SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS DECEMBER 2009
SEA WALL, The (UN BARRAGE CONTRE LE PACIFIQUE)
SERIOUS MAN, A
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
(US, 2009, d. Oren Peli)
Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Rec, Quarantine, The Fourth Kind – and now Paranormal Activity. Enough small-budget, hand-held and fixed camera technique stories which purport to be actual takes, edited down from loads of footage, which are meant to persuade a persuadable audience that this all really happened. Names, dates and times are important for a sense of heightened realism.
Paranormal Activity worked well with American audiences who saw it festivals, and executives were finally persuaded to release and market it – and this worked, the film taking more than $100,000,000 within a month.
If you are going to see it, try to see it with a large audience who are going to generate tense feelings, a sense of creepiness about the mysterious happenings as well as jumping and, perhaps, shrieking a couple of times. Unfortunately, this kind of response does not happen at press previews where reviewers (prone to look down their noses) sit as solid as stone. In this context, I wished I was not more het up than I was – actually, I wasn't at all, wishing that I was drawn into it more. Which means that one spends a lot of time watching how the director, Orin Peli, was setting things up, editing and creating a growing tension so that there is some eeriness at the end, with a satisfying if not unexpected ending.
Peli sets up his characters very well, Katie, a student who has had paranormal experiences since she was eight (sense of being watched, mysterious presences, a house burning down), and her partner, Micah, a financier who has bought a camera and sets it up to film at night over a period of a month or more to help solve the problem. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat display a great ease in making us believe that this is really happening to them and gives the film more credibility than might be expected. A psychic also visits – and returns, but can't get out of the house fast enough!
The film avoids all gore and frightfest stuff, relying solely on more effective atmosphere and suggestions.
(Spain/UK, 2009, d. Jorge Blanco)
This is an animated film (from Spain – and work done in the UK - and a company that produces video games) with enough to appeal to children and enough to amuse relaxed adults.
The presumption is this: out there in space is Planet 51 with its own pace of development for its green (and, to us), alien looking characters; they have arrived at the stage where Earth was in the 1950s, and the designers, costumers and music directors have a great deal of fun re-creating the look and sound of the city to make it a parody (gentle) of Earth and life in Southern California in those days. It opens very humorously as the locals are watching a space horror flick, Humaniacs II, with mother dragging out a littly from such an unsuitable film! But, it reveals to us that the inhabitants have no idea about life in space and are focused on their own world. But..., there is a secret military installation (echoes of Roswell) to confront alien visits. The commander is General Grawl.
It is amusing and entertaining to watch a world that parodies our own. Then an alien from Earth (looking and sounding like an All-American? or Buzz Lightyear's brother) lands on the planet which he thinks is uninhabited, which leads to lots of humorous jokes with the human astronaut as the target of alien gags. Paralleling ET, the alien is saved by young children who try to get him back to his space ship, pursued by Planet 51 military (really dopey) and a mad scientist who wants to collect the astronaut's brain. And so on...
The voices are entertaining as well. Dwayne Johnson is the astronaut, Justin Long the nerdish hero, Lem, contrasting with the boisterous comics and move obsessive, Skiff, voiced by Seann William Scott. Jessica Biel is the object of Lem's affections while Gary Oldman voices the General and John Cleese the mad doctor. There is also a doggy robot who collects samples – very reminiscent of Wall-E.
Plenty of references to 50s small budget sci-fi movies as well as Star Wars and Back to the Future. Not an award-winner, but quite entertaining.
A SERIOUS MAN
(US, 2009, Joel and Ethan Coen)
Some films can be very Catholic: signs of the cross, genuflections in church, statues, altar rails, candles, masses, communions and confessions. But, does everybody realise what these significant actions and symbols mean and does this confuse an audience or turn them off? Audiences with some Catholic background know or, at least, have a feel for what is going on. But, Catholics faced with Buddhist temples and statuary, bell ringing, prayer, shrines and rituals in a monastery, may take everything on faith and simply observe without really appreciating much of what is happening on the screen. And Hindu statues? Islamic mosques and quotations from the Quran?
