Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Reviews...Bite Sized Edition

Whew. Taking a deep breath here. Been a few weeks since I've written, and the holiday season has been beating me up. I've seen many, many, many movies as I've prepared to write my year-end list and vote for the Detroit Film Critics Society's best of 2009. The problem? Unless I've written a review for the paper, there hasn't been any time for online entries.

So...rather than wait until I have time to write up long entries on the various films I've seen, which I know will take several weeks, I'm going to give some smaller entries about what I've seen. A few definitely deserve greater attention down the road, and I hope to one day at least write up a good sized examination of "A Serious Man." But for now, here's what you're getting...and, in the next week, I'll try to get up thoughts on "Up in the Air," "Avatar," "Lovely Bones," "It's Complicated" and "Sherlock Holmes" as I see them.

Also, please keep an eye on this site. I'll also have the results of the DFCS' voting, my end-of-the-year list and will start examining the top 10 (or so) films of the decade (will likely start that one after Christmas and go into early January).

With that, let's jump into what I've been watching over the past few weeks...

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

Two years ago the Coen Brothers gave us the bleak and foreboding "No Country For Old Men" and walked away with an Oscar. Last year they delivered the brilliantly brainless "Burn After Reading." So it only stands to reason that the brothers--who can move from "Fargo" to "Big Lebowski" without breaking a sweat--would once again mess with expectations and deliver, of all things, a retelling of the book of Job set in a 1970s Jewish suburb of Minnesota, similar to where the brothers grew up.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university physics professor. He's coming up for tenure. He has a wife and two kids at home, along with a ne'er-do-well brother (Richard Kind) who he took in after he reached some hardships. Larry is a good man. A serious man. And, as often happens to good and serious men, his entire life begins to unravel. His wife is leaving him for his best friend. A disgruntled student may be trying to bribe him. Someone is writing the university letters, urging them not to grant him tenure. His sexy new neighbor is sunbathing nude in the backyard and his other neighbor, a WASPy gun nut, doesn't seem to like him at all.

Like the book of Job, the film chronicles Larry's struggles to keep his patience, integrity and goodness in the face of calamity. Like the Biblical account, it's also structured around visits with three men--rabbis in this case--who offer the sufferer bad advice. But Job was never this bleakly funny, mixing dark laughs in with the suffering...sometimes the only thing to keep us from crying is a bit of laughter. So as Larry's woes mount up--through car crashes, police visits and cruel twists of fate--the laughs come right along and the Coens, masters of dry humor, toss in sly visual gags and narrative twists to keep this minor tale moving.

But don't mistake this for another lark like "Burn After Reading." The ominous tones that rumbled through "No Country for Old Men" can be heard here as well. As Larry's pressures mount and keeping his integrity becomes more difficult, we begin to understand the stakes at play here. The Coens have never been so theologically transparent, provoking serious questions about faith, suffering, morality, family and--in the movie's sobering final moments--the judgment of God. Here is a film that dares take its spiritual questions seriously, presenting an intriguing and endlessly thought-provoking look at an Old Testament God, to the point where I was praying for some New Testament grace for these characters.

The Coens have hit their rough periods before--when you're this brilliant and original, I'd guess that's a hazard of the job. But with "No Country" and "A Serious Man," they've proven once again that they are the most unique and uncompromising filmmakers currently working. With a stand-out performance by Stuhlbarg, who earns our empathy and keeps Larry's dignity to the end, "A Serious Man" is one of 2009's absolute best films.

An Education (2009, dir. Lone Sherfig)

The lion's share of the praise for this film has gone to newcomer Carey Mulligan, who comes out of nowhere to play a 16-year-old girl in 1960s London who falls for the charms of a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard).

Critics are right to single out Mulligan's work--other than Gabourey Sidibe's work in "Precious," I cannot think of another actress who impressed me more this year. Mulligan has a brightness and spark about her that rightly earns her comparison to Audrey Hepburn.

That charm goes a long way because "An Education" would not work if it were a grim fable about how a young girl was used and abused by an older man. Instead, Jenny is a bright and intelligent girl swept off her feet by a secretive man who is himself formally uneducated but well-versed in art, music and the social scene. Sarsgaard does not play the role of David as a lech but as a man who is genuinely intrigued by this smart young girl and may be able to have a recaptured taste of his youth in his romance with her. Yes, he's a cad and a bit of a trouble maker--we see that in the effortless way he schmoozes Jenny's father (superbly played by Alfred Molina)--but Sarsgaard also plays the character as a man who is enjoying his time with Jenny and, if he may have ulterior motives, we don't doubt that he is in some way won over by this young girl.

"An Education" works because it's romantic, charming and witty and not tawdry, graphic or disturbing. Nick Hornsby's script allows the characters to grow and breathe and, although the film arrives at a predictable conclusion, it winds there more with a feeling of inevitability instead of plot manipulation. The film's final act is a tad rushed and everything is wrapped up a bit too nicely in the end, but this one is definitely worth a look for the brilliant debut of Mulligan and the solid-as-ever work by Sarsgaard and Molina.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, dir. Clint Eastwood)

The problem with Clint Eastwood as a director is that he's been on such a hot streak the past few years that when he merely does a film that is very good, it feels like a disappointment.

