Tag Archives: Coen brothers

As children we are taught to be careful when crossing the street. That old adage is especially applicable when you are at Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Coen brothers third film.

It is hard to argue that the Coen brothers are not some of the best film writers of our time.  Great movies like Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998) are all products of these prodigious writers.  Each film they make is anything but rigidly formulaic.  The originality of each of these films impresses me to no end.  Miller’s Crossing is no exception.

The plot is tightly woven, so much so that the two brothers needed a break from writing the script and during a three-week vacation to New York City, they ended up writing Barton Fink—the entire film.  Now if that’s not talent, I don’t know what is.  I am also not sure it qualifies as a vacation but that is neither here nor there.

The film is flawlessly shot and the scenes are accompanied by appropriate music.  The attention to detail is immaculate giving the viewer the look and feel of the dirty, debauched city that conjures up nostalgia without controlling the story.  The script is well paced, consistently tense and always capturing the audience’s attention, but it is never exhausting—it is almost Casablanca like.  When compared to movies depicting the same historical genre, Miller’s Crossing’s excellence is that much more obvious, films like The Untouchables are unrealistic and are forced to rely on big name stars to carry you to the end.  Miller’s Crossing actually requires you to listen and is much more satisfying.

This consistent level of excellence extends to nearly all of the performances of the cast. Each of the characters has multiple layers and motivations that are not so simplistic as to be predictable but not overly complex so as to be enigmatic.  Each character brings something positive to the show unlike supporting roles in something like The Untouchables.

Miller’s Crossing details the burdens and obligations of law and the mob in a prohibition era town.  The film’s main character, Gabriel Byrne, in what I think is his best performance, plays the protagonist Tom Reagan, the chief advisor to the local mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney).  The two have a successful working relationship, with Leo being the town’s most powerful gangster.  Things turn sour though, when rival mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito)—(the only mobster I know of that was ever concerned about “etics”) wants to kill an unreliable bookie (John Turturro) and Leo refuses.  Tom knows this is the wrong decision and protests, Leo and Tom part ways and then matters become a little more complicated.  The unreliable bookie also happens to be the brother to Leo’s girlfriend and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) injecting love into an already volatile situation.  Leo and Caspar go to war as a consequence.

Tom uses every trick he can to convince Leo to give Bernie up to Caspar to put an end to this unnecessary war; he tries to convince Leo that Verna is playing him to protect her brother (which is true), but Leo will not budge.  After an assassination attempt on Leo goes bad, Tom reveals his affair with Verna to prove that she is dishonest.  Naturally Leo beats Tom up and turn his back on both of them.  Without a job, Tom then appears to change sides and goes to work for the new capo Caspar.  He is immediately commanded to kill Bernie at Miller’s Crossing to prove his loyalty.

The chicken shit Bernie pleads with Tom to spare him, and Tom allows him to escape.  Meanwhile the war starts to go well for Caspar and he assumes Leo’s position as boss of the city.  However, Tom slowly begins sowing seeds of discontent between Caspar and his most trusted enforcer, Eddie Dane (Freeman).  Unfortunately, at the same time, Bernie returns and tries to blackmail Tom into killing Caspar—what a show of gratitude.

Tom’s manages convince Caspar to kill Eddie Dane because Caspar is tricked into believing that the Dane has the double cross on and Casper hates the double cross.  Tom then arranges a meeting with Bernie, but sends Caspar instead.  Bernie gets the jump on Caspar and kills him. Tom arrives and tricks Bernie into giving up his gun, saying they could blame Eddie Dane, then reveals his intention to kill Bernie. Bernie once again begs for mercy, saying “Look into your heart”, but Tom blows the ungrateful bastard away.

With Caspar and Eddie Dane dead, Leo resumes his post as top boss.  Verna has also won her way back into Leo’s good graces, but she reacts coldly to Tom.  On the day Bernie is being buried, Leo announces that Verna has proposed to him, and offers Tom his old job back.  Tom rightfully refuses, and he remains behind and watches Leo leave.

Given that Miller’s Crossing is a great movie without million dollar special effects, it was a box-office failure at the time, making slightly more than $5 million, out of its $10–$14 million budget.  Luckily, it has made a great deal of revenue in video and DVD sales.  The film is now critically acclaimed, and has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I remember seeing this film while at University nostalgically remembering how powerful it was back then.  After viewing it years later with a friend who had never seen it, I was all the more impressed with Miller’s Crossing and you will be too.



Posted by on March 14, 2013 in Movie Reviews


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

JPF Asks Why Don’t We Take a Look at Barton Fink?

Hollywood lore has it that the Coen brothers were having a tough time writing Miller’s Crossing decided to take a break and ended up writing Barton Fink in three weeks.  Man that must have been one hell of a three weeks because this film is nothing short of fantastic.

Barton Fink is played by John Tuturro.  On an aside, like so many other cast members of this movie, Tuturro also appears in the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski.  Fink is a successful playwright who is approached by Hollywood to leave his native New York and go on the writer’s Hollywood safari to write B-movie wrestling pictures.  At first Barton is reluctant to go on safari, as he fears it may separate him from ‘the common man,’ whom he pompously regards as the source and reason of his creative outlet.

