LFF 2009: A Serious Man

Michael Stuhlbarg and Adam Arkin in A Serious Man  Image courtesy of Universal and Focus Features

A Serious Man is a personal and exquisitely crafted black comedy that explores the pointless nature of suffering in 1960s Minnesota.

One of the handy things about winning a clutch of Oscars is the collateral it gives you to make a personal and defiantly anti-Hollywood film with no name stars.

After the critical, commercial and Oscar success of No Country for Old Men, this is precisely what Joel and Ethan Coen have done with their latest project.

Beginning with a bizarre extended prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl, it moves on to explore the hellish suburban existence of a Jewish maths professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Minnesota, during 1967.

With a hectoring wife (Sari Lennick) who wants a divorce, her annoying widower lover (Fred Melamed), a leeching brother (Richard Kind), a pothead son (Aaron Wolff ) into Jefferson Airplane, dithering academic colleagues, an awkward Korean student and a succession of perpetually useless rabbis, he appears to living in a modern day version of The Book of Job.

All of this is filmed with a precision and defiant, dark wit that is a hallmark of the Coens at their very best.

If you enjoyed the pointless, bumbling criminality in Fargo and the satire of Bush-era stupidity in Burn After Reading then you will probably love this. If not, then you probably won’t.

But even those put off by the tone of the film would be hard pressed not to admire the sheer class on display behind and in front of the camera.

A Serious Man posterThe performances are mostly note perfect, with Stuhlbarg especially outstanding in the lead role and a supporting cast filled with fine contributions, although keep a special eye out for George Wyner and Simon Helberg as two contrasting rabbis.

On a technical level, it is up to the very highest standards of modern cinema.

Regular collaborator Roger Deakins shoots with his customary artful precision whilst the production design, art direction and costumes are flawless.

Watching it on a beautiful digital projection, I was already thinking how great this is going to look on Blu-ray.

As usual the editing (by the Coens under their regular pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) is splendid and listen out for how they way they’ve mixed the sound, be it Jefferson Airplane on a portable radio or the way a family slurp their soup.

Part of the richness of the film lies in its uncompromising take on suburban angst. There is no let up, no cheesy uplift and the characters are mostly a succession of grotesques there to torment the protagonist. But really, it is funny.

For some this will merely be a pointless exercise in misanthropy but there is something deeper here that the Coens are targeting, namely the false comforts and rules in which many place their trust.

Religion, family, career advancement, philosophy and consumerism are all subjects which get thoroughly skewered over the course of the story. The comedy that comes out of this, is one rooted in recognition and pain rather than goofy, slapstick relief. The laughs here are muffled but highly acute.

In the hands of lesser filmmakers this could easily be a mess, but with the Coens it feels just right. In fact it feels so authentic that one can only presume that much of it is rooted in their personal experience of growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Back in 1998 I remember reading an interview where they talked about signing up for a record club as teenagers and anyone who watches the film with this in mind will feel a twinge of recognition at one of the sub-plots.

Bob Graf, the Coens’ longtime producer said to the Star Tribune last year that:

“It’s a story inspired by where they grew up, things that they remembered from their childhood”

Whilst assistant art director Jeff Schein has also commented on the time period:

“It’s a mental travelogue of 1967, and for me, since I grew up near the Coens in St. Louis Park, it’s a childhood story.”

Aside from the autobiographical aspects, it will be interesting to see how Jewish audiences react to the film, with its richly detailed observations about Jewish life.

Not only do we have an startling prologue spoken entirely in Yiddish, but there are sequences involving a large gallery of Jewish characters: waddling secretaries, puzzled dentists, shouting wives and cryptic rabbis are all going to evoke twinges of recognition, laughter and – amongst some – disquiet.

But although it is drenched in Jewish culture – specifically that of the Midwest – it isn’t exclusively about Jews or Jewishness.

Ultimately one could put forward a compelling case for saying that the film is about throwing the enigma of religious teaching back on itself. This is effectively a non-parable made up of parables, that highlights how the ‘answers’ of Judaism (and organised religion) merely lead to more confusion and chaos.

My guess is that this will not be the awards slam dunk that Fargo or No Country For Old Men turned out to be and some will be put off by the slow pace and darkly poetic humour.

But this is the Coen Brothers operating at their very best, a heartfelt and beautifully constructed piece of cinema that is likely to reward future viewings.

A Serious Man is out at UK cinemas on Friday 20th November

LFF 2009: Up in the Air

Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

The recession, human relationships, jobs and travel are just some of the issues explored in this smart, funny and thoughtful adaptation of Walter Kim’s 2001 novel.

When we first meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air we discover that his job is to inform people that they no longer have theirs. Employed by an Omaha based company, his life is spent flying around the US firing people in a smooth and efficient manner because bosses want to outsource this awkward process.

Free of human relationships, he has become attached to frequent flyer miles and the buzz of being a master at living out of a suitcase. But when his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that he must train a new recruit (Anna Kendrick) who is advocating firing people via video-link, things begin to change.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Up in the Air is how it makes you ponder gloomy subjects whilst you laugh at the jokes. Much of the film is a breezy, observational comedy with finely honed lead performances and sparkling dialogue. It feels like a road movie set amongst airports (a ‘plane movie’, in a sense) as the characters go on a literal and emotional journey across America.

Underneath the witty, often hilarious, surface lies a more serious and perceptive exploration about losing work and finding love. The script even updates the themes of the book to the current era (one sequence is dated as happening in February 2010) by having recently fired workers essentially play versions of themselves.

This potentially clunky device is weaved in skilfully (some audiences may miss it first time, although subconsciously it will register) and sets us up for the latter stages, which show an admirable restraint from the usual Hollywood resolutions. But before we reach that point, there is much to feast on.