Such is the case with "Invictus," a solid and inspiring drama about how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) utilized rugby to unite South Africa in the years after he was elected to office. The movie has a story worth telling, a laudable theme and several moments of undeniable power. But it's hobbled in some areas by hiccups that should have been easily avoidable for the director of "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Gran Torino."

Some have argued that this is the wrong story to tell about Mandela; I think that's a cop-out. This was the story that Eastwood chose to tell...yes, the man is worth a longer, more comprehensive biopic. But by focusing on how Mandela used sports to unite his country and forgive his enemies actually allows us to see quite a bit about the man's character and integrity. Freeman is wonderful as Mandela, capturing a quiet dignity and peace that makes me want to know more about the man. Damon is solid as ever, but the role is a bit underwritten...this is Freeman's movie all the way.

And there are moments of power. A visit to the prison where Mandela spent many years is probably the most lump-in-the-throat moment in the movie. And it's an interesting, even inspiring story of how Mandela came into office not to push his agenda but to unite South Africa, even if it meant offering olive branches to his enemies. I have no idea how rugby works but the game is not really the point...the point is how Africans united around their team and put aside old associations to cheer their countrymen on together. As a look at the transcendent power of sports, the film is extremely intriguing.
But there are amateurish stumbles Eastwood makes, including ham-handed musical overtures and a subplot about Mandela's family that is hinted at but never resolved. Damon's character is never as fully developed as I'd hoped and there is an unforgivable moment near the end when Eastwood uses a plane flying too close to the stadium to milk false suspense (and our 9/11 memories) for nothing more than a sight gag. He should know better.

And yet, I still found myself inspired by the story...just wishing for it to be told a tad better.

Me and Orson Welles (2009, PG-13, dir. Richard Linklater)

Christian McKay absolutely tears the roof off this with his meticulous, funny and dead-on performance as Orson Welles in this enjoyable little gem about the theater.

Zac Efron plays a young man whose dreams come to fruition when he is picked off the street to take on the role of Lucius in Welles' famous Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar." Not only is able to spend time with the lovely woman who manages much of the behind the scenes work (Claire Danes), but he's also able to realize his acting dreams. The only downside is that Welles is a notoriously unpredictable, prideful and often wrathful diva who is a bit too aware of his own genius.

The film works best when focusing not on the Efron character's story and romance...those things are predictable and, sadly, Efron doesn't have the dramatic chops to pull it off. The best moments occur when documenting the chaos of the theater--the mishaps that nearly derail the show, the suspense of wondering if your lines will get cut, the disastrous preview performance and the exhilaration of getting it right. Linklater's best films ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise/Sunset," "Waking Life") occur situations where life unfolds around the characters, not dictated by plot points or contrivances...when he simply allows the rhythm of theater life to unfold, the films works magic (there's actually a funny and slightly meta conversation where one character talks about the absurdity of trying to sell a story where nothing happens; just two people meet).

The film is never less than entertaining, but ratchets up about 10 notches whenever McKay is on the screen. He captures Welles' larger-than-life persona, his penchant for (off-stage) genre and the hubris and pride that only a genius can get away with. But McKay never turns it into parody or a mere imitation...there's intelligence behind the eyes and his Welles is a character well aware of what others think of him, how unreasonable his demands are...and also fairly confident that it doesn't matter because he's usually absolutely right. McKay anchors this film and commands every second of his screen time...which is funny, because Welles did the same thing.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, PG, dir. Wes Anderson)

Confession: Wes Anderson usually leaves me very cold.

It's not that I don't admire his skill. I can see the work put into "Rushmore" and "Royal Tennenbaums" and I respect the performances he is able to elicit from his actors. His storybook style is very pretty to look at but the over-heightened setting, along with Anderson's dry humor and other quirks, often isolates his characters and leaves me impressed on a technical level but never connecting.

But somehow, his style is a perfect fit for this stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book, in which a sly fox (George Clooney), his family and friends outwit three cold-hearted and cruel farmers.

Mr. Fox is former chicken thief who went straight after learning he was going to have a son (Jason Schwartzman). He's moved his wife (Angelica Huston) into a nice hole and taken on a day job as a columnist at the local newspaper. But he still sometimes feels the itch to indulge his wild animal needs. So one day he gives back into his urges and starts stealing chickens again, which leads to a war with the farmers that will displace the Foxes and their friends, cost Mr. Fox his tail and allow him time to bond with his son.

I suppose that straight narrative could make for a decent kids' movie in and of itself. But Anderson isn't interested in making a children's film. Instead, he supplies every character with very adult tics, quirks and personalities and crafts a story about some of his favorite themes--fathers and sons, the importance of community and originality.

The stop-motion is absolutely beautiful to watch...it's not the smooth animation of, say, "Coraline," but an almost crude and jerky version, like watching a children's program from the 1970s or so. That's not a dig--it gives the movie a timelessness and warmth and perfectly accompanies the whimsical nature of the film.

Anderson assembles a cast that also includes Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and others and gives each animal his own little quirk and personality. Clooney is basically voicing an animal version of Danny Ocean and Schwartzman steals the entire film with his wonderfully bizarre lines. In a time where most animated films not bearing the Pixar label are crude and littered with pop culture references, it's refreshing to see a film with likable characters and sense of humor that doesn't depend on fart jokes. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one of the most wonderfully witty, original and flat-out most enjoyable films of 2009.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.