10 Critics’ Thoughts on 10 Coen Brothers Films

Master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are the subject of a summer-long retrospective at AFI (now through September 5th) featuring many of their greatest works. The film family over at Brightest Young Things (myself included) thought this provided a great reason to write briefly about our most favorite Coen Brothers films. I had to get the jump on Barton Fink. But 9 other great BYT film writers posted their own personal thoughts about other films in the great Coen Oeuvre. I made sure to add a link to that below, complete with a listing of writers and the films chosen. Hope you enjoy — and feel free to comment and tell us what YOUR favorite Coen Brothers movie is!


Though it may be their least accessible film for a mainstream audience, Barton Fink remains my favorite Coen Brothers film to date. Not only do I never get tired watching their 4th feature film, but I manage to capture something new or add a new piece to the puzzle with each viewing. Set in 1941, the film stars John Turturro (one of our most underrated actors) as the title character — a Clifford Odets-like playwright who writes for “the common man” and is now the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success reels him in and Barton now finds himself in the surreal and forsaken Hotel Earle, a hellish west coast hotel where he must begin work on a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But things don’t go so smoothly for Barton as he suddenly experiences a horrible case of writer’s block. On top of this, he must deal with constant visits from Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in a towering performance), his chatty and ominous neighbor.

Feeling the pressure to produce, Barton seeks producer Ben Geisler (a hilarious Tony Shalhoub) for advice and is instructed to seek the counsel from a fellow writer. Barton obeys and meets with famed novelist (and drunk) W.P. “Bill” Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character mirrored after William Faulkner who Barton initially has tremendous admiration for. Barton later calls on Mayhew’s secretary (Judy Davis) and asks her to visit him at the hotel for more help. When he wakes up the following morning to the ubiquitous sound of the room’s mosquito, Barton finds the woman dead in his bed. And so the fun begins.

The Coen Brothers are masters at ambiguity. They rarely serve up all the answers to their viewers on a silver platter, which is one of the reasons why I admire their work so much. They constantly challenge their audiences and let you put the pieces together for yourself. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941 here. The exquisite art direction (especially in the contrast of the Hotel Earle and the luxurious surroundings of the Hollywood elite) by Dennis Gassner is stunning to take in and Carter Burwell’s haunting score adds to the foreboding mood. And as we have come to expect (now 20 years after the release of Barton Fink), the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is splendid. Barton Fink is a haunting and yes, oftentimes funny film filled with quirky characters and picth-perfect dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers works. Turturro is mesmerizing as the troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch and absorb. The supporting cast is no less impressive – they are fittingly cast and a marvel to watch. The film takes a strong look at the culture of Hollywood and entertainment as well as the process of writing. It is also laden with symbolism throughout (though the Coens have always denied most of it).

I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1991 when I was a student at New York University. I went with two close friends who lived in Long Island at the time. They took the train in to see it with me, as we were already huge fans of the Coen Brothers and couldn’t wait to see their new flick. I distinctly remember the overall feeling of disappointment upon leaving the theater, with my friend Chris saying what a tremendous waste of a train trip it was — that we had just witnessed pretentious garbage. I didn’t love it, I must admit. But i was certainly intrigued by it and I told my film-loving friend, “We missed something…we didn’t get it.” Barton Fink is certainly not the film for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’ to be sure. It isn’t the film I would inaugurate someone unfamiliar with their impressive canon of work. It may not be their strongest work, but after that initial screening, it quickly became my most favorite. At the risk of hyperbole, I think the Coen Brothers are without a doubt the finest American filmmakers working today, creating one remarkable film after the next with astonishing continuity. If you’re a fan — and you have yet to see this early work, get ready to be challenged and watch this perplexing, rioutous, dark, and fascinating film.

Click HERE to see the full article by the film staff at Brightest Young Things. Each writer gives his/her personal thoughts on a Coen Brothers film of their choosing.

The 10 Movies Chosen Are:

The Big Lebowski by Logan Donaldson
Fargo by Erin Holmes
The Hudsucker Proxy by Svetlana Legetic
Intolerable Cruelty by Alan Zilberman
Miller’s Crossing by Peter Heyneman
O’ Brother Where Art Thou? by Andrew Bucket
Raising Arizona by John Foster
A Serious Man by Zach Goldbaum
“Tuileries” by William Albeque
Barton Fink by moi

8 Thoughts on 8 David Lynch Films

Artisphere in Washington DC is celebrating the magnificent works of film auteur David Lynch by screening his works every Wednesday of this month. In honor of this well-deserved tribute, the film writers of the DC-based online entertainment magazine Brightest Young Things (myself included) have chosen to write a few personal thoughts on a film of their choosing — by Sir Lynch.

