O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Blu-Ray]
Director : Joel Coen
Screenplay : Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (based on The Odyssey by Homer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Holly Hunter (Penny Wharvey), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O'Daniel), Del Pentecost (Junior O'Daniel), Michael Badalucco (George "Babyface" Nelson), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes)
Leave it up to the Joel and Ethan Coen to use Homer’s The Odyssey as inspiration for an eclectic, slapstick, Depression-era musical comedy set in Mississippi and featuring jokes about cows getting run over by cars, manic-depressive bank robbers, and the Ku Klux Klan. Movies like this are the reason the Coens are viewed as either quirky postmodern geniuses or soulless snake-oil peddlers.
When I first saw O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I wasn’t really sure whether I liked it or not, but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because, if there is one thing that has proved true over and over about the Coen Brothers’ films, they require multiple viewings to derive maximum enjoyment. Even their best films, like Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), which you know are unique masterpieces on the first viewing, still get better each time you watch them. But, this has hardly been the case with all their films, which brings up a problem because one school of thought argues that the first viewing of a movie is the most important--if it can’t grab you on the first try, then the movie is deeply flawed. Joel and Ethan Coen seem to have built their careers on debunking such an argument. In fact, the movie O Brother most closely resembles is their 1987 crime comedy Raising Arizona. Both films rely heavily on hayseed humor, eccentric characters, and cartoonish action sequences. And, most importantly, both films don’t always feel right the first time. In fact, I hated Raising Arizona the first time I saw it. But, after each subsequent viewing it got funnier and funnier until now I am at the point that I start grinning just thinking about some of the lines uttered by Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnuh. The same has proved true with O Brother. On first viewing, the film was amiable and diverting enough, with a few hints of true inspiration to balance some of the more blatant misfires. There is no arguing that it is certainly a strange movie, but that is the Coens’ area of expertise. The language in which they are most proficient is exaggeration, and O Brother has plenty of it.
The story begins with the escape of three men from a Mississippi chain gang. The leader, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), is a ridiculously well-spoken criminal with a Clark Gable moustache who obsesses constantly about his hair (he will only use Dapper Dan pomade and sleeps in a hair net; every time he awakens, he grunts, “How’s my hair?”). His companions are a pair of dimwit yokels, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett claims that there is $1.2 million from an armored car heist buried somewhere and they have four days to get to it. In truth, Everett knows that his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), is about to get remarried, and he has every intention of getting in the way. So, like Homer’s mythic Ulysses, Everett is on a journey to make it home and reclaim his wife.
Naturally, Depression-era Mississippi offers a wholly different variety of obstacles than ancient Greece. The Coens manage to maintain some of Homer’s plot devices in altered form, including a trio of seductive sirens and a cyclops, who in this version is played by John Goodman as a one-eyed Bible salesman and Ku Klux Klan member named Big Dan Teague. The whole film, in fact, is really little more than a series of comic adventures strung loosely together. How else can one narrative sustain so many bizarre characters and outlandish situations, including a hotly contested political campaign and a musical Klan rally? Characters come and go, and fate seems to hang precariously over all the proceedings, descending with a vengeance in the end to supply a dues ex machina conclusion that is truly worthy of the Greek theater.
The film was beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, who is as adept at mystifying the golden-hued farm lands, dusty highways, and murky swamps of the Deep South as he was at emphasizing the endless, snowy white plains of South Dakota in Fargo (1996). This time he had a whole host of digital tools at his disposal, which allow him to render the landscape in tones that feel ripped from a fading sepia photograph. The technical aspects of O Brother are superb all the way around, from the sometimes cartoonish pratfalls to the impeccable soundtrack of bluegrass tunes and gospel music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? spends most of its time throwing absurdity up on the screen and hoping it sticks. The Coens (as always, Joel directed, Ethan produced, and they both wrote the screenplay) manage to maintain a genial, slapstick tone that coats the ridiculous plot devices and outrageous characters and makes them just slick enough to swallow. After first seeing it, I wasn’t sure how this meal would settle over time, but the years have proved that, while not one of Coens’ deeper films, it is certainly one that rewards multiple viewings.
|O Brother, Where Art Thou? Blu-Ray|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Touchstone Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 13, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Cinematographer Roger Deakins supervised the new high-definition 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfer of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and it looks absolutely superb. I have not gone back and done a side-by-side comparison, but I have heard that the color temperature and tone in some scenes differs from the DVD, but I can only imagine that this is a result of Deakins bringing the transfer more in line with his intended look. The image is sharp, clear, and extremely well detailed, which enhances the film’s intentionally desaturated “dust bowl” look. The predominant color is a kind of yellowish-brown with tinges of gray-green, which is the result of digital color correction (O Brother was the first Hollywood film to go through an entire digital postproduction process). To my eye it looks fantastic and a significant improvement over the DVD. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is also excellent, with great fidelity and spaciousness that allows T Bone Burnett’s Oscar-winning soundtrack to soar. The bluegrass and gospel songs sound superb, and the surround channels bring out the nuances of the sound mix in a way I hadn’t heard before (I have never, for example, been so aware of the different hammer sounds in the opening shot).|
|While sound and image have been given a substantial upgrade from the 2001 DVD, the supplements have actually been downgraded. Everything on the Blu-Ray was included on the DVD and is presented here in standard definition: an 8-minute making-of featurette, two storyboard-to-scene comparisons, a music video for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and the original theatrical trailer. Inexplicably missing from the Blu-Ray is the fascinating “Painting With Pixels” featurette that covered the film’s groundbreaking use of a digital intermediate to allow Roger Deakins to adjust the color palette in a way traditional photochemical processes couldn’t.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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