Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Serious Man

The Coens' "A Serious Man" is another very good film, another high mark in the oeuvre of the brothers. I'm not sure if it's a "No Country For Old Men" in their career, but it definitely continues their rich tradition of strong filmmaking. It's a chronicle of a professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's heading through a ton of problems, perhaps the most prominent of which being his wife (Sari Lennick) and how she wants to get a "ritual divorce" and live with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who's smooth voice seems to get him pretty much everything he wants (just look at his name). Another thing: he has a brother (Richard Kind) who is draining his syst and working on bizarre mathematical things and getting involved in gambling is living with him. At work, he's facing, among other things, a Korean student (David Kang) who desperately wants a grade change and will bribe for it. Also, his distinctly American "goy" neighbor is cutting his lawn.

On another level, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is heading towards his bar mitzvah (let me tell you: that scene is handled very, very strangely) and facing his own trials, like paying someone back. All of this is interwoven in the best way possible, by the Coens and their friends, including cinematographer Roger Deakins, costume designer Mary Zophres, and art director and set decorators Deb Jansen and Nancy Haigh, respectively. As always, the brothers create a very good script with great characters, from the leads, to Adam Arkin's knowing lawyer, to the rabbis that Larry visits, and others. They also decide to branch out, adding a moralistic prologue in a much earlier timeframe than most of the film. For me and my friend, in a lot of ways it was really not like any of the other Coen films.

But then again, there's always that unsettling humor that they patented over the years that spikes the punch. They know how to really inflict you with something. This is an element that sometimes puts me off about their films, even though I think they are achievements. In "A Serious Man," this is slighter and has a smaller but still effective burn. And the performances. They're quite good. Stuhlbarg, Kind, and Melamed are all convincing in their respective roles, and the supporting cast, like Arkin and even Michael Lerner (in a very, very brief appearance), adds to the density of the film. So while I don't think "A Serious Man" is perfect, I do think that it is one of the best films of the year, one you should get to if you can for its blend of old and new for the Coens. Also since it's a really good film in a weaker year. Such delights as these are hard to come by. A-

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

"Where the Wild Things Are" marks the first film by Spike Jonze where he has flown without Charlie Kaufman, and it's perhaps his most limitless. Here, he adapts Maurice Sendak's picture book phenomenon into a movie with the help of Dave Eggers, who's coming off the low-grade "Away We Go." They craft a whimsical, deep, and morose picture, one of the most interesting children's films in a long time. And one good adaptation: the book is much colder, and less affable towards its characters.

The screen version is more understanding. Max Records, who's at the start of his career, plays the infamous Max, who is given good reason to be sad. His parents (one of which is Catherine Keener, the link between Jonze's three works) are divorced, his igloo has been ruined by his sister's friends, and he's troubled by the thought that the sun will explode. After an incident at home when Keener has a date with, as been said before, Mark Ruffalo, Max runs away to a boat, which he travels away in to the land of the wild things. Before I dive in to explain these furry creatures, let me say that they have been terrifically re-created onscreen. This is one of the biggest reasons to see this film. And what wild things they are. The biggest I believe is also the one with the biggest soul and the biggest capacity to be wounded, Carol. James Gandolfini turns in a saddening vocal performance, and should be ranked among the best voices this year with Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Mary and Max." Both fit their parts so well, yet both will not be recognized due to their mediums.

Anyways, Carol is perhaps the most disliked of the bunch, but he ends up to be the closest to Max. There are also Judith (Catherine O'Hara, with a slightly antagonistic role here, gladly moving on from "Away We Go" as well), Ira (an unrecognizable Forest Whitaker), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Alexander (Paul Dano, another actor who was recently in a terrible comedy, "Gigantic"), and another amiable outsider, KW (Lauren Ambrose). There is plenty of depth in this lineup. Max, as you may very well know, becomes their king after talking his way out of a corner (being eaten). He decrees that a wild rumpus shall begin, and sets off a wonderful middle piece, one of joy, beauty, and unstableness. Lance Acord (who has shot for both Jonze and his ex-wife Sofia Coppola) does marvelous work and reaches the film to its highest of heights. The cinematography is the film's strength, easily, as is the art direction. Also, I think the film is better when in Wild Thing-dom as opposed to at home with Max and his fragmented family.

