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Coen Brothers Collection, The

Universal // R // October 18, 2005
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted December 27, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
Over the course of the last 22 years, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen have graduated from outsider eccentrics to true cinematic auteurs. Their output has been sporadic and iconoclastic, but they have delivered some timeless classics during their decades behind the lens. From the phenomenal Miller's Crossing (1990) to the fascinating Barton Fink (1991), the insane comedies of Raising Arizona (1987) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) to the terrific tonal perfection of Fargo (1996) and O' Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) these talented brothers have forged a uniquely stylized approach to all aspects of filmmaking, from characterization to visual design. Universal has now seen fit to release a boxset of some of their work. Sadly, some of their best are missing from this release. Still, you do get their first foray into moviemaking (1984's Blood Simple) a monochrome masterpiece (2001's The Man Who Wasn't There) a demented cult classic (1998's The Big Lebowski) and, oddly, one of the few Coen misfires in their extended oeuvre (2003's Intolerable Cruelty).

The Plot
With four films to cover, it seems simpler to make minor reference to the storylines of each, and add links to other reviews on the DVD Talk site that can expand on the narrative drive of each movie:

Blood Simple (1984): Local bar owner Marty thinks his wife is cheating on him, so he hires a sleazy private dick to uncover the truth. When he does, Marty wants the couple killed. Knowing that Marty has money, the unscrupulous investigator plans an elaborate double cross. Naturally, things don't work out quite as anyone planned, leaving the lovers in the lurch and a murderous PI prowling around after them.

The Big Lebowski (1998): When hoodlums ruin his area rug, pot-smoking slacker Jeff Lebowski (a.k.a. 'The Dude') tries to track down the reason. Turns out there is a rich industrialist with the same name who owes the mob a great deal of money. The tapped out tycoon eventually enlists 'The Dude' and his two bowling buddies Walter and Donnie in a complex kidnapping scheme to collect some cash.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001): A quiet barber with an adulterous wife decides he wants a change, and plans on investing in a dry cleaning business. Needing $10,000, he hits on the notion of blackmailing his spouse's possible paramour, local department store owner Big Dave Brewster. Somehow, this minor crime leads to deadly double crossing, misunderstandings, and a date with the death penalty.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003): Hot shot divorce attorney Miles Massey may have finally met his match in money-grubbing gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth. He is famous for his impenetrable pre-nuptial agreements. She is notorious for getting what she wants. When the two face off in court, sparks fly. But it is what goes on outside the judge's purview that may be destined to doom them both.

The DVD:
The four films that make up the Universal box set known as The Coen Brothers Collection hardly represents the flamboyant filmmakers at their best. Sure, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn't There are right up there with Fargo or Raising Arizona as Coen stalwarts, but Blood Simple today feels a tad dated, more like a really great resume reel than a fully realized film. And Intolerable Cruelty? It is sub-par screwball comedy at best. Indeed, it can be argued that the George Clooney/Catherine Zeta-Jones ditzy divorce-fest is one of the brother's only true "bad" films. And since all four DVDs are just repackages of previously available, still very much in print titles (including the recently released The Big Lebowski Collector's Edition) there is nothing new here to tempt those who already own the discs. In reality, this kind of compendium is for those who don't know the sainted siblings work at all, or for fans that have substantial gaps in their own Coen compilation.

As a primer on the complex, creative canon of Joel and Ethan, The Coen Brothers Collection is pretty good. Since it starts off with Blood Simple, the guys' first film, it becomes easy over the course of this filmic quartet to trace their tendencies and witness where many of their thematic ideas and visual idiosyncrasies derive. The Coens are truly obsessed with crime - no less than nine of their 11 feature films as directors revolve around kidnapping, murder, theft and illegality. Blood Simple represents all the basics - infidelity and revenge, the carefully crafted plan and the purposefully placed double cross. Several of the Coen's stylistic signatures are also on display: the Sam Raimi-inspired zooms (the brothers worked with Mr. Evil Dead in their early years); the unusual framing and situational configurations, the discovery of art within anarchy; the disclosure of the gruesome within the gorgeous. With pitch perfect performances and a knotty narrative that never gives away its true intentions, this is a really good film. But compared to other Coen creations, it is really a minor masterwork, something to savor as part of their incredibly promising past (Blood Simple - 4 out of 5).

