Friday, October 30, 2009

A Serious Man

From the minds of the Coen brothers comes this tale of a rather pathetic Jewish professor of physics in late 60s Minnesota. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having all kinds of problems, from the serious to the mundane.

Larry is indeed A Serious Man, and one whose existence isn’t likely to be improved over the course of the film. Though you have a feeling if he could see the dark humor of his own situation, he might laugh himself to death.

His wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for a widower (Fred Melamed), his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him, a student unsatisfied with his grade (David Kang) is bribing and threatening him, a neighbor wants to build a shed on his property, the person deciding on his tenure at the college is receiving unflattering letters about the professor, and he’s being hounded by a telephone calls from a man demanding money for records Larry neither asked for nor received.

During these various crises, our protagonist attempts to find comfort from a lawyer (Alan Arkin) and a serious of rabbis (Simon Helberg, Alan Mandell, George Wyner), none of whom provide him with the solace he seeks. The outcome of each meeting only seems to add to the pressure and confusion Larry is faced with.

Like many characters from the films of the Coens, Larry Gopnik is a man in a world he can’t control. This provides for several humorous moments over the course of the film. Those expecting a screwball Coen comedy like The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? may be slightly disappointed. What they will get is a bleak character study that may not overwhelm you, but will keep your attention.

Unlike many of the Coens’ other leading men, Larry isn’t in his situation for the questionable decisions he’s made but instead for his own inaction and unwillingness to confront the situations which are troubling him. For a main character, he’s about as pathetic as you can get.

The things which happen to him over the course of the film are both funny and sad, but it’s hard to feel for the character when he’s so unwilling to stand up for himself. The message, it seems, is that this character, and perhaps many of us who fail to act, are doomed. Isn’t that a cheery thought?

I was also somewhat confused by the lengthy opening scene involving a Hasidic Jewish couple (Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman) who welcome in a stranger (Fyvush Finkel) who may or may not be a a wandering demon spirit. Although the little parable itself is well done, it adds little overall to the film except perhaps give the audience a peek at the hopelessness yet to come.

A Serious Man isn’t a great film, but it is a well-made and an intriguing intellectual exercise. It’s the character study of a man whose life is spinning out of control. It may not be funny enough or dark enough to be the Coen brothers classic, but it’s a solid entry into the catalog and one their fans shouldn’t miss out on.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Vampire’s Assistant

I’m pretty sure Ed Wood would have loved Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Messy, flawed, riddled with odd choices and questionable casting, and stuck with a plot that make less sense as it progresses, The Vampire’s Assistant is in every way a B-movie. And, I’ll admit, I kinda liked it.

Based on a series of novels by Darren Shan, the film’s main plot revolves around a rather bland high school student, Darren (Chris Massoglia), and his more rambunctious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), whose main purpose it seems is to get Darren into as much trouble as possible.

A night out takes the pair to a freak show where events unfold that lead Darren into an agreement with vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in order to save his friend. Leaving behind his life, Darren becomes part vampire, and begins his new life in the Cirque du Freak as Crepsley’s assistant.

There’s quite a bit else that occurs in the movie concerning Darren, Steve, the mysterious Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), the war between vampires (those who feed on but don’t kill humans) and the vampanese (those who, well, leave bloody messes in their wake). Not all of it makes sense, in fact much of it seems little more than convoluted nonsense to keep the story moving to its final big showdown.

When the film attempts to try and make sense of its plot, it fails spectacularly. However, when the film lets Darren’s story unfold as he discovers the new world around him … well, it doesn’t quite succeed, but it puts on a good show.

I also found the script’s rather flippant take on vampire lore amusing. “Can I turn into a bat?” Darren asks, “No, that’s bullshit.” his new mentor replies. Realizing that the material they’re working with isn’t exactly Shakespeare, no one takes things too seriously. The result is an amusing little train wreck that doesn’t leave too much carnage in its wake.

Although the main role of Darren is hopelessly miscast (and the best friend isn’t that much better) there are some nice supporting performances. Reilly is fun to watch as something far removed from your average movie vampire, and Salma Hayek works quite well as his bearded lady girlfriend (even if the part did remind me a little too much of HBO’s Carnivale).

Patrick Fugit is near unrecognizable as Snake Boy, and, although her character isn’t handled as well as I’d like, Jessica Carlson adds a little spark to the second half of the film.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is deeply flawed. The film is a mess and certainly not for everyone. And even if it doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, it didn’t bore me (an offense I’d be much less willing to forgive). The right audience–and you know who you are–should be able to find a hour or two of enjoyment out of this strange little movie. Just keep your expectations low and think of Ed Wood before the titles start to roll.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

There will no doubt be critics and film professors who dismiss Where the Wild Things Are for it's lack of story and structure. There will also be those who find immediate emotional attachment to this primal story of a child struggling with a world he can't control.

Although I do have some qualms about the film mainly dealing with its length (and I thought it could use a bit more polish plot-wise), and didn't have the emotional attachment to the story I expected, I will freely admit the film is worth a long look.

Aside from the bookends of his normal life, the entire movie takes place in a world Max (Max Records) discovers while trying to escape problems at home he can neither deal with nor articulate. In running away Max discovers a refuge on island of monsters (voiced by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose).

Over the course of the film we see each of the characters represent different aspects of Max. Some are obvious like Carol's (Gandolfini) anger and appetite for destruction, and others are more subtle such as Judith's (Ambrose) untrusting nature or the tendency of Douglas (Cooper) to be ignored.