Up in the Air PosterOne of the key selling points is George Clooney, a Hollywood star with the charm and wit of a bygone era. Given his commendable passion for doing different kinds of films (some behind the camera) it is easy to forget what a magnetic presence he can be as a screen actor.

With its one liners, speeches and sly underbelly of emotion, this is a role he was almost born to play and he delivers the goods in spades. Not since Out of Sight has he been this Clooneyesque. One line in particular (actually scripted by Reitman’s father) is an absolute zinger delivered to perfection, which you’ll know when you hear it as the whole cinema will be laughing.

In the key supporting roles Anna Kendrick (who first stood out in 2007’s Rocket Science) shows excellent timing as the peppy graduate keen to prove her worth whilst Vera Farmiga is a superb foil for Clooney as his air-mile obsessed love interest. Jason Bateman adds some sly touches as Clooney’s boss and there is a nice cameo from Sam Elliott (which may or may not be a reference to the 1988 thriller Shakedown – released in the UK as Blue Jean Cop – which also involves a plane and Elliott).

The technical aspects of the film are first rate across the board; with Dana Glaubetman‘s editing worthy of special mention as it helps keep proceedings ticking along beautifully. Jason Reitman co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner and directs with an energetic but delicate touch. Compared to his previous films, it has the delicious wit of Thank You for Smoking and the unsentimental emotions of Juno, but actually surpasses both in terms of mixing up the light and heavy elements.

Unlike a lot of book to screen transitions the film arguably improves the central drama by throwing more profound doubts at the protagonist. I won’t spoil the final movement by revealing key details (because that would be silly) but I can’t help feeling it will provoke an interesting kaleidoscope of reactions.

When I saw it, an audience member in front of me was laughing loudly at some of the firing scenes (presumably unaware that the people on screen were drawing on recent painful experiences) and it raised some interesting questions. Is this a comedy or a drama? Is their laughter in pain and sadness in humour? How will mainstream audiences in a recession – for whom cinema is traditionally an escape – react to such a film?

Perhaps the human experience of life, work and relationships is bitter-sweet, no matter how rich, employed or happy you consider yourself to be. But that a film from a major Hollywood studio would probe such areas in such an entertaining way is refreshing, particularly as the laughter here provokes genuine thought rather than providing simple relief.

One idea that some audiences will possibly mull on as the end credits roll is that human relationships are what really counts in an increasingly impersonal and technology driven society. But I am not so sure that is the case, even if it is what the filmmakers intended. Wisely, the film leaves out the pat focus-group approved resolution.

Finally, if you actually stay until the very end credits (which audiences often don’t) you’ll hear something unexpected. I won’t reveal what happens but it sounds like the essence of the film, that of connections trying to be made in a world where they are increasingly drying up.

Like the movie, it is funny, sad and makes you think.

Up in the Air screens tonight, Monday and Tuesday at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on December 4th (wide release on Dec 25th) and in the UK on January 15th

LFF 2009: The Road

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road / Icon

The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s devastating 2006 novel is a haunting tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world featuring two outstanding lead performances.

The Road depicts the journey of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they struggle to stay alive in an America which has descended into savagery after an unspecified environmental and social collapse.

Part of the story’s raw power is the absence of any explanation as to why the world is collapsing, which shifts the focus on to the central relationship and the day to day struggle to survive.

Given that the story involves suicide, cannibalism and humans acting like savages you have to give credit to director John Hillcoat (who made the wonderfully gritty Australian western The Proposition in 2005) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (author of the acclaimed play Blue/Orange) for properly translating the horrors and emotions of the novel into a film.

Central to why it works is the focus on the day to day struggle to survive and the resistance of  horror movie clichés which have stunk up the cinema in recent years with the plethora of zombie movies this decade and the likes of Saw and Hostel which contain plenty of gore but little genuine emotions.

Key to making this film so affecting are the two  central performances which convey the love, anguish and desperation of their appalling situation and their deep love for one another. Mortensen as the unnamed father is (as usual) terrific but Smit-McPhee is more than his match, especially as the film progresses and he gradually becomes the moral heart of the piece.

The visual look is particularly striking: cinematographer Javier Aguirresa opts for a brownish palette to depict the harsh, ash-ridden environment. The art direction and production design also makes very clever use of rural US locations to create a chilling post-apocalyptic world.

Audiences unfamiliar with the novel may be taken aback by how bleak the story is and the film certainly doesn’t pull its punches: roaming gangs of cannibals, potential suicide and houses filled with half alive bodies are just some aspects that will disturb, although the most notorious scene from the book is omitted.

But the oppressive tone is there for a reason as it is part of the book’s power. It adds to the tension of the journey but also makes the stakes for the father and son all the more real. Unlike horror films where victims are meaningless pawns, the characters here are rounded people you desperately care about.

Another thing to look out for is the interesting supporting cast, which is filled with excellent performances –  most of which are extended cameos – from Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis  strikes an appropriately mournful tone with a notable piano motif reminiscent of Arvo Paart.

The Road was supposed to come out in the US last year and there has been some chatter that it was a troubled production the US distributors The Weinstein Company were nervous about. Given that the novel was one of the most acclaimed of the decade, no doubt they felt they had a good shot at awards glory.

When it premiered in Venice, it divided opinion but it really is an admirable film on many levels. The filmmakers have preserved the uncompromising nature of the McCarthy’s source material but also crafted a deeply moving drama of love in a time of death. In McCarthy’s words they have ‘carried the fire’.

The Road screened today at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on November 25th and the UK on January 8th 2010