Thursday, October 29, 2009

M's Alterative Halloween: Movies You Can Pick Up Before Saturday

Halloween is as much about costumes and candy, as it is about movies. Every blogger out there has a list of classic bone-chilling, bloody recommendations, most of which, you probably already know. I'm not going to include the usual favorites (The Ring, The Shining, Halloween, Sleepy Hollow, and Scream to name a few), but will be focusing on the equally satisfying ones you can rent this Saturday when everyone else has picked up the obvious along the Halloween wall at Blockbuster.

Sweeney Todd
Beautiful and properly Tim Burtony, Sweeney Todd fits all the criteria, beginning as a fun romp through dingy, foggy London, and ending up pulling at your heartstrings. Arguably Burton’s most solid work, it's haunting in a deep philosophical and emotional way, with the added bonus of humming along to Depp’s surprising vocal talent.

The Haunting
The 1963 version of Shirley Jackson’s story is delicately terrifying and masterfully uses zero effects to make you afraid of the everyday objects around your house. Stay away from those air vents and the newer Liam Neeson remake!

The Fog
John Carpenter is a master of atmosphere, and this film showcases his talent. The demonic Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s delicious 80’s nostalgia in a freaky, well filmed package.

Event Horizon
“Worst film ever” for some, and greatly misunderstood sci-fi classic to others, the film takes the scarier aspects of Alien and Solaris and fuses them into a horrifying take on the perils of space isolation and time travel.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, this is the closest adaptation of the book and brings out its scariest, most thought provoking aspects. The performances are strong, as is the cinematography. As a bonus, Robert DeNiro’s monster is perfectly pathetic and misunderstood, the ideal foil to showcase Branagh’s Frankenstein's descent into madness.

Session 9
I first saw this low-budget film starring David Caruso (of all actors) on Hulu. Filmed realistically on location in an abandoned psychiatric hospital (the art therapy on the walls and abandoned medical equipment are original), the setting becomes alive, but also gives the film a gritty minimalism that sticks with you beyond the run time and the somewhat straight forward story.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Visually arresting, Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy masterpiece is gorgeous and upsetting, a great backdrop for his inventive and horrifying creatures (baby-eating-eyeballs-in-his-hands monster rings a bell). If you want to avoid the Kleenex box, stick with Hellboy for equal monster quotas, Nazis, and a little more fun.

Every Cronenberg film could be classified as disturbing and Halloween worthy, but Videodrome is by far one of his best and most memorable. With an effecting performance by a young James Woods, and gross out yet fitting effects, the film creeps up on you, as technology creeps up on Max Renn.

Near Dark
Starring a young Adrian Pasdar (Heroes Nathan Petrelli), Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton, this vampire road trip movie through barren Texas is perfectly original, scary, sexy, and well written.

The Ninth Gate
This Roman Polanski thriller follows a rare book dealer (Johnny Depp) as he hunts down a legendary book that may or may not summon the devil. In classic Polanski fashion, the film is more psychological than action packed, and unfolds slowly as it exposes the darkness of the human soul.

From Hell
Based on the Alan Moore graphic novel/historical treatise, the film is stylistically stunning, beautiful, and disturbing as it follows a Victorian detective (Depp again) on the hunt for Jack the Ripper. Throw in Masonic conspiracy, opium dens, and Ian Holm and you get a great slasher that's a bit more sophisticated than typical chainsaw fair.

Stir of Echoes
Hypnosis is supposed to be harmless. But after this thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a father who spirals into obsession when a gateway to the supernatural world is opened in his mind, you might reconsider. Although it follows the typical pattern of, “I see ghosts. What is it they need me to do?” the ride to get there is unsettling and nerve racking.

With an unknown cast, minimal set, and budget, Cube takes away the frills and focuses on the drama. The film is incredibly tense, aided by a dreadful ambiguity and indistinct mathematics that’s delightfully dangled all the way through.

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Dario Argento is the Italian father of the horror and thriller genre, with fanboys as big as John Carpenter and George Romero. Although Plumage is one of his earlier, tamer films, it’s a powerful thriller that showcases his gift for subtle tension and vague terror. Who other than Dorian Gray knew a painting could be so disturbing?

The Descent
Claustrophobic? Disturbed by realistic drama? Hate it when disgusting creatures ruin your innocent, lost-in-a-cave fun? The Descent is one of the scariest films out there. You won't be able to sleep, or visit any caves, anytime soon. It's primal and empowering in the grossest of ways.