I am a little ambivalent in how the story based loosely on Maurice Sendak's book is presented. Early in the film Max creates a story for his mother (Catherine Keener). In many ways the entire film mirrors this typical child's story. It rambles, turns abruptly, misses some points while over-analyzes others, and meanders it's way towards a conclusion.

There are two possible ways to look at such a film. The first would compare it to traditional storytelling and find it wanting. The second would see how well the film captures the mind and dreams of a child and presents his perspective to the audience. And I'm not sure points can't be made for, and against, both arguments.

In many ways the film is visceral, with rough edges lacking the clarity of a more polished script. However, it's in these rough edges though the film finds its voice and delivers a film not only for kids, but to speak to them as well.

And I must admit I love the look of the film. Director Spike Jonze delivers a visual masterpiece giving us the dream world of a 12 year-old boy. The monsters themselves are fully-realized, and memorable, characters. I also was taken by the look of the world, especially the fort which the monsters build for Max which I could easily believe was plucked from a child's imagination.

I wasn't blown away by the film, nor did I feel strong emotional connection with either Max or the monsters, but I was drawn-in on an intellectual level. As I thought of the film's I would compare Where the Wild Things Are to I came up with E.T. and The Dark Crystal. Though this film isn't in their class it does present a remarkable world and adventure that can capture the imagination of a child.

It's not a traditional film, and some might get bored at times (I did on a couple of occasions), but it does have something unique to offer. It may not be the instant classic I had hoped it to be, but Where the Wild Things Are does deliver a vision and perspective of childhood that is often missing in films about, and aimed towards, children.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Although our pal Mr. Sparkle was less than impressed I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed myself while watching Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying.

The premise is simple: In a world where everyone tells the truth one man (Gervais) discovers the ability to lie. Some of the turns the script takes are expected, Mark Bellison (Gervais) uses his new ability for personal and professional gain, and some are less so such as using little white lies to improve the lives of those around him by giving them hope about life, and what comes after. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The film's major achievement is creating a world of truth which is constantly giving us funny moments. Aside from the most inappropriate name for a retirement community ever, the film also includes the funniest (and most truthful) Pepsi advertisement I've ever seen. Although the story itself is fine, it's in these small touches the film ultimately won me over.

The film isn't perfect. The people of this world are truthful, but at times they are also more forthcoming with much more information than is required, truthful or not. Yes they should be truthful, but should they be compelled to share every harsh truth that comes to mind?

Tina Fey tells Mark what she's always thought of him now that he's losing his job, Jonah Hill is a pathetically truthful suicidal neighbor, and Rob Lowe once again oozes brutally honest smarmy. Funny? Sometimes, but though these moments provide laughs they are also responsible for a good share of the film's groan worthy moments.

The ability to lie can be a wonderful, yet terrible thing. Mark's new ability, and the fame he is able to orchestrate (from it by "finding" a secret historical document about aliens and space ninjas landing on the planet in the 14th Century) give him a chance at winning the girl of his dreams (Jennifer Garner), but also comes with unexpected consequences.

And it's these unexpected consequences that lead to the film's second act which I wouldn't dare spoil here. All I'll say is a noble attempt to comfort his mother on her deathbed leads to Mark Bellison becoming the most famous man on the planet (and provides several big laughs).

With all the films opening today it might be hard for moviegoers to choose which one to see. Let me say The Invention of Lying made me laugh the most, and although I'd recommend you see all four films hitting theaters today, this would be my first choice. Trust me. I won't lie to you.

Whip It

Drew Barrymore might have found a new career as a director of offbeat films. (Better that than starring in more forgettable romcoms or Charlie's Angels 3).

Although Whip It is rough, which you would expect from a first-time director, Barrymore provides an engaging and unexpectedly good sports movie.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year-old small town girl who becomes instantly fascinated by the world of roller derby. Stuck in the beauty contest world of her controlling mother, Bliss finds solace, and the opportunity to find herself, in something new.

Lying about her age, Bliss is selected to be part of the team of misfits known as the Hurl Scouts who are just as happy to come in second place, perhaps even more so, than actually win a contest.

Barrymore and Kristen Wiig star as two of the Rollers. Although Barrymore gives herself the comedy relief part, Maggie (Wiig) proves to have unexpected depth. A loving yet honest conversation between Bliss and Maggie provides one of the film's best moments. The rest of the team includes Eve, Zoe Bell, and Ari Graynor, and is led by the dry wit of Andrew Wilson.

Aside from the Rollers themselves the film is also peppered with strong supporting performances by Jimmy Fallon as the roller derby announcer Hot Tub Johnny, Alia Shawkat as Bliss' best friend Pash, Daniel Stern as Bliss' father, and Juliette Lewis as the leader of the dreaded Holler Rollers, Iron Maven.

Whip It delivers that quirky indie feel, but doesn't settle on it alone. Nor does it rely on the simple sports cliches (though many are present). And although the film does include a love interest (Landon Pigg) for Bliss I wouldn't classify it as a romantic comedy either.

At it's heart Whip It is a tale about a girl's relationship to her mother and a coming of age story about someone finding something that they not only enjoy but find they are talented at doing. At times the film does telegraph some scenes and minor plot points, but still takes care in delivering a strong story. Its successes fall outnumber its failings.

In a week that includes Michael Moore's new documentary, a big zombie flick, and a more mainstream comedy, it's quite possible Whip It could get lost in the shuffle. And that would be a shame. You may have to search this one out as it is not getting as wide a release as its main competition, but it's definitely worth it.