YOU ONLY HURT THE MOVIES YOU LOVE: THE LADYKILLERS

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SPOILERS

What can you give to a brother filmmaking duo who already has everything they could possibly want out of a filmmaking career?  Critical acclaim.  A modest, sustainable box office track record.  Oscar nominations.  Oscars.  A devoted crew, an admiring cast, and a crazed fan base would be enough for most, but there's one accolade that's eluded them up to this point: #1 at the Box Office.  Spielberg kinda went about it the other way, you see, but that's neither here nor there; we'll save that for later.

This is the ELEVENTH feature from the Coens, and it marks a return to working with their old pal Barry Sonnenfeld who has since gone on to wear leather jackets, fly on private jets and make big blockbusters of his own accord.  While the Coens have for the most part maintained a certain symmetry in their on-screen credits (Joel for directing, Ethan for producing, and both for the script), this is the first time they've tackled a remake of another movie.  I believe Joel one time in an interview offhandedly expressed interest in remaking 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner' but they've instead opted for another William Rose script.

Tom Hanks - Still the man at the Box Office.  Like Tom Cruise before him, people are realizing he's a Box Office power hitter, faring decently in 2002 against 'The Two Towers' with 'Catch Me If You Can', and starring in his own Coen-esque film, 'Road to Perdition'.  How will he fare this time?

J. K. Simmons had a nice role in Sam Raimi's 'Spider Man' as kind of an homage to John Mahoney's fast-talking newspaper editor in 'The Hudsucker Proxy'.  And could it be they're playing 'The Jackal' a lot on cable recently because of him?  Or is it Jack Black, I just don't know.  Here he plays a munitions expert with a great comedy name: Garth Pancake!

Marlon Wayans has made a name for himself in his own right in the 'Scary Movie' movies and in films like 'don't drink your juice..." but has since stretched his range in such films as 'Requiem for a Dream' and 'Dungeons and Dragons'.

The usual crew has been assembled; Mary Zophres on costumes, Roger Deakins on camera, Carter Burwell doing the music.  J. Todd Anderson, Big Dave Diliberto, Skip Lievsay, and T Bone Burnett returning to assemble an evocative soundtrack, starting off strong with Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers.

(after seeing the movie) 

Well, as long as I'm waiting for the DVD, might as well wrap this up.  This is the strangest movie the Coens have ever done.  This should quell any grumbling from the rank-and-file Coenheads who thought they've gone soft with Intolerable Cruelty.  This is a Third-Party Candidate as far as Box Office Candidates go and it is a damn shame it wasn't #1 at the box office, but in retrospect the distributors didn't have faith: the per-screen average was higher than Scooby Doo, but the Doo was of course in many more theaters.  Apparently Touchstone Pictures didn't have as much confidence in it as the ad campaign might've suggested.  ('The Passion of The Christ' hasn't yet demanded a recount, although in some small towns in the Midwest, in a rather ironic twist, 'Ladykillers' was beat out by the director's cut of 'Good Boy!'.)  Had Adam Sandler or Tom Cruise been in the lead it would almost guarantee big B.O., but at what trade-off?  It's David Lynch meets David Mamet, and it probably won't stay in the Top 5 next week, what with that other remake 'Walking Tall' coming out and all, but we'll see.  

The Coens are mixing up the casting here quite a bit from their usual lot.  Since the Sandler crew's nicking their regulars like Buscemi and Turturro, they've decided to nick one of Sandler's regulars George Wallace, and while he doesn't get a chance to do his trademark stand-up routine about how people say stupid things, he does a nice turn as Sheriff Wyner, a not-at-all hard working sheriff in a sleepy, crime-free Mississippi town.  Blake Clark also has a brief appearance in Lump's intro.  Hanks and Hall aside, one of my personal favorites is Mr. Garth Pancake.  He reminds me exactly of a lame boss I had once, but even Pancake has a little spine.  I must confess I'm not familiar with Irma Hall's work, but nothing spurs me on to look back at an actor's work like an appearance in a Coen bros. film.  She won a special prize at Cannes for her role here as Marva Munson.  We'll see if the Oscars are as kind later on.

As for the script, well, what can you say?  I'd be very surprised if you absorb it all the first time out.  What other film this year is going to include a reference to Bob Jones University?  The script overflows with flowery dialogue you need a knife and fork to cut through.  One of my favorite lines of Hanks' is "I find more currency in these so-called ancient volumes than in this morning's newspaper." (not verbatim, now that I've seen the DVD)  Although, in retrospect, for a master criminal the script has Hanks quite self-conscious, especially in the "No Extra Share!" passage.  But, you gotta like the toast Hanks gives when the heist is complete; a few additions and it'd be fit for the lushest Tyco party.

