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Monday, October 25, 2010

Reel Madness: 'A Serious Man' and 'An Education'

A month ago I finally got a chance to watch 'The Blind Side', my last holdout of this year's best picture nominees. This year was the first one enacting AAMPAS' new decision to have 10 nominees in the category, an attempt by the academy to be more inclusive of more genres. At least, according to them. My interpretation of it is that they're trying to make up for leaving out 'The Dark Knight' the year prior, in favor of nominating 'The Reader'.

Anyway, I was surprised by the quality of the choices overall. There's usually only one that I end up liking so I was surprised to see how well most of these turned out. I'm going to put down my thoughts on this, two at a time, because lord knows there's not enough Oscar talk in the world. Especially post-ceremony coverage. Why? Because I want to talk about the ones that made it in because of the new rules that were good as well as crab about the ones that would have made it in anyway because Oscar loves to avoid memorable choices (anyone remember 'Hope and Glory'? How about 'The Dresser'?)

This first part is going to be about the two nominees that I actually hated, mostly because I want to get them the hell out of the way.

Which brings me to 'A Serious Man'. It's a dead heat between it and 'An Education' for which movie I disliked more but I'm giving this one the edge because it's a comedy with no laughs. A dark comedy for that matter. What is a dark comedy with no laughs? I don't even know how to classify that properly. It's been a bumpy road for the Coen Bros. this decade, having some of their most unsuccessful movies since 'The Hudsucker Proxy' (Which is probably my second favorite movie they've done) as well as winning best picture for 'No Country for Old Men'. That success continued with the surprisingly high gross of 'Burn after Reading' a movie I still haven't watched in light of most everyone I've met not liking it. There's a lot of expectation on Joel and Ethan these days, though none from me as I pretty much despise 'No Country' as the pinnacle of deliberately impenetrable cinema. Maybe it's my problem with Cormac McCarthy. I don't know. Either way 'Serious' has a great cold opening that leads into a movie that spends an hour and a half telling you what every good worker in the service industry already knows: Life's a bitch.

We're supposed to find humor in just how awful the life of Larry Gopnik can get but, to me at least, there were no laughs to be found. Disasters heap upon him at the level of the most over-the-top student film about relationship problems and no matter what he does, it never gets better.  During the course of the film he commits acts both upright and reprehensible, with neither affecting whatever cosmic tribunal (the Coens I suppose) that decided his life should be should be so deliriously terrible.

A lot of the movie's comedy value is apparently expressed in that it's very keyed into Jewish culture, though where that shows up in the gag of a Jewish physics professor smoking a doobie I'm not sure. Maybe I should ask Danny. I wanted to forgive the Coens' for their last unfunny comedy I watched, 2005's 'The Ladykillers' remake, though I guess it's ironic that I got something that made me feel just as slighted as its main character. I'm dying to meet someone who liked this movie. Hell, I'm dying to meet someone's who's seen it. It exists in this weird little bubble where I can't recommend it to anybody because I didn't like it but I desperately want someone else to see it so I can at least get some other source of reflection on it. I've avoided reviews because they say things like "the kind of film you get to make once you've won an Oscar". What's that mean? I understand that the Coens' must have cared about making the movie as it's very good from a technical standpoint. The music and cinematography are excellent and there's little to complain about with any of the casting. It's just that the movie as a movie is joyless and unfunny outside of the first 5 minutes. I think a lot of the movie's praise comes from people being ashamed to admit that they just didn't get it. Rather than cop to that they give it a pass as being good while keeping as nebulous as possible in their reviews. It seems to have coasted on that praise all the way to the Oscars because the only other reason I can imagine it was picked was to balance out that there were 2 Sci-fi movies and a cartoon in the same category.

Or maybe I've just failed to recognize the movie's greatness. Either way I'm still looking forward to 'True Grit' later in the year despite disliking their last remake (though they claim 'Grit' is going to be closer to the book in that it follows Mattie Ross' viewpoint) and will likely look forward to other things by them in the future no matter how low their batting average gets in my mind. Not 'Astro City' though. Please please don't let them make Astro City.

'An Education' is next up, and it too started strong with an entertaining 10 minutes or so. After that though, it was pretty much completely downhill. When Jas relayed the summary of this to me I pretty much outlined every moment that I supposed would happen in the course of the movie, despite having only heard of it moments before when the nominations were announced. What's notable about that is it's based on someone's life story so you'd think it would've deviated at least a little.

In a word, it's about a British schoolgirl who falls in love with an older man before graduating from high school. There's a lot more to it than that but in fear of enticing people with the expectation of it being more interesting than it actually is, I won't continue. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay and while I normally enjoy his writing, this project in particular is nothing special. It coasts on his name but there's very little to set it apart as truly outstanding; it's not bad by any means but it's not, in my opinion, worthy of the praise heaped on it. It's better than 'Serious' but I can't be sure if that comes from only a few of its characters being unlikable as opposed to all of them.  One thing they definitely had in common is they both featured protagonists that became steadily less likable as their run times went on which isn't a crime unto itself unless they also started out as uninteresting. In fact, main character Jenny Mellor is so unlikable by the end of the movie you end up feeling bitter towards the movie for allowing everyone to forgive her for being a heinous, insulting bitch and treating them like dirt. Her parents are amazing people, that much is clear and her teacher is a hero. By the end of the movie I'm pretty sure most of the characters could have immolated Jenny before throwing her off a cliff and they wouldn't be jailed in light of the Judge just hearing about how terrible the protagonist was.

It's strange in a way, the relationship between Jenny, her parents and her teacher make the film kind of a metaphor for the relationship between the Oscars, the film industry and the viewing public: they created it, we helped raise it and then there came a certain point where Oscar began to spit in our collective faces, telling us how what we were giving it wasn't good enough for its new, sophisticated desires. So it's going to run off to Cannes with some dashing but deceptive art film that doesn't turn out to be as memorable as it originally thought. Oh Oscar, I know you thought the bond between you and 'Shakespeare in Love' would last forever but you've moved on, haven't you? In some fashion you could look at this year's numerous nominees as something of an apology for threatening to never see us again so it could run off to Paris to be with 'Crash'. It still sneaks in a few things to show us how we weren't right about everything but we take it because we know it's the closest thing to an apology we're going to get. We still take them back no matter how many times it chooses to tell us how it's not wrong about 'Chicago' and we're just judging it because of its background.

So that's it for now; next time I'm going to cover two more of the movies though which ones I'm not sure yet. From now on things are a little more positive though I hope I've given someone out there some insight on these two, especially considering that they're the least watched of all the nominees. At least maybe someone else out there will have something to say to me about them, perhaps about what a troglodyte I am for not appreciating the dark comic witticisms of 'Serious' or the delicate treatment of a Teen girl at the crossroads of adulthood in 'Education'. Bring it I say, I’ve gone on for hours with people about how crazy I am for disliking 'No Country' so it's not like I dismiss other views on this sort of thing.

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