Will Vinton's A Claymation Comedy of Horrors
A historical M classic, Will Vinton's Halloween Special has been a tradition at my house since it first aired on TV in 1991. Funny, silly, and inventive, it's a great watch for kids and adults alike as you follow Wilshire Pig and Sheldon Snail to Frankenstein's Laboratory.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Squalor: Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s adaption of Where the Wild Things Are is a somewhat decent retelling of a classic that walks a fine line between beautiful success and disappointing failure, ever so slightly leaning towards the success for its younger audience.
Jonze’s ability to be both surreal and visceral makes the film a must see despite it’s few problems. Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord's imagery is absolutely stunning and beautiful to watch, capturing the imagination and beauty of the original illustrations completely. The settings and characters fuse together seamlessly, a hard thing to find in most fantasy films in which the setting never quite integrates properly. The bird nest-like huts and dazzling fort that the Wild Things create look like alien, organic installation art pieces that any modern art museum would clamor to have, and any child would be proud to claim their own. Carter Burwell’s stunning score, mixed with the bittersweet vocals of Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) further the dark atmosphere of the film, making the image a complete and impressive one.
The acknowledgment of this darkness is the strength of the film. Jonze fully captures and plays upon the rare ability of children to hijack terror, turning it into a game, a friend, and a confidant. Every moment of the film brought me back to my childhood, where just like Max I was stricken with fear and grief over a small comment by a science teacher regarding the eventual death of the sun, or shameful after an outburst against my parents. Sendak's story is a simple one; powerful because in just ten lines its able to capture the innocent anger of childhood. Jonze and Dave Eggers understand the magic of this simplicity. It’s an incredible feeling, something that only a director like Jonze could accomplish without superficial sentimentality.
Despite its beauty, the film has some unfortunate issues. After such an enchanting trip to first meet the Wild Things, hearing their modern day language and cadence is jarring, in stark contrast to the imaginative look of their figures. The voices and dialog of KW (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) and Judith (Cathrine O’Hara doing Catherine O’Hara) are particularly distracting. I can see why Jonze and David Eggers made the choices they did (the Wild Things are supposed to be real examples from Max’s 2009 life) but it doesn’t quite fit. Judith especially, as self-proclaimed, is just a downer. Luckily, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Forest Whittaker, and James Gandolfini are able to create a little more depth and character with their voices, but it still doesn’t do enough to make the dialog more cohesive to the rest of the film.
The film also lags a bit, but not because its slow moving. Max’s experience with the Wild Things is an allegory of his experience with his mother and family. As he discovers the perils and sadness of responsibility, he begins to appreciate his mother, even wishing upon the Wild Things, “I wish you guys had a mom.” There are many moving moments as Max discovers this, specifically when Carol expresses his fear and frustration saying “everything keeps changing,” while Max finds himself unable to comfort the Wild Things and prove to them that everything will be ok, exposing himself just as his mother and every parent before her has had to do when their child realizes that they aren’t all powerful.
But instead of sticking with these powerful moments and keeping it close to the parent child allegory, Jonze and Eggers throw in an awkward, odd, and vaguely romantic (or does it mirror Max and his sister Claire?) relationship between Wild Things KW and Carol. It brings a conflict into the fray that is never fully realized or resolved and feels uncomfortable in a movie devoted to the powerful unconditional love between families. It’s not that the relationship didn’t deserve a place, but Eggers and Jonze seemed to struggle with whether or not they thought it did, leaving the film disjointed and sluggish whenever the subject was brought up.
Despite these flaws, the film retains visual magic. I immediately ran home and hugged both my parents in respect of all they’ve done for me and their power to still make things ok, even after 25 years. Younger audiences will have no trouble getting beyond the films flaws (if they notice them at all), and will be enchanted for the rest of their lives. I wanted to like you Wild Things, I really did. You just couldn't do it for me despite your beautiful face.

Read more from M @What's the Use of a Book
Read Wilde.Dash's review.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love: Where the Wild Things Are

So apparently Where the Wild Things Are is one of those movies that divides people so completely, and in such unexpected ways, that it's thoroughly impossible to predict the reaction of the person sitting right next to you. Over at Entertainment Weekly, the reviewers are having a blowout. Elsewhere on the internet, daft people have assumed the film is an obnoxious representation of some sort of hipster angst. A New Sincerist travesty of melancholy with Dave Eggers at the wheel. At work, people think the film is just dull. Between my normally easily charmed parents: one thinks the film is a little dark for kids, the other thinks it's too childish for adults. This is the general debate, of course, whether the film is an adult film masquerading as children's fare, or something appropriate for kids. Alright, let me set the record straight.

