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A Serious Man

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So close on the heel of one personal film (Where The Wild Things Are) comes this very, very personal film from the Coen brothers. So personal, I never felt a part of it. I have come to be a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen over the years, appreciating their taste for regional language, interesting faces, and ambling set-ups. A Serious Man starts out as so many of their films do, with interesting characters becoming enmeshed in interesting situations. Unlike most of their films, however, A Serious Man appears to go nowhere.

Larry Gopnik (the fabulous Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered physics teacher hovering at the lingering ends of the cultural 1950s well after the leading edge of the late 1960’s is already underway. It’s the end of the suburban dream and the beginning of the sexual revolution, but Larry is late to that party. Gradually, personal problems go from petty vexations to real tribulations and Larry stumbles impotently through it all. His life devolves before his eyes like a sand castle in a hurricane. His crisis of faith takes him to see the counsel of three rabbis, and he never seems to lose hope that al this chaos must conceal some plan, some greater purpose, but he’s driven batty by not knowing what that plan is. His life resembles that of Job, but he’s like Candide in his simplicity – surely, this is how it should be — but with the Jewish academics’ need to know why. He’s a phsyics teacher whose world can be explained by neat, simple math, until now. He doesn’t seem deserving of his fate, unless sheer spinelessness is a crime.

Stuhlbarg is a theatre veteran who plays Gopnik with tremulous urgency and meek bewilderment. He is instantly sympathetic and we ride every emotional peak and valley with him effortlessly. He is definitely the best thing about this film. As always, all the Coen actors are well cast and give good performances, but Stuhlbarg is particularly affecting. His nemesis, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) embodies that clueless narcissistic infantile adult of that era, trying to navigate freaky new waters by embracing them without thought. The other actors were great, especially Larry’s wife, first-time film actor Sari Lennick. Her character was so exasperating but so solid, I forgot how much I hated her in my enthusiasm for the actress.

The problem I had with the movie is this: Larry’s terrible travails all seemed to open dozens of interesting narrative doors but no one ever follows them, and so most of them hardly even resolve, never mind figure into the big picture. In a scene you might seize on a glowing ember of possibility and go, “ah ha! This is where the story will take us next,” but then it never does. Like the story of the goy’s teeth, we get interesting threads but empty teases. A few arcs come back to earth but so many remain in orbit. I don’t need a rom-com bow on the top, but I’d like to have some of my emotional investment in these tales have a point. If the whole thing is an extended Jewish fable to illustrate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, well, thanks for nothing.

A Serious Man is steeped in Yiddish culture and suffering and slang and I felt left behind pretty quickly despite knowing some of the things they were talking about. A fable-like prologue set in a long-ago shtetl left me struggling to connect their story with his. Maybe I am too dumb for the Coens nowadays, or maybe I am just too Gentile for this movie. Perhaps the emperor is actually wearing clothes and I just can’t see them. Either way, I came out of the movie theatre feeling disgruntled and a little cheated. See it for Stuhlberg and Lennick, and for Roger Deakin’s unfailing cinematic eye, but save your money.

MPAA Rating R-language, drug use, some sexuality, nudity, violence

Release date 10/2/09

Time in minutes 105

Director Joel and Ethan Coen

Studio Focus Features

The Invention of Lying

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Ricky Gervais was himself reason enough to see the Invention of Lying, but I was also interested by the premise.  Without having given it much thought before entering the theatre, while watching, I was perpetually reminded of the fruitful nature of what seems so simple: In a world where no one is capable of uttering anything that isn’t true, one man (co-writer/co-director/star Gervais) suddenly develops the capacity to lie.  Mayhem ensues, right?  The preview implies that he rushes out to take advantage of everyone else, which wouldn’t actually be funny enough to sustain a movie.  Gervais is not that kind of guy.  He writes screenplays for movies — but in a world without untruth, there is no fiction, no fables, no tall tales, no myths, no icons, no legends.

