Film 2010 #5 – A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

The film begins with a prologue, where a Jewish couple, some time in the late 18th/early 20th century are presented with a conundrum. A rabbi has appeared at their door after an invitation from the husband. However, the wife has heard that this rabbi died three years before and believes what is in their home is a dybbuk, a sort of Jewish demon. The prologue is presented in a way that leaves both the possibility of the rabbi being who he claims and being the dybbuk equally valid. Thus, the film links itself to the paradox of Schroedinger’s Cat.

Set in 1967, the plot focuses on college mathematics professor Larry Gopnik. Larry is a modern day Job, having his wife ask for a divorce, her new lover passive-aggressively maneuvering his way into the home, two teenage children who could care less about him, a student bribing for a higher grade, and general disdain from all those around him.

For this latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the duo have departed from casting big name actors and have opted for a melange of recognizable character actors and stage performers. The film is highly steeped in Jewish culture and likely contains many autobiographical elements. It is highly impressive that the same minds behind No Country For Old Men and The Big Lebowski are able to deftly move between almost genre of film and produce work of superb quality. A Serious Man is no exception, despite its drastic casting shifts.

There is a lot of pay close attention to in this film, and the way the story ends is inevitably going to frustrate those viewers who like loose ends tied up. A key piece to getting the most out of the film is keep many of the stories told, including the prologue in mind. It’s mentioned in the film, that in Judaism stories and folktales are a crucial part of understanding the challenges placed before a person. There are many stories told in this film and all of them have themes and ideas that play out in the climax of the film.

I found A Serious Man to be one of the most intellectually rewarding of the Coens’ work, which says a lot when you look at the quality of their career. It’s in their continuing tradition of going completely against the grain and expectations of their audience, and its concepts and questions will linger with you for days and weeks to follow.


Film 2009 #199 – Precious

Precious (2009, dir. Lee Daniels)
Starring Gabby Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd

I waited a long time to see this film, not because I lacked interest in its subject matter, but, because of my time in inner city schools, I knew it was going to affect me in a rough way. I have worked with primarily African-American students in low income situations and, while many of them come from loving families that give support in the best ways they know how, there are also a fair share that are stuck in multi-generational cycles of destructive parenting.

The story follows Precious, a 16-year old living in 1987 New York City, repeating the 7th grade, and in the middle of her second pregnancy. Her mother, Mary, is incredibly abusive towards Precious which stems from the fact that her husband is the father of Precious’ two children, the first of which was born with Down’s syndrome. After the discovery of her second pregnancy, Precious is moved to a special school for struggling students in an effort to get her a GED. Her mother is threatened by this, believing it will result in her welfare benefits being removed and becomes increasingly more vicious.

This is a hard film to talk about, especially from the perspective of a white American male. I don’t necessarily believe I feel white guilt but I definitely feel a sympathy for the African-American community from my first hand experiences working with their students. For the majority of the film, Mary represents a very extreme type of person, and in reality transcends race. There are plenty of white parents, many of whom I have encountered here in the South who develop a resentment of their offspring as a result of wretched economic circumstances. Mo’Nique delivers a performance I never would have expected out of her, especially during her final monologue where we finally get some solid information about Precious’ upbringing.

A lot of critics are worried that Lee Daniels’ portrayal of African-Americans is helping to feed a terrible stereotype of the community. I completely understand those fears because, seen through the eyes of a filmgoer who does not critically view cinema (and sadly many of them don’t, as evidenced by the success of Avatar), this could reinforce negativity. I like to the view as an piece of honest encouragement to African-American youth. The film doesn’t resolve everything in a pretty bow, but it does show a strong black female character who, with a support system, manages to make things better for herself and is determined to continue to make things better.

Film 2009 #195 – Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are (2009, dir. Spike Jonze)
Starring Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker

Taking up only around a dozen pages, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seemed more appropriate as an animated short, rather than a live action feature. Thanks to the creative genius of Spike Jonze, the story was able to be fleshed out further without losing the themes and tone of the picture book. Instead of opting for the current trend of CG animation, Jonze turned to an older and more conventional method by hiring the Henson Creature Shop to design and construct full body suits of the Wild Things. The result is a film that says as much to adults as it does children.

The story, familiar to most, is very simple: Young Max is stomping around the house in his monster suit, bites his mother and is punished. Instead of Max’s bedroom transforming into the forest, Jonze sends Max into the real woods and to a scenario that causes us to ask whether he actually experienced this or not. Max ends up on an island, populated by giant monsters which Max quickly conquers as their king. In the world of the film, a conflict arises between two Wild Things: KW and Carol. This provides the crux of the drama in the film and parallels the typically volatile relationship Max experiences with his sister.

