The Coen Brothers
Latest Coen brothers news:
February 2015: All seems quiet on the Coen front, but currently in post-production is Hail, Ceaser! a comedy set in 1950s Hollywood. It is slated for release in February 2016
July 2014: A second season of the Coen's TV serial of Fargo has been commisioned to be shown in Autumn 2015. The story will take a sideways step from the first season.
April 2014: The feature length debut episode of the Coen's TV serial of Fargo is about to premiere. It stars Billy Bob Thronton and Martin Freeman. It's a brave move to make a serial loosely based on an iconic, nuanced and much loved film, but by all that we have heard, they have pulled it off.
July 2013: The Coens' new film is Inside Llewyn Davis (which we are now extremely eager to get our eyes on - seems an age since it was announced). With the general release still months away here is the official trailer to whet your appetite.
Joel and Ethan Coen - A biography part 1: Early years to 1997.
Joel Coen was born on 29th November 1954 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Ethan Coen was born on 21st September 1957 also in Minneapolis. After studying at university Joel made the leap into the film world working first as an assistant editor on the genuinely strange horror Fear No Evil (1981) and then as assistant film editor on the notorious Sam Raimi cult horror The Evil Dead.
In 1984 the brothers wrote and directed their first film together Blood Simple. Set in Texas, the film tells the tale of a shifty sleazy bar owner who hires a private detective to kill his wife and her lover. Within this film there are considerable elements that would point towards their future direction - i.e. their own subverted homages to genre movies (in this case noir and horror), the clever plot twists layered over a simplistic story, their darkly inventive and twisted sense of humour, and their mastery of atmosphere. Also it would star Frances McDormand who would go on to feature in many of the Coen brothers films (plus she would also marry Joel Coen). Upon release the film received much praise especially amongst the more left field audience, and winning awards for Joel's direction* at both the Sundance and Independent Spirit awards. (*Despite the credits on the Coen brothers movies that state Joel is the director and Ethan is the producer, to all intents and purposes they direct and produce jointly).
The next Coen Brothers project to hit the big screen was 1985's Crimewave directed by Sam Raimi. The film was written by the brothers together with Sam Raimi with whom Joel had worked with on The Evil Dead.
In 1987 the next film written and directed by the brothers was released with the title Raising Arizona. The film is the story of an unlikely married couple Hi and Ed (an ex-convict and an ex-cop) who long for a baby but unfortunately are unable to conceive. "Fortune" smiles on them when a local furniture tycoon appears on television with his five newly born quins that he jokes "is more than we he can handle". Seeing this as a sign from god and an opportunity to redress the natural balance they steal one of the quins and start to bring up the child as their own. Raising Arizona was much more accessible to the mass market with its innocence and wacky slapstick easing the action along amongst some dark humour. With a genuinely innovative and twisting script, the film was also a favourite amongst more left of centre tastes.
1990 saw the release of Miller's Crossing a straight ahead homage to the gangster movie genre. Starring Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne and future Coen brothers staple John Turturro, the film is set during the prohibition era of the thirties and tells the tale of feuding mobs and gangster capers. What really sets this film apart is the terrific dialogue, the depth of the characters involved, which all benefit from the touches of dark humour and plot twists that were already becoming synonymous with the brothers work.
The Coen Brothers reputation was seemingly enhanced with every subsequent release, but this took a massive leap forward with their next movie, the visually stunning Barton Fink (1991). Barton Fink is set in 1941 and tells the story of a New York playwright (the eponymous Barton Fink) who moves to LA to write a B-movie. He settles down in his hotel apartment to commence the writing but all too soon he gets writers block and allows himself to get some inspiration by the amiable man in the room next door together with some industry associates. Inspiration comes from the most unusual places and the hotel is definitely unusual and a magnet for the strange and downright bizarre. Barton Fink was a commercial success, but also more significantly a critical success (garnering Oscar nominations plus winning three major awards at Cannes). With this film the brothers added a stunning visual aesthetic (employing the services of Roger Deakins as director of photography for the first time) to their mastery of the subverted genre, which alongside the performances of Coen stalwarts John Turturro and John Goodman help produce a hugely impressive (and enjoyable) classic.
In 1994, with their stock at an all time high, the brothers were able to attempt their first big budget feature film The Hudsucker Proxy (co-written with Sam Raimi). The story revolves around a little man, who by chance is made the head of a massive corporation with the expectation that he will ruin the company (so that the board can buy it for next to nothing), instead he ends up inventing the hula hoop and becomes both a success and a personality over night. The critics were for once luke warm about the film, whilst Roger Deakins was universally praised for his skill as Director of Photography, the film was generally criticised for being a pastiche too far. Most critics viewed the film as having nothing new to say due its constant references and homages to classic movies of the 30's and 40's, and many were disappointed by the Coen's first attempt at the big league.
1996 saw the release of arguably the Coen Bothers finest movie so far - Fargo. The film is set in the snow in Fargo in the Coen Brothers home state of Minneapolis. The movie surrounds the tale of Jerry, a man with a young family, who works in his father in law's car showroom. Jerry is anxious to get hold of some money to move up in the world, but when all other avenues are blocked he hatches a plan to have his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father in law will pay the ransom that he can split with the Kidnappers. Unfortunately his best laid plans go wrong when the bungling kidnappers deviate from the agreed non-violent plan and so local cop Marge is sent in to investigate the whole affair. With its terrifically hilarious dialogue and superb story Fargo proved to be a big commercial and critical success (even earning The Coen Brothers an Oscar for their screenplay, and an Oscar for Joel's wife Frances McDormand for Best Actress).