These remarks are necessary before any review of the Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man. This is a very serious Jewish comedy. It is set in Minnesota in 1967. The Coens say that it reflects the atmosphere, characters and religious language and observance that they grew up with. I would like to think that I have some familiarity with matters and religion Jewish, but this film made me feel a real outsider looking in. Not without a great deal of interest – but I was glad of the glossary the production notes provided (which I read only after the screening). Since it is an intriguing film in its own way, perhaps I should go again. (I just checked and I can see it next Tuesday afternoon – perhaps I will put a footnote to this review.)
This is a Coen Brothers' version of Jewish folk-storytelling. They even open the film with a shtetl (Eastern European village) tale of a husband and wife (spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles) and a discussion about seeing a friend – who died three years earlier. He appears at the door, a dybbuk (spirit). As a story it has nothing to do with the rest of the film in 1967. It is a storytelling appetiser. The whole film (which includes some stories like this opening one) unrolls in this vein – the film even ending in mid-exclamation mark!
One thing became clear very early on. This is a contemporary telling of the book of Job – although it lacks chapter 42 with its two resolutions (the affirmation of faith in an omnipotent Hashem (the Name, God) and Job being rewarded abundantly for his fidelity). As a tornado looms at the end of the film, maybe Hashem will speak, as he does in the biblical book, out of the storm. Unless the Coens make a sequel or offer some observation on their commentary for the DVD, we will never know.
So, who is the serious man? He is Larry Gopnik, a physics professor who loves his subject as well as math equations and is being considered for tenure at his college. So far, so good. He has a wife and two children – but she is dissatisfied and is falling in love with a neighbouring widower and the daughter is always washing her hair and stealing her father's money for a nose job while the son is ultra-demanding of his father to adjust the TV antenna so that he can see F Troop clearly (he is also going to Jewish school and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah). As played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Larry is an ordinary Everyman/Job character, ever more put upon by family, friends, a student who offers a bribe, his older unemployed brother (Richard Kind) with a suppurating cebacious cyst, a provocative, sexy neighbour, and a car accident, and huge bills, and having to move out to a motel and... and... and...
The chapters of the film are headed by the names of the rabbis that Larry tries to see to get advice from (in between seeing divorce lawyers, property lawyers, criminal lawyers and his son's Bar Mitzvah and an unexpected funeral as well as some very vivid nightmares). George Wyner steals his scenes as the second rabbi with his Jewish stories and his excellent time, especially the story about a dentist who finds a message in Hebrew on the back of a goy's (gentile's) teeth.
This, I hope, gives some impression of how the film works. You will either be fascinated, as an insider or as an outsider by this unfamiliar Jewish American world, mazel tov (congratulations), or you will feel you have strayed into a strange community and have the urge to stray out again or make a beeline for the exit.
Addendum to the review.
Tuesday came and I did go to see A Serious Man again. It was just as well I did. Because the plot and characters were now familiar enough, there were no real concerns about the plot. It was a pleasure looking at and listening to the characters again. Despite the sudden ending, the plot made sense. And, the details and subtleties of performance, the nuances that the Coens are able to introduce into the action could be appreciated better. However, the Job parallel seemed even stronger the second time, the woes that Larry Gobnik experienced as well as the advice from the three Rabbis and Larry's friend at the beach. And the explicit God language in the stories and advice from the rabbis resonated more forcefully. Which led to the conclusion that the Coen Brothers have made a very fine film, both heartfelt and caustic, drawing well on their Jewish heritage and culture.
(UK, 2009, d. Alexis dos Santos)
It probably needs to be said first off that this is a film made by young people, about young people, for young people. Its story and characters, its visual style, the importance of popular music and significant, if offbeat, lyrics are very much geared to a You Tube sensibility for the cinema screen. This accounts for the acclaim that the film has received from audiences and critics who are keen on experimental ways of storytelling (often with a small budget, as here) than on classical polish and finesse.