The film is like a dream: wonderful, but it has to end, and it makes you feel sad when you think that you've lost it. The film is more blissful than that, and ends lighter than that, but that's an essential truth: when Max says he wants to run his kingdom forever, you know it cannot happen, but he probably does not. As people said, that's the beauty of being young, and, as people said, the film captures that. However flawed it may be at times (such as the beginning and the end, which were a little too uniform), "Where the Wild Things Are" is a very good film about childhood and playing and blissfulness, that may not appeal to those going through it, which may be a good thing. Why? I think the film works better for older kids and adults, for these are those who can think back on their childhoods and think wistfully of their adventures and relate to a character that wasn't really in the picture book. B+

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mary and Max

I think "Mary and Max" would have been better if it had been "Max" and excised the "Mary." As with "Julie and Julia," here one section is not quite as good as the other and ends up taking its toll on the entire film. Don't get me wrong, Mary's part is not awful, but it just doesn't deliver the same delights as Max's. Philip Seymour Hoffman voices him, in perhaps one of his best performances, and what will come to be known as his one of his most overlooked, since it's an animated film as opposed to "The Savages," "Synecdoche, New York," or his Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote. Max's dialogue is a near-endless stream of the ridiculous. It may seem "quirky," but it works nonetheless. He's an orderly, chocolate-loving, lonely man who has a psychiatrist, is an atheist, and attends numerous Overeaters Anonymous meetings. He had a troubled childhood, and also a troubled time as a younger adult, taking many jobs and reading books that changed his idea about his faith. He's a New Yorker troubled by the squalor of the city and of its people. He talks about "humans" as if he is not one, and quotes his "favorite physicist" about the two things that are endless. This is as bizarre as it sounds, but then again, that's a good thing.

But this is not where the film starts. It begins first across the globe in Australia, where Mary is living a depressed life of "The Noblets" (a cartoon TV show that Max also finds solace within), condensed milk, and being bullied. This section I thought had weird, detached sexual connotations, with visual gags involving dogs and her father's odd job of attaching the strings to teabags ("he could get all of the teabags he wanted" was a particularly off-putting line). Well, she decides to send a letter to an American to see how babies are born there, since in Australia she is sure that they are wrenched out of beer glasses. Speaking of alcohol, Mary's mother Vera is consumed by alcoholism and makes great use of sherry. During a post office visit between the two of them, she finds Max in an American phonebook, and thus the link is forged. This is one that will span a great portion of their lives, and predictably drifts at times into sentimentality.

These letters do, however, inspire some great responses, and copious amounts of chocolate, in different forms. As time passes, things get more ridiculous, opportunities are wasted, and there are strains in the relationship. I will not reveal any more plot details, but I will say some of what happens is tremendously depressing, as Mary encounters a masochistic stem and takes on traits that run in the family. The ending itself impairs the film as it slams you into a brick wall, shortly after which the film takes flight. In this, and in some of the weightless plot details, the film loses its real ability to stay in your mind. With this film, you're eating more of a candy bar than a gourmet chocolate. But, of course, there is still value in that. To use another confectionary metaphor, "Mary and Max" is the bar that's below your vision at the candy selection where you checkout (I learned about this whole system by talking with someone who read Steve Almond's "Candyfreak"). If you miss it, it wouldn't be too much of a big deal, but if you happen upon it, you may like its interesting taste. B-

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bright Star

Jane Campion's "Bright Star" is a good film, a little clipped perhaps, but delightful nonetheless. People may deem it "boring," and in certain small instances I would agree. But it's actually very engaging, as a love story between two charming people: Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is a seamstress, and John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the poet. Whishaw is an interesting choice here, since he played the poetic manifestation of Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." He slips in in a sort of natural way, as does Cornish, although I could be wrong.

I don't know a whole lot about the relationship, haven't read the letters between the two or the poetry of Keats. Perhaps this was a good thing. I felt a magic worked upon me as the poems were read by the two lovers, and maybe that would have been different if I was more experienced. The film chronicles how the two meet, from the time Brawne first serves tea to the poet to the end. It shows the obstacles, especially that provided by Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, who played John Krasinski's brother in "Away We Go"), the poet that John writes with, who pretty much wants to separate Keats and Brawne in the name of literature, not in the name of love (as you may think such a thing would turn out).

The film blossoms like the relationship it shows (as Brawne reads Keats, loves parts of his poems, and desires to have an education in poetry), and starts wither in monotony as the relationship hurdles through conflict. But I think the film is effective, in the way that it could appeal to a seasoned Keats reader, or, like me, one new to the pages of his books. Let me now talk of the film's technical design. As Fanny designs her own costumes by trade, wearing a new one in each scene, there is a bar set for good attire, and let me tell you, it is met and much more. Designer Janet Patterson (who's worked with Campion before) creates spectacular costumes, ones that you'll be hearing about come Oscar night. There is also lush cinematography to be had from Greg Fraser, and great period art direction, too. Campion's screenplay is well-written, as it should be. And of the performances: there is a natural feeling given off by the leads, Cornish, Whishaw, and Schneider. Schneider is the best of the three, as a man who wants Keats all to himself. The other two make an involving couple, riffing on John's poems together. All seem well-cast. What can I say? I don't believe the film can be seen as a triumph (on the most part for its clipped editing and its sometimes disconnected feeling), although it is moderately successful and entertaining for the most part. I suggest you try it out. B

