Monday, March 15, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

A Serious Man (2009) 
In the trailer for the Coen brothers' latest, the sound of family man Larry Gopnik's head, thumped against a chalkboard, soundtracked two-minutes of impending domestic and professional disaster, eventually reaching a nearly unbearable tension relieved only by Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." It was one of the most affective trailers I've ever seen, but stretch that feeling to 90+ minutes, and it feels more like the audience's head is the one being pummeled by the tragedy and travails of Gopnik's slowly disintegrating life. It's an effective pummeling, we watch as his family, career and Jewish religion methodically fall apart in 1960s small-town Iowa. We see one institution after another fail Larry, but after more than an hour of both subtle and not-so subtle misery, I ask, why in the world do I need to subject myself to picket-fence and chrome-fender hell? What am I learning here other than that some men are so ineffectual and nebbish that even when they're staring down the path of certain disaster they refuse to put a foot down?  I suppose the very fact that the Coens pushed me to a point that required asking these questions of purpose and life and art means that the bastards, once again, did their fucking job, even if that means filming one of the most nihilistic endings I have ever seen (or was it?) B+

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)
Co-directors Neveldine-Taylor's first Crank film was a gloriously over-the-top send-up (hopefully) of Mountain Dew-Xtreme-Doritos action movies. Crank 2 is more of the same, but the shtick has gone cold, and the depths they must plunge to continuously shock the audience often becomes just mean, ugly, increasingly bloody — and eventually just not fun anymore. C-

The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Director Rian Johnson doesn't completely fulfill the promise he showed with his endlessly inventive debut, the film-noir-via-modern-high school mashup Brick, but he shows increased range by replacing some of his edgier instincts with at-times nauseating whimsy and over-the-top production. As with Wes Anderson, Johnson constantly reminds his audience that this is a theater production, Ta-duh! His sets often look consciously like sets, the dialogue is, like in Brick, stylized and pointed, and the story is pure fantasy.

The Brothers Bloom follows two brothers who begin pulling cons before middle school. Older brother Stephen (Mark Ruffulo) writes the cons as elaborate stories where everyone gets what they want in the end, complete with the kind of symbolism found in "Russian novels," great betrayals, emotional climaxes and even a denouement. His brother, Bloom (Adrian Brody) is written into his cons as the charmer, the womanizer, the rogue. After decades playing games, Bloom is tired of living someone else's stories and vows, of course, to never pull another con again. Stephen drags Bloom back into the fold with one final con, the manipualtion of a beuatiful, rich shut-in (Rachel Weisz) who has never much left her parent's mansion, had any fun, nor shared her wealth with anyone else. 

The Brothers Bloom mostly avoids the dreaded She's All That moment — when the con man tells the woman "at first it was a bet, but now I really love you" — by leading the audience down that obvious path before cutting through several twists and turns. The Brothers Bloom is a story about stories, dreams and living the life you want to live, though at points it would have been nice to get lost in a film that doesn't constantly remind its audience that a story arc is nothing more than a magnificent con of manipulated emotions. B

The Invention of Lying (2009)
The premise is the movie here, with plot often an afterthought and character development not an issue because everyone is basically the same — mean inner monologues become out-loud conversations, and every insecurity and judgmental thought is spoken. The Invention of Lying often confuses over-sharing with honesty. If you think someone is ugly, keeping it to yourself is not necessarily lying, it's simply not talking. Of course, the brutally "honest" conversations during a date between writer/director/star Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner  — sample dialogue — "you are fat and have a snub nose, we will not be having sex tonight, and you probably won't get a kiss" provides a few laugh-out-loud lines but also a lot of cruelty. Often, the most enjoyable parts are the details. In a world without lies, advertising takes on a whole new strategy, movies are limited to narrators reading the most popular stories from the non-fiction canon, and there is no religion. But eventually even a premise-as-plot has to justify its run-time, and that's when the Invention of Lying strays into a half-assed, satirical parable of religion and it's function as the opiate of the masses. Gervias never makes a cogent argument for or against the ultimate lie of heaven and hell, instead landing occasionally clever jabs against the "man in the sky," and his followers. C+


Anonymous said...

Eddie, you need to see Anatomy 2 and the Spanish Apartment. Ganja's dad is in both! I havent seen any thats he's in yet but I aim to....his name is Barnaby Metschurat

Anonymous said...

*Anatomie II

The Juice Box said...

I haven't seen Invention of Lying, but have you watched Ricky Gervais' new show? I think it's on Comedy Central or Cartoon Network. We DVR'd it for a bit, but then it got annoying. I don't know. Something about Ricky Gervais doing anything other than standup or The Office UK really bothers me. It just doesn't work.

Brendan said...

