad Max bounty hunter, and a pair of full-of-themselves swingers. It’s all good fun, but it’s very throwaway: it’s like watching a live-action Family Guy at times. Enjoyable fluff.

Seven packs of Huggies out of 10.

Blood Simple (1984)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

When his young wife has an affair, bar owner Julian Marty hires someone to kill her and her lover. Things don’t go to plan. For anyone.

Seen before? Yes, on BBC2 in the 1990s. I think Alex Cox introduced it on Moviedrome. The DVD I watched for this review was, it seems, a 1998 director’s cut.

Best performance: M. Emmet Walsh is great as the private-eye-cum-hitman, Visser. He’s a yahoo in a yellow suit who has a Texas drawl, a laconic style and a big hat.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Walsh (1), Frances McDormand (1) is in this playing Marty’s wife, Abby. Holly Hunter (1) has a small uncredited voice-only part.

Best bit: The scene of Visser breaking into Ray’s house is so creepy and tense, I realised I was holding my breath while watching it.

Review: I loved seeing this again. It’s a cracking film in its own right – deliciously neo-noir, with a dark sense of macabre humour – but also works really well to get you in the off-kilter mindset of the Coens. It’s slow, but tremendously moody. Music is used really well to create atmosphere – both Carter Burwell’s somber score and some smartly chosen source songs. The camerawork is incredibly inventive at times. There are some funny flashes of eccentricity, such as the Four Tops-loving barman. And in the middle of the film there’s a brilliant 19-minute period without any real dialogue – just some distant ‘voices off’ and radio babble – which is as tense and gripping as anything. It’s a deliberately old-school story (love, betrayal, murder – all that jazz) yet never feels like cliché because of the regular twists the plot gives us. On the downside, the de facto lead, played by John Getz, doesn’t really make much of an impression. I couldn’t help wondering what a Tim Robbins or George Clooney would have done in this role. Something more interesting, that’s for sure. Also, Abby’s motives are deliberately kept vague, which leaves a bit of a gap in her character – a noir-ish flourish maybe, but it felt unsatisfying. On the whole, though, this is terrific stuff.

Nine shovels out of 10.