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

"Precious" can be at times a brutal and unrelenting film, and this is where it has strength. There's a sort of gritty realism shared by this film and by Steve McQueen's "Hunger"; also, both involve a sort of prison. Precious' (Gabby Sidibe, in a good debut) is her own house, where her terrifying mother Mary lives. Mary is played by Mo'Nique, in one of the most startling, outstanding performances of our time. She gives two powerful monologues, one consisting almost entirely of expletives and insults, and one in defense of her self. Both are immeasurably effective, and on these alone I will go as far as to say she should garner an Oscar nomination. But it's a completely horrific performance, especially since you don't know whether or not her tremendous wrath will be incited and to what extent.

Anyways, Precious is abused (the target of flower pots and frying pans thrown by Mary) and abused (impregnated two times via her father) and wants better, although she won't ever let anyone help her. But when her school principal (Nealla Gordon) gives her the address for an alternate school, she goes on it. And she meets the most inspiring person she could, a teacher known as Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). And here's where everything goes into a whirlwind.

Whereas (nearly) everything in the sections at home was grounded, realistic, and well-done, in the Each One Teach One scenes control is lost. It becomes much more cliche, and it takes on the face of one of those inspiring films. Not that there's anything wrong with that in itself, but here it looks a little amateurish after the grit of the first half. I guess it's supposed to be a contrast between abuse and good, but couldn't it be a little better done? At the New York Film Festival screening I attended last night (one in which the film was started 45 minutes late and multiple times protesting claps and boos were overheard), director Lee Daniels said the cops were running after them while the film was being shot. Could this be one of the negative results of that?

Well, I should mention the other supporting characters in the film. Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey) is a welfare person, and while she probes Precious for a long time, she can't get the full picture about what's going on within that household until a climactic scene that has to be one of the most moving and yet most appalling in a while. And, of course, there's Nurse John, who is interesting to watch because of who's playing him (I won't mention names), even though he's in perhaps the film's weakest section. All in all, I think "Precious" the film isn't a very good contender for any awards, even though the buzz is overflowing (Sundance and Toronto audience awards). The editing saps a lot of the power out, and the scenes of inspiration are dreamy yet take up a large block of the time. But it does contain a fantastic supporting performance, one that's worthy of all the acclaim it gets. B

Friday, October 2, 2009

Away We Go

"Away We Go" (from its title among other things) brims with jauntiness. You know this from the trailers, but still, it's overwhelming. Of course, Mr. Reitman's 2007 film that I do not care to name again was the same, but at least it was smartly written, acted pitch-perfectly, and very funny. This film is none of those things. It's the chronicle of a baby, one not yet born. Burt and Verona are the parents, and John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are the actors who play them. Oh, and Sam Mendes is the director who directs them. Surprised? So was I when I saw the trailers. He doesn't particularly have an imprint. Well, other than that of stark set design like that of "Road to Perdition" and "Revolutionary Road." In "Away We Go," there were a couple shots and sets I admired, but probably more trademarks are offered by screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who are spouses. I may be mistaken, but I think Eggers has a reputation for being quirky.

And, man oh man, is there quirky written all over this film. I will go as far as to say no character in the film is realistic. There are a lot, since Burt and Verona go visit a lot of people and try to see where they want to set up their family. First stop: Burt's parents, played by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels. Burt wants to be close to them so that they can see the baby as he gets brought up, but the parents have other plans, wanting selfishly to move far away. Oh, and the way they say it! This little jaunt sets the tone for the whole film. Bosses, sisters, distressed brothers, friends turned hippies, friends rendered horribly sad by lack of childbirth. All are visited in due time.

Good performances are given by few. In fact, by only one: comedian Jim Gaffigan gives an inspired and bizarre performance as the husband of a wacko Allison Janney character who delivers line after ridiculous line with comic ease. Hey, he's a professional. Or, at least, he's the only professional acting to his full ability, despite being trapped in a silly script. Some people may enjoy it, but for me, it's mostly on par with "(500) Days of Summer" in lack of real amusement. And there's another reason I bring up that film. There is a scene involving the screaming of inappropriate language, which is played for laughs. If this is a new trend in comedy, that's pretty awful. It's also pretty ironic that Krasinski (who, judging from this film, should abandon film acting and just stay full-time on his role in "The Office") has directed an adaptation of "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" by the great writer David Foster Wallace, a good friend of Eggers'. Hopefully it will be something different and better than this. If it's quirky, at least give it's quirks a point. This film is not a good example in that field. C-