A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 163 – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – August 10th, 2010

After last night’s ridiculously overblown prison break movie the first thing that came to mind was The Shawshank Redemption, but as my Tuesday schedule lets me out of work at 9 in the evening, that was a bit too long for tonight. So we settled on a slightly different prison break movie. Granted, there are a couple of similarities between this and Death Race, but they amount to there being a prison break and a question as to the parental suitability of the lead character, but similarities nonetheless! Of course, this movie is utterly fantastic, despite having no explosions.

I love so much about this movie. It’s beautifully done, from the visual flavor to the writing and story to the acting and of course to the music. It’s all put together so perfectly that every piece compliments every other piece. What you get when they’re all together is something so bizarre and excellent, it almost defies description. Almost. I can do it, but it feels clunky, trying to explain it without the benefit of the music and the visuals and George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro.

If you look at the IMDB entry for this movie, Homer has a writing credit. Homer, as in the dude responsible for The Odyssey. Because this story is loosely based on The Odyssey, but mixed around and set in Depression-era Mississippi and starring a trio of escaped convicts. It’s such an odd concept, and yet it works. While in prison Ulysses Everett McGill finds out that his wife has divorced him and will soon be marrying another man, so he makes up a story about buried treasure and gets his two chain gang mates to break out with him. Thus ensues a quest to get to Everett’s wife before the wedding and find a way to win her back. Except Delmar and Pete, the other two cons, don’t know that’s the quest. And they’re being chased by a sheriff who’s fixing to hang them. There’s plenty more that goes on. Really, it’s a quest/road trip movie, so there have to be difficulties and strange encounters along the way. And just when you think it’s all been tied up in a neat bow, suddenly it’s not. But really, that doesn’t touch on the style and humor of the movie. That’s just the barest of bare bones descriptions.

So much went into this movie. I’ll get along to the soundtrack eventually, but first let’s address the whole Odyssey thing. I guess some people might argue that it’s too obvious in its connections. There’s a trio of sirens washing laundry in a stream, and they lure the boys into the water with their singing and moonshine. There’s John Goodman, sporting an eyepatch to make him a cyclops, who attacks them and crushes a toad (I can’t even explain the toad – it’s something you have to see). There’s the blind prophet who’s met early on and predicts all manner of odd events. There are lotus eaters getting baptized and Everett’s name is actually Ulysses, after all, and his wife is Penny, short for Penelope. There’s a plot wound in through the road trip involving an upcoming election, and one candidate’s name is Homer while the other’s full name starts with Menaleus. This is not a movie trying to hide its roots. In fact, it presents them proudly, combining them in with the setting of the deep south and the time period of the depression.

There’s definitely some melding of mythology here. The movie takes the classic tale of The Odyssey and blends in some stories from a more recent past. There’s Tommy Johnson, whom the boys meet at a crossroads. He’s loosely based on a blues musician of the same name, with the story that he sold his soul to the devil in return for skill with a guitar. There’s George “Baby Face” Nelson, whom the boys meet when he picks them up and gives them a ride. He’s based on a real bank robber who worked with John Dillinger. These are people out of the not-to-distant past who have their own mystique about them. They fit right in with the story, taking the Odyssey-based bits and pulling them forward.

The music and visuals do much of the rest of setting the mood. The visuals are dusty and brown-tinged, as if everything’s been covered with a fine layer of dust and dirt. It feels as if one is watching scenes Dorothea Lange might have photographed. This was all done in post. I’ve seen a bit of the before and after and it is truly amazing how bringing in some yellow and brown and toning down the green and blue can change the entire feel of a scene. Take that and add in one of the most amazing soundtracks ever put together and it’s beautiful.

Andy and I went out and bought the soundtrack almost immediately after seeing the movie. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones. The video for Man of Constant Sorrow was in bizarrely heavy rotation on TV at the time. The soundtrack is full of bluegrass and blues and it all comes together with guitars and banjos and harmonies and chain gang chants. Supposedly Everett and Pete and Delmar and Tommy record the aforementioned song for some fast cash, and it goes on to be a huge hit. It’s a major plot point, so damn right the music had to work. But it elevates the movie even higher than it would have been had only that one song worked. It’s well worth listening to the soundtrack.

And I haven’t even touched on the performances, which are all fantastic. George Clooney babbles away in a brilliantly precise yet pointless manner, Delmar and Pete provide some fantastic counterpoints both to Everett and to each other. The script is snappy, full of the sort of jokes I expect from the Coens and they’re all delivered perfectly. It’s humor you have to see to appreciate. It’s humor that depends on everything clicking just right. And it does click. It clicks perfectly and I love it and I’m probably doing it a huge disservice by not mentioning the Dapper Dan pomade or describing the sheriff or how Homer Stokes is run out of town on a rail, but if I started going into more detail than I have I’d end up just recounting the whole movie, scene by scene, shot by shot. And that would be a disservice to the movie. Because it should be seen to be appreciated as a whole, not just read about in parts.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

August 10, 2010

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Hot damn, but I do love this movie. I may have mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the peculiar and wonderful work of Joel and Ethan Coen. If not, well let me state right now that I cannot get enough of their particular brand of genius. This movie is a great example of why. As with Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and every other Coen film this movie is difficult to categorise. It has comedic elements – slapstick, running gags, and plenty of great laughs. It has drama, tension and suspense. And it has a brilliant soundtrack that swept the Grammys the year that it came out.

