Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Pains Of Just Being

A Serious Man

It's "Oy Ve!" over and over again in "A Serious Man." If pain and suffering is the root of all laughter, then Joel and Ethan Coen's new film is hilarious. And it is one of brilliant comic cruelty. Here's a comedy so black that its underlying philosophical outlook on life and fate is so hopeless and bleak that it rivals "No Country for Old Men." The Oscar-win for the writing-directing duo has allowed them to make their most original and personal feature yet. They deal, for the first time, with their Jewish heritage in placing the setting in a 1967 suburb, one that resembles the Minnesota town in which they grew up. This entry proves now more than over that the Coens are a master of the craft. The direction is keen and the script plays out like a richly textured novel, one tinged with the hilarity of cosmic despair.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has always tried to be a serious man. He's convinced there's reason to everything in the world. Is there? The Coens are convinced otherwise, and in close relation to "No Country for Old Men," the brothers have a fascinating interest in a fundamental absence of there being meaning to anything. Man's attempt to find that meaning becomes a futile search. The movie opens with a prologue spoken in Yiddish that tells an ancient tale of a couple who either rid their house of a dybbuk (a ghost) or murdered an old man. It's the proclamation of an evil curse, one that we see play out in Larry's life. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, his candidacy for tenure at his job as a professor is under fire, his son (Aaron Wolf) has his bar mitzvah coming up when he's more interested in experimenting with pot, and their Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) is living on the couch draining the fluid out of his cyst while writing in a notebook filled with mad, mystical physics.

Larry is constantly bombarded with requests, message, phone calls, demands, and complaints, and the performances from mostly unfamiliar actors reflect this hectic feeling through tart and dry dialogue. Larry's daughter (Jessica McManus) complains about Uncle Arthur taking up the bathroom all the time when she needs to style her hair, Larry's son needs the reception fixed on the TV so he can watch "F Troop," a student from South Korea (David Kang) bribes and blackmails Larry with money for a better grade, Larry keeps getting calls from Columbia Record Club requesting payments, his neighbor is encroaching on the property line in their lawn, and the list goes on and on. Every tiny incident in Larry's life takes on a hugely sinister tone, and it just keeps building up. The Coen's focus on the mundane banality of the American Jewish lifestyle is presented like a loopy circus show. All of the inconveniences, they keep piling up, interrupting and contradicting each other, and they all amount to absolutely nothing. And this was four decades ago. Imagine now.

The movie is shot with such exquisite artistry and inventiveness thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins. Every angle (canted angles included), every choice of framing, and every character (no matter how minor) have significance toward the grander theme. Consider Larry's sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), who is like an angel wearing an orange sweater and black eyeliner promising an escape, or Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) who is stealing away Larry's wife. Sy becomes a permeating presence, a guidance counselor who guides only the grief he supplies.

In endlessly wondering why everything goes wrong for him, the "Why me? Why me?" mentality, Larry seeks absolution from the advice of three rabbis. The senior rabbi tells the story of a dentist who found the Hebrew words for "Help me" engraved in the back of a patient's teeth. One rabbi finds explanation in the simplicity and wonder of the parking lot outside. Another rabbi ends up being helpful in listing off the members of Jefferson Airplane, a band whose song "Somebody to Love" becomes the moral backdrop and ultimate punch line for the entire movie.

During one of his lectures, Larry presents a mathematical equation that takes up the entire blackboard and deals with the concept of uncertainty. And yet isn't math based all around certainty and theorem? Well, yes, this is a certain theorem on uncertainty. How is that at all reasonable? How is it reasonable that the culmination of the results of an x-ray and the onset of a tornado attribute to the same thing? From its fable-like beginning to its offbeat but pitch-perfect ending, "A Serious Man" delivers what the Coen brothers do best, and it is a work of serious accomplishment. It would appear that the only thing certain in life is the existence of suffering.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Heath Isn't Done

Eccentric director Terry Gilliam, best known for 1985's "Brazil," has a new film coming out this holiday season, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." It tells the tale of Dr. Parnassus who enchants audiences with the ability to pass through a fantastical mirror into an alternate reality.

