A SERIOUS MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

A SERIOUS MAN
(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

“No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”
– Disclaimer in the end credits.

In the 25 years since they first burst on the indie movie scene with the stellar BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coen Brothers have hit many cinematic curveballs into the woodwork of their films. Those being character or tangents (or both) that appear not to fit initially into their understood premises and leave us scratching our heads to their purpose in the grand scheme of things. Examples include: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) -the high-school classmate of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who oddly appears at an pivotal point in FARGO, the pedophile bowling rival Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) who steals a good 5 minutes of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Ed Crane’s (Billy Bob Thornton) UFO dream in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. As perplexing as these seemingly ersatz elements are, they are often the most memorable moments of their movies. Imagine if they concocted an entire film out of such scenes.

A SERIOUS MAN isn’t quite that concoction, but it comes pretty damn close with its unproven paradoxes, character threads that aren’t followed through, and fake-out dream sequences. On the surface it’s about the trials and tribulations of Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gobnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late 60’s. Beneath the surface it’s about religion, betrayal, academia, Jewish suffering, and a futile search for meaning – I think. When the opening couplet of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” (a driving force throughout the movie) is recited by a Rabbi as if it’s an ancient prayer, you can be sure that what this film is about exactly is going to be up for debate for a long time.

Gobnik is surrounded by headaches – his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, his schlebbish but possibly brilliant brother (Richard Kind) sleeps on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from his wallet for a nose job, his son (Aaron Wolff) is stealing from her for marijuana, and his tenure may be threatened by a series of slanderous anonymous letters that his school’s committee keeps receiving. There’s also a thick headed racist gun-toting neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) and a Korean student (David Kang) who attempts to bribe Gobnik for a passing grade. In a confrontation over that particular no-win situation the student’s father tells Gobnik to “accept the mystery.” Obviously that’s what the Coen Brothers are telling us too.

Here’s hoping movie goers got their A-list fill with their previous outing BURN AFTER READING because there are very few recognizable names here. Folks will likely know Richard Kind and Adam Arkin (as a somewhat sympathetic lawyer) from various television roles, but the cast is mostly fresh and unknown with Stuhlbarg’s pitch perfect exasperated everyman standing out in the starring role.

As one of the Rabbis that Gobnik seeks solace from, George Wyner (also familiar from TV as well as turns in fan favorites SPACEBALLS and FLETCH) owns one of the best scenes in the film (an instant classic in the Coens canon BTW) relaying a story about a dentist who is shocked to find Hebrew engravings on the back of a non-Jewish patient’s teeth.

Gobnik’s son Danny’s (Wolff) bar mitzvah is another notable highlight. While his father struggles with existential discord, Danny’s biggest concerns are out-running a bully he owes money and getting the best possible TV signal so he can watch F Troop. As seen through Danny’s stoned eyes, the paranoia pulsating through his coming of age ceremony is pleasingly palpable.

There is quite a bit of humor in A SERIOUS MAN but it’s not laugh out loud funny, it’s more like inward cringing giggle funny. It has been called the Coen Brother’s most personal film as the suburban tract housing world it creates is reportedly identical to the one of their childhood as are the overriding rites of a traditional Jewish upbringing but it rarely comes off auto-biographical. Gobnik and his family’s fates are literally about to be twisting in the wind as we leave them and while that’s of little comfort – for some reason it made me smile. One day maybe I’ll be able to say exactly why.

More later…

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The Alphabet Meme

I was tagged by Ibetolis from the great blog Film For The Soul to take part in the Alphabet Meme that has been going around started by Fletch at Blog Cabbins. The basic idea is pretty self explanatory but rules are below anyways.

Here goes:

A is for ABOUT SCHMIDT (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2002)

Just watched it again a few days ago and still love every second. A career best for Jack Nicholson.

B is for BARFLY (Dir. Barbet Schroeder. 1987)

C is for COOLER, THE (Dir. Wayne Kramer, 2003)

D is for DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1991)

E is for
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Dir. Michel Gondry, 2004)

F is for FLETCH (Dir. Michael Ritchie, 1985)

G is for GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (James Foley, 1992)

Speaking of a career best, in an incredible cameo Alec Baldwin offers an alphabet meme of his own.

H is for HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968)

I is for I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)

J is for JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991)

K is for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMEN (Dir. Hectoer Babenco, 1985)

L is for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE (Dir. Orson Welles, 1947)

M is for MAGNOLIA (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)

N is for NETWORK (Dir. Sydney Lumet, 1976)


You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! – Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) Guess I’m all about the powerful cameo speeches, huh?