One: all of the best family films appeal to all ages. I'm sure if The Wizard of Oz was made today it would be released to an uproar of overprotective parents crying foul as Dorothy wandered through a world ruled by a figurehead, terrorized by shrew of a woman with a band of incomplete projections of neighbors and relatives. Two: give your kids some credit. They're likely familiar with concepts like divorce and loneliness, and guess what? Most of them actually quite like large furry monsters. Crazy, right? Don't project your own uncertainties and views of the events in the film onto your children. They don't see what you see in the film, and they're capable of processing something other than fart jokes. Three: i'm pretty sure if you don't understand this film you've completely lost touch with what it was actually like to be a kid. This is not. I repeat, NOT, hipster posturing. Where the Wild Things Are is an honest, sad, and beautiful film that does a remarkable job adapting what a young boy took from Maurice Sendak's brief picture book for the big screen. It feels, at every turn, like a labor of love.
Director Spike Jonze has been attached to this project in some capacity since before 2005, and thank god for it. Jonze understood the delicate nature of the project, and the reverence the book is held in for the children who grew up with it. What could have, in the hands of Dreamworks animation studios or a Michael Bay megalomaniac, become a disaster of CGI antics and overwhelming schtick is instead a love note not merely to Sendak and the Wild Things, but to childhood. He takes the plight of 9-year old Max (Max Records) seriously, never trivializing the weight and repercussions of the situation in the boy's mind. We are shown the events leading up to Max's flight of fantasy, and I was moved by how relatable they felt, how many times I'd been that person or seen that happen to someone else. Every snowball fight, every accidental nose bleed came rushing back. For me, it was like Proust's madeleine, and it hit me. Hard. Yet, my personal reaction has little to do with the merit of the film itself. The movie doesn't just manage to make Max a three-dimensional character, Jonze also, as I'm sure you're well aware by now, takes the Wild Things themselves quite seriously. As possibly imaginary projections of Max's psyche, they bicker and fight, alternating between highs and lows and bursts of energy. They're hulking beasts with children's souls, unaware of the pain that they're capable of inflicting, but preternaturally aware of the injustices done to them. Carol (James Gandolfini) is prone to destructive fits of melancholic rage. He wants to keep the Things together, and doesn't know how to allow KW (Lauren Ambrose) to make room in her life for more. Judith (Catherine O'Hara), believes that everyone is out to get her, she can't deal with coming in second. Alexander (Paul Dano), suffers from a lack of self-worth. He believes that no one ever pays attention to him, and acts out accordingly. This is a new kind of storybook monster: one who isn't scary because of the size of their teeth, but who instead is worrisome simply because its ego is so fragile.
Monsters like this are difficult. They're difficult because they're real, we see them as ourselves where we would rather see fantasy. Yet, the way they've been brought to life is astounding, their physical and emotional presence something to be reckoned with. Records and the 9-foot tall Henson Company produced puppets interact in a way that's flowing and natural. Everything about the progression of events seems unforced. Records, too, is something of a revelation. He never comes across as cheeky or cloying. He's an innocent, reacting accordingly to situations as they occur. If the boy isn't actually having the time of his life on Jonze's set, he's probably deserving of an Academy Award. Here, at last, is a movie that portrays children as they are. Not as ignorant, harmless, cutesy pieces of furniture to be used for comic relief, but as small people slowly learning the ins-and-outs of being human. Nobody can be happy all of the time, and some things can't be changed with a simple proclamation. Life isn't always a wild rumpus, and while many of life's problems go away with everyone harmoniously sleeping in a big pile, they'll just return come morning. The film's emotional core is one of heartache and frustration, ultimately optimistic, but in a way slightly more resigned than it was going in.
The doubters, however, will find a foothold in the fact that the film is paced a little slowly. It's less children's movie than meditation on children, and while it's exquisite throughout, for those not content to take in the scenery, it might not be quite the wild terrain expected. Otherwise, Where the Wild Things Are has all the makings of a classic. It's a breathtaking, timeless work of art that is a tribute to the talents of all of its creators, from Sendak to Jonze to the smallest of actors. While it's sure to cause derision, let the haters hate. The people who fall in love with this film will cherish it and keep it alive for generations to come.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Directorial Drama: Wes Anderson

In the interview below, Wes Anderson discusses the social and stylistic difficulties with filming the upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the hipster fashion craze he may or may not have created.