Not one of us (eg lie-enabled) could be brought up in a universe of pure truths without sustaining some serious psychological damage.  The undistilled credulity of his fellow man is too much to take.  Not only can no one utter an untruth, it seems that they are also incapable of keeping their thoughts to themselves.  It’s a carnival of blunt remorselessness — why be remorseful, it is just the truth?   If someone finds you repellant they will go ahead and volunteer that information and you know it is the truth. What must self-esteem be like as a person in that world?  Anyone who finds you stupid or ugly or threatening or intimidating will tell you so.  It’s all so simplistic and straightforward — no one need delve below the surface of a person since no one can prevaricate or self-aggrandize or even have an unspoken agenda.  His new power, discovered by accident at a happily fortuitous moment, is mighty indeed.  Perhaps he took his ultimate plan a step too far by the end, but imagine the impossible position he finds himself in.

The pre-lie part of the movie at first seems to go on for too long — we know what’s coming, and are greedily awaiting the plundering of these innocently rude and heartless, non-introspective people.  Really, they are like three year olds — what they see is what exists and they believe everything you tell them and blurt out things not realizing the consequences.  However, it’s very important to establish how profound this truth-telling is and establish Gervais’ innate altruism before he’s tempted by the knowledge of truth and untruth.

From here, the movie becomes dizzyingly hilarious, mixed with genuine sympathy, while an amusing and subversive element grows slowly, beginning as fascinating and then stumbling into inevitability.  Where there can be only truth is also a basic assumption of best intentions — Gervais has a lovely scene with his mother that sets the ball rolling — but in this superficial universe, where the words are so often painful but endured, you tend to protect yourself by choosing to only hear what you want to hear.  This matters.  Oh just for the ability just to hold one’s tongue!  These people are toddler-like also in that they are barely able to lead their own lives once their responsibility is taken away from them by Gervais’ web of storytelling.  Their implicit reliance on the infallibility of everyone is crippling. [Message!]  Invention ends up being very sweet, very funny, and definitely winking about what is required in order to live in a world such as that to which we are accustomed.   I’ll let you discover this particular conundrum for yourself.  This movie is definitely not Ghost Town — it’s philosophically titillating.

The entire cast from top to bottom is stuffed with great comic actors and comedians — but it is not a wacky woo hoo zany fest.  The comic performer’s sense of timing and absurdity, no matter how large or small the part, is vital.  Gervais’ particular popular acerbic persona is restrained, but still retains that wonderful sense of impatient impotence — he’s lovable and treads that fine line to keep himself sympathetic even when he may be bending our moral code somewhat.  The Invention of Lying is very enjoyable, do go see it.  Discuss it with friends of different backgrounds than yourself for a fun evening.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/2/09
Time in minutes 100
Director Ricky Gervais / Matthew Robinson
Studio  Warner Brothers

Your Friday Fix 10/02/09: Princess Lover

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Princess Lover

Princess Lover ImagesGenres: Comedy, Ecchi, Harem

Ratings R3 Ratings
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Teppei Kobayashi has a simple, predictable life. His family lives in a modest home near a railway line, he practices with his sword, and is happily unaware of the events spiraling toward him. The news on TV shows stories of affluent families who are dying in mysterious auto “accidents” that are anything but accidental. At dinner his father asks him what he would do if he found himself in that situation. Teppei brushes this off, as it doesn’t apply to a simple person like him, but says he would do what he had to do.

Teppei leaves for school, and notes in the voice-over that it was the last time he saw his parents alive. Saying his last goodbyes, he sets off to live with his grandfather. On the way to his grandfather’s offices he saves Charlotte Hazelrink, a princess, from attackers like those most likely responsible for his parents death. They share a small uncomfortable moment (well, maybe a little too comfortable of a moment) after they are safe, then go their separate ways. Later at his new school, the Shuuhou Gakuen academy, they will meet again in much the same way.

