Sunday, October 18, 2009

A movie review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009)

Directors - Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Runtime – 105 min; R

Larry Gopnick - Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Arthur - Richard Kind
Sy Ableman - Fred Melamed

It is no coincidence that the bearded figure who plays a prominently minor role in the new Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed film A Serious Man, holds the last name of Ableman. He is after all, an able man, an all-knowing, community-respected, and generally speaking, a serious man, one who can sort of back door his way into taking your wife away from under your nose and still bring wine to your house for dinner and give you a lesson on how to enjoy it. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), upon learning all about Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and a plethora of sticky life situations, wants to also be a serious man, of sorts - how to go about it, that’s the problem.

I find myself a bit puzzled as to how to write about this film, since, for one, I have no working knowledge of the Book of Job or of 1960s Jewish culture (both of which play roles in the film.) I do, however, have a pretty good grasp of what excellent writing and perfectly timed humor can do to an audience, and in my case, an audience filled primarily with sexagenarians was laughing without pause. Of course, as with some films that can be considered comedic and serious, this is not simply a bunch of crass jokes, rather an intricate weaving of layers that lead from one laugh to the next, getting there by way of some seriously messed up situations.

We begin with a curious fable of sorts that lasts 10 minutes, with a scene conducted in Yiddish from century’s old Poland in which a small debate of good and evil can be surmised. Think about this scene as you view the film and just try to get a general grasp of its meaning, why is it there at all? You may not come up with anything, but I think it can be revealing in many ways which help you understand the nature of Larry and the world in which he lives.

The film takes place in the suburbs of the 1960s. As a professor of physics and mathematics, Larry works a great deal with certainty and the notion that the world has answers for everything if you know where to look. It is with a series of Rabbis that Larry ultimately seeks advice and it is within these scenes that we get the skilled writing of the Cohen brothers blasting us with wit and sarcasm, but also furthering the story along. The Cohens are masters of keeping us coherent of the characters in their movies, even when they are not on screen, and you never forget that the son is off smoking dope or the daughter is stealing money for a nose job or the neighbors are redneck hunters trying to encroach on Larry’s property boundaries – all of these sub-plots are fresh in your mind throughout, so that when the writing calls for the audience to remember that the uncle is a deadbeat cyst-sucking waste of space, the audience is already in the moment and can move with or against the flow of sympathy or repulsion.

I’m pretty sure some of you will see the resemblances to the film Election (1999), another dark comedy concerning a teacher going through a lot of life issues. I’m not going to stretch it too far and say they are ‘similar’ but I did think of it while watching and it is such a guilty pleasure movie for me I wanted to tie it in somehow. Like the teacher played by Matthew Broderick, Larry finds himself mixed up with a student in an unconventional way, and one which threatens to bring down his standing in the community as well as professionally. This all leads to some hilarious situations which, 2 days later, I still find myself laughing out loud.

The broader aspects of the film, those concerning Jewish culture, but, just as much, those concerning human nature, are portrayed wonderfully through this film as only the Cohens know how to do. A disconcerting score at times is weaved beautifully with classic sounds of the era, and every time you hear some of the score you realize just how important it is to the film itself. I don’t know who to recommend this film to, but I feel it is so well done that everyone should give it a chance.

Now that my review is complete, I look forward to reading any and every review I can get my hands on, because I know there is much much more to this film than I have covered.

***** out of 5

Monday, October 5, 2009

A movie review: The Informant! (2009)

The Informant! (2009)

Director - Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 108 min; R

Mark Whitacre -Matt Damon
FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard - Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Dean Paisley - Allan Havey

I like Matt Damon as an actor. I actually like almost everything he does. He has great role selection and I’m sure he will continue to pick challenging and proper roles for his personality. I also like Steven Soderbergh as a director. He always seems to ‘get it’ and that generally makes for a great viewing experience.

I am not sure, however, that I can confidently say that I liked The Informant!, a movie based on factual events that really do make a very interesting story, but, unfortunately, just do not translate well in this film. Damon does a great job as Mark Whitacre, a high ranking corporate executive at a large and prosperous company who finds himself in the middle of a global price-fixing ring. With the involvement of the FBI and an incredible story of lies and back-stabbing and a really great performance by Damon, this movie has all the makings of a great piece of art.

Unfortunately it drags. It drags and drags and drags. Every time you feel some momentum, it slows down, and then it gets complicated. If you pay really close attention, you just may understand everything that is going on, but if you take even a one second break you will find yourself asking what is happening?

This is the type of movie I fear – it has great acting and a great story but just doesn’t come across well and leaves you wondering why? Why did I feel so unsatisfied? Was it the hokey musical backgrounds as Whitacre walked down the aisles of his work place? I wish it were that easy, but Damon really gives a great performance here and I wish I could capture just what was missing. It was a decent movie and a great real life story (search for the real story online and you will be amazed at what transpired) but something was missing and I cannot in good faith suggest you see this movie right away, although I do believe it would work well in 6 months as a rental or something on cable.

** and a ½ out of 5

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A movie review: Zombieland (2009)

I was told by someone that a certain cameo in my review would be better left out. I'm not going to edit it, so be warned if you do continue to read you will discover who does the cameo. For what it's worth, I was on and they have this person credited, so I was unaware it was a surprise.

Zombieland (2009)

Director - Ruben Fleischer
Runtime: 80 Min; R

Columbus - Jesse Eisenberg
Tallahassee - Woody Harrelson
Wichita - Emma Stone
Little Rock - Abigail Breslin

I’d love to write a long review of the film Zombieland but I’d be afraid of giving away too much, and this is a movie not to be ruined. See this film immediately, and see it with a group of good friends. This is perhaps the funniest movie of the year, and yet you get sprinting zombies, a great zombie-killing machine in Woody Harrelson, a hot, tough chick in Emma Stone, and some seriously awesome dialogue for Jesse Eisenberg. You will laugh out loud a lot and be happy that you saw this film.

Just to give some basic plot points, the world is experiencing an epidemic of a disease that has turned most of it into zombies. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg of Adventureland )(all characters named for the places from which they came, basically) is a survivor with a set of rules on how to survive (Cardio and seatbelts being two that have treated him well so far.) He soon meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) who is a straight-talking redneck who has one mission: to kill zombies. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are sisters also making their way through zombieland, and together these 4 characters make their way west in search of something more.

An awesome appearance by Bill Murray is not to be missed, and when you aren’t wincing from some of the zombie head-bashing you’ll be laughing at the witty exchanges between Columbus and Tallahassee, or, if you’re into women, a strong desire for Emma Stone, who comes off as uber-sexy in this film. Overall not a fault to be found, and though I’ll take some heat, I put this comedy above The Hangover (2009) as the best of the year. Total re-watch-ability for this film and one that I will definitely own.

***** out of 5