Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nog Gets Serious With the Coens! (Read After Viewing; Burn After Reading).

The Coens' new film, A Serious Man, opens with this admonition from the Talmudic scholar Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The film that follows seems to explore the possibility of this as something that is simultaneously essential and impossible. Larry Gopnick is a Jewish physics professor (somewhere in the midwest, late 1960's) whose life is falling apart through no fault of his own ("I didn't do anything" becomes a mantra used in numerous ways throughout the film by various characters: the Coens' still love their repetition). Larry's wife is ready to leave him, his tenure approval seems tenuous, and he may well have a serious health problem. As his son prepares himself for his bar mitzvah (the event toward which the narrative proceeds), Larry too finds himself in need of spiritual guidance, turning to a succession of rabbis who offer him (in the film's best scenes) advice that is more bewildering than useful. One rabbi tells him the tale of "the goy's teeth," the story of a Jewish dentist who discovers the phrase "help me, save me" embedded in the teeth of a patient and becomes, for awhile, obsessed with the message...until suddenly he isn't, at which point life proceeds as usual. Another rabbi suggests the hidden beauty that lies behind life's banal surface ("Look at the parking lot," he tells Larry, as if it might contain some answer if one could only see properly). In a scene that reinforces this idea, Larry climbs to his roof to adjust the television antenna and listens to a succession of broadcast signals that briefly become clear before fading out again, then happens to spot across the top of a fence a naked woman sunbathing. But, for Larry, these are rare instances of a glimpse beyond the mundane in an otherwise ceaselessly frustrating life that usually seems at the whims of a creator who'd rather make him squirm, and the Coens' leave us with a wildly ambiguous ending that will infuriate many. As I exited the Glenwood, much of the audience seemed to be staring at the screen with arms crossed, as if they'd been swindled, and I heard the word "awful" from at least one of them. But I think they're wrong, as are the critics who constantly accuse the Coens of having nothing but contempt for their characters (a position the directors do nothing to publicly dispel, given the fact that they keep talking about how much fun they had dreaming up ways to punish Larry). True, the film is pitch-dark in its humor, bitter, sometimes cruel, but it feels to me like a real effort to think about the idea of faith. It's (deliberately) arguable what Larry learns here, but I think it's something along these lines: one has no choice but to live on a constant precipice that's as likely to bring some new unknown terror as it is enlightenment, or to withdraw completely, as does the film's mysterious third rabbi, who refuses to answer the questions of anyone once they've reached manhood. The film's abrupt ending is frustating, yes, but also frightening and appropriate. See it twice at least!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nog Whips It With Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis (Sounds Sexy!) And Finds Himself...Mildly Unsettled by Paranormal Activity

In need of some harmless fluff to entertain the parents on a recent visit, I finally caught up with Whip It, which you two faithful readers have reviewed on your respective blogs long ago. And I can generally agree with your assessments: it's completely formulaic but generally fun and fast-paced and well-acted (and well-directed, by Drew Barrymore). I think my same criticism of Taking Woodstock may hold up here too: would the film have actually been more interesting if it had been primarily about one of its supporting characters? (say Kristen Wiig as the single-mother derby girl or Juliette Lewis as the not-quite-so-cruel-as-she-pretends-to-be aging derby legend Iron Maven?). Sure, Ellen Page is cute and all, but we've seen the novice-rising-to-the-top formula a few too many times. But who am I to complain about sexy chicks smashing each other up on ice? (and I don't believe either of you pointed out the homage to Paul Newman's Slap Shot: that film's Hansen brothers have morphed here into the Manson sisters! Funny shit!).


Oh, I was prepared to be scared silly by Paranormal Activity, the gimmick now playing at a theater near you (because America "demanded" it!). And I suppose it does get a fair amount of mileage out of its "found footage" premise (let's set up a camera near the bed and catch some invisible demon mischief!). At the very least, the film understands something that most horror films seem to have long ago forgotten, which is that waiting to be scared is often far more frightening than the scares themselves. In your average slasher remake, we may not know when the scares will come, but we know what they'll involve (a killer will jump out...or sometimes a cat! oh, the fake scare is always popular). But Paranormal Activity benefits from the fact that we never know what kind of scare is coming (doors closing, knocking on walls, TV's turning of and off). And the slow burn of much of the film does build up to, for my money, two major scares at the end. But when it's over, boy, is it over. There's nothing there to think about at all and no lesson to be learned except that, if you are dating a girl who's perpetually haunted by demons, drop that bitch before it's too late!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nog Joins the Wild Rumpus!