I personally had to go with Blue Velvet, for many reasons. My commentary on this 1986 masterpiece is below. If you are not acquainted with the film staff at BYT, they have some pretty great writers who know their movies. If you’d like to read some thoughts on such works as Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Mullholland Drive, Dune (yes, Dune), Lost Highway, Inland Empire — and the mega cult classic Eraserhead, then click on the BYT Loves Lynch article. The BYT film writers include Alan Z., William A., Zach G., Logan D., Erin H., and BYT editor Svetlana L.

Here are my initial thoughts on Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

It all starts – with an ear. A severed human ear, decomposing in a lush green field. The camera slowly zooms in to the canal as the sound amplifies and the busy ants swarm around the flesh. Thus begins David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, a modern-day film noir with elements of surrealism thrown in for good measure. As we get a closer look inside that rotting ear, we are invited in to Lynch’s world of a dark and violent underbelly lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful suburban logging town.

Blue Velvet is certainly not for everyone — a polarizing film, if there ever was one (you may recall Siskel and Ebert’s famous argument over the film’s merits). Regardless, it garnered Lynch his 2nd Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Director,’ on the heels of Woody Allen calling it the single best movie of 1986. Since its theatrical release – through VHS, laserdiscs, DVD’s and now Blu-Ray — the film has reached legendary cult status, playing on many a midnight movie screen.

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Lynch fave Kyle Maclachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to see to his ailing father when he stumbles across the detached ear. He takes the ear to the police, but his own voyeuristic tendencies take over and Jeffrey proceeds to begin his own investigation, with the help of the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The ear draws him deeper into his hometown’s sordid underworld, where he meets the captivating torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose son and husband have been kidnapped in return for sexual favors by the sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, at the top of his game in a career-resurrecting role). Jeffrey becomes further involved, running into a cast of sleazy characters, trying his best to save the helpless Dorothy – and later, himself.

Lynch had the idea for this film in the early 1970’s – before his first feature film Eraserhead (another cult classic) was released. After his marvelous work on The Elephant Man (1980) and the failure that was Dune (1984), he was given complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges with Blue Velvet, culminating in a truly personal work. His casting choices here are right on the mark. Rossellini no longer had to cling on to those Lancome advertisements – she is finally given the opportunity to test her acting chops in a meaty role. With all that her character must endure at the hands of Frank, it is a truly courageous performance – and opened up a whole new career for Ms. Rossellini. Dean Stockwell plays Ben, a drug dealer and one of Frank’s accomplices. His lip-synched performance to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is both chilling and somewhat comical and makes for one of the film’s highlights. Laura Dern turns in a solid performance as the high school girl who is a perfect paradox for Dorothy and all that she represents. Maclachlan holds the film together quite – he is strong when he needs to be (remember that tremendous backslap to Dorothy in a moment of pleasure and rage) and completely naïve and vulnerable when at the mercy of Frank. The film also delivers one of cinema’s greatest villains of all-time in Frank Booth, played deliciously by Mr. Hopper. This guy is one scary sociopath. Between his palpable Oedipal issues, vulgar mouth, peculiar sexual proclivities, and that oxygen mask (which Hopper later said was Amyl nitrite) – Frank Booth remains one of film’s most iconic characters. On top of the stellar performances, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a true stand-out, creating that film noir atmosphere while also helping to create a haunting mood.

The film isn’t all that’s polarizing though – Lynch himself is one of film’s most divisive figures. You either love him or can’t watch his stuff. There are many directors who I greatly admire, but there are a small handful that I would call true auteurs – David Lynch is surely one of those very few. Perhaps it is because of his background and work in the visual arts, but Lynch is the only director who comes to mind where you can take a snapshot from any moment in one of his films – and it comes off as a true work of art. His attention to color, to place, to character, and to the human psyche is truly unique. So unique that many dub his style to be “Lynchian.” He changed television with his phenomenal opus, Twin Peaks and has continued to perplex and dazzle his audience with one daring work after another. But it is Blue Velvet that, to date, is his seminal work.

Talking “Desert Flower” with Director Sherry Hormann

Based on the international best-selling novel by Waris Dirie, Desert Flower is the extraordinary true story of the woman who crossed a desert – and changed the world. Led by a stellar cast that includes Liya Kebede, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Anthony Mackie, and Juliet Stevenson, the movie has already grossed over $14 million, opening in 17 countries (by the end of 2010). The movie is written and directed by the award-winning German-American filmmaker Sherry Hormann, best known for her films Silent Shadow (her debut in 1991), Father’s Day (1996), and Guys and Balls (2004). With Desert Flower, Ms. Hormann tells the inspirational and powerful story of Waris Dirie (played by Kebede), a Somalian nomad who was circumcised at age 3, sold for marriage at 13 – and escaped Africa to one day become an international supermodel and later, a United Nations special ambassador for women’s rights. The 52-day shoot spanned four countries in three continents.