In the interlude, he learns that his mother, Kanae, was heir to the Arima family. His parents “accident” fits the others he had watched on TV; Teppei is filled with a desire for vengeance. His grandfather, Isshin Arima, adopts him as his new heir… warning him to temper his anger and wait for his enemies to make themselves known.

After Teppei (who has now taken the Arima family name) has been announced as the heir and escaped the social scene there-after, he runs into Maria van Hossen, a skilled fencer. He decides that the best thing to do while uncomfortable is to let his mind rest with a little sparring. They briefly match swords until his grandfather and Maria’s father let them know that they are engaged in an arranged marriage.

Teppei’s reactions to the sudden social status upgrade, the new school, personalities and quirks of his status are quite humorous. The underlying seriousness of the situation hides under the tide of perverse humor and general social uneasiness. While not a huge fan of the general harem genre, this one has its own merits.

Overall Hook Rating: B

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Watch part of episode one after the jump…
Read On

Your Friday Fix 9/25/09: Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou

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Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou

Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou ImagesGenres: Comedy, Drama, Magical

Ratings L3 Ratings
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Six hours is more than enough time for your life to get turned completely around. For high school student Yumiko Christina Ichinose, a confrontation with bullies is only the start of her new life. Yumiko was born with purple eyes and silver hair, making her a natural target of ridicule. These traits also denote her magical heritage.

Able to take no more, she runs away from home carrying the one artifact left behind for her by her great-grandfather; his magic staff. She hopes that a school could train her to use the magic she is supposed to have, but is unable to comprehend from her great-grandfather’s journals. However, she is not the only person interested in the staff. A mysterious man in a white suit, who glows with a radiant light, confronts her and requests the staff. When refused, he makes it his goal to kill Yumiko.

While fleeing this man, she makes her way to the magic school on an old flyer she has found. Here she runs into Koyomi Morishita, another magician in training… one who apparently knows her already, but “not yet,” hinting at some potential time or perception warping. They are also joined by Soshiro Anehara, brother to the yet to be seen Misa Anehara who runs the school (as far as we are told thus far).

Koyomi uses her powers to turn the man in white’s attack “code” (the term used for the magical energies of the modern digital age) into a metal wash basin to drop on his head. He notes that this is actually an unskilled, yet powerful move… while he examines the situation, the girls run off. Yumiko finds herself lost and alone and is soon attacked by the man’s pet (a two headed dog beast with a whip-tail). Mimicking the man’s earlier attacks, Yumiko managers to repeat the “code” he used and saves herself. Angered by her success, he returns… but he is eventually repelled by Misa, making her first appearance to Yumiko.

The second episode flashes back to Koyomi’s joining the school and her basic training. We learn that Misa is a VERY accomplished magician; probably the best in the world. The attempt at using “code” and technology as a digital incarnation of analog magic was a step in the right direction. This method of doing something different than the majority of magical girl series did not add much to the series as of yet.

Overall Hook Rating: C

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Watch episode one after the jump…
Read On

The Informant!

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The Informant! (yes with the exclamation point, though no more for the rest of this review) positions itself as a wacky comedy and a sort of industrial espionage thriller, adapted from Kirt Eichenwald’s novel.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon as a kind of Talentless Mr. Ripley) imagines himself a master sleuth — or a master criminal — and most of the comedy in this movie is Mark’s internal monologue. I haven’t read the book, but the movie makes me want to. Mark goes from being a man with an adorable sense of importance to the inverse of a corporate shark; his machinations implode. The movie itself starts to slowly implode into a still-amusing but increasingly convoluted muddle of absurdity.

I was reminded of the short-lived but brilliant TV show Profit, except upside-down and inside-out. Whitacre is a whistleblower who draws the Feds’ attentions to his agricultural company, revealing malfeasance amongst his colleagues. He clearly enjoys being a mole, but he really didn’t think through the whole process. The screenwriter also wrote the Bourne Ultimatum, but this amount of doublespeak and back-pedaling appears to have done him in. Since the book in paperback is a surprising 656 pages, naturally the film is a lesser-than ad for the book. I was enjoying Mark’s internal monologues much more than the actual “plot,” and wished I could just relax and enjoy that part of the story’s universe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still diverting, but it’s the kind of movie that stymies my proper critical eye (and ability to write) due to being so jumbled and ambitious, much like its hero. I can’t really blame the screenwriter; director Steven Soderbergh often falls prey to the very intangible thing that bogs down this film: that foggy mushy feeling that I think he uses to make something feel real but instead obscures everyone and makes us sleepy.