Jonze creates a tone that very few children’s films possess; a tone of honesty. Max behaves like a real child, not a Disney-fied picture of perfection or precociousness. Max has his own sense of illogical, child-like logic and reacts with violent emotion. Author Sendak has commented, about the original text, that it was meant to speak to children about being angry and not play to the wants of parents. The voices of the Wild Things are also filtered through Max as well and represent both the different sides of his personality as well as the way he sees people in his life.

Many parents complained that the film was too dark but I see it as no darker than the original story. I think many parents fail to realize the honesty of Sendak’s text, which in turn makes it a “dark” story in comparison to the false sunniness of many children’s stories. I also think, unlike films such as Shrek and Madagascar and films of that kind, Where the Wild Things Are has true intellectual “nutritive value”. Jonze has made a film that will provide something new and valuable to audiences as they grow older.

What’s to come

Posting from Gate C3 in the Nashville International Airport

Updates are gonna be few and far between till around Jan. 12th. Will be in the sunny winter sun of San Juan, Puerto Rico for the holidays. I will try to find time to write up and post my 10 favorite films I saw in 2009 (Remember, they can be from any year, simply films I had never seen before 2009). Will also, finish up the three part look back on my “decade in love with movies” in 2010.

As for 2010, I am already thinking about some new things to write up for this that go beyond the standard single movie reviews. You can be looking forward to:

– Director Retrospective – John Sayles (Have never seen a film by this man, but his name comes up often, figured I could take you through my thoughts on his work).

– One new hypothetical film festival every two weeks

– Going to pick a genre of film and do an indepth analysis of it (open to suggestions)

– Three part essay on the Sundance Film Festival

– A look at the James Dean Trilogy (East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant)

– And Obscure Classics, beginning with the overlooked sequel to Rocky Horror; Shock Treatment

Hope everyone has a great Xmas and New Year

A Decade in Love with Movies (or I am the Proust of the Silver Screen) – 2000 – 2002 – Puppy Love

I have been a film geek since childhood. I was read to from a very early age and I credit that with my love of narrative. Even in given presentations as an adult in my graduate studies, I feel more comfortable presenting representative anecdotes that dry data or broad theory. I am a big believer that all of our lives are parallels to the myriad of master plots presented by Misters Jung and Campbell.

My earliest memories of film are attached to three things: The Wizard of Oz, Superman The Movie, and Ghostbusters. On contemplating my memories of Ghostbusters, I surprised myself, realizing that the film came out in 1984 and my parents rented the VHS tape before 1986 (we were still living in Illinois at the time), making me around four years old when I first encountered the picture. The Ivan Reitman directed film obviously had a profound impact on my early psyche and years later when the sequel was released I remember putting together a makeshift proton pack (backpack + yarn + cardboard paper towel tube) and ghost trap (shoebox + yarn).

For the longest time, my love of film was relegated to the mainstream cinema, and in particular films rated PG-13 or lower. My only exposure to an unedited R-rated film came when my father rented the original Die Hard without checking the box. That stands as my earliest memory of hearing the word “fuck” on film. As a teenager, I could feel my curiosity spurned on by a notion that there were movies out there that was life-altering yet I had not had access to them yet. Large tomes from the public library that outlined cinema from its inception in the late 19th century on through the late 1990s gave me production still glances of films that were like mysteries to me; forbidden but attainable eventually.

My first weekend of college (August 1999) I ended up at the theater with a cluster of people whom I would remain friends with till the end of college, some did of course fall by the wayside. The film we saw was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. For the rest of the decade, I would see each of Mr. Shyamalan’s pictures in the theater, with wavering levels of enjoyment. Months later I would see David Fincher’s Fight Club, a film that while I still appreciate it, has lost its magic for me in the following years.

For the first third of 2000, I can recall only seeing Pitch Black in the theater. It’s a film whose craftsmanship I can still appreciate, but will probably never end up on any favorite lists of mine. The majority of film I was seeing occurred in dorm rooms and dorm lobbies. I remember watching the The Matrix with a group of friends in the lobby of a girls’ dorm and having one young lady, whom I did think was very cute, sidle up closer and lay her head on my shoulder. I distinctively remember looking across to the other couch, to my roommate whom was cracking up at my nervous naïveté. This is another recurring theme in my love of cinema, emotional moments connected to specific films.

