COEN BROTHERS GIFT SET (1985-1996). First, the bad news. This doesn't contain new editions of Coen titles chockfull of tantalizing extras; instead, this is merely a repackaging of the same DVDs that have been around for years, most of which are skimpy when it comes to bonus material. On the plus side, if you don't own any or most of these films, here's your chance to get them all in one collectible box set. And mind you, these aren't five of the best Coen movies to date; these are the five best Coen movies to date (unless, of course, the upcoming No Country for Old Men throws the equation off-balance).
An important film in the development of American independent cinema in the 1980s, Blood Simple (1985), the siblings' debut feature, casts character actor M. Emmet Walsh in the role of his career as an immoral private detective who's working his own agenda after he's hired by a bar owner (Dan Hedaya) to murder the latter's wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz).
"OK, then!": My favorite Coen Brothers flick remains Raising Arizona (1987), a superb comedy about a married couple – an ex-convict (Nicolas Cage) and his police officer wife (Holly Hunter) – who decide to kidnap a baby once they realize they can't conceive one of their own; two of the con's former cellmates (John Goodman and William Forsythe) and a "Biker from Hell" (Randall "Tex" Cobb) also find room to maneuver in a screenplay crammed with colorful characters and scintillating dialogue.
Miller's Crossing (1990), somewhat overshadowed in its day due to being released between two higher-profile gangster flicks (GoodFellas and The Godfather Part III), casts Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and John Turturro in a smartly scripted mob tale that's brimming with bravura filmmaking techniques and a welcome streak of nasty humor.
Barton Fink (1991), the first movie to win three top prizes at Cannes (Film, Director and Actor), is a complete original about a New York playwright (John Turturro) who ends up in Hollywood to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture for a "B" studio run by a dictatorial blowhard (Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner); he ends up befriending a traveling salesman (John Goodman), only to find his life turning into a surreal nightmare.
Fargo (1996), the team's acknowledged masterpiece, earned seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and won for Frances McDormand's lead performance and the Coens' original screenplay, which finds pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) matching wits (and emerging the clear victor) against a weak-willed car salesman (fellow nominee William H. Macy, who should have won as well) whose arrangement of his wife's kidnapping triggers a series of murders by the goons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) he hired to pull off the crime.
There are no extras on Blood Simple, while Fargo offers the most bonus features, including audio commentary by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a half-hour making-of documentary, and a trivia track. Sparse extras on the other titles include trailers and still galleries.
Blood Simple: ***1/2
Raising Arizona: ****
Miller's Crossing: ***1/2
Barton Fink: ***1/2
IN THE LAND OF WOMEN (2007). It's not quite a case of "like father, like son," but Jonathan Kasdan, the offspring of the excellent writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, shows that he at least harbors some of Dad's easygoing way with words with this engaging if underwhelming comedy-drama. In his first major endeavor as writer-director, the young Kasdan shows plenty of promise in relating the tale of Carter Webb (Adam Brody), a screenwriter of softcore erotica who hopes that by leaving L.A. to stay with his crotchety grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan, he'll have time to refocus his energy and start on that autobiographical high school tome he's always dreamt of penning. Having just endured a heartbreaking split with a beautiful French model (Elena Anaya), women are the farthest thing from his mind, yet upon arriving in the Michigan 'burbs, the 20-something Carter instantly draws the attention of the neighboring Hardwicke women: middle-aged housewife Sarah (Meg Ryan), her teenage daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), and her precocious youngest, Paige (Makenzie Vega). How Carter copes with this sudden influx of females provides the picture with its spine, as his presence forces all the characters to confront their own foibles and learn to properly relate to one another. Brody's scenes with Ryan are the film's strongest, as Sarah provides Carter with a stabilizing sense of maturity while he allows her to rediscover both her inner and outer beauty. More haphazard are Carter's tête-à-tête interludes with Lucy, which range from authentic to awkward and often betray Kasdan's ear for natural dialogue.
Aside from theatrical trailers, there are no extras on the DVD.
LICENSE TO WED (2007). I have roughly two more months, before end-of-the-year wrap-ups, to determine whether License to Wed or Because I Said So is the worst movie of 2007 – wish me luck in the decision process. For now, this toxic-waste comedy, offensive in its idiocy, places loathsome characters in absurd situations that are meant to give off a funky black-comedy vibe yet instead reek only of desperation as well as the limitations of comically challenged minds. Under the disinterested supervision of director Ken Kwapis, four writers (four?!) jerrybuild a premise that finds newly engaged couple Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) forced to pass a marriage preparation course supervised by the Jones family's longtime minister, Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). Along the way, Reverend Frank, aided by his young apprentice (annoying Josh Flitter), bugs the couple's bedroom, embarrasses Ben in front of his future in-laws, and drives Sadie away from her fiancé. Sharp scripting could have given Frank the balance required to make him an apt comic foil, but here he's simply creepy, a problem expounded by the casting of Robin Williams. Williams is in his manic, whoring mode here, an approach well past its expiration date in terms of actually resembling anything funny or topical. (One bit finds Williams making a joke about O.J. Simpson; heck, why not cracks about the Pentagon Papers or Rosie the Riveter or even the invention of the light bulb?) Williams has made so many one-star comedies that it's impossible to keep count at this point. But rest assured that there's a multiplex in hell that screens them on a perpetual loop.