Late Night Trailers: Black Dynamite

Love: A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers, with the exception of one film (I’m assuming I don’t need to remind you of the frustrating Burn After Reading) never disappoint in the their delivery of intriguing stories, incredible performances, and hilarious comedic antics wedged in the midst of dark sadism. But with A Serious Man, they outdo even their best work, unearthing true cinematic excellence with a pervading sense of existential doom to create a lyrical masterpiece.

The trailer foreshadowed the film's tone with its hypnotic beat, a clock exponentially counting down, a rhythm present in every scene and splice of the film. The subtle tension it builds as victim and passive protagonist Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg who melts into the role) life spirals into oblivion, prevents the story from slipping into the boring or schlocky, and fully grounds the often overly zany Coen humor (at best in the Big Lebowski, at its worst in Burn After Reading).

Our recent pop culture obsession with the sixties is a powerful one. The suburban disillusionment, waning economy, and struggle with new freedoms visible every Sunday night during Mad Men, something we can all currently relate to. The Coen's play fully upon this familiarity, show-casing the starkness of the flat suburbs and the clean concrete lines of the college where Larry works. Even the Synagogue is perfectly paneled with the kind of stifling interior you’d rip out immediately if given the chance.

While the vision is bleak, it is also beautiful. The brothers skillfully mix a strong sense of mystical Jewish culture (the prequel starring Fyvush Finkel as a possible dybbuk, who I’m convinced may actually be one in real life, sets the initial tone), and find a strange reluctant splendor in the suburban Midwest landscape through brilliant cinematography. As in their previous works like No Country For Old Men, they prove again that they understand atmosphere and how it can make a movie. There is something haunting in the echo of opera through the perfectly ordered house as Larry and his mentally off brother (Richard Kind showing off his dramatic acting chops) share the living room sofa, or when his young son practices for his Bar Mitzvah with the the F-Troop on in the background. The frightening mystery of science, physics, and mathematics is also expertly woven into the religious and philosophical fabric of the film, making its punch even greater in force. No existential curiosity goes unquestioned.

Seething underneath, you can sense the primal power of God, fate, or chance (whatever you decide to call it). But despite all Larry goes through, the Coen's seem to leave the nature and intentions of that force up for interpretation.

This “show,” don’t “tell” attitude makes all the difference. As Gopnik glides through the film with only a slight neurotic unraveling invisible to his wife seeking a divorce, his religious leaders, coworkers, and lifeless children, you laugh at the disgusting hilarity of his situation, but also cringe, as the powers of the universe seem to take particular joy in destroying the short time that Larry has on this earth. As anyone whose experienced the heavy hand of said "powers that be" can tell you, that’s exactly what it feels like. There are moments of conspiracy, in which you assume that everyone but you seems in on the joke. Each step seems to lead to another catastrophe, a descent into madness that often leaves you laughing and puzzled more than angry. Like Larry you seek help, in a book or a religious counselor, in friends. You question what you’ve been doing wrong, you move forward. You wonder what the future holds. But like Larry, you never know if the cat is alive or dead, or if it even matters; a Coen message at its very best.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Love: Antichrist