Initially, the same can be said for The Big Lebowski. Coming hot on the heels of another kidnapping gone cockeyed storyline (this film followed Fargo) this White Russian soaked saga of mistaken identity and gratuitous bowling looked and felt like a buffoonish retort to the overwhelming critical response to said previous efforts (it won the brothers a screenwriting Oscar). It was almost as if the Coens were trying to prove that they could make the stylistic polar opposite of their award-winning breakthrough and have it be the same film - sort of. There are huge differences, however, between the icy Minnesota locale of Fargo and the sun-baked breeziness of Lebowski's California confines. Thanks to the efforts of the cast - including the brilliant turns by Jeff Bridges as 'the Dude' and John Goodman as the ex-Vietnam vet whack-job Walter - The Big Lebowski becomes its own peculiar piece. Sure, the story follows many of the Coen's missives, but the results are always aiming for humor, not horror or homicide. Violence is treated with wit and death is dealt with in equally amusing ways. Along with the next film in the set, this is as close as The Coen Brothers Collection comes to emulating the classics in their canon. (The Big Lebowski - 4.5 out of 5).

Many fans didn't take to The Man Who Wasn't There when it was first released. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and especially the hit O' Brother, Where Art Thou? had set the duo up as a kind of a quirky commercial commodity, individuals who were a single sensational cinematic experience away from universal acclaim. But instead of feeding the mounting media machine, the guys returned to their creepy crime/noir roots and delivered a devastating dissection on fate. This muted masterpiece, as beautiful and brooding as black and white filmmaking can be, proves that the Coens never intended to ride the wave of recent success into the realm of the sell-out (though that was coming, apparently...). Instead, they wanted to create a tone poem to a particular genre of moviemaking, an accurate amalgamation of everything the 40s and 50s propagated in dramatic motion pictures. Funny, frightening, dour and depressing, this is a remarkable example of the parts purposefully transcending the whole. As a story, we've seen The Man Who Wasn't There dozens of times. But the way the Coens conceive it, it seems completely original and new. This greatest hits package of the long lost B-movie is one of the brothers' best. (The Man Who Wasn't There -5 out of 5).

Last, and definitely least, we have Intolerable Cruelty. This is a schizophrenic effort, a movie that sees the Coen's sharing screenwriting credit with someone other than Sam Raimi (he helped with Hudsucker) for the first time, and such an awkward production pairing really shows. Cruelty occasionally feels like a standard Hollywood Rom-Com with occasional Coen eccentricities tossed in for good measure. For every scene that shouts of Joel and Ethan (a courtroom Q&A in which an old woman discusses her fetish filled sex life), there are formulaic flaws, standard meet-cutes and pointless asides. Indeed, one of the things the Coens do best in their films is fill in the gaps, keeping ancillary characters from being time-wasting tangents and actually incorporating them into the story. Here, people like Marilyn's friends and Miles' co-counsel are just weak window dressing, attempts to provide some balance to the already out of whack lead lovers. We never really root for the ending we are given, and George Clooney outclasses Catherine Zeta-Jones every step of the way. He looks like the smooth and suave king of the courtroom he's essaying. She seems like an actress hired to play the part of a fetching paramour - and not really succeeding. This is not a horrid film, but when compared with the rest of the Coen canon - and even the other three films here - it's a huge letdown both artistically and aesthetically. (Intolerable Cruelty - 2.5 out of 5).