I had the pleasure of screening this poignant and compelling film last week (it opens in DC this Friday) and was honored to have the opportunity to ask Ms. Hormann a few questions. Here is a play-by-play of our exchange:

Eramo: I understand that you are a fellow New Yorker. Born in Kingston. Do you have any early New York memories – before moving to Germany at such a young age [age 6]?

Writer/Director Sherry Hormann

Hormann: Friday nights. My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they took me to the ice cream parlor first before going to watch a movie at the Drive-In. I fell asleep while driving, but woke up soon. The loudspeakers where blasting into the car, but I felt cozy and funny enough sheltered, while watching the movie secretly from the rear seat. I remember that I somehow managed to save the sprinkles from the sundae and by then they were all melted in my hand…Memories are a funny thing…

Eramo: As a German/American filmmaker, who are your influences – the directors who most inspire you?

Hormann: John Cassavettes and Howard Hawks were my initial influences.

Eramo: Now, I read that Peter Hermann [the film’s producer] was the first to approach you with this film. When you read Dirie’s book, what was it that motivated you to the point of wanting to direct Desert Flower?

Hormann: I was very clear that I did not want to make a biopic. Waris’ story is a global one. She is driven by courage and breaking the rules. Her life sounds like a Cinderella story on the surface, but behind that beauty and sudden success, she surprisingly reveals her scar; a scar that at that point was unheard of. Imagine…she was the first woman to publicly speak about FGM [female genital mutilation]. Her journey — far beyond the atrocity — is deeply encouraging.

Eramo: You managed to assemble an exceptional cast for this very important film. How did you go about finding and casting the very beautiful Liya Kebede as Waris Dirie?

Hormann: I feel extremely lucky about the cast. We have Somali nomads…some of whom haven’t seen a white person in their lives before, a very strong British cast on the other side and a newcomer. I wanted the actress playing Waris to look Somali. So we knew that we had to search. Ros and John Hubbard started a long casting process in Africa, Europe and the United States…and – finally we found the stunning Liya! John called me and said, “Sherry, I am in New York. Our Waris just left the room…” And he was right.

Eramo: How involved was Ms. Dirie in the casting process?

Hormann: Waris watched Liya’s audition and luckily enough, her son was in the room playing. He turned towards the TV and said, “Hey mom, that’s you!”

Eramo: In many ways, Desert Flower seems to be exploring new ground for you as a filmmaker. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced artistically in tackling such difficult subject matter?

Hormann: Opposites! We went to Djibouti at the border of war-beaten Somalia. It hadn’t rained for 18 months. Filming in Djibouti is filming without a plan while you make all these plans in your head. You often react on what happens and you’re happy when you manage to get that on film. In the streets of London, we shot with a hidden camera. One night Liya was approached by Somali immigrants who thought she was in need of help and offered her shelter. On the other hand, you explore these extraordinary actors like Sally [Hawkins], Tim Spall or Juliet Stevenson and try to catch a glimpse of that fashion world. But overall you try to find a subtle way to slowly reveal the main topic without being too much of a messenger. I strongly believe in the power of emotions; if it is laughter or tears. With Desert Flower we have both.

Eramo: There is a flashback scene of the day that dramatically changed Waris’ life. It is an excruciatingly painful scene to watch – and frankly, makes James Franco’s infamous scene in 127 Hours look like he’s baking cookies. Where did you find the young girl who plays the 3-year old Waris?

Hormann: A great French woman in our production had spent 5 months in Djibouti to find the whole Somali cast. It was very difficult given the fact that there is absolutely no tradition for acting there — no live theatre, no movie theaters…nothing! All closed due to poverty. So finally she found this little girl Safa playing in the narrow streets of the shanty towns, shyly smiling at her first white woman. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is true.

Eramo: And how did you go about filming that heartbreaking sequence?

Hormann: I admit…it was the darkest day in my career as a film director. But, I always believed that this scene is the core of the movie. What happened was: the little girl (Safa) just looked into the face of this woman who used to work as a circumciser for 40 years…she saw the razor blade and started crying immediately. These girls all know. Later we set up a foundation…Safa is going to school now, her family is supported and she will not be mutilated. That was always a promise Peter Herrmann and I made.

