Film Friday: ‘A Serious Man’ & ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

by W. Andrew Powell

Michael Stuhlberg in 'A Serious Man'

Michael Stuhlberg in 'A Serious Man'

Coming out in theatres this week, the Coen brothers debut their latest strange drama, A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg. Also arriving is the film adaptation of the much-anticipated children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are; the Indie horror film, Paranormal Activity; and the slasher film, The Stepfather.

A Serious Man
For the past 25 years the Coen brothers have been making comedies and dramas that have challenged us and pushed the envelope on stories that are consistently stranger and more dramatic than we are used to seeing. And although their resumes are highlighted by award-winning films like Fargo, and No Country for Old Men, their lesser-known works are no less amazing, including Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

For their latest aptly titled film, A Serious Man, the writing and directing duo have once again blended genres to produce a film that is equally a comedy as much as it is a compelling drama. (Truth be told though, when you walk out of the cinema, the indelible memory you leave with is probably going to fixate on the dramatic end of the spectrum.)

Set in 1967, the film follows the pitiable physics professor Larry Gopnik, played by the very talented Michael Stuhlbarg, who is having a hard time with nearly everything in his life. While his son is secretly listening to Jefferson Airplane at Hewbrew school, he is dealing with a small issue at school, which quickly leads to more troubles.

Stuck with his out-of-work brother Arthur, played by Richard Kind, his life takes a further nose dive when his wife Judith, played by Sari Lennick, announces that she’s leaving him for another man, namely their friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

As the film circles some kind of meaning, and Larry’s problems escalate even further, the Coen brothers reveal interesting details in his life, but really have no intention of wrapping things up neatly for us. A Serious Man works instead as a closed-off riddle, offering vague glimpses into a beyond that we can’t understand, while never giving us a reference as to why any specific details might be important.

For a drama though, the film is no less hilarious, with asides and moments that are as funny as the rest of the film is, well, serious. It’s also an incredibly religious film, rich with every aspect of Judaism, and all of the questions that a devout follower might ask of God as hell rains down around him.

Most telling, however, is the film’s opening and closing. While I’ll leave the latter for you to discover yourselves, I think the opening, set in a 19th century Polish village, reveals a lot about the story’s heart. It’s also a perfect example of how the Coen’s can take disparate but connected elements and make them all perfectly part of a single thread.

Even now, weeks after I first saw the picture, I’m still amazed by the film’s complexity of this film, which will sadly be a hard sell for most audiences, but definitely deserves the attention from film fanatics. I’m also expecting that A Serious Man will earn at least a couple of Oscar nominations when the time comes, potentially for Best Film, Best Screenplay, or Best Direction, but most deservedly for Best Actor in terms of Stuhlbarg’s impressive performance in this wonderfully dour, yet compelling story.

Where The Wild Thing Are

Where The Wild Thing Are

Where the Wild Things Are
As one of the most well-loved children’s books of the last five decades, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seems like it would have been long-overdue for a big screen adaptation. Special effects can now create nearly anything, and although the book is a mere 48 pages long, it has already ably proven that it can spark the imaginations of children and adults alike.

Directed by Spike Jonze, who is probably best known as the man behind some of the most iconic music videos of the last fifteen years, the film tells the story of Max, an emotional, energetic, and most of all, imaginative young boy who runs away from his mother after she snaps at him.

Leaving his neighbourhood, Max runs until he finds a small boat, and floats away to a distant island where he finds a small group of fuzzy, but monstrous-looking creatures. Seeking out a leader, the creatures crown Max as their king, who hopes to build a place of happiness for everyone. That’s obviously not as easy as he expected though, and he quickly learns some of the hard lessons that life teaches us as we grow up.

On the bright side of this film, Jonze has created a striking reality that feels very true to the original story and its art. Jonze also works magic with screenwriter Dave Eggers in creating dialogue and relationships between the creatures, expanding the story beyond the original constraints.

High praise is also due to musician Karen O, who created an incredible soundtrack for the film, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who created all of the amazing animatronic creatures.

All of this said, Where the Wild Things Are is not without flaws. Jonze has gone for a very artsy style here, which may be a bit hard for younger viewers, and the opening and closing scenes feel both tacked-on and far too mature for most young audience members. The story and events in the film are also spread out almost to the point where very little actually seems to happen to anyone. That makes the film drag a bit, and renders some of the more touching moments a little empty.

For families, I’m still recommending the film, and it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, but it’s far less potent than it could have been, given a bit more meat to the storyline.

Also debuting this week…

Paranormal Activity
In the super-indie horror film of the year, Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat star as a young couple who move into their brand new starter home in San Diego. After some unsettling events in the home though, they begin to wonder if something terrible is lurking in their home. What follows is the recorded events that they capture during