Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Good, The Bland, and The Ugly: The Coen Brothers


The premise of this is simple: if someone, who knows little about the director/actor/etc. in question, asked you to select one film for each of the following three categories below what films would they be?:

1) The Good – A film they should seek out right away
2) The Bland – Not among the best, but still a film they should see.
3) The Ugly – If pressed for time, this is the one film that they should skip in order to squeeze in more hours for the top works.

Keeping this in mind, my three would be as follows:





The Good – I had to think long and hard about this one as there are so many to choose from. Ultimately I went with Fargo, easily the most obvious choice. However, I think the film best encapsulates all of various elements that make films by the Coen brothers so satisfying. There are elements of betrayal, dark humour, quirky characters, emphasis on locations, and simple criminal plots that go horribly wrong. The film was only released in 1996, but has left a lasting mark on cinema thanks in part to some iconic scenes (most notably the wood chipper) and truly memorable characters. The most memorable of which is a seven month pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a police officer who inadvertently stumbles on an elaborate kidnapping plot while tracking down two murders (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). Of course, as with many kidnapping plots, murder was never suppose to be in the cards. Cash-strapped cars salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) merely hired the two men to stage his wife’s kidnapping in order for Lundegaard to collect the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. In most Coen brother films there is usually a character who comes up with schemes that are so simple that they should not fail. However, as Fargo shows, in the world of the Coen brothers nothing is ever simple.


The Bland – I was tempted to say the romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty, but I have to go with The Hudsucker Proxy. Out of all the Coen films, this is the one that I think gets panned unfairly. While far from their best film, I have always found The Hudsucker Proxy to be an entertaining comedy. Granted it is a little hard to believe that a smart business man like Sidney J. Mussburger could not find a better way to pull off a stock related scam than tricking Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) into running the company into the ground. Keep in mind though that realism was not what the Coens were aiming for. The Hudsucker Proxy is a comedy that is more style than substance but sometimes, for a zany comedy like this, depth is not always required.


The Ugly – This was actually a rather easy choice as only two films fall into this category for me. The first is The Ladykillers, which is slowly getting better upon repeat viewings. The other film, which has not fared as well, is Burn After Reading. It is the most disappointing of all the films in the Coens body of work. Despite the numerous talented actors casted in the film, Burn After Reading never came together for me on the whole. The main story revolves around two gym employees (Brad Pitt and France McDormand) who come in possession of a CD that they mistakenly believe contains sensitive government material. The pair concocts a get rich quick scheme that involves blackmailing a former CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who created the CD. Unfortunately for Cox he must not only deal withthe two dimwitted blackmailers, but also a divorce that his cheating wife (Tilda Swinton) has filed for. While the film has its moments here and there, most of which involve Brad Pitt, I did not find this black comedy anywhere near as good as the other films in the Coen’s catalogue. Unlike most of their other films, the Coens do not juggle the multiple story threads as well as you would expect. As a result Burn After Reading feels like a film without a true sense of identity.


What films would you select for each category? Let us know in the comments section.

21 comments:

  1. The Good: Fargo, No Country for Old Men

    The Bland: Intolerable Cruelty, Barton Fink

    The Ugly: I can hardly call anything by these guys ugly but I would agree on Burn After Reading and then add The Ladykillers, though maybe seeing it again would offer an improved reading. BAR started off pretty good, but once Brad Pitt's character met his demise I felt the movie started to sag without him.

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    1. I had the exact same reaction when watching Burn After Reading! Pitt is the glue that kept that film together. Once he left it all went downhill for me.

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  2. One of the directors that I keep on telling myself to see more of but from what I have seen.

    The Good: No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski
    The Bland: Fargo(controversial again I know and I am willing to give it another go but I didn't really care for Frances Mcdormand)
    The Ugly: Yup. Burn after Reading.

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    1. I would recommend you see the following Coen film's next: Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple. After that, you can move onto The Man Who Wasn't There and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. All of which are really good films.

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  3. The Good: Miller's Crossing-One of the greatest gangster movies of all time!
    The Bland: A Serious Man-IT's not bad, but was hard to watch and I haven't given it a second chance yet.
    The Ugly: They have no ugly, but I agree that Burn After Reading is as close as they come.

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    1. Miller's Crossing would be extremely high on my list of great gangster films as well.

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  4. The Good: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man

    The Bland: The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn't There, Tuilieres, World Cinema, and True Grit.

    The Ugly: Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading.

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    1. I really enjoyed The Man Who Wasn't There, the pacing was slow but the overall payoff was worth it.

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  5. I loved Burn After Reading, I found it to be hilarious and every single actor delivered true gold in this one.

    For me and I'm choosing only one for each:

    The Good: The Big Lebowski
    The Bland: Barton Fink
    The Ugly: Ladykillers

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    1. Although I put it as my ugly, I really loved it until Pitt died. Clooney, Malkovich and co all gave great performances and I enjoyed its absurdity until Pitt died. I don't know, maybe I just felt bad for his character, he didn't really deserve that, he was just loving life.

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    2. I know many people who absolutely love Burn After Reading. However, I find their other comedies far more entertaining.

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  6. Great post. What a great set of criteria for recommendations.

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    1. Thanks Jess! There are so many directors who consistently produce good films, hence why I framed the criteria the way I did. Just because something is listed in "The Ugly" category does not necessarily mean it is a bad film.

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  7. Impossible!

    Good: Big Lebowski
    Bland: A Serious Man
    Ugly: Ladykilelrs

    I'm not a fan of their more comedic work but appreciate the fact that without it The Big Lebowski couldn't exist.

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    1. Although I would put A Serious Man in The Good category, it is one of those films that I do not re-watch that often. I think this is partly due to my first experience seeing the film. I saw it at TIFF as part of a back to back day off: A Serious Man, Precious, and The Road. Talk about a depressing day at the cinema.

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    2. oh i think it's their best film but if i was going to tell other people to watch it as an example of their work i think i'd be misrepresenting them.

      your day sounds like you were lucky to survive without inflicting major arterial damage on yourself

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  8. The Good: No Country for Old Men
    The Bland: O Brother Where Art Thou
    The Ugly: The Ladykillers

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    1. I seriously considered picking O Brother, Where Art Thou as my good pick. It is a hilarious film.

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  9. The Good: can't argue with Fargo, but I will pick O Brother Where Art Thou because it's my favorite.

    The Bland: completely agree on The Hudsucker Proxy. I've always liked this better than the critics.

    The Ugly: completely agree again, although I would have said the same thing if you'd listed The Ladykillers, too.

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  10. Hudsucker falls in the same group as Mallrats. Decent films, where the directors had a bigger budget for the first time, that were panned by critics.

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  11. I agree with you on all three of these picks. Fargo is by far their best work, The Hudsucker Proxy is a movie I thoroughly enjoy despite what critics had to say about it, and Burn After Reading is a movie I usually forget even existed.

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