The most intriguing part of this movie? Well, apparently "The Dark Knight" was not the last performance by Heath Ledger. What does this movie mean for the memory of the great late actor? It co-stars some other big names, as well, including Christopher Plummer, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp.

Monday, October 19, 2009

There's One Inside All Of Us

Where the Wild Things Are

"Where the Wild Things Are" is one of the year's best films. What we have here is the bold combination of Maurice Sendak's 1963 classic Caldecott Medal-winning children's book and the Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"). How Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers took Sendak's book of only 10 sentences and made it into a feature length movie is something beyond me. And how they made it into something as exciting, tender, beautiful, and moving as this, it's just magic.

Jonze could've taken the easy route and made his movie animated, but instead, he shoots it live-action with the help of longtime cinematographer Lance Acord on a hand-held camera and towering creature costumes with CGI facial expressions and a great cast of actors' voices. The film has a very primitive style, an aesthetic that fits the rugged and dreamlike qualities within the wonders of a child's imagination. Jonze's goal was to match the mindset of a 9-year-old boy, and he has succeeded. The boy, Max, is played by Max Records who is only 12. In his performance, he bursts with energy, freedom, and exploration. Yet, he's lonely. Throughout our introduction to Max, he roughhouses with his dog, commences a snowball fight, messes with his sister's room in a fit of anger, and shrieks in a triumphant moment of rebellion at his mom (the always wonderful Catherine Keener). It's when Max pushes his mom to the limit that his adventure begins, and he journeys to where the wild things are.

Wearing his cat costume complete with whiskers, Max travels there by boat to this land that is expansive in its promise of excitement and danger. The wild things are given their own names and distinct personalities that are derived from Sendak's illustrations. Max finds himself amongst quite a crowd, and, out of pure adrenaline, labels himself king of these wild things. "Let the wild rumpus start!" he exclaims. We soon discover the insecurities and anxieties of each wild thing. Carol (James Gandolfini), Judith (Catherine O'Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano), and Douglas (Chris Cooper) all share a dynamic that reflect the same squabbles and concerns that fill any child. Across a gorgeous landscape of sand, forest, and water, Max and his wild things build a fort, howl and rabblerouse, and rest in a big, breathing, slumbering pile.

While donning a PG-rating, there are some moments throughout that could be considered scary for younger viewers. Jonze, believe it or not, has perhaps created a kid's movie that really isn't all that much for kids, and I see this as a very good thing. It allows the movie to really get to the heart of children's fears and aspirations, the true horrors that no parental guidance can ever shield. The hurt behind the yellow eyes of the wild things is proof enough that they don't sugarcoat anything for Max and deal with discrepancies in all seriousness. Jonze treats his film likewise and, while still holding moments of tenderness, he never shies away from the vaguely nightmarish. The result is truly special, affective, and deeply emotional.

The score by Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the Kids is perfect. It's jubilant and hauntingly melancholy all at once, a masterful backdrop of colorful sound and atmosphere that brilliantly fits the universe Jonze has created. With his film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," Spike Jonze has paid proper tribute to the original source while still taking on the project as something entirely his own, something that he has shaped into this wonderfully odd and profound creation. It is a work of art, a preservation of the book's spirit and an affirmation of its potent themes on childhood through the remarkable application of Jonze's own fully realized and sensible vision.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The 16th Can't Come Any Sooner

Michael Phillips has already labeled "Where the Wild Things Are" as his favorite film of the year so far. I couldn't be any more excited. Watch for reviews of that and "A Serious Man" in the coming weeks.

Limited Release Week

Oscar season means limited release movies that will slowly trickle their way down the masses hoping to spend at least a short period of time in nationwide theaters. Here's a list of what is being released this week, and I'm not talking about "Couples Retreat."


