REVIEW: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

No one does off-the-wall, quirky comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is another example of that. The brothers have written and directed a wide variety of movies including crime dramas, gangster pictures, and even a remake of a John Wayne western classic. But the Coens always find their way back to their unique and peculiar brand of humor. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released in 2000 and features so much of the Coen’s signature style and presentation.

The movie is a depression-era film set in rural Mississippi. It follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallup (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), three prisoners who escape and set out to recover a “treasure” that Everett hid after knocking off an armored car. The three come across a blind man who begins prophesying about their quest saying that they will find a fortune but not the one they seek. Pay close attention to this early scene because it does come back into play later on in the film. They take off on an adventure where they encounter backwoods relatives, a crazy sheriff, George “Babyface” Nelson, seductive river sirens, the Ku Klux Klan, and more.

This is a movie that’s truly more about the journey than the destination. There are several familiar subtext and certainly an interesting ending that deals with a couple of common Coen themes. But it’s getting to that ending that offers the most enjoyment. Also, many Coen brothers films focus on specific regions of the country as well as incorporate clever usages of language. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is no different. The recreation of rural Mississippi during the 1930’s is fabulous. The three travel through period-perfect small towns, swampy yet beautiful bayous, and lush green forests. The film has an amazingly authentic look to it. The heightened accents and deep south lingo help give it more of a southern tang but also injects the movie with some of it funniest moments. The brothers’ almost poetic butchering of language is such fun and is just as regionally centered as several of their other films such as “Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Music plays a big role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The film is filled with bluegrass, folk music, country gospel, and southern blues. One of the movies funnier turns is when the boys unwittingly create and record a smash hit song that becomes the hottest thing in the state. The song, titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, won several awards including a Grammy. The music is spot on and adds so much to the picture. It’s clearly intended to be an important part of the storytelling and it really works regardless of whether you like that type of music or not.

The performances are strong throughout the film. Clooney really shows off his comedic side and perfectly subjects himself to the material. Nelson is great as a naive simpleton who you can’t help but love and Coen regular John Turturro is also quite good. We also get Coen favorites John Goodman as a loony one-eyed Bible salesman and Holly Hunter as Penny, Everett’s ex-wife. Ray McKinnon, one of my favorite character actors in the industry, has a small but fun role as a campaign manager and Penny’s “bona fide suitor”. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, and Lee Weaver also give really good performances. The Coen’s are particular when it comes to casting and this film, like so many others, shows the benefits of that.

I’ve only scratched the surface of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The movie also takes humorous looks at subjects ranging from southern politics to racism. It’s sharp dialogue and wacky antics may not appeal to everyone and they do occasionally feel a little overdone. But it’s still a remarkably well-crafted and well-written film, exactly what you would expect from Joel and Ethen Coen. The film is made with the same impressive stylistic technique that we’ve seen in other Coen films yet it creates its own unique look and feel. There’s a lot going on under the surface and the movie offers plenty of laughs. Unlike most of today’s comedies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” actually delivers.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123” (2009) – 2 1/2 STARS

I bet these guys didn’t expect their day to go like this? That seems to be a reoccurring question in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123”, a stylish but sometimes preposterous remake of the 1974 film. At its core this is a pretty formulaic, run-of-the-mill action thriller that takes no chances but also never wastes a moment. It moves at a quick and fluid pace which makes overlooking it’s shortcomings a little easier but not impossible.

“The Taking of Pelham 123” has all the bells and whistles of a Tony Scott production. The quick camera jerks, clever angles, and showy pyrotechnics work well to create an intense environment. In fact often times his camera adds more tension than the screenplay can muster. Scott has a recognizable style and can sometimes be called self-indulgent. He flirts with that label here but as a whole his high-tech machinations work just fine. It often times overcomes the story which is pretty basic material.

The movie starts with four heavily armed men walking into a New York subway station and taking control the Pelham 123 train. The film won’t do anything to enhance your view of post-911 security. There’s no elaborate well executed plan at work. The hijackers simply walk in and take the passenger-filled train. The leader is a man we come to know as “Ryder” played by John Travolta. Sporting a crew cut and fake neck tattoo, Travolta is clearly having fun with the role even though he goes a little over the top sometimes. “Ryder” soon contacts the Subway Control Center and connects with dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a middle-aged husband and father of two who ends up completely out of his element. Washington has played some rough and tough roles but he also has a wonderful knack for playing these “everyday man” characters. Here he’s subtle yet expressive and I loved watching how he handles the role. John Turturro is good as a head hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is fine as the mayor even though his character is pretty poorly written.

Pelham

While the story is fast paced and it does have its moments of tension, sometimes it’s just plain silly. For example we get a key scene involving an accidental sniper rifle discharge due to a rat bite and there’s a head-scratching sequence involving the cops transporting ransom money through the city. It’s beautifully filmed but utterly ridiculous. The story is also fairly conventionally and predictable. But the movie is also let down by a really flat and lifeless ending. It seems hurried and it packs absolutely no punch whatsoever.

In spite of the movie’s flaws, Tony Scott manages to pack some entertainment into this linear, straightforward action thriller. Washington and Travolta’s CB radio chemistry is compelling even if they aren’t saying much and Scott’s cinematic style gives the story energy and drives the tension in the scenes that do work. But the sub par material is too much to overcome. I especially hate to see such a strong Denzel performance go to waste but in reality there just isn’t enough here to make this anything more than an average movie.