Eramo: This might be a difficult question, but I am curious to know…I’m not sure that I can recall a movie that tackled the subject of female genital mutilation in such an upfront manner. This may be a first. Of course, the film depicts the horrors and injustices of this dangerous procedure. But this is a custom that goes back to the infancy stage of many cultures. To them, I would think that they view this as righteous and compulsory. What would you say to those who think this film takes a reckless or irresponsible position to such an age-old custom? Do more “primitive” cultures just need to “wake up”?

Hormann: I am not a politician. I am a woman, a human being and I don’t want anybody to be hurt on purpose. I don’t see any good in a ritual where girls die, or die later from delivering a baby or live constantly in pain because some outdated philosophy of “uncleanness” drives them.

I will tell you a story. We went back to Djibouti. We screened the movie in the desert where we shot. We set up a screen and expected 800 people. Well, in the end, 4,000 people showed up. A man was standing next to the screen and simultaneously translated the English parts into Arabic for the audience. At the end of the movie it was very silent. Then a random Nomad stood up. He said, “I am the father of six girls. I was not aware of what precisely is happening to our daughters when they do it. We don’t talk about it. I don’t want my daughters to be hurt. This has to stop!” The father was followed by 23 others.

Eramo: Unbelievable. That was very brave of him. So overall, how has audience reception been to Desert Flower so far?

Hormann: Desert Flower has seen more countries than I have ever traveled to. The reactions are very moving as this flower works on a universal level, independent of any cultural background. I guess we are still all searchers, thank God!

Eramo: The UN speech that Waris makes near the end of the film…was this her actual speech verbatim – or was creative license taken?

Hormann: Parts of that speech are actual quotations.

Eramo: And the love interest…the film leaves it open for interpretation, but did Waris and Harold (Anthony Mackie) ever become romantically involved?

Hormann: Doesn’t romance always leave room for our own interpretations?

Eramo: Thank you, Sherry, for taking time out to answer a few of my questions. You did an outstanding job of bringing Ms. Dirie’s courageous journey to the screen.

Hormann: Thank you for your kind words. It is deeply appreciated.

The Adjustment Bureau & The Conspirator

As I stated in a previous post, in addition to trying to keep up with my own Magic Lantern, I am now writing for the abundantly productive online entertainment magazine, Brightest Young Things. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed my very first critics’ screening in Washington DC for the highly anticipated romantic thriller, The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and the ravishing Emily Blunt.

My review will be posted on Brightest Young Things when the film opens this Friday, March 4th. I will make sure to post the link to my review on the Magic Lantern FaceBook page – as a gentle reminder to any readers/fans this site has…and because I am just so excited to have my first official film review published by a media outlet. I hope there are many, many more to come. I will then make sure to publish the review here on the Lantern over the weekend.

Next up — I can’t wait to see Robert Redford’s new film The Conspirator this week! I believe it opens in theatres on April 15th, so I am thrilled to be able to see it beforehand. My friend and I visited the Crime and Punishment Museum last week in DC and there was a whole room dedicated to this film. Oddly enough, we also visited Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot. The story of Mary Surratt, the only woman charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial, seems like a fascinating one to tell. Plus, Redford is a brilliant filmmaker. Check out the trailer — it looks riveting and so authentic!

Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective: Inaugural BYT Posting

Brightest Young Things (http://www.brightestyoungthings.com/) is a DC-based online entertainment magazine that was founded in 2006. Targeted to a younger audience, this wide-ranging website covers everything in the DC-Metro area including live music, restaurants, cultural exhibits, art shows, film, theatre, and much more. Really, if you wanted to find something fun to do every night of the year, this website would prove to be a wonderful guide in helping you do just that.

In particular, their film coverage is quite impressive — extensive and knowledgeable. Most recently, BYT film writers have interviewed such distinguished filmmakers as Todd Solondz, Alex Gibney, and the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Since I am new to the area, I decided to reach out to the BYT editors and introduce them to my mighty Magic Lantern Film Blog with the hopes of joining their exciting team of film writers. Thankfully, I have been given the opportunity to do just that, which excites me to no end. In addition to writing for Magic Lantern, I will now be reviewing and writing about movies for Brightest Young Things. My first film review will be for the much anticipated thriller, The Adjustment Bureau (starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt), which will appear upon its release in early March.

Below is my first piece of writing for Brightest Young Things. AFI Silver Spring is celebrating the works of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock in three different retrospectives this year. The film writers at BYT were asked to write briefly about their personal faves in the canon of Hitchcock’s works – I chose Notorious (1946), starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains.

Other films cited here by BYT staff include: Dial M for Murder, North By Northwest, Rear Window, Rope, Strangers on A Train, To Catch A Thief, and Vertigo. Feel free to read through everyone’s thoughts and opinions on their various selections. Here is the link – enjoy!


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