The twisted and demented real-life story of Michael Peterson, who made a name for himself behind bars and became Charles Bronson, Britain's most dangerous criminal. From the look of the trailer, it seems to be trying to attract the Quentin Tarantino crowd.

An Education

With a critically-acclaimed performance from Carey Mulligan and co-starring Peter Sarsgaard, this small drama is about a schoolgirl trying to make a place for herself at Oxford.

The Damned United

Starring Michael Sheen, this is the story of Brian Clough who took over as manager of the reigning champions of English football, Leeds United.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ellen Page On Wheels

Whip It

Ellen Page is a marvel in "Whip It." Her Best Actress nomination was no fluke, and she shows more expression and freedom here than she ever did even in "Juno," and that's perhaps partially because she's not stuck under the confines of Diablo Cody's snarky writing. Page's sharply smart performance is in the role of another lost teenage girl, except this time she leans a little more toward the nice girl side. She plays Bliss Cavendar, whose plucky and down-to-earth attitude is appealing and whose defensive selfishness is understandable. She's a girl trying to find her place, she's only 17, and yet she finds herself in the Roller Derby rink with brute women in their 30s. And in there, she's able to let herself go.

"Whip It" showcases Drew Barrymore as a first-time director, and it proves to be a very strong debut. The movie is written by an actual Roller Derby girl, Shauna Cross, and the screenplay is based off her novel, "Derby Girl." Barrymore keeps a keen focus on an amiable tone that keeps things tender, heartwarming, and funny. She never goes for revolutionary, but she never has to anyway. It allows for a movie that is joyously likable and impossible to dismiss. This is a simple coming-of-age story, and we know where it's going and how it's going to work out almost instantly. And yet that doesn't keep it from being enormously entertaining. The surprisingly rough-and-tumble athletic sport of women's Roller Derby is used as an ideal backdrop for an emphasis on sheer girl power. There are rules to Roller Derby, yes, but the details are never slaved over. What we understand is that you go around that track as fast as you can and try not to get knocked down while you're knocking as many other people down as you can to get in the lead. Yeah, kind of like growing up.

Bliss lives in a small town in Texas and works at a tiny diner with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat). Her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) is old-fashioned and pushes Bliss into the Bluebonnet beauty pageant that is sickening in its standard to uphold 1950s values about womanhood. She purses her lips at any sign of rebellion from Bliss, and so, the girl has learned to comply and play along. Then one day she comes across an ad for Roller Derby. She sneaks off from her parents with Pash to go see the ladies on wheels in downtown Austin, and she immediately falls in love.

Bliss decides to try out, and so, strapping on her pink Barbie skates, she begins to practice for the first auditions. She takes the community bus back to Austin and gets greeted by the women with tough pseudonyms and tattoos. The team is led by the scruffy coach known as Razor (Andrew Wilson) who wears short jean shorts and tries to encourage the girls to care about the fact that their team, the Hurl Scouts, has always come in second. Bliss lies about her age in order to become part of the team, and the veterans immediately welcome her to the bunch. Before she knows it, she has the name Babe Ruthless and is the poster girl for the team.

Having to hide the Roller Derby from her mother, she lies to her parents by saying she had to change her schedule at work for an SAT class. And it just so turns out that Bliss' dad (Daniel Stern) escapes from his wife, too, by cutting out of work early and watching sports in his van. Bliss also meets a boy, Oliver (Landon Pigg), one she immediately locks eyes with and who seems like a dream. This is just another one of those coming-of-age milestones that had to be squeezed in. The thing is, even though Barrymore mostly bases her movie on clich├ęs, they are fine, and she and her cast make an admirable attempt to make them seem fresh.

What's most striking is Barrymore's fond connection with her actors as she finds a big part for every supporting role. Take Bliss' parents for example who have a dynamic all on their own. Marcia Gay Harden, especially, brings dimensions to Bliss' mom that'll spring up on you. She starts off as a prim and demanding mother, but then she goes into different directions later on. You see, she's a mail carrier who needs to light up a cigarette when things get rough. Even Jimmy Fallon as the comedic and enthusiastic Roller Derby announcer is key in helping to point out the subculture of the sport. And Andrew Wilson is apparently the hidden gem among the Wilson brothers.

