14 December 2009

Serious Things

When we're two posts past the Christmas special and still in 2009, you know the year's end is fast approaching. Indeed, there are very few films left to go before 2010 rolls around, bringing Toy Story 3 and my inevitable explosion of excitement a little bit closer. But there are still a few to come, including certain James Cameron and Guy Ritchie films that I'm a little ambivalent about. For today, I have seen A Serious Man and Where The Wild Things Are. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.


After their recent mainstream successes, such as Burn After Reading or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen present a much more personal and thoughtful project in the form of A Serious Man. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor who suddenly and inexplicably incurs a number of grave misfortunes. His wife decides to ask for a divorce, having decided to abscond with one of his more "serious" acquaintances, his children don't appreciate him and his deadbeat brother is sleeping on the sofa and hogging Larry's bathroom as he works on puzzling out the universe. In all of this, Larry begins to wonder what he's done to deserve his problems and consults with rabbis to try and regain some sense of direction.

The central refrain of A Serious Man is "I didn't do anything", and it's easy to see how an audience weaned off the mainstream to see this might assert that nothing happens in the leisurely-paced narrative. On the contrary, it's essentially the Coen brothers' equivalent of a biblical epic, grounded in suburbia. And the biblical aspect aside, we have the central character being pitched as analogous to Schrödinger's cat, potentially being both alive and dead at the same time. If that last sentence doesn't describe your ideal and entertaining night out at your local multiplex, that's because it's not, unless you're looking for a film you can really discuss and think about afterwards. There is a strong current of black comedy running through the film though, but when I say black, think ace of spades-black. And then some more black. But every comic exchange has buckets of meaning stacked up behind it, and I wouldn't blame anyone who had to go and discuss the film on the Internet to entirely "get" it. I know I had to, just so I could get my head around that final shot. It is a film that gleefully discomforts the audience and confounds expectations.

I did laugh a lot at the trademark dialogue of the Coens, and they bring that brilliant insight into idiocy and incompetence in everyday life to the table once again, but on many levels this is still a rather frustrating film to watch. Larry's aforementioned inaction is a double-edged sword- he doesn't deserve his misfortune, but then he doesn't do anything to subvert it either, and that's agonising to behold. On the other hand, Larry is brilliantly realised by Michael Stuhlbarg, and the Coens really got it right in casting virtually unknown actors. We're allowed to buy into their plight much easier when we're not trying to remember the last time we saw them in a film, or thinking about Ocean's Eleven, or whatever. It's not the most tense or gripping film ever, but there could have been big problems in making a film so personal that it restricted their audience. I didn't think it had those problems, but I'm sure long-time fans of the Coens will have a much greater appreciation for this, if they can take the intense discomfort that's ladled upon them.

A Serious Man is either a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy. I'm not sure which, but it's like watching someone scraping their nails down a blackboard, but not because it's annoying or terrible- it's just incredibly uncomfortable, and this elevates audience discomfort to high art. It's as dark as they come, but it still has laugh-out-loud moments. Newcomers may be alienated, and I certainly didn't feel entirely comfortable either, but it remains a thoughtful and interesting addition to the Coens' body of work. Oh, and that final shot is infuriatingly brusque, but it'll make sense once you have a quick look on IMDB. Fascinating, but toe-curlingly contrary.


Another slightly ambiguously pitched film in cinemas at the moment is Spike Jonze's eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, a children's book which, as loved as it is, doesn't seem the most likely candidate for film adaptation at only 10 pages long. Nevertheless, this film is the story of Max, an emotionally volatile young boy who runs away from home after an argument with his mother and winds up on an island. The island is populated by a group of six large creatures, who look cuddly enough but are given to wild and violent activity at any given point. Dressed in a wolf costume, Max ingratiates himself and becomes King of the Wild Things, but realises through his experiences that he has a lot of growing up to do.

Yes, that's the same Spike Jonze who directed Being John Malkovich. He's not the obvious choice to direct this, just as this is actually not an obvious choice for film adaptation. So there's a refreshing lack of obviousness about Where The Wild Things Are that makes it one of the more enjoyable family films of the year. There really shouldn't be any of the current debate about whether or not it's too scary for children, because as has been established many times, children can take, and indeed enjoy a little scary stuff every now and then. There's certainly no gore in the film, and if adults think children will be scared, then it just shows that children are a lot less panicky and reactionary than adults. The violence that the Wild Things inflict upon each other is real enough and carries enough weight to put the audience on edge, but it's certainly not imitable- most children are not seven feet tall or covered in fur.

But one thing I definitely have to praise is the look of those Wild Things. With Avatar fast approaching and apparently taking the lack of photo-realism in CGI creatures to laughable proportions, it's incredibly satisfying to see a film like this employ real, physical effects where possible. Yes, they had to do a bit of computer wizardry on the faces in order for there to be any lip-synch between the actors' voices and the creatures on screen. But the actual bodies were achieved with puppetry and animatronics- solid objects as opposed to pixel-composed creations. As a result, Where The Wild Things Are has weight and realism, and perhaps that's why parents are so pent up about the violence. The creatures are also well-served by the voices of James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, and there's also a rather excellent breakthrough performance by young Max Records. The whole thing is topped off by a beautiful and sweeping musical score by Karen O and Carter Burwell, making this a film that's just as good as the sum of its parts.

As Jonze said himself, it was his intention to make a film about childhood rather than a children's film. The end result exceeds in both of those categories, and Where The Wild Things Are is a touching fantasy film that has as much for its young audience as it does for adults, so long as they're not quibbling about what scares kids. It has a strong aesthetic and captures on celluloid a great deal of the turmoil that certain areas of your childhood can hold, as well as retaining all the joy of a youthful imagination.


If you've seen Where The Wild Things Are, or seen and recovered from A Serious Man, why not share your comments on those films or on my reviews below?

It's extremely likely that Avatar will be next up on the blog. I really can't see it being anywhere near as perfect as James Cameron has painted it- my favourite comment on how it looks so far has been "Pocahontas with Smurfs". It may completely surprise me yet and I'm going to try and watch it with an open mind, but the man hasn't made a film under two hours long since The Terminator, and this is probably going to be quite unnecessarily lengthy. Forewarned is forearmed, readers, so get your rant umbrellas out for the end of the week.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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