When viewed together, you can see the progression - and eventually Hollywood holding pattern - of the Coen's creativity. Blood Simple is the opening salvo in a box office battle, a call to arms for a new kind of cinematic aesthetic. The Big Lebowski pushes those parameters even further, mixing slapstick and sophomoric humor within those increasingly inventive narrative nuances. The Man Who Wasn't There is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the Coen's moviemaking mannerisms. Highly referential while remaining equally original, combining clockwork plotting with incredibly stylized crime and punishment, it is easy to see how the film could and would stifle their cinematic sense. That is why Intolerable Cruelty feels so slight. In comparison to what came before it, this film plays like a goof, a going through the motions attempt at mainstream acceptance. That it fails is not the bad news. That the Coens would continue on with this trend with their 2004 Ladykillers remake/reinterpretation is Intolerable's cruelest legacy.

The Video:
All four films are offered in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen images, and it's clear that age plays the biggest part in how good and/or bad these transfers are. Blood Simple has a few problems, with occasional grain and dirt marring an otherwise marvelous looking movie. The Big Lebowski is bright and shiny, the clear and colorful print really accentuating the otherworldly feel of the film. Intolerable Cruelty is supposed to play like a sun-drenched daydream, but the brightness occasionally obliterates important details, and everything here has a too-perfect, polished feel. By far, the best picture of the four is possessed by The Man Who Wasn't There. This is black and white at its most magical and meaningful, with wonderfully deep and dark contrasts coupled with incredibly dense detail.

The Audio:
The only film not offered with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack is, once again, the movie made 22 years ago. Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There and The Big Lebowski all have wonderfully immersive, channel-challenging tracks. There is a great deal of spatial ambience and direction dimension in all three offerings. Blood Simple is a meager 2.0 presentation, but still packs a pretty good aural wallop when it comes to its sonic situations. All dialogue is easily discernible, with conversations clear and concise. The Coens are also experts at incorporating music into their movies, and all four DVD transfers here do a great job of recreating said pop song perfection.

The Extras:
Each film contains the same added content previously available on DVD. In brief, here is what you get: Blood Simple - in an obvious in-joke on the audience, a pseudo-scholar named Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films delivers a terrific tongue-in-cheek commentary. Some argue it's one of the Coens affecting a voice. Others proclaim it is a famed actor helming the hilarity. Whatever the case may be, it's still a wonderful addition to the disc, and considering that you get precious little else in the way of bonus features (cast and crew bios, trailers, production notes), it makes a dull DVD presentation delightful.

The Big Lebowski - For such a fan favorite, the digital offering here is rather a letdown. Sure, we get a smart behind the scenes Making-Of, a collection of never before seen onset snapshots by Jeff Bridges, and a weird-ass introduction featuring Mortimer Young, a "non-uptight" film preservationist. Add in a few production notes and you've got a decent, if not definitive package.

The Man Who Wasn't There - by far the best DVD in the bunch. First of all, we finally get a Coens commentary. Along with star Billy Bob Thorton, the brothers sit down for a very loose and unstructured discussion of their film. It is a genial, off-the-cuff affair. Next up, cinematographer Roger Deakins divulges a few of the film's more masterful monochrome secrets in a very insightful interview. There is an EPK style Making-Of, a selection of deleted scenes (none really necessary to understanding the film) a behind the scenes photo gallery, a filmography and the theatrical trailer. All in all, a wonderful digital compendium.

Intolerable Cruelty - speaking of press kit pandering, the extras of this DVD are nothing very special. The "hilarious" outtakes and bloopers are pretty funny, but the Behind the Scenes featurette and Wardrobe documentary are pretty dull affairs.

Final Thoughts:
It is hard to categorize this DVD set as a meaningless double dip, though it certainly fits the bill. All of the titles are available separately and yet the $40 price tag (you can get it cheaper if you look) is a pretty good deal. Only one of the films is an outright flop, while the other three represent near nirvana in the Coen creative construct. Individually, Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There and The Big Lebowski would earn a Highly Recommended rating, while Intolerable Cruelty is a Rent It curiosity at best. In general, because of the revamp nature of the packaging and the odd assortment of titles, The Coen Brothers Collection earns a ranking of Recommended. If you are new to the work of these certified cinematic savants, this box set would be a good place to begin. But for die-hard fans of the Coen films, there is nothing here to warrant yet another trip to your beleaguered billfold.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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