And then there are the skater vets who really steal the show. Barrymore plays Smashley Simpson, Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Zoe Bell (of Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof") plays Bloody Holly, rapper Eve plays Rosa Sparks, and Ari Graynor plays Eva Destruction. There's also the intensely competitive Iron Maven of the opposing team who's played by Juliette Lewis, and she becomes Bliss' rival. It's fitting, too, because Page has the looks of being Lewis' understudy. It's worth noting that most of these actresses did all their own skating and stunts. That includes Page when she does that wildly remarkable jump.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Guts And Grotesqueries: Bloody Funny!


Simon Pegg created the sub-genre of zombie comedy with "Shaun of the Dead," and it worked because, in all honesty, zombies are hilarious. So what not a better move for a movie to make than to emphasize the humorous nature of zombies and the ways to dispose of them? First-time director Ruben Fleischer and his writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take this idea wholly to heart, and with it they have concocted 80-minutes of pure guilty pleasure.

In its own cleverly slick, well-written, fresh, inventive, and equal parts outrageous and dry way, "Zombieland" is not only a great zombie movie but also just a downright great movie. It's well-produced, and while abundantly grotesque and gory, it's also slyly artistic and thoughtfully shot in many instances. Amidst delivering purely visceral thrills, the movie also packs in subtleties that make it something a little bit more. The tongue is planted confidently and firmly in cheek, which turns a familiar premise into a totally original dissection of what this premise is really all about.

The movie begins with a voiceover of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg of "Adventureland") who describes his many rules for surviving the cannibal, flesh-eating inhabitants of the world-turned-Zombieland. Following such is a hilariously violent opening credit sequence that is worth duly noting for its use of slow-motion. Columbus is a loner named after his hometown of Colombus, Ohio, and he is trekking across the zombie-infested America in hopes of finding his parents. He comes across Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a spontaneous, hot-headed, mad-eyed quirk of a man who takes pride in his ability to kill zombies. He also has an undying craving for Twinkies and more than once puts himself in danger just to obtain those puffy logs of cream. Tallahassee and Columbus team up because they have one thing in common: wanting to stay alive. The two of them later come across a sexy teen named Wichita (Emma Stone of "Superbad") and her 13-year-old sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin of "Little Miss Sunshine"). These tricky ladies hold some scheming up their sleeves because they've learned to trust nobody. And yet they finally decide to work with the two fellow survivors. And why? Well, why else than the simple reason that they're the only humans left?

This is ultimately a meandering road movie, but it works from not only the current cultural references and the witty banter, but also the keen focus on those who are still living as opposed to the undead. The undead are merely there for entertainment value as we watch them get slaughtered in increasingly creative fashions. There's really no plot aside from a group of people trying to survive zombies. And so the real winning point is the character bonding and consequent development. It's wildly amusing to watch as these four entirely likable characters don't dare to let the demise of all society get in the way of having a blast. We're not allowed to take the movie seriously because the characters fighting off hordes of zombies aren't even taking it seriously. They have a harder time simply dealing with each other over the zombies, and their charismatic and carefree attitudes are infectious. And even the surprisingly heartfelt moments have their place and reason.

For a portion of "Zombieland," the four survivors hole themselves up in a lavish mansion belonging to a famous celebrity. And as much as I want to give this cameo away because it is so central to understanding the comedic prowess of this movie, I absolutely can't. I usually don't mind spoilers, but here, I must refrain because the shock of this cameo will kill you. It's just too awesome, and I can't get over it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"The Lovely Bones"

This is hands-down my most anticipated movie for this season. After director Peter Jackson proved he could flawlessly adapt not only the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy but also "King Kong," that's proof enough that he won't be able to go wrong with his latest adaptation, this time from a novel by Alice Sebold.