Fink does accept Hollywood’s high-priced proposal, and checks in to L.A.’s Hotel Earle, a resident’s hotel where he intends to write.  The Hotel is essentially run by “Chet” (Steve Buscemi also in The Big Lebowski) who informs Barton that one of the Hotels fine amenities is a free shoe shine.  After meeting the studio executive, Fink sits down to work but suffers from a serious case of writer’s block.  He becomes torn between his love of creating art with meaning, about and for ‘the common man,’ as he regularly puts it, and the demands of his new Hollywood masters, who are expecting a bestseller formulaic wrestling picture.  Looking for anyway to break his block, Fink begins to look around and venture out into his surroundings.  Perhaps he will even meet a few people.

Enter John Goodman who plays Charlie Meadows, Barton’s hotel neighbor.  Charlie is a charismatic insurance salesman, and becomes a confidante and source of inspiration to Fink.  Fink comes alive when he converses a common man like Charlie, who is supportive and provides comfort in the desolate, and soulless atmosphere of the Hotel Earle and his California surroundings in general.

The Hotel Earle becomes one of the strongest, most disturbing elements of the film.  It is eerie and unsettling, and it’s overall dark and depressing atmosphere is adequate housing, symbolically speaking, for Barton Fink, who is suffering from life-affirming lows and struggles linked with the creative process, ‘The life of the mind’, as it’s referred to in the film.  The Hotel Earle and the mind of Barton Fink are the same – cold, lonely, unsure, messy, and unpredictable.  Eventually the Hotel literally becomes a living hell—fire and all.  Be that as it may, one could go on for days about the symbolism displayed.  The wallpaper peeling in the hotel room that represents Fink’s mind, analogies offered by the very film Fink is working on, references to slavery as metaphors of the studio’s ownership of Fink’s creativity, along with other strong yet accurate accusations of the Hollywood machine (the studio head exclaims to Fink: “This is a wrestling picture, the audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling.  They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his own soul!”)

Barton Fink is an intelligent, funny, and powerful story, with dark elements of multiple genres and layers of various meanings, symbols, and representations.  It can be viewed as a strange film, not one to forget in a hurry, but pleasing, as much as it is unnerving.  It stands alone as an example of great film-making, and is certainly one of the finer offerings from the Coen brothers.


Posted by on July 28, 2010 in Movie Reviews


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Big Lebowski–Big Fun

Once again the Coen brothers produce an outrageous movie: The Big Lebowski.  The movie is cast flawlessly for the unique characters appearing on the silver screen.  Sam Elliot narrates certain parts of the move but the “big three” actors John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and Steve Buscemi in each of their roles have a certain je ne sais quoi about them that is lacking in most dark comedies.  Goodman’s portrayal of Walter, the Vietnam vet with a short fuse is a riot.  Jeff Bridges takes a break from his customary serious persona to portray The Dude, a character who  is quite possibly the laziest [person] in Los Angeles county and Steve Buscemi is as entertaining as ever in his depiction of Donny, the guy who rarely speaks.  The cameo by John Turturro as “the Jesus,” king of the bowling alley, puts the movie over the top.

The Coen brothers created an odd array of marginalized characters that fall ass-backwards into center of an improbable situation.  The Dude is an unlikely hero living in the city of Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a dilatant’s kidnapping.  Be advised that The Big Lebowski is not your average “zany” kidnapper comedy thrust upon us a thousand times before. The Coen brothers take a fresh look at this old tired story.  The story they have created is intriguing and entertaining, while the unique characters and subtle (but hilarious) dialog set the movie apart.

Although Bridges and Buscemi do an exceptional job of becoming their characters, Goodman steals the show in my opinion.  An early scene, for instance, involves a conversation about The Dude’s urine stained rug; it becomes clear that Walter is losing his mind.  In the early part of the conversation Goodman puts on a stone face to show that Walter is steadfastly tied to his position.  The Dude begins to agitate Walter as the conversation about the rug continues.  As Walter becomes more and more frantic he starts to furrow his brow, leaning forward when talking and turning increasingly redder.  As Goodman continues, his speaking becomes more staccato and flustered.  When The Dude refers to one of his attackers as “the China man,” Walter continues on his tirade then for a moment quietly addresses The Dude’s politically incorrect statement.  Changing from this erratic manner of speaking to the more politically correct and toned down discussion clearly shows that Walter is carrying around some serious baggage leading to sudden mood swings and a short fuse as he returns to his rant quickly.  Not long after his conversation with The Dude about the rug, Walter pulls a gun on a bowling league opponent for crossing the line and then trying to score 8 points because “nobody respects the rules anymore.”

The movie starts in a bowling alley where Donny, Walter, and The Dude are sitting at their lane discussing a mistaken attack on The Dude by some hired thugs who urinated on his rug.  The Dude is approaching the situation in a lackadaisical way but is by no means your average confused old stoner.  Bridge’s expressions during this scene show that The Dude is actually quite anxious about the loss of the rug “which really tied the room together.”  This brain trust concludes that since these thugs were after another wealthy person named Lebowski, The Dude should be compensated by him for the rug.  Thus the adventure begins.

On a side note, A.N., a friend of mine, found out I was reviewing the Big Lebowski, she said that the first time she watched it she didn’t like it, “the movie had been over hyped and I was expecting something that was overtly funny.”  When she sat down to watch it again and actually paid attention to the subtle (and not so subtle) humor she “loved it.”  We continued our conversation trying to decide which clips to post and were overwhelmed by choices.  Knowing we had to narrow it down, as you can see, these are the ones we thought of.

You would be a fool not to watch this movie.


Posted by on June 4, 2010 in Movie Reviews


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: