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Wicked Nerdery

Where psychology, pop culture, and true crime collide

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5 Of The Best Female Characters From The Coen Brothers

Ethan and Joel Coen will have another movie to add their collective credit in Suburbicon (written by them, directed by George Clooney) this October and, if the past is any indication, it will be a wonderfully weird journey for audiences. Known for their quirky style, witty writing and unusual blending of genres that defies definition or replication, the Coen Brothers create movies that are entirely unique.

What sets them apart, without a doubt, are the personas they create, and their female characters most assuredly represent that. Strong, strange and iconic in their own right, one would be hard-pressed to pick the best. Still, let’s take a moment and give credit to five who — each in their own way — make the movies they’re in.

5. Edwin ‘Ed’ McDunnough

In Raising Arizona, Edwina “Ed,” the wife of ex-con H.I. “Hi” McDunnough, is a police officer of apparent high morals who refuses to let anyone tell her what’s right or what’s wrong. She’s also so desperate for a child that, with proclamations that the parents of newborn quintuplets “got more than they can handle,” insists Hi kidnap an infant to have as their own.

Despite this illegal act, Ed throws a fit concerning Hi’s prison buddies’ when they show up by flatly refusing that they could stay the night. She also leaves Hi in the dust when she catches him trying to rob the convenience store he’d gone in to get diapers from. The way in which Ed finds clear morality in pushing her husband to kidnap a baby while still growing furious with his other (lesser) illegal tendencies and behaviors both move the story forward and make her a fascinating study in dichotomy.

4. Marge Gunderson

Fargo became such an iconic film that it’s been turned into a hugely popular television show with three successful seasons already under its belt, and it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that’s due, in part, to the amazing protagonist in Police Chief Marge Gunderson. Wonderfully complex, she’s both compassionate and professional; a woman who doesn’t take any guff or have to lose her femininity to be strong. Bright, determined and working within the limits of the law, she’s able to weave together the bizarre strands of a kidnap-for-hire and ransom plot virtually on her own.

Many crime films involve the grizzled (often male) cop who goes to extremes to solve the case, but so few have the friendly, seven-month-pregnant police chief unblinkingly face down a killer as the man stuffs his partner in a wood-chipper. That fully realized, trope-shattering characterization is what makes both Marge and the film on whole stand out.

3. Maude Lebowski

Entire philosophies and religions have been created based around The Dude from The Big Lebowski, but one person who gave his chillness a run for his White Russian was Maude Lebowski (no relation). An eccentric artist first seen flying (nude) over The Dude as she paints, Maude is clinically blunt with a manner of speech best suited to a noir, and casualness that both suits and contrasts The Dude’s throughout the film.

Like many women in the noir genre, Maude is a strange mix of asset and liability; she fills in information gaps, leading The Dude to figure out what actually happened, but also uses him to her advantage. Where Maude becomes unique is in her using The Dude to have a child. Not only is such a desire unexpected from such a stern and direct character, but also from any noir-styled woman — most want to end the male protagonist’s life, not have him create a new one with her. Like other twists throughout this film, the “little Lebowski” is both surprising and endearing and also allows the film to end on a creatively optimistic note.

2. Penny McGill

Homer’s The Odyssey follows the adventures of Odysseus on his journey back to his forever faithful wife, Penelope. he Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? tells of the adventures Ulysses Everett McGill on his journey back to his wife, Penny. That’s about where the similarities end on the part of the ladies. Unlike her classical literature counterpart, Penny is more than ready to move on; while Everett’s imprisoned she divorces him, changes her last name, and tells their children he was hit and killed by a train. She also flatly refuses him upon his return with claims that her new fiancee is a better choice for her and her children because he has prospects and is “bonafide.”

While Odysseus’s Penelope put her suitors to a test in order to rid herself of them (and reveal her husband for who he was), Penny tests Everett instead, throwing him back into all manner of dangers more than once — including a near hanging, then drowning — in search for a ring she later admits to having lost track of. These differences from the character she’s based upon help Penny stand out and become her own woman. Both stories begin and end with a man’s journey back to his wife and, without Penny as a catalyst, Everett would still be on the chain-gang instead of the lead singer of the famous Soggy Bottom Boys.

1. Linda Litzki

At the end of Burn After Reading a CIA officer and his superior sit, baffled, wondering how things spun so completely out of control and what it was they did that caused it — which really sums up the theme of the film itself. The personification of that theme comes in the form of a strangely chipper woman named Linda Litzki who, upon stumbling across a disk containing the memoir of a disgraced CIA agent, decides to try and return it in exchange for money that she hopes to use for a bit of plastic surgery. The attempt goes spectacularly wrong, and soon Linda’s selling the disk to the Russians unknowingly causes a violent international incident that results in many around her killed. Like the madcap movie itself, it’s actually part of Linda’s unusual charm that she can happily bounce through the havoc she creates, only skimming the darkness of the events, until the CIA reveals all. It’s at this point she promptly requests they pay for her surgery in exchange for her silence because, in the end, she’s still not sure what the heck she did to cause all that chaos.

Which of these female characters do you think is the best of the Coen Brothers’ work?

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The Trial of Kylo Ren: Hero or Villain?

First and foremost this post will contain spoilers concerning Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  A lot of spoilers.  MAJOR spoilers.  If you’ve not yet seen the film and wish to remain spoiler-free then I suggest you just save this page and come back to it later.  If you’ve seen the film or simply don’t care about knowing everything keep on reading…

Seriously though, from now on there will be spoilers!

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Tough Women Have Traumatic Pasts

It takes a special kind of woman to be as tough as the men and in pop culture it takes one with a traumatic past.  Something that’s hardened her enough to hang with the guys, do a “man’s” job, and perform those tasks most often considered masculine in nature.  The trauma itself is not always the same – domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, the death of a parent at a very early age – but the results are.  Someone tough and determined enough to live and succeed in a male-dominated world, but never without some terribly painful past that underlines she’s still the “softer” sex. 

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When Characters Get Real, Audiences Get Mad

Certain characters achieve a level of venom from audiences that can be surprising.  Even when they aren’t the main antagonist, trying to take over the world, or even all that villainous, people loathe them…but why?  Why is it that certain characters garner more hatred than others?  Is it that they aren’t as clever, physically attractive, or entertaining as their more tolerated counterparts?  …Sometimes, but not always.  Usually there is a deeper reason behind the audience’s intense dislike.  It would seem that those characters on TV, film, and in comics who really get our blood boiling are those we’ve met – in one way or another – in real life before.

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A Love for Every Age

The saying goes “Age ain’t nothing but a number”…but this isn’t exactly true, especially when it comes to one’s sexual desire for another.  While some may simply cause raised eyebrows there are others that can get a person in very serious legal trouble and brand them as an outcast for life.  While the specifics of which term is most appropriate for which preference may seem irrelevant it’s important to both mental health professionals and law enforcement…and it never hurts to know as a layperson either.

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Secret Psychopath: The Dark Knight’s Joker

Psychopaths are not easy to spot; in no small part because they are masters of disguise, skilled at fitting in even when they stand out.  With the ability to read a room and the expectations of those within it they can follow social norms to fly under the radar or openly defy them to whatever advantages there might be.  Whichever they choose though rarely are psychopaths spotted for what they are.  It’s only if you look closely, dissect with a rational mind, that you can see beyond the surface behaviors to the true person beneath.  It holds in real life and it holds in the fictional world…there are a number of characters in TV, film, and comics that hide themselves behind either subdued or over-the-top behavior so that you don’t notice who, what, they really are.

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Survive the Dinosaurs, Survive Nature

Jurassic World recently came out to own – it’s fun, a bit silly, and just maybe has a message.  And not just this Jurassic movie, but all of them collectively.  A rather important message really, albeit hidden under monstrous dinosaurs and running humans and, yes, a healthy dose of ridiculously fantastic deaths.  So…what is this message?

That nature is a powerful force that should not be interacted with lightly.  Nature should be respected at all times and playing God is not a wise choice, especially if you’ve not considered the repercussions of what you do.  Disregarding Mother Nature is dangerous – both for you and those around you – and these films show that in very clear ways…especially concerning two specific facets in dealing with Nature.

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Twisted Love: The Sharpes of Crimson Peak

For the film Crimson Peak director Guillermo del Toro said he wanted to take the classic Gothic Romance story and twist it.  As an example he pointed out that it’s not necessarily the woman who needs rescuing by the man, but the reverse.  Whether he realizes it or not he also put twists on the classic concept of the serial killer couple.  While the one in Crimson Peak realistically follows the basics of how these sorts of pairings function it also subverts the cliches found in most fictional portrayals for a fresh take. …But before I continue please note, if you’ve not seen the film, there will be lots of spoilers to come…

…Seriously, I’m going to reveal plot points and secrets…

…Last chance…

Okay, if you read past this, it’s your fault!!

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Sinister is Sexy

Onscreen sinister is sexy, whether we care to admit it or not.  Villains in TV and movies are fascinating to watch; you can’t take your eyes off them.  (Casting may help, true, but Hannibal Lector is entrancing played by Mads Mikkelsen, Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox, or Gaspard Ulliel.)  But why?  Why do so many of us fall for the villain even when he or she is so…well…villainous?

Please note: I’m not talking about the villains in slasher films like Jason Voorhees or Freddie Kruger, but the ones that lean towards sane, sober, and sociopathic; the ones that could actually exist, in one form or another, in the real world.

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