Well after months of refusal to acquire A Serious Man unless through the library- i.e. free, I finally bit the bullet and stooped low enough to rent it for a whopping $2.80 at my local Family Video. But it was worth it. Unlike my coffee, I like my humor black, so A Serious Man totally whetted my appetite for good 'ol pitch-black, nihilist fun- a Coen Brothers staple.
I understand your point about being beaten over the head with depressing misfortunes of Gopnik's apparently 1960's life (were Abraxas and Cosmo's Factory supposed to corroborate that? Fail.) After a while, the viewer's just like, "Jesus Christ, how much more shit is this weak-ass (yet admittedly likable) pussy going to be put through?" But to be honest, in a way I kind of liked that about the movie; I guess I sort of like that whole deprecating, hopeless aspect of a movie- I did not realize that until now- and how it all becomes resolved/unresolved. But I didn't exactly get a resolution, did I? Which brings me to my main point:
HOW ABOUT THAT ENDING? For some reason, against my better judgment, I loved it. It can suck to devote so much time to a movie to end up being forced to complete the denoument oneself, but in this case, I'm embracing the task. I guess it's sort of like what you said, I like that as usual, the Coen Brothers did their job.
I won't say A Serious Man is one of my all-time Coen Bros. Favorites, but I really do think it was pretty good.
What are some of your thoughts? I'm dying to discuss this with someone, but you're the only person I know who has seen it. Answer ASAP before I go crazy with pent-up cinematic opinions, man!!

Warped Coasters said...

I haven't seen the Ricky Gervais Show but it's on HBO on demand right now I think. I dunno where it originated. Have you watched Extras? The first episode was really really funny, and then the next two episodes were the exact same plots, but with some funny celebrity cameos.


I figure in the end, Larry has cancer or some terrible disease, right? Like the tornado tearing towards the school makes everything that happened before it irrelevant, so does Larry's disease. All his trials and tribulations will come to naught as he succumbs to disease and dies. Or, maybe the philosophy is the other way: even the pain and suffering leading up to the end is better than death, at least "trials and tribulations" mean the victim is living, engaging, feeling, etc. I dunno, But I think Larry is a goner.

I'll try to rank my fave Coen brothers films here, but if you asked me to do it ten days in a row you'd prolly get ten different lists:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. Fargo
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
4. Miller's Crossing
5. Burn After Reading
6. No Country for Old Men
7. Barton Fink
8. A Serious Man
9. The Man Who Wasn't There
10. Raising Arizona
11. Hudsucker Proxy
12. Blood Simple
13. Intolerable Cruelty (not that bad)
14. The Ladykillers (I hate this movie)

Brendan said...

***A Serious Man Spoilers!***

Yeah, Eddie, I agree with what you've said about the ending, that the disease and the tornado completely obliterate all of Larry's and Danny's tribulations, which before seemed so significant, had so much bearing on their lives. Also, though, what do you think about this? When Larry walks into Rabbi Marshak's study, he sees that painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I assume you have some knowledge of the circumstances of that story. Do you think Larry's actions had some consequence on his son's life in a supernatural sort of way? Like, because he finally changed that Engrish-speaking Korean student's grade, the tornado came into existence, pretty obviously about to annihilate Danny at his school? Some sort of "action/reaction", karma-like effect? So, like Abraham, he sacrificed his son's life when he changed the grade to a C-. And I kind of think that Larry's basically just been screwed by the Universe. Even though he's always tried really hard to be a good,serious guy, when he finally does something wrong, he has to pay for it.

Brendan said...

Oh yeah, and here's my current list of favorites from the Coens, for what it's worth:

1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
2. The Big Lebowski
3. No Country For Old Men
4. Fargo
5. A Serious Man
6. Burn After Reading
7. Raising Arizona

Warped Coasters said...

the religious/karmic idea is very interesting, I hadn't considered it, nor really paid attention to the Abraham/Isaac picture, I've never seen the Coens go in a religious direction like that before, but then again this was a very Jewish-oriented film, which is unusual for them.

Throughout their career I think they've always blamed things on chance, circumstance and dumb luck rather than any sort of destiny, or divine interference, so I don't think they meant that, but you have a good argument, and even if they didn't mean it, I like it.

Warped Coasters said...

have you seen the rest of their films? You gotta see Barton Fink and Millers Crossing if you haven't.

Brendan said...

Aghhh I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't seen anything else by the Coens despite my acting like their most devoted follower (I'm admittedly a poser sometimes), probably because in my cinematically formative years (junior high through junior year) I mostly stuck with critically and commercially acclaimed material. But Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and Hudsucker Proxy have been on my mental list of must-sees for about two years now.

And yeah, your assertion about the Coens' love affair with fate and chance is really backed up by No Country For Old Men. There are too many examples to point out, but I will anyway. Anton Chigur's obsession with coin tosses and probability as well as Tommy Lee Jones juuuuust missing all the important stuff everywhere he goes, to name a couple.

Excuse me while I first purchase my copy of Shame, Shame, and then order some Coen Brothers movies through interlibrary loan.