O is for OH, GOD! (Dir. Carl Reiner, 1977) See 10 Reasons The 30th Anniversary Of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated (Oct. 3, 2007)

P is for PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Dir. Woody Allen, 1986)

Q is for QUADROPHENIA (Dir. Franc Roddam, 1979)

R is for ROMEO IS BLEEDING (Dir. Peter Medak, 1993)

S is for SMOKE
(Dir. Wayne Wang, 1995)


T is for TIME AFTER TIME (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1979)

U is for UNREASONABLE MAN, AN (Dirs. Henriette Mantel & Steve Skrovan, 2006)

V is for VISITOR, THE (Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2008) See A Marvelous Minimalist Movie Before The Blockbuster Bombast Begins May 2, 2008).

W is for WAKING LIFE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2001)

X is for X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE (Dir. Rob Bowman, 1998) Actually this is far from one of my favorite movies, but as X movies go I like it better than X-MEN and XXX.

Y is for YELLOW SUBMARINE (Dir. George Dunning, 1968)

Z is for ZOOLANDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2001)

That’s right. Take that ZELIG!

Now here are the rules for this Alphabet Meme:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter “A” and the word “The” do not count as the beginning of a film’s title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don’t know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under “R,” not “S” as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with “S.” Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under “R,” not “I” as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the Lord Of The Rings series belong under “L” and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under “C,” as that’s what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number’s word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under “T.”

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type “alphabet meme” into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you’re selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

So, these are the folks I’m tagging:

TheSophomoreCritic
Sara Forbes at SARANOMICS
Dean Treadway at filmicability
::: The Playlist ::: *
TLA ATTACKS THE MOVIES
Moviedearest

Hope they play along.

* D’oh! ::: The Playlist ::: already made their meme – check it out here.

More later…

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Others Original Designs

This is a sequel of sorts to a post I did earlier this year (10 Of The Most Misleading and Mis-representing Movie Posters Ever!) with one of the same posters mentioned and the same theme of mis-marketing dominating. Recently the publicity for the new pop-doc AMERICAN TEEN included a poster that directly recreates the iconic poster image for the classic 80s teen angst flick THE BREAKFAST CLUB. The similarity was so blatant that it made many folks (including me) think it was a retitled remake:

You see? To be fair AMERICAN TEEN has another poster design out there that’s more original but that above is still still close for comfort. This is a pretty common device that calls for another patented Film Babble Blog list:

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Other Poster’s Original Designs

1. THE BIG ONE appropriates MEN IN BLACK and suffers legal action for it – That’s right the image for Michael Moore’s self indulgent book tour doc was ruled too similar to the design for the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi vehicle so a judge ruled that Miramax had to remove the posters from distribution. The taglines: “Protecting the Earth from scum of the universe” from MEN IN BLACK and “Protecting the Earth from the scum of corporate America” from THE BIG ONE would probably be dismissed by most of us as parody not copyright infringement but Columbia Pictures’ lawyers thought differently.


2. FLETCH LIVES for some reason regurgitates GONE WITH THE WIND – This lackluster sequel did itself no favors by placing Chevy Chase’s Irwin M. Fletcher character into the framework of one of the most famous films of all time. Not sure the thinking here, did they really think it was a good idea to equate the camera-mugging wise-ass with a suave Rhett Butler in the thralls of a tragic romance while Atlanta burns? I suppose the GONE WITH THE WIND design is just a device for selling the Fletch inherits a Southern Plantation’ premise and I should cut them some slack for trying to wrap a failed follow-up in something resembling a classy package.


3. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? macks on the art for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Meticulously copying the entire design right down to the typefaces and every detail of the amazing Amsel painting done for the 1982 re-release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Morgan Spurlock’s much lambasted quasi-poli-doc tries to align itself with the same globe trotting heroic splendor of the Spielberg classic but just ends up looking desperate. I haven’t seen WHERE IN THE WORLD… but not being a fan of SUPER SIZE ME or Spurlock’s television work makes me ambivalent at best to it with this uninspired poster design putting me off even further.