The supporting cast is littered with random comedy luminaries (from Seth McFarlane to the Smothers Brothers) who plau their roles with deadly seriousness. Perhaps this lends to the chimaeric feel of the movie, because you have Mr. Action/Drama as a pudgy situational disaster on wheels, and Misters Comedians as hard-nosed heavies and foils. The movie feels uneven and unfinished; it would be easy to blame the adaptation process, with all its necessary slicing and dicing, but even the design of it feels off. Set during the years 1992-1995, the tone is irrepressibly 1970’s. If it weren’t for more modern technologies popping up here and there, I’d never have known it was taking place during the Clinton administration.

My recommendation is to rent the movie, and it may make you, like me, want to check out the book. Save your money for the late fall Oscar releases.

MPAA Rating R-language

Release date 9/18/09

Time in minutes 108

Director Steven Soderbergh

Studio Warner Brothers

Your Friday Fix 9/18/09: Kanamemo

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Kanamemo

Kanamemo StripGenres: Comedy, Romance

Ratings R4 Ratings
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Kana Nakamachi has just lost her grandmother. In the years before, her mother and father have also died. Now alone in the world, afraid the movers will sell her to foreigners, she runs away. She passes the Fuhshin Gazette, advertising a job with an included on-site room. However, the people out front scare her off with their strange personalities. She continues onward, checking with businesses all over town, but has no luck finding an alternative. As she walks down one street she is struck by a delivery bike.

She wakes in the main room of the Fuhshin Gazette, a small newspaper that is apparently run by Saki Amano, a grade school girl. As Deputy Chief she takes care of the day to day workings of the newspaper (it is not explained yet as to why she holds this post); she is mature beyond her years. Seeing Kana’s circumstances, she allows her to work there and provides her room and board.

The other girls working there include: Yume Kitaoka, a pastry chef in training; Yuuki Minami, who is in love with Yume and extremely jealous of her attention to others; Haruka Nishida, who is some sort of biology student, and frequently drunk on her concoctions; and Hinata Azuma, a gambler who has twice-failed at her college entrance exams.

Kana must learn her new trade fast, being that she does not know how to read directions, ride a bike, nor much other than cook (which the other girls REALLY appreciate). Her first assignment nearly ends in disaster when she is caught in a sudden rainstorm. There she meets a competing delivery girl, Mika Kujiin, who has an abrasive attitude, but warms to Kana as she helps her find her way.

This series is rather cute with over the top comedy, yuri overtones, and a general light hearted nature. The addition of a competing business may lead to additional story material, but the main cast have layers left to be revealed as well. Kana’s sadness at being left along gradually lifts, and it is not certain if that sad portion of the storyline will take prevalence again.

Overall Hook Rating: B

Episode one preview after the jump:

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Read On

YaHARRR – September 19 is Talk Like a Pirate Day [Reminder]

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Screen shot 2009-09-18 at 7.11.56 AMFrom Wiki:

International Talk Like a Pirate Day (ITLAPD) is a parodic holiday created in 1995 by John Baur (Ol’ Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy), of Albany, Oregon,[1] who proclaimed September 19 each year as the day when everyone in the world should talk like a pirate.[1] For example, an observer of this holiday would greet friends not with “Hello,” but with “Ahoy, me hearty!” The holiday, and its observance, springs from a romanticized view of the Golden Age of Piracy.

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Arrr, so break out your pirate costume and grab yourself some grog. It be time to talk like a pirate. If ye don’t know how t’ talk like a pirate, har is the official translator Aye.

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