Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nine, An Education, A Serious Man

Sometimes it can be worthwhile seeing and reviewing movies you have very little interest in, as is the case with the three titles below. If nothing else, the disappointment factor is gone. Two of these were (somewhat inexplicably) nominated for Best Picture while the third WAS a contender that justifiably crashed and burned during awards season. I've been really backed up lately so that's why I'm trying to get these out of the way by jamming them into a single post. One of these days I'll get to a 2010 release...I promise.


Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottilard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

, or my latest excuse for disliking musicals, is loaded with big-name, A-list talents (plus Fergie) whose skills are all squandered in a plodding 2-hour fragrance commercial. Is it safe to say you know your movie's bad when Kate Hudson is one of the best things in it? Maybe I was just grateful that her screen time was limited or relieved to see her attempt something (anything!) that could be considered a stretch of some sort. In Rob Marshall's defense, the film was no worse than I expected and I'm clearly not in the target audience, but shouldn't you aim to have everyone in the target audience for a star-studded, award baiting project like this? Shouldn't it at least be enjoyable?

It's a remake of Fellini's 8 1/2 and centers around filmmaker, Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis) who's working through severe writer's block and suffering a mid-life crisis, if you want to call a "crisis" having to choose between five (okay, maybe three) beautiful women seducing you. There's his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard); mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz); film star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman); fashion journalist, Stephanie (Hudson) and prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie). Yet somehow the film manages to make this boring as the protagonist mopes from scene to scene as musical numbers are randomly penciled in to cover for it. Blame Marshall's dreary direction, not Day-Lewis, who plays the part as written and infuses whatever he can into a thankless role.

Most of the actresses aquit themselves fine but each have such limited limited screen time and thin characterizations that it's just one musical number after the next with the women as scripted background (Dench and Loren are especially wasted in nothing roles). Hudson is given the most entertaining cameo with "Cinema Italiano," which is at least energetic in a train wreck kind of way, with her voice and moves way better than expected. Fergie's "Be Italian" was the only other number that didn't put me to sleep and wisely seemed tailored to mask her deficiencies as a screen performer. Not surprisingly, Kidman has actually been undervalued in terms of her criminally limited contribution here, believable as a major movie star (not that it's too big a stretch). Conveying the most class and elegance of everyone, Cotillard does seem to be most at home with the material and the singing as Luisa so it's easy to see why many have been raving about her. But again, she just isn't given enough screen time to make the necessary impact and her Oscar-nominated song, "Take it All" is a real snoozer, despite how well she sings it.

Cruz is the lone disaster, inexplicably recognized in Oscar's supporting category for gyrating onstage in various positions and fondling herself non-stop. It's easily the dumbest nomination of the year, with voters thinking with an organ other than their brains, though I'd argue even that other organ isn't working properly if they found her irritating antics "sexy." From a technical standpoint, the film definitely looks great with the cinematography, production and costume design all top notch, but even as the ingredients were all there for it to work, too much is jammed in with none of it amounting to anything. It's a long slog making it all the way through, whether you're a fan of this genre or not.

An Education

Director: Lone Scherfig

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike

Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Fluffier and more underwhelming than I expected considering it's (mostly under the radar) status as one of 2009's ten Best Picture nominees. Look up the word "cute" or "adorable" in the dictionary and, while you won't find a photo, you'll still read a definition and that definition would perfectly describe Carey Mulligan's character, Jenny Millar in An Education. As a prim and proper schoolgirl in 1960's England who abandons her plans to study English at Oxford to embark on a relationship with a worldly older man (exceptionally played by Peter Sarsgaard) you almost get the feeling the word could extend to the actress herself and she could be just be coasting on that adorableness (at least here). The role doesn't seem to present that big a challenge, nor does it require her to go anywhere particularly deep, but she carries it all with a confidence absent in most actresses her age. There's no doubt she's going going places and probably in parts with more substance than this.

Nick Hornby's screenplay from first frame and the plot doesn't contain any more depth than a typical CW teen drama, and if you'll forgive the late '90's reference, there's a real Joey Potter-like quality to Jenny. The acting and intelligence with which the whole situation is presented elevates the film to the point where it feels slightly more important than it actually is. It's obvious from the start this relationship can't end well but the little details shine through, like Alfred Molina's hypocritical but hilariously blunt father who's strict enough to preach the value of his daughter's education, but sees no problem abandoning that philosophy when her (illegal?) relationship presents itself as a quicker opportunity for higher social and financial standing.

The film's message is clear as day but there's an authenticity in being taken to a very specific time and place by director Lone Scherfig where these questions were actually still discussed. It's nicely book ended with a zippy, creative opening title sequence and one of those closing voice-over narrations that's really well written for a change. If it hadn't been released with all this independent, artsy-fartsy pedigree behind it, it wouldn't have gotten all this praise, but Mulligan makes the whole endeavor far more enjoyable than it has any right being.

A Serious Man

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A Serious Man probably needs another viewing, but that's difficult when you're talking about a picture that gets it's kicks showing a series of terrible things befalling a good man who's trying to make the right decisions. If you hate the Coen brothers, you'll hate this. And even if you like them you could still hate it because this really might be their most smug film yet. It's one of those intensely personal projects that the filmmakers clearly made only for them and a narrow niche audience who might appreciate their black humor. I still haven't made up my mind whether I'm in that select group or not. Your tolerance of Jefferson Airplanes' "Somebody to Love" (played about 75 times during the film) will also likely play a big role in that.

It is oddly hilarious at times, as well as exhausting, watching this story (based on the Book of Job) about Larry Gopnick (an unknown but great Michael Stuhlberg), a Jewish college physics professor in 1960's Minnesota wrestle with his son's (Aaron Woolf) pot habit, his daughter's (Jessica McManus) desire for a nose job, his brother (Richard Kind) crashing on his coach, a student blackmailing him and a sultry new neighbor (Amy Landecker) who's husband "travels a lot." On top of that is the collapse of his marriage, as his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) announces her plans to inexplicably leave him for family friend, Sy Abeleman (Fred Melamed). The strange character of Sy and how brilliantly Melamed plays him is really what makes this entire movie click. Without him I'm not sure there even would be a movie as his approach to basically destroying this guy's life is so matter-of-fact and logical that it robs viewers the right to see him as any kind of villain. As the "serious man" of the title, Sy provides the key to what's rapidly become Larry's failure of a life and in the process joins what's already a long list of memorably loopy Coen characters. Or at least he provides as much of a key to Larry's story as the fake Yiddish folk tale that opens the film.

Many more questions are offered than answers (for the protagonist and us), to the frustrating point that A Serious Man could be thought of as the full-length version of the speech Tommy Lee Jones' gave at the end of No Country For Old Men. Anyone who couldn't stand that movie's blatant open-endedness will feel as if they've been slapped across the face again, but this time maybe even harder. There's a uncanny eye and feel for the midwest in the 60's even if there are times where you wonder whether the Coens have any genuine affection for it. A warm picture this isn't. But it is a more deserving Best Picture nominee than An Education, if only because it aims higher and takes real risks, attempting to examine the importance of finding understanding in the world. The more I think back on it, the better it looks, but how much praise can you give a film you're not sure you'd want to sit through again?

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