4. THIS IS SPINAL TAP jumps on the back of AIRPLANE! – This one I wrote about before in the Most Mis-leading Movie Posters post mentioned above, noting that director Rob Reiner remarked: “They marketed it with a guitar flying in the air with a twisted neck which looked like the poster for AIRPLANE! It looked like it was trading on

another film”. There were many more comedies that were marketed with crazy flying in the air’ imagery – the Zucker Bros. own NAKED GUN movies kept the concept alive for another decade after SPINAL TAP.


5. PROBLEM CHILD crassly copies PARENTHOOD – A mere months after Ron Howard’s family comedy was a hit came this tasteless anti-family comedy with a poster design that mocks the former’s switching the roles and supposedely doubling the laughs. Not a bad advertising approach mind you, I’m sure many rented one after glancing at the video box thinking it was the other.


6. DEAD HEAT duplicates GOODFELLAS – This one is really annoying. Same dark design with 3 protagonists posing above a street scene and the same typeface

shows a complete creative bankruptcy on the side of the promotional department. The utterly forgetable Keifer Sutherland crime thriller that somebody on the IMDb message board called “SEABISCUIT meets GOODFELLAS could not come close to competing with Scorsese’s masterpiece so seeing them try is painful.


7. ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL re-amps NATIONAL LAMPOONS ANIMAL HOUSE – Lots of crude sloppy comedies have likewise Mad Magazine derived designs but the folks behind marketing the Ramones’ film debut didn’t look very far for an angle here – they just went with what worked for the previous years teen gross-out blockbuster. Squint and you’d think you’re seeing the same picture (especially with the tiny examples I’ve provided here).


8. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY redoes ANNIE HALL (as does the movie) and begat a flood of rom com movie marketing – A couple in a hesitant yet sexually tense moment always makes for a good poster picture for a romantic comedy,

right? Well just add a city skyline (most often New York, duh!) underneath and now you’re talking. Dozens upon dozens of recent rom coms have used this type imagery including SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, TWO WEEKS NOTICE, MAID IN MANHATTAN, ALEX & EMMA (also Rob Reiner), etc. Oh yeah, the Dudley Moore / Mary Steenburgen movie actually named ROMANTIC COMEDY had a similar image too.


9. CLOVERFIELD marks on THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs territory – The Statue Of Liberty gets a lot of abuse in the world of movie posters. In CLOVERFIELD its head gets blown off (same thing is shown

on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORKs poster incidentely) and a long shot view shows us a stormy New York in turmoil. Looks a lot like the same painting style and tone used in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs the Statue Of Liberty under ice image. The poster for the upcoming sludge through bad pop culture spoofs DISASTER MOVIE features our long suffering statue getting drowned in a tidal wave. Hard job it is being a giant symbol of freedom I guess.


10. TRANSFORMERS apes PLANET OF THE APES – Why would anybody want to recall the roundly rejected Tim Burton remake of the Charleton Heston “damn dirty ape” classic with a poster image that looks nearly identical? It seemed like TRANSFORMERS would’ve had its own shiny take on the aesthetics and wouldn’t have to stoop to this so was it unfortunately unintentional? Did somebody think the look and angle of the Ape design was cool and thought it was either forgotten or needed to be re-done and re-purposed? Whatever the deal, I can still barely tell them apart.


Okay! Now, I know there are lots of movie posters that have co-opted the designs of others that I missed so feel free to comment away.

More later…

Second Hand Smoke: Catching Up With Harold And Kumar

When I heard that my local hometown theater, where I work part-time, was going to be showing HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY I decided to give in and finally watch the first one. I had heard that HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE was funny from various friends but just never got around to seeing it. Since the sequel has been getting fairly decent reviews (and is #2 at the box office right now) I’d put the first one in my NetFlix queue and thought I might make a double feature out of it by going to see the second on the big screen directly after viewing the first one on DVD (yes, I have no life). Of course this plan depended on whether I liked the first one. Well, let me tell you:

HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE (Dir. Danny Leiner, 2004)

In the four years since this was released I got the picture from trailers and friend’s quotations that this was basically a crude comedy about a couple of geeky Asian stoners who get caught in a silly series of mishaps while trying to get to a fast food restaurant to satisfy their extreme bout with the munchies. Yep, that’s exactly what is – a base teen demographic-aimed R-rated raunchy romp filled to the brim with profanity, gross scatological humour, and every stock stereotype you could put a stamp on. The fact that the DVD has a featurette entitled “The Art Of The Fart” says it all, right? That’s not to say it doesn’t have a certain clever charm to at times. The leads – John Cho and Kal Penn (as Harold & Kumar respectively) are likable and carry the tone with a crisp chemistry. A bevy of B and C-list film folk appear in cameos – Fred Willard, Ryan Reynolds, and Jamie Kennedy are on hand to randomly pop up and provide punch to the proceedings but the cake is taken by Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser!) playing himself. NPH, as some refer to him, is a horny Ecstasy-fueled celebrity ego exaggeration who throws one of many wrenches at the feet of our THC-driven burger-craving heroes and steals the movie just like he steals their car *.