Antichrist, the movie that has divided critics and shocked the excitable crowds in its infamous premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is all that you've read and more. It's a film worthy of lengthy treatises and careful analysis just as much as it's a deliberate exercise in the art of provocation. Lars Von Trier knows this. The first flicker on screen reads 'Lars Von Trier' 'Antichrist'. No directed by, no possessive form, merely a statement. For at least 95% of the population, that statement is destined to become fact. Anyone capable of bringing a story this horrific, this visceral, this uncompromisingly dark to the screen, must simply be Satan incarnate.
At its most basic, Antichrist is the tale of a couple experiencing some marital difficulties. Yes, this is the biggest understatement of the century for a film that plunges its viewers rapidly through all nine circles of hell, but believe me when I tell you the core of the plot is remarkably simple. A married couple loses their son, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experiences intensely traumatic grief, He (Willem Dafoe) attempts to help her through it via cognitive behavioral therapy (which Von Trier himself, a victim of intense phobias, is no stranger to). In his attempts to treat her, they travel to Eden, their cabin in an isolated woods. Needless to say, his plan backfires. To the extreme. There are no subplots, no extra characters, no distractions. The viewer is fully immersed in the intense despair and emotional darkness of the situation. It weighs heavy, slowly building in tension to an explosive second half. This isn't a movie you can (or should) walk into blindly. It's also not a film most people should ever consider even watching. Seriously. If you aren't sure about it, don't watch it. Don't even start watching it.
To say Antichrist is the most effective horror movie I've ever seen is a truth, but a misleading one. The horror in this film is one governed by chaos and despair. It's a film with the potential to psychologically damage its viewer. The gore is too abundant for the average art house Von Trier fanatic, the artier elements, and severe emotional component, make it inaccessible to the average gore-hound. There's nothing fun about this film. It's emotional pornography. Graphic on all counts. Antichrist puts you through a wringer of shock and pathos. By the time [spoiler alert] Gainsbourg's deranged character screws a grindstone to Dafoe's leg and performs an epically disturbing bit of of his and her's on-screen genital mutilation, jacking off a prosthetic that spits blood and semen, you should be terrified. Not because it's especially frightening (though it's certainly more than a little cringe worthy), but because the film has established itself as existing in a world entirely without limits.
Strangely, in spite of the innumerable horrors, Antichrist is an incredibly beautiful film. Quite literally stunning. In many ways it's a spectacular achievement. The acting, unrehearsed, is electric. Charlotte Gainsbourg's portrayal of grief and madness spans far beyond basic histrionics. Her anxiety is palpable. She shakes, contorts, and fully puts herself at the mercy of the film. If she's ignored by the Academy this year in favor of that Hilary Swank bio-pic, it'll be a travesty. Additionally, Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is lush and dazzling, capturing the disquiet of nature and the eerie calm of the waking dream sequences. Slow motion hasn't been used to capture such remarkable results since Neo manipulated the matrix. Acting and visuals aside, there's something amid the madness and mythology that resonates as true.
Antichrist is a startling cinematic representation of the deepest depths of despair. It's nihilistic, brutal, and filled with the heaviest of tragedies. Of Von Trier's films, this is perhaps his strongest statement, certainly the most effecting. Where Dogville and Dancer in the Dark feel less like films than textbooks on film theory, Antichrist is a solid work, and in many ways a perversely entertaining piece of cinema. It keeps the tension up and the viewer thoroughly hypnotized. Early claims that this was the director's on-screen mental breakdown are valid, though if this is the product of insanity he should consider reaching the event horizon more often. At the Chicago International Film Fest screening I attended, Dafoe spoke of his knowledge of Lars Von Trier's struggles with depression and the director's rather wry outlook on the film. The way Dafoe sees it, any issues of the director's rumored misogyny are to be disregarded. Where the female issues presented in the film leave room for discussion, Gainsbourg's maniacal grief seems an expression aligned with the director's own psychology, not a debilitating fear of female empowerment.
An exercise in cruelty and profound despair, its been days since I've viewed the film and I can't seem to shake it. Every scene is burned into my memory. It's left its mark. I'm both in awe and thoroughly shaken. I can't recommend Antichrist to you. You have to make that decision on your own. As suggested, there's nothing pleasant to be found here, even the folkloric animals leave a bad taste in one's mouth, and for those dealing with psychological issues of their own, avoidance may be, no, is the best policy. What I can say is that the film is jarring, an impressive reminder of the power and capability of art and the reach of cinema. I've a new found respect for Von Trier's creative vision and his fearless execution of a story set so deep dangerous terrain. When the credits rolled I applauded like my life depended on it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Love: Hipsters

According to Hipsters director Valeiry Todorovskiy, musicals aren't so big in Russia. In fact, it might be safe to say that his film is the first real successful attempt. Hipsters deals with the Stilyagi, young people who defied Soviet communist rule in the 1950's by adopting an idealized American style. They peacock in pompadours and brightly colored mismatched threads against a sea of drab greys, getting Charlie Parker albums on the black market and having raucous parties where the liquor flows and so does the free love. The film was a solid hit in its home country (where its title is Stilyagi) last year, and has been making the rounds at international film festivals this year, hoping to be picked up for North American distribution.
The film follows Mels (Anton Shagin), a university student whose life is a series of communist activities. His idea of an eventful evening is assisting in raiding hipster parties, catching dissidents while repressed leader Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya) cuts at their fancy duds with a pair of scissors. Then he meets the lovely Polina (Oksana Akinshina), a pretty young thing who outsmarts him and introduces him to the charms of freewheeling and fetishized Americana. Soon, Mels is 'Mel', he's learning the saxophone, partying on 'Broadway' with 'Polly', 'Fred', 'Bob' and the gang, taking dance lessons and shaking off bystanders who claim he's a traitor.

Hipsters is at heart a feel good movie that triumphs individualism. In this respect, it's a crowd pleaser and sure to strike a cord with American audiences. It's vibrant, endearing, consistently upbeat, and beautifully filmed all while casting a critical glance at Russia's relatively recent political past. Todorovskiy is making a profound statement in casting these misfits as heroes. In fact, following the movie's presentation at the Chicago International Film Festival he suggested that within Russia the population is still holding itself back. The people don't want to be free, they suffer from a certain amount of self-oppression. In effect, the Stilyagi still have much to teach Russia about dancing to its own rhythm. It's a rather beautiful thought, and seemed to resonate with an audience primarily of excited Russian ex-pats, including a 75-year old woman who congratulated Todorovskiy on an accurate presentation of her own girlhood.

Yet, I'm not so sure the film will resonate with a general English-speaking audience. Its spirit is infectious, this much is true. And there's no doubt it's cinematographically sparkling and the musical numbers are fun to watch...but I couldn't shake the feeling that something was getting lost in translation. The plot is a little uneven, failing to give certain characters a fair amount of characterization while hinting at the back story of others. Several plot lines don't feel effectively wrapped up by the films conclusion. Without revealing any spoilers, there's a hopeful song sequence at the end that's tainted by a handful of unfortunate events and the revealing of unexpected information. Plus, admittedly, there's always something about reading subtitled forced rhymes while listening to a song that can't quite reconcile itself in my mind. Yet...Hipsters is fun. Jumpy, yes, but fun. It's likable. And sometimes likability outweighs a little bit of logic. It feels like the most saccharine elements of Cry-Baby met the underdog gravitas of Slumdog Millionaire and had a little Soviet lovechild. Here's hoping that one day, you'll get to see more than the un-subtitled snippets on Youtube. By the way: here's my favorite song from the flick:

Love: A Serious Man

Somehow, along the way, the Coen Brothers became synonymous with quality filmmaking. This is, of course, in spite of the largely held view that about 1/2 of their movies are the cinematic equivalent of a grab bag gift. You can reach in all optimistic until you grab the Salad Shooter (yes, for some reason the Salad Shooter will always be the epitome of as seen on TV schlock for me) and leave the party disappointed and angry. My problem with the Coens is that so many of their films tend to rely on a formulaic approach to organized chaos. Cast of assorted characters, small tastes of noir intrigue, sudden burst of unexpected violence, ambiguous ending, roll credits. They're masters of making the unpredictable predictable, and stick to their guns at the expense of the story. Which is why I'm happy, no, overjoyed to announce that A Serious Man hardly feels like a Coen Brothers film at all. It feels pure, more akin to their earlier works, untouched by A-list stars. It's also a seriously good movie.
Michael Stuhlbarg, a relative newcomer with a series of small television appearances, puts in a starmaking performance as Larry Gopnick, a physics professor operating in mathematical proofs while his life is playing out like a test of Murphy's Law. His wife is leaving him for a serious man, his live-in brother is teetering on the edge of insanity, his son is smoking pot in the Hebrew school bathroom, his daughter wants a nose job, his student is trying to bribe him, I won't tell you the rest. It's 1967, the world is in turmoil, Grace Slick provides the backing vocals to an escalating series of calamities. Gopnick is a modern day Job, being tested and put through the wringer, forced to seek counsel and solace in a trio of nonsense spewing rabbis. For anyone with casual Judaism in their background, or with enough Jewish acquaintances, it's fully loaded with a familiar sardonic tone. A certain instilled fear of the powers that be and the reticent self-loathing created by a suburban life surrounded by gentiles.Yet, it avoids the traps of stereotyping and instead gracefully uses that which is familiar as the ground work for a story rich in characterization and heavy with sly humor. Stuhlbarg is phenomenal, playing his character with enough warmth to keep us caring. He's never a sad sack or a loser, but always a little optimistic, a little cheeky, plugging away at his life and career even as life continues to spin into rapid decline. Stuhlbarg's not the only strong suit, either. Each actor is an exemplar of pitch perfect casting. Sari Lennick, as Larry's wife Judith, is appropriately menacing. The look on her face is one of permanent icy contempt. Fred Melamed, too, is a scene-grabber. As Judith's lover Sy Ableman, he's a pompous man with a silver tongue, who inserts himself seamlessly into the Gopnick family with a bear hug and the condescending delivery of a bottle of wine. Even the kids are remarkably deadpan, carrying out their small rivalry without veering towards any sign of overacting.
I'm in the camp that enjoyed No Country For Old Men, but I will not hesitate to claim that A Serious Man is the Coen's best film in over a decade. 1998's The Big Lebowski was the last slam dunk of theirs in my book, and A Serious Man is every bit as humorous and effective. Really. This is a serious return to form marked by a cast of brilliant unknowns, a meandering approach to the metaphysical and philosophical conundrums of modern living, and (as usual) some solid cinematography. While it doesn't scream box office success, I suspect it will most certainly be taking up one of the ten spaces on the list of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Love: Zombieland