In addition to taking on the remake genre, this is essentially their take on the superhero genre, with each of the other four criminal masterminds getting their own introductory 'Origin scene'.  Lump's my favorite.  (SPOILER)  Each, also, either directly or indirectly, gets done in by their own unique foible, and if there's popular demand I'll spell that out explicitly.

Speaking of Oscars, is this the year Roger Deakins is going to win for cinematography?  Perhaps, unless Passion sweeps the technical awards, and why wouldn't it?  O Caleb, we hardly knew ye!  With Deakins' help the Coens are catching up to some of the more modern technical flourishes, particularly Gawain's flashback; that scene cost two million dollars alone!  Speaking of nominations, how has Carter Burwell avoided them so completely so far?  He's kind of the covert Danny Elfman, probably the hottest thing in movie composers these days.  He should've won for Fargo (beat out by The English Patient, feh!), and here he does a nice remake-type soundtrack with a hip-hop blend.  As usual my favorite parts of the score aren't on the CD, but that's a fan's complaint.

I saw the original after seeing the Coens' version, which I'll say up front prejudiced me, and I was sleepy and fell asleep through part of it so I'll have to sit through it again at some point down the road.  In brief, it seems like the original doesn't quite live up to the premise as well as it could, at least not for us of the MTV quick editing era, and I found that they didn't give Peter Sellers a terribly meaty role at all.  Good to see Herbert Lom, though.  Pals ever since!  There was a nice shot of their instruments standing alone in the room, among other things.  It's interesting to see how the Coens break up the three act structure compared to the original: the heist goes much faster in the original and therefore more time is spent trying to knock off the old lady.  I would say the Coens update the original about as well as it can be.  There are those who say that the swearing is too much; a throwback to 'Lebowski', but it says a lot about where we are ratings-wise when (SPOILER) a blown-off finger would qualify for a PG-13.

So, while the #1 spot at the Box Office still eludes the Coens, they may end up earning an honorary degree in English Lit. as they handily earn it here with their rekindling an interest in Edgar Allan Poe.  What would Poe think?  It might make him smile, especially the nice visual ode to 'Cask of Amontillado'.  Of course, Poe might be assuming 'The Ladykillers' is one of the more mundane homages to him and that he can't wait to see all the others playing this year, but that's beside the point.  Well before the last of the crew is dropped onto the barge, we realize we've been in the hands of master auteurs who fought valiantly against the coming homogenization of all  cinema, due to the bipartite trends of constant improvement of computer-enhanced effects and the ever narrowing of movie themes, all being boiled down by Hollywood mainly into either the Carpe-Diem category or the Sanctity of Parenthood category. (thesis in progress)  I'll bet everyone in the theater thought to themselves, "Well, this may be #1 (at the box office), but it's not going to stay at #1!"

Coen motifs:

Blood Simple: "Who looks stupid now?", a line also used by the dumb one in the original.

Raising Arizona: football and dogs, but there's only one cartoonish shot here.  Cinematography wise, Raising Arizona is their wildest film.

Miller's Crossing: At the end, Dorr's cape flies away like the hat at the beginning of Miller's.

Barton Fink: Southern characters, and the double-slap.  Oh yeah, and "take an interest".

The Hudsucker Proxy: Dentures!  And single-stitch garments ripping...  And xylophone accompaniment to lights (taillights here)...

Fargo: Well, isn't it obvious?  Strong central woman character!  Except she's more out of it here...

The Big Lebowski: restaurant; profanity; and they actually out-do themselves in 'The Ladykillers' with the gun up the wazoo theme...

O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Southern locales and old-timey musique.

The Man Who Wasn't There: ...nope.  Can't think of any

Intolerable Cruelty: restaurant.. and Blake Clark in a bit part.  Guess they couldn't get Brian Doyle-Murray.

 

Good double bill with: The Big Lebowski

Pop philosophy: 

    Professor: You, sir, are a Buddhist.  Is there not a middle way?

    The General: Must float like a leaf on the river of life ... and KILL OLD LADY!!

 

-so sayeth the Movie Hooligan

****

MPAA Certificate #40668

(c)2004 Bulk Entertainment

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