The concept behind this film is a sort of transposition of Homer’s Odyssey to depression era Mississippi, but really that’s just the bare framework upon which the plot is hung. There are references to the lotus eaters, the cyclops, the sirens and such, but they’re only one level of the many clever stories bound together here.

Ulysses Everett McGill is an escaped convict, who with his two chain gang cohorts spend the entire movie wending his way back home. His gang consists of Pete and Delmar, and later Tommy. I could try to summarize their adventures, attempt to list all the tight spots they get into, but doing so wouldn’t really explain what it is about the movie that is so magical. For that I need to attempt to describe the soul and spirit of the work… a task that I fear I may not be up to.

I can start, I suppose, with the soundtrack. This movie is, in a subtle way, actually a musical. It uses a collection of folk songs, spiritual ballads and old-timey music to tell the tale, and pretty much every scene is set to one song or another. But unlike a typical musical, where the cast burst into song and you kind of make-believe that they’re unaware of it, the music in this movie is integrated into the tale. Nobody (with the exception of the sirens I suppose) really sings their lines. Instead there are songs taking place in and around the scenes. Even when there are no songs characters in the movie are usually picking on a guitar or a banjo to fill the quiet spaces.

One effect of this concentration on the music is that the movie has a very leisurely feel to it at times. The Coens have the strength of their convictions to allow the songs to play through in full most of the time, so rather than racing through a scene to get to the next plot point the movie ambles. It takes its sweet time and allows each scene or adventure to play itself in full. I’d liken it to a walking tour of a museum or such, where you are given time at each exhibit or diorama to fully appreciate it before you move on.

Another strength of the movie is the spectacular writing. Everett is one of those verbose characters who will never say something curtly that might be extemporised upon in a more loquacious manner. I’d imagine that he was an absolute joy to write, and George Clooney does a brilliant job delivering all of his lengthy monologues. You also have Pete, played by John Tuturro – a Coen Brother mainstay who I always used to associate with his giant tower of funny hair (although he’s shorn almost completely bald here.) Pete is the super-ego to Everett’s ego. He’s all bottled rage and emotional outbursts. John plays him with a mad wide-eyed stare and exceptionally heavy southern drawl. And there’s Delmar, the id, who operates almost without thought and is delightfully simple and trusting. This was the first role I remember seeing Tim Blake Nelson in, and my love of the character of Delmar, along with his brilliant performance, has inextricably linked the character and the actor in my mind. Every time I see Tim in another movie I think to myself “hey! There’s Delmer.” It’s a little unfair to him I suppose, but it really is such a charming performance.

Rounding out the group you have Tommy, a guitar player who has sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad at midnight so that he can play guitar. Like Winston Zeddmore before him he feels almost tacked on to the group, and sadly he is relegated most of the time to the position of a plot device. Interestingly, considering that there are definite spiritual tones to the movie in a lot of places, the action of selling his soul is treated as pretty much a non-issue. The devil plays prominently in the movie – a frightening and unstoppable sheriff who pursues the characters throughout the film. But Tommy doesn’t appear to be damned by his interaction with the devil, although he seems resigned most of the time to an inevitable doom in his future.

Besides the leads there are a whole cavalcade of other wonderful characters. There’s Governor Pappy O’Daniel, played by Charles Durning of Muppet Movie fame, and his little cadre of yes men and sycophants. There’s the devil, the cyclops (here a huge bible salesman), and Pappy’s slimy but slick gubernatorial rival Homer Stokes. There’s the blind prophet and the blind radio host. There’s Everett’s shrewish wife Penny, played by Holly Hunter (and it’s a joy to see her again after so recently having watched Rising Arizona.) There’s bank robber George Nelson (don’t call him Babyface.) It’s just a movie packed with outrageous and eccentric characters and every actor leaps completely and without reservation into their role. Under less deft direction than that of Joel and Ethan it might have come off as too over-the-top and cheesy, but they’ve created their own little world here and it all works perfectly. In short it’s a movie absolutely filled with strange and memorable moments.

I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this film. It’s so deep and layered, and at the same time so light and airy… it defies every convention and rule of film-making. I could watch it again right now, and I know that even after just having seen the whole thing through I would find new revelations within. And of course now I have the sound track stuck in my head again. I’ve got to go find the CD and put it in my iPod for tomorrow’s commute.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments