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Brilliant films at a bargain price
on March 21, 2015
This imported set of five of Coen Brothers' movies on Blu-ray, currently selling for around $20, offers a unique brand of comedy at an exceptionally low cost; the discs are playable in all regions. The first three come with full complements of extras, but the last two ("Barton Fink" and "Intolerable Cruelty") do not, tempting me to dock the collection a star in my rating. However, the overall greatness of the films and the excellent value in this package prevent me from doing so.
The Coens are a prickly pair of daring auteurs whose sometimes affectionate and often misanthropic takes on humanity are not to everyone's taste. They write for their favorite actors, among them George Clooney, John Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi, who repeatedly appear in their ensembles, providing them endlessly wry dialog and deliciously clever irony.
The critically praised but bleakly comic "A Serious Man" (2009) deals with a quest by a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) to understand the purpose of his life, one continually beset by misfortune and absurdity. As his family, career, and finances disintegrate, the professor turns to his Jewish faith for a consolation that is questionable at best. The story inevitably brings to mind the biblical book of Job.
Set in Washington, DC, "Burn After Reading" (2008) features a terrific troupe of actors: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and John Malkovich. They play arrogant, avaricious, duplicitous, sex-obsessed, and downright stupid schmucks who collide with one another and with fate in myriad combinations and permutations. Spy thriller meets Laurel & Hardy and riotous misadventure ensues.
Cult classic "The Big Lebowski" (1998) is as odd as they come, a gleefully profane and hallucinatory story about bowling, mistaken identity, and mind-altering substances. Its characters include a philanthropist, a pornographer, a police chief, a Vietnam veteran, a farmer's daughter gone bad, a gang of German nihilists, and the ultimate slacker, indelibly portrayed by Jeff "The Dude" Bridges. He's joined by an all-star cast: John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Ben Gazzara, Tara Reid, David Thewlis, Sam Elliott, and others.
The surreal, paranoid "Barton Fink" (1991) is an atmospheric cross between Franz Kafka and William Burroughs. John Turturro plays a playwright-turned-screenwriter suffering from writer's block and John Goodman plays his insurance agent neighbor at a run-down hotel in Hollywood. Under pressure to complete a screenplay for a studio, Fink finds inspiration in a very dark source. What's in the box? That's for you to figure out!
Finally, there's "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003), which concerns a high-powered divorce attorney (George Clooney) and the beautiful gold-digger he falls for (Catherine Zeta-Jones). This is a very funny, take-no-prisoners battle of the sexes in which only the most relentlessly scheming character can win.
Buy this collection. If you add the similarly low-priced -- and similarly wonderful -- Blu-ray anthology "From the Minds of the Coen Brothers" ("Blood Simple," "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," and "Raising Arizona") and a few individual films ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "No Country for Old Men," and "True Grit"), you will have the 12 Coen movies that I think matter most, a weirdly enthralling mix of comedy and tragedy imbued with mystery, poetry, and genius.