You can tell that Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is a labor of love, a bid to make a lasting work of art that reflects the childhood mind. And it may completely work for some. For me, only some of it works. I love the opening sequences (even with their kinetic hand-held camerawork, which can sometimes grow quickly annoying): they seem to perfectly capture the ever-shifting moods of childhood, how one can go from pure elation to inconsolable sadness in a split second. Young Max Records is excellent as Max: you can feel real loneliness and anger there. However, when the film shifts to the island of the wild things, I found myself only sporadically engaged. The soundtrack by Karen O (and the Kids!) works very well for scenes of Max and his new giant muppet friends rumpusing about the land, but I'm less sure about Eggers' screenplay, which threatens to push a little hard at some points in showing us how the various problems of this world parallel those of Max's "real" life. And the muppets...I suppose they look pretty fantastic and probably adhere fairly closely to Sendak's original drawings (Dr. X would know, if he'd read!), but I'm not entirely convinced these are the kinds of fuzzy creatures a boy like this particular Max would conjure up (given his propensity for tall tales involving vampires who lose their teeth). But when one's attention starts to flag, Jonze delivers us back into Max's life at home with a lovely wordless coda where his mother (Catherine Keener) greets him by pushing back the head of his wolf suit, suggesting (I guess?) a new (more human?) connection between the two of them that is both touching and sad, since it also suggests that the world of imagination will probably soon dwindle as Max must begin to take on a more adult worldview. Very much worth seeing, sure, but I wish I had left more convinced that I'd seen a new classic.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nog Takes on Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore's new film begins with surveillance footage of various robberies which serve as a metaphor for his view of capitalism: it has swindled many Americans quite literally out of their money and also tricked us into believing that capitalism is compatible with democracy (and with Christianity, as we see in a section where numerous Catholic officials are quite willing to term it "evil"). The film is broad in scope, taking us through the collapse of industry and labor unions during the Reagan era but zeroing in, quite naturally, on the recent collapse of the banking industry and the government bailout. Viewers know what to expect from a Moore film, and it's all firmly in place here. The incorporation of corny stock film footage to parallel recent events still works pretty well, as do the touching human stories that emerge of people crushed by the system. Moore's various pranks, however, feel increasingly strained. Like Sascha Baron Cohen, he suffers from the problem that his best targets all know to avoid him. In fact, the jokes now depend on the fact that he will predictably be barred entrance from the CEO's he wants to tangle with. Luckily, he seems to increasingly devote less time to these stunts in recent films, keeping much of the focus deadly serious. As with much of Moore's work, we circle back to the problem that corporate influence leads the government to abandon the best inteests of the people, keeping a small few very wealthy and the rest at the mercy of the system (in perhaps the most sickening examples, we see corporations using something they term "dead peasant" insurance policies to profit off the untimely deaths of their workers). Moore posits an alternative to capitalism, as he must, in the form of employee-owned businesses with equal shares that do not center around capitalism's "profit motive," but the film itself admits that even many of the people who have been hopelessly fucked by the system still cling to the notion that one day they'll eventually move up (which requires keeping capitalism firmly in place). In the film's final half hour, Moore finds the film's true heroes in the recent group of Chicago workers who commandeered their factory after being let go, determined to hold out until they received what was owed them. They succeeded, and Moore's film, perhaps more optimistic than much of his other work, ends with the call for what is essentially a "worker's revolt." But I'm not entirely convinced that he believes this can really happen. And what kind of movies would he make if it did?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nog Visits Zombieland and Has Some Praise for Gervais!

Zombieland is thoroughly enjoyable. If I had to quibble, I suppose Jesse Eisenberg's voice-over is occasionally too quirky for its own good (along with the pop-up messages on-screen reminding us of his various "rules" for surviving in the new world of "zombieland."). And young Abigail Breslin (it's Little Miss Sunshine her own self!) isn't given much to do (though she looks to be having a great time in the midst of the gleeful violence and vulgarity). But why quibble at all with something this fun. Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson have a nice camaraderie together and the "secret" 10-minute appearance by a famous star is absolutely inspired and wonderfully morbid. It will need a place on your shelf right alongside Shaun of the Dead. Watch it often.


The Invention of Lying proves, moreso than Ghost Town, that the edgy comedy of Ricky Gervais can exist (more or less) comfortably within the confines of what is essentially a romantic comedy. In this tale of an alternate world whose citizens haven't yet developed the capacity for manufacturing fiction (until Gervais's Mark comes along), Gervais manages, throughout a lengthy middle section of the film, to tread into some surprisingly risky religious commentary (suggesting, like the famous routines of George Carlin, that the 'man in the sky' is a pretty remarkable "whopper" that people are willing to accept). In the film's funniest scene (which reaches a near Python-esque level of absurdity), Gervais, with a set of pizza box "tablets," hands down a new set of truths to a populace who has just discovered this "man in the sky" and demands answers, which of course only bewilder them further ("Did He save me from the crash?" "Yes." "Did He cause me to crash?" "Yes."). As some critics have pointed out, there's an impressive subversiveness in asking your audience to play along with a belief that runs counter to what most audience members would profess. And although the film eventually becomes more interested in its central romance than in its big ideas, which is disappointing, there's still more than enough to make this worthwhile, from the incessant barrage of cruel jokes Gervais seems to delight in leveling against himself and his persona to some wonderful sight gags regarding such ideas as how advertising functions in a world that can only tell the truth: "Pepsi: When There's No Coke." Recommended!