My summer between terms in 2000, I saw X-Men in the theaters. And upon returning to college in the fall, I remember a film that stands as the moment where I began to develop a true taste in film. It was a Friday evening and, as most Friday evenings, the debate was underway in the cafeteria on what to do for entertainment. The group settled on movies but that it when the true debate began. Looking back, it seems strange that the majority of girls in our group would lobby to go see the hackneyed Urban Legend slasher flick, while the boys pushed for Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. The middle ground that was decided on was The Watcher, an epically forgettable Keanu Reeves/James Spader flick. As if by fate, the audio in the film was atrocious and the entire audience became very frustrated. Someone complained so, that after the film was over, an employee of the Regal 27 stood at the door handing out apologetic free passes. My friend Brent and I immediately turned to our cohorts and announced we would be going to see Almost Famous, right then and there. I have loved the film ever since.

The next key moment in my growth was to come in November, after returning from Thanksgiving break and seeing Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and being amazed. I literally cried in the final ten minutes of the film, an act I don’t do often now attributable to “overexposure” to cinema, at the beauty of the comic book story being told in such a human and quiet way. I was hooked. During the following spring, I would begin my treks to the nearby theater on Saturdays, seeing movies on my own and theater hopping.

I had a physical thirst for something the films provided, possibly experiences so beyond on my and, most likely, a closer examination of things I felt were somehow true, yet was unable to verbalize or communicate in any tangible way. I would fall in love Amelie, wish to explore the Tenebaums’ home, weep at the pain of David the android, obsess on the mystery of the tragic Darko family, and experience a multitude of emotions. It was first love, new and fresh and exciting, yet also heart wrenching when reality sets in, and a process of learning about myself more than anyone or thing else. As my maturity in understanding love developed, so too did my maturity in understanding film.

Film 2009 #188 – Sauna

Sauna (2008, dir. Antti-Jussi Annila)

During the late 16th century, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire went to war. During this period, Sweden wished to expand its borders and found an enemy with the Russians, whose religious hierarchy clashed with Sweden’s. Eventually King Gustav of Sweden and Russian Emporer Ivan the IVth came to a tenuous peace that hinged on a rewriting of the borders of the two lands. A joint cartography mission was established with one group heading south, the other north, with plans to meet in the middle. The group heading north never made it to the rendezvous and this film speculates as to why.

Knut and Erik Spore are the Swedish half to the Northern bound cartography team, mapping the new boundaries of the two lands through desolate plains and rotting forests. Erik is haunted by his years fighting in the war against Russia and would like to have nothing to do with their partners on this mission. On their journey, a disturbing incident occurs where Erik discovers a family housing them are Russian sympathizers. With the Russian half of the mission camped out of sight, Erik brutally stabs the peasant father to death and Knut, after lusting over the daughter, locks her in a cellar to be abandoned. A few miles down river they come to the swamp, an area no one is anxious to explore. In they go, only to find a village not recorded on any of the previous maps, full of elderly peasants who seem unable to die. Sitting in the midst of the bog, is a plan white sauna house, which seems to beckon young Knut and troubles Erik. It is inevitable that sins will paid out in this barren place.

Sauna is a masterpiece. I am repeatedly amazed at the skill with which small budget, foreign language pictures shame the tripe being cranked out of the Hollywood machine. It is apparent that there is a strong historical spine to this film that I am frustrated to not be fully aware of. It makes sense that our social studies textbooks focus on the key regions and more profound empires, but when seeing films like this it makes me wish I knew more specifics about many of the overlooked societies.

There is a strong division between the religious beliefs of the Russian and Swedes, with Erik discovering Russian Orthodox imagery of the Virgin Mary in a peasant’s house being enough for him to stab the man over seventy time in the face. The Russian military dress is much more regal, in contrast to the plain leather and straps of the Swedish soldiers. It is apparent that these cultural groups find little to agree on. That is until the discovery of this mysterious village in the swamp. What is brought out of all the men is the deeper, ingrained pagan superstitions of the region. Christianity becomes a veneer lain over their peoples, but what they truly fear are the primal evils that have been in the earth for millenia.

Sauna is the story of soldiers burdened by sins, committed without thought. Once removed from their sins, they begin to contemplate them and the guilt devours them in the end. All of this is dressed a pared down supernatural motif that refrains from playing its cards until the final thirty minutes of the film. The horror revealed in the end is magnificent in its bleakness and underscored by a comment made by a young Russian soldier earlier in the film. He posits that fire is a cleansing force, so would it not be more appropriate for Hell to be a place covered in filth.