Thursday, 19 July 2012

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” - A Review Of The 2000 Coen Brothers Film - Now Reissued On An ‘All Regions’ BLU RAY In 2011.


"Hot Damn! It's The Soggy Bottom Boys!"

When the Coen Brothers unleashed "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" into cinemas in September 2000 - it was an audio and visual sensation. The DVD that followed in 2001 received equal praise. But little will prepare fans for this truly beautiful 2011 BLU RAY transfer - it's properly gorgeous to look at - and up there with the best this (often frustrating) format can offer...

When it was originally filmed on location - a 'lossless' digital process was used to fully realise the specific light and scenery of Depression-hit Mississippi in 1937 (beautiful gold and yellow hues). That process combined with the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins both get to shine like never before. There are times when the visuals are quite literally breathtaking in their clarity. And the canvas to impress your eyes just keeps coming at you as the movie progresses from location to location - open fields, hay barns, twisted swamps, dust roads, river banks, inside period cars and beat-up trucks, the chain-gang detail, radio stations and bank interiors. Even in the notoriously difficult indoor scenes in ramshackle homesteads and around campfires at night - it all looks 'so' good. Add to this a blisteringly funny script full of savvy life-observations and brutal local colloquialisms - and it's hardly surprising that it was nominated for 2 Academy Awards in these areas (Best Script and Cinematography).

Defaulted to 2.35:1 aspect ratio - it has bars top and bottom of the screen - but even when stretched to full screen - it rarely loses any definition. And better news for fans around the world is that this issue is an 'ABC/All Regions' BLU RAY - so it will play on every machine (as well as PlayStation 3 consoles).

Written and Directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen - "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" comes across as a sort of Three Stooges Road Movie with song accompaniment. Roughly based on Homer's Greek tragedy "The Iliad" about a journey of salvation with many "ob-stack-les" along the weary way - its genius soundtrack also sparked a worldwide interest in Blues, Gospel and Old Timey Country music - much of which had been long forgotten and often derided as hick and corny (2011 saw a 2CD 'Deluxe Edition' reissue of this). The film was immediately followed by the DVD release of the "Down From The Mountain" concert in Nashville, Tennessee featuring live music played by musicians on the Grammy-winning soundtrack. Anyone who has seen it will know that it's an equally joyful and musically charged experience. This is America before the sadness and loss of 9/11 - enjoying itself and celebrating its heritage - and rightly so.

The large and varied cast is exceptional - especially the grotesque caricatures that pepper scene after scene. Quinn Gasaway as a gun-totting boy in filthy overalls, Stephen Root as the bug-eyed giggling recording studio boss, John Goodman as the dodgy Bible salesman Big Dan Teague whose ears pop up when he hears the crisp click of dollar bills in a restaurant. His eye-patch signals him as the club-wielding one-eyed Cyclops. Wayne Duvall as the hood-wearing racist Homer Stokes trying to get elected over Charles Durning - the portly but wily Governor of Mississippi - Pappy "Pass The Biscuits" O'Daniel who also hosts a radio show. So many great parts...

The story goes something like this - chained together as a trio of escaped convicts - they are driven to find a $1.2 million dollar treasure Everett is supposed to have hidden in a shack in a valley that is to be flooded in five days time to build a massive hydro-electric dam. But they are being pursued by the Devil in sunglasses with his mean dog - Sheriff Cooley (played with relish by Daniel Von Bargen). After visiting a relative of Pete's called Wash (a man who rarely does) - the boys are hounded off the farm yet again. They then meet a Negro called Tommy Johnson at a crossroads and give him a lift (superbly played by Louisiana guitarist Chris Thomas King). He explains that at midnight the night before he sold his immortal soul to the Devil in return for a guitar that he "sure can play" (like the folklore surrounding Blues legend Robert Johnson). Delmar is appalled but Everett sees a business opportunity. If they can get to a radio station on the outskirts of the State - there's a man there who'll give them money to "sing into a can". They eventually get there - pretend to be The Soggy Bottom Boys - do a charged rendition of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" - and cut a record. But unbeknown to the hapless crew - a radio hit is born that will literally save their souls (and lives) in the end. But before they can get to that redemption of sorts - all sorts of journey hilarity ensues - including a reunion between Everett and his estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter) and their 4-strong progeny of mouthy daughters. There are gun-battles with a madcap bank robber George 'Baby Face' Nelson who shoots livestock because he hates cows (a fantastic turn by Coens' favourite Michael Badalucco) and sexy Sirens by the river who turn Pete into a horny toad. It all ends with tins of Dapper Dan pomade floating by the screen when the big flood comes (along with everything else)...

The music deserves a special mention. While audiences expected to howl with laughter and cringe at the array of unhygienic ingrates displayed on screen - what they hadn't expected was to be so moved by the old-timey music - full of ballads about heartbreak, poverty and death. A perfect example is The Cox Family singing "I Am Weary (Give Me Rest)" on a truck at a town gathering - the melody and lyrics are genuinely moving. The congregation making their way through the trees to the river to be baptised as they sing (Acapella) "Down To The River To Pray". Country and Blues musicians also have on-and-off-camera cameos - Clooney lip-synching in the recording booth is really being sung by Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss' band Union Station - Gillian Welch asking for a copy of the song in a record shop - Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris provide the Acapella vocals as the seductive Sirens on the river - Ralph Stanley of The Stanley Brothers singing "O Death" as Tommy is led by a lynch mob to a gallows and a burning cross - The Fairfield Four Gospel group singing as they dig graves by a log cabin...

But the movie belongs to the three principal leads - John Turturro as the permanently moaning Pete Hogwallop and Tim Blake Nelson as the less than Mensa-material Delmar O'Donnell (a role he would revive to great effect in "Flypaper" - see review). There is a rare and completely believable chemistry between them. But the big revelation here is George Clooney playing the philosophy-jabbering Everett Ulysses McGill. While he doesn't quite reach the cult-inducing peaks of Jeff Bridges as 'The Dude' in the Coens incomparable "The Big Lebowski" (a part emblazoned into cinema lover's hearts forever) - Clooney shows a deftness of touch for comedy and pathos throughout that is quite fantastic. More importantly he seemed to finally park his devastatingly handsome good looks by taking a career chance and showing the world that he was more than just a pretty face. Clooney can act his soggy pants off if given the right part (something he's proved many times since).

The only real let down is the paltry extras (those that accompanied the initial DVD issue) which last only a few minutes and leave you craving more.

Still - this is a fantastic advertisement for what BLU RAY can offer. I only wish I had a humungous home-cinema system to watch it on.

To sum up - after they fail to catch a passing train full of men with "aimless lives of wandering..." Delmar is asked by the other two squabblers to give the deciding vote on who is leader of the trio. Delmar sappily says - "I'm with you fellas!"

I wholeheartedly agree.

BLU RAY Specifications:
VIDEO: 1080p High Definition - Aspect Radio 2.35:1
AUDIO: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital
SUBTITLES: English SDH (Hard Of Hearing), French and Spanish

1. The Making Of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
2. Two Storyboard-To-Scene Comparisons
3. "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" Music Video
4. Theatrical Trailer

PS: Isaac Freeman - the bass vocalist with the legendary Gospel/Acapella group "The Fairfield Four" (mentioned above) - released his 1st solo album at the age of 73 in 2011 on Lost Highway Records called “Beautiful Stars”. It’s a beauty. Check it out…


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