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CINEMA SIGNALS


The Coen Brothers
The Story of Two American Filmmakers




Live Concert Performances by the Artists & Musicians of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
. "The Ladykillers"

Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Tom Hanks adopt the exaggerations of a Southern Gentleman for this remake of the 1955 caper classic as some kind of tribute to the inimitable Alec Guiness in the original role as Professor Marcus, ought to have his ear canals boiled out. This somewhat pathetic reaching for artistic merit gets lost on the way to caricature which, because of the fact that it's the dominant role of the piece, renders it with a hint of creative desperation and a misfire.

Which is not something I say easily about any Coen brothers production. Their "Fargo", after all, is on my top of the top list. But just because their preceding flim-flam exaggeration, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was a surprise hit doesn't guarantee a fix on the top spot in the fantasy-comedy-with-music genre.

It's all a con in which the gang targets the home of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), an African-American town paragon of wisdom and pious virtue. Chosen because of its proximity to the bank vault of the local river gambling operation, it's arch criminal Professor G.H. Dorr's (Hanks) task to disarm any resistance she might have and rent him a room along with the use of her cellar for his gang's, er... "band's" rehearsals.

Once his over-dressed, over-expressed Colonel Sanders of a villain bombards the lady with deceptive prattle, he and his retinue retire to the cellar with their musical instruments (which none can play). After more high-flown pronouncements and an outline of the plan, the men set about to drill a tunnel to the casino vault, each employing his particular area of gimmickry standing in for expertise.

Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) is a loose cannon from the hood who gains an inside job on the riverboat casino, loses it and regains it; Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is the munitions expert with control issues and a serious physical condition that erupts uncontrollably at inconvenient moments; Lump (Ryan Hurst) is an ex-football player who has taken a head concussion once too often; and, finally, The General (Tzi Ma), a Japanese expert in assassination techniques and a hidden-cigarette trick. As though there was a need for female interest, Mountain Girl (Diane Delano) is thrown onto the peripheries of the pack as Garth's main squeeze. Oh, and there's also Marva's cat, who observes the shenanigans with a judgemental eye and actions to match.

Rounding out the hi-jinx is Sheriff Wyner (George Wallace) who has heard so much about the exploits of Marva's dead husband that when she tries to tell him of the villainy she's uncovered in her basement he takes it as nothing more than her usual conjuring. Marva's church is the stage for the Coen's music context, a fine gospel group's album tracks of stimulating high tempo and a tight fit into the musical revival scheme they seem to be trying to duplicate as a patented contribution of their productions. The picture's end credits go over Blind Willie Johnson's "Let Your Light Shine On Me," segueing from his timeless solo recording into an energetically modernized "Let The Light From The Lighthouse Shine On Me" (The Venice Four With Rose St) a group effort that dares you to leave the theatre one second before the lights come up.

Typical of the Coen's work is superb visual design. Whatever you may think of the cartoonish presentation, it all happens within the impeccably achieved canvas of lighting and composition by Roger Deacons ("House of Sand and Fog"), aided and abetted by supportive skills in wardrobe and sets. Is it too early in the year for academy award consideration in the technical crafts?

In the end, however, what this film demonstrates is that colorful characters do not in themselves a good caper comedy make.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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