You know what i love? Zombie movies. It's not so much about the blood, guts and terror they inspire as it is about how easy it is to squeeze comedy out of the living dead. Well, that and the occasional philosophical consideration of how zombies are not only possible (yes, i have prepared for the zombie apocalypse) but an apt representation of the current state of affairs for the human race (particularly in America). Plus, there's something to be said about how cathartic it is to watch deserving humanoid killers get knocked off in droves. No one can fault a character for bashing in skulls if the victim happened to be going for your jugular seconds before. Alas, I'm getting off topic. Let's get to it: Zombieland, Zombieland how do I love you? Let me count the ways.
Zombieland achieves that which is perhaps most difficult in cinema: a successful blending of comedy, action, gore and brains that stays perpetually upbeat and doesn't become a victim of its own absurdity. This is perhaps first and foremost thanks to its atypical cast of characters, and the actors chosen to portray them. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is our leading man and narrator, a scrawny college kid whose life prior to the spread of a zombie plague had consisted mostly of video games and isolation. He lives his life according to a series of rules for survival, traveling light with a single suitcase and a gun at his side. Along the way he teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) a rough and tumble zombie killing enthusiast hoping for little more than the last Twinkie on Earth (believe it or not, they have an expiration date). Add to it a pair of smart-mouthed sister grifters Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone & Abigail Breslin) and you've got a movie that could have easily been a formulaic teeny-bopper story. One adult, two semi-adults, and a kid on the run from monsters. Yet, even if it didn't have gratuitous amounts of blood, Zombieland would still manage to evade the traps set up for it. The characters are survivors, not because they're unbelievably stoic or off-the-wall caricatures, but because they're clever people with realistic dilemmas. Sure there are some obvious visual gags and familiar tropes, but these aren't 2-dimensional action heroes who get off on one liners and crude puns. These are small heroes seeking a way to get by, throughout the trials and tribulations of a zombie infestation, incalculable loss, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Director Ruben Fleischer executes his first major film with exuberance and ease. There's nary a moment in its 81-minute run where Zombieland feels forced, labored, or at all dull. In fact, it's safe to say that it's as charming as it is awesome. It's a mad cap fun house, a roller coaster, the whole damn amusement park. Simply put: it's fun, not in a way that felt like empty entertainment, but in a way that's almost comforting. There's something about this particular brand of schlocky horror merged with the pleasant natures of the characters that makes me smile just thinking about it. Maybe it's a certain brand of nostalgia, maybe it's the cheery suspension of disbelief, maybe it's the brilliantly positioned Bill Murray cameo, but there's something about Zombieland and its unlikely heroes that I can unabashedly own up not to liking, but to loving.
Is it a guilty pleasure? Possibly. Though I think it's legitimately better than that. This is artfully crafted, truly solid entertainment that's paced perfectly. The zombies appear when necessarily, external plot devices are brought in for humorous effect, the opening credits are a slow-motion blood ballet, and Jesse Eisenberg's neurotic presence brings a much needed wit and wisdom to the genre. Frankly, while the weapons may appear too readily available, there's a few quick coincidences, and Stone & Breslin's characters could use just a tad more screen time, the faults of the film are minimal. It may not be a great work of art, but it's sure as hell worth dropping cash on at the theater.

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