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Review: A Serious Man, Adam, What Just Happened, Flame & Citron and The Twilight Saga: New Moon

By December 6, 2009August 10th, 2010No Comments

A Serious Man posterWe’re born alone and we die alone and in between noth­ing goes accord­ing to plan and the people around us are mostly unre­li­able and occa­sion­ally malevol­ent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indif­fer­ent to our suf­fer­ing. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodi­giously gif­ted Coen Brothers, is a very ser­i­ous film. It is also a very funny one.

In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy fam­ily, a great career and a beau­ti­ful house in a nice neigh­bour­hood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a form­al Jewish divorce), his daugh­ter wants a nose job, his son is pre­par­ing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listen­ing to rock music and his unsuc­cess­ful broth­er (the great Richard Kind) is sleep­ing on the couch and drain­ing his cyst in the bath­room. At the same time, the ten­ure com­mit­tee at the University is receiv­ing anonym­ous com­plaints and his white-bread, red-neck neigh­bours are mow­ing their lawns in a par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing way.

It’s all get­ting too much for mild-mannered Gopnik who seeks coun­sel and sup­port from law­yers (expens­ive) and rab­bis (empty), and yet the tri­als keep com­ing and his lim­its con­tin­ue to be tested.

A Serious Man is a very dark com­edy and a film so thor­ough and com­plete that it deserves com­par­is­on with the finest nov­els, let alone films and its right up there with the very best of the Coen’s already mag­ni­fi­cent can­on. No Country for Old Men was about being good in a world that con­tains pure evil and A Serious Man asks sim­il­ar exist­en­tial ques­tions but leaves us plenty of room to come up with our own answers. Mine keep changing.

It’s such a pleas­ure to see a film in which the craft so beau­ti­fully serves the art. Every frame seems to do double or treble duty: aes­thet­ics, nar­rat­ive, humour, sub-text. Nothing wasted, everything gained.

Adam posterAfter A Serious Man, everything I saw this week­end seemed watery and weak, like tea made from recycled bags. Adam is an indie drama about a young man with Asperger’s (Hugh Dancy) liv­ing in New York who falls in love with his beau­ti­ful neigh­bour (Rose Byrne) who writes children’s books. Switching between dreary clichés and nice obser­va­tions and then back again, the biggest prob­lem with the film is Dancy’s lack of grunt in the lead.

What Just Happened posterA few years ago, Hollywood pro­du­cer Art Linson wrote a tell-all book about the busi­ness called “What Just Happened?” One of the stor­ies involved the Lee Tamahori-dir­ec­ted film The Edge where star Alec Baldwin turned up for the shoot with a big beard barely con­ceal­ing his con­sid­er­able extra weight, prompt­ing a battle-of-wills between pro­du­cer, stu­dio and star that almost derailed the pro­duc­tion. That chapter has been turned into a fea­ture film, dir­ec­ted by Diner’s Barry Levinson, with the always game Bruce Willis play­ing him­self rather than Baldwin and Robert De Niro as the Producer. It’s nice to see De Niro car­ry­ing a film for the first time in a while but the end product is very modest.

Flame & Citron posterFlame & Citron is the, until now, untold story of the Danish res­ist­ance in WWII – a top­ic of some con­sid­er­able import­ance if you are a Dane I would ima­gine but rather less so to the rest of us. Flame and Citron (Thure Lindhardt and the intense Mads Mikkelsen) are nick­names for a top team of assas­sins who dis­cov­er that in the shambles of war­time they have been tak­ing their orders from the wrong people. It’s had a few Krona spent on it, for sure, but the end product is about half an hour too long and there’s very little we haven’t seen before – a few times.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon posterThe only thing that got me through The Twilight Saga: New Moon without gou­ging my own eyes out was idly fan­tas­ising about what it might have been like if the Coen’s had been giv­en the gig rather than Chris Weitz (rebuild­ing a career badly dam­aged by The Golden Compass two Christmases ago). There would have been a lot less talk­ing, that’s for sure. Scenes go on end­lessly as char­ac­ters repeat them­selves over and over again, say­ing nothing.

A plot sum­mary is redund­ant because basic­ally noth­ing hap­pens: 109-year-old vam­pire Edward (Robert Pattinson) loves 17-year-old Bella (Kristen Stewart) but then breaks her heart by leav­ing sud­denly on the pre­text that they can nev­er be togeth­er – com­pletely con­tra­dict­ing the pre­vi­ous film). On the rebound Bella falls for the oth­er really hot teen in town (Taylor Lautner) who turns out to be a were­wolf. Just her luck, eh.

Like Celine Dion and Bryan Adams make music for people who don’t really like music, New Moon is a movie for people who don’t really like movies. Unforgivably tedious.

If, like me, you were dis­ap­poin­ted to find out that the Latin American Film Festival had snuck in and out of town like a ninja in dis­guise you will be pleased to know that we have anoth­er bunch of films from the end­lessly fas­cin­at­ing con­tin­ent on offer this week­end. Reel Brazil focuses on the busy and diverse Brazilian industry and it’s a huge pro­gramme of titles for only four days of screen­ings. Thanks to the organ­isers, I was priv­ileged to pre­view a bril­liant doc­u­ment­ary called Pirinop: First Contact which lets the indi­gen­ous rain­forest Ikpeng people tell their own stor­ies of dis­place­ment and col­on­isa­tion. What’s inter­est­ing about their stor­ies is that they were only “dis­covered” in 1964 and the First Contact was recor­ded for doc­u­ment­ar­ies at the time. Mixing archiv­al foot­age and pho­to­graphs with bois­ter­ous re-enactments and mov­ing story-telling, Pirinop: First Contact is essen­tial view­ing if you have any interest at all in these themes.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 November, 2009.