* This cameo came up before on this blog – The Cameo Countdown Continues (7/20/07)

This kind of comedy isn’t really my thing – the bathroom base-ness of it all wears intensely thin with every compromising situation easy to predict but there are a few decent laughs and a loosy-goosey go-with-it flow that doesn’t feel forced. A dream sequence/love montage featuring Kumar romancing and going on to marry a gigantic bag of weed set to Heart’s “Crazy On You” comes close to hitting that hilarious-line on the comic circus bell pole and there are at least 3 or 4 other crazy bits that Judd Apatow would be proud to call his own. Comparisons to Cheech & Chong, Wayne & Garth, Bill & Ted, and even Beavis & Butthead (oh wait, also the dudes in DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?) are inevitable meaning the stoner duo mis-adventure can now be fully recognized as a legit genre. Like I said, HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE in the end may not really be my bag (get it?) but as throw-away profoundly stupid commercial, not kind-bud, comedies go – you can get a decent buzz off of it.

So, since the first in the Bong Crosby and Bob Dope road pictures breezed by me somewhat entertainingly I thought sure, why not? I walked up to the theater putting the NetFlix envelope containing the frist one in the mail on the way. So let’s take another toke:

HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (Dirs. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Sclossberg, 2008)

The tagline for this sequel which takes place right after the events of WHITE CASTLE is: “this time they’re running from the joint!” Sure it’s obvious pot-minded spoof pandering, but we’re not exactly talking David Mamet territory here! Well, except in that Mamet’s screenplays are filled with an equal amount of profanity but anyway such a slogan is pretty expected. What’s expected is pretty much the game for Harold & Kumar’s second time out. I mean this builds predictably on what was a sketch-piece patchwork by having even more flagrant racist-panic sex-centric pro-recreational drug antic-mania! Taking it up another notch is the mistaking of our slacker stoner heroes for terrorists because of a self-invented smoke-less bong that Kumar (Kal Penn) smuggles onto a flight to Amsterdam – “It’s a bong – not a bomb!” Kumar exclaims.

The Daily Show‘s Rod Corddry (funny here but not funny enough) as a obsessively prejudiced Homeland Security agent labels them as North Korea and Al Queda working in cahoots and that lands the flippant leads in for a stint in Guantanamo Bay. Through a disgusting passage of predictable scrapes they escape and withstain the usual lot of farcical flukes including more stereotypes (if a backwoods redneck archetype jokes that he has a inbreed son in the basement you can be sure that he really does have such if you get my drift), more nasty non sequiturs, and of course the reliably drugged-up Neil Patrick Harris again to make sure the formula is solidly in place.

In the annals of unneccessary but still somewhat passable sequels this is equal to REVENGE OF THE NERDS II: NERDS IN PARADISE. Or maybe, as Beverly D’Angelo’s cameo as a whorehouse madam here suggests, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION is a better likeness. As for non-sequel quality status Kumar says early on “it’s going to be exactly like EUROTRIP, except its not going to suck” – I’ll give HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO GUANTANEMO BAY that – it is better than EUROTRIP but that is so far from saying much that it’s not funny. Also not funny is the before mentioned inbred hillbilly humor or a wretched Ku Klux Klan sequence that is as slapdash an attack on racism as the likewise lameass swipes in FLETCH LIVES (1989) or even the morally misguided Richard Pryor vehicle BUSTIN’ LOOSE (1981). James Adomian as a goofball version of (like there’s any other comical prospect) President George W. Bush (Adomian has almost made a career out of impersonating the Commander-in-chief on low level shows like Mad TV) appears in the 3rd act to offer some sort of poli-parody statement – thats he’s a stoner too with a slacker perspective to be admired. Of all the notions in this fitfully funny but still unneccessary sequel that’s the most unfunniest.

Okay! I think the amount of time I’ve spent with Harold & Kumar today has been a bit much. Still, though laughs – we’ve had a few…

More later…