Part 2: 1997 to date.
The Coen's next film would build upon this success and in 1998 The Big Lebowski was released. With its story about "The Dude" an LA slacker, used as an unwitting pawn in a fake kidnapping plot (sound familiar) the Coen's had hit on a film that would provide a mainstream accessibility that they hadn't really enjoyed since Raising Arizona. Despite a lukewarm reception from the critics, it was well received by the paying public who gravitated to The Dude (played superbly by Jeff Bridges) his bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman) and the plethora of great supporting characters like Marty the Dude's performance artist landlord and Brandt Mr Lebowski's personal assistant. Just like Fargo, The Big Lebowski contains some very rich and hugely funny dialogue which helps make the film eminently watchable.
Buoyed by the success of both Fargo and Lebowski. The Coen Brothers next film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was to be yet another critical success. Based loosely on Homer's "Odyssey" (complete with a Cyclops, Sirens et al) the story is set along the Mississippi River in the 1930s and follows a trio of escaped convicts that have absconded from a chain gang, and who journey home in an attempt to recover the loot from a bank heist that the leader has buried. But they have no idea what the journey is that they are undertaking. The films Bluegrass soundtrack, offbeat humour and, yet again, stunning cinematography, meant it was a critical and commercial hit (even the soundtrack spawned a CD, a concert, and a concert DVD of its own - Down From the Mountain). It also helped establish the movie credentials of George Clooney who effortlessly brought to life the oddball lead character of Everett (ably assisted by his sidekick the now ubiquitous John Turturro).
2001 saw a change of pace with the noirish thriller The Man Who Wasn't There. Set in late 1940's California the film tells the tale of a laconic chain smoking barber (played perfectly by Billy Bob Thornton), who in an effort to get some money together to invest in a dry cleaning business (where he really can clean up) decides to blackmail his wife's boss (who is also her lover). The film (shot entirely in crisp Black and White) follows a series of twists and turns, not unusual for Coen films, but here the slow deliberate build of the thriller, and its dead end roads and curve ball misdirections all unfold unhurriedly and are judged to perfection. The film was definitely one for the purists rather than for the casual fan (who may have previously only enjoyed Arizona, Fargo or Lebowski).
2003 saw the release of the Coen's most mainstream film to date with Intolerable Cruelty. With a story based around Miles a hot shot divorce lawyer, and a beautiful female divorcee who Miles had managed to stop getting any money from her divorce. She sets out on a course to get even with him whilst he begins to be smitten with her. Intolerable Cruelty divided the critics; some applauding the superior curveball rom com elements of the movie, others enquiring as to why the Coen's would wish to supply us with their take on this genre. Either way the general feeling was that the film was not entirely satisfying and definitely not one of the brothers most inspiring movies.
2004 saw the Coen Brothers release The Ladykillers a remake of the Ealing Studios classic. The story revolves around a professor who puts together a team to rob a casino. They rent a room in an old ladies house in order to execute the heist but when the old lady discovers the plot the gang decides to murder her to assure her silence. But that is easier said than done. The Coens received some of the most lukewarm reviews of their career with this movie, the general feeling being that whilst the Coen's have managed to make films in which a genre can be homaged / pastiched successfully, a pretty straight reworking of a classic gives little enough scope for them to work their real magic. The Ladykillers is certainly less inspired than any of their previous films and it certainly makes the viewer wonder why the Coens, over anybody else, would chose to remake such a well loved classic. It certainly has a few moments that really do work well, but overall it feels like a pale imitation both of The Ladykillers and Joel and Ethan Coen.
2007 saw the release of the Coen's No Country for Old Men. Based on the 2005 novel by the legendary author Cormac McCarthy, telling the tale of a man living on the Texas / Mexico border, who stumbles upon $2m dollars of drug money that he decides to pocket, and who then has to go on the run to try and avoid those looking to recover their money. The film was a much welcomed returned to form and not before time. The plot was ideally suited to the Coen brothers and with such rich material they made a true classic that was commended by the die hard Coen brothers' fans and critics alike. They were rewarded with 7 Oscar nominations, and ended up winning 4 (including Best Direction and Best Picture). So thankfully, after a run of diminishing returns and a couple of of exceptionally dodgy below par recent movies, the Coens bounced back to show they hadn't lost it after all.
2008 Saw the release of Burn After Reading, which rather neatly after all the success of No Country, was a film with a stellar cast (Clooney, Pitt, Malkovitch etc) that had all the constituents of being a mainstream success. The yarn wasn't one of the Coen's finest and left and in the end satisfied neither the Coen afficianados nor the casual viewer.
2009 Saw the release of A Serious Man, a low key tale of 1960s suburban America. A microcosm of Coenism, set in Minnesota, a tremendous black comedy with some extraneous plot twists and progressions that you could scarcely imagine being made by any other producers. With no huge names in the cast A Serious Man was never aimed at mainstream success, but the wonderful cast and a brilliant script kept the Coen fans happy after the slight dissapointment of Burn After Reading.
The remake of True Grit released in 2010 proved another mega hit. Reunited with the dude Jeff Bridges, along with Josh Brolin and Matt Damon the remake transcended the well loved "so so" original to make a genuine classic.
On the flipside the star-studded big-budget remake of Gambit (screenplay by the Coens) was lamentable, and despite money being thrown at the production and it's promotion, the much delayed 2012 release was a big clue that the film had not delivered on it's promise.