That is how the film was made – on location in London and Nottingham (especially for the huge squat building) and for recording the soundtrack.
The 'what' of the film is the telling of two short stories, of a young man, Axl, 20 or so, from Spain, and a young woman, Vera, 20 or so, from Belgium, who come to London, meet their peers and try to work out what they are going to do with their lives. The young Spaniard (Fernando Tielve who appeared in Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth) is looking for his father, an English real estate agent, who may or may not know that he has a Spanish son. The young Belgian (Deborah Francois, so impressive in The Child and in The Page Turner) works in a bookshop, is looking for relationship and love.
For most of the film, they have separate stories but eventually meet at a club and share these stories and feelings.
Other characters, often briefly but well delineated, include Mike, the older man who has been through the search for meaning and now runs a club and a squat and is kind and a listener. The staff at the bookshop where Vera works offer some comic touches.
Alexis dos Santos is from Argentina but studied in London and so brings memories and experience to his storytelling and to his sometimes improvised and rough and ready visual style as well as including a wide range of bands and singers.
Though there is a lot of drinking, this is not a drug world – and the characters are friendly rather than threatening towards each other, a kinder London than might have been expected from other films.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
(US, 2009, d. Spike Jonze)
This is a pleasing didactic fable for younger children and for their parents. It is an adaptation, with the author's approval, of a very popular 1963 story by Maurice Sendak. It has been amplified to create the detail and atmosphere of the island where the wild things are – and it was filmed in and around Melbourne.
Max Records is believable as the young boy who lives in his own fantasy world – there is a nice scene where he is lying on the floor making up a short story for his mother (Catherine Keener) to type and he tells it quietly and with feeling and imagination. But, while Max plays on his own, his older sister does not stand up for him when her friends destroy the igloo he has built, and even his loving mother finds him rude and self-centred with her visitor (Mark Ruffalo). She says he is out of control, and he runs away.
This is the realistic setting for the fable to begin as Max sails away, over the ocean, and arrives, through the storms, at an island which is inhabited by very large, odd-looking characters, wild things, who resemble many of the oddball characters who appeared in the Muppet Show. This is understandable as these creatures were built at the Jim Henson studio. The creatures would not be out of place in Alice's Wonderland or on the other side of the looking glass.
The Wild Things are generally big and bouncy (very bouncy as the earth reverberates when they land) and resemble animals, birds and mutant creations. But they have personality and are voiced by a fine range of actors: James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker. Director Spike Jonze (himself a fantasist in his films with writer Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) invited the actors to perform their roles while they were being recorded and then asked the actors who were to be inside the creatures to re-play what they saw the voice-ctors doing.
So, who are the Wild Things and what does Max discover by living with them?
It soon becomes clear that they represent a lot of the feelings inside Max himself, the out-of-control side, the angry side, the 'dumb' side, the neglected side, the spiteful side, as well as the kinder side. While adults will pick this up fairly quickly and appreciate that the creatures are representing what C.G.Jung, for instance, characterised as 'the shadow' side of the person, the children will enjoy the looks, antics of playfulness, jumping and bouncing, earth fights, punching holes in trees, making a fort that looks like an enormous ball and believing Max is their king. But, children will soon realise that one of the characters, the leader, Carol (Gandolfini), is behaving moodily and stupidly just as Max did with his mother. And then, Max, because he is seen to be in charge, starts to sound like a parent, frustrated with Carol. The other Wild Things help Max to understand himself better, be honest with himself and then, to calm down and realise what family is, despite the difficulties – and he is ready to sail home.
The film looks very good. The characterisations are entertainingly offbeat. The pace is measured enough for younger children who are alert to realise what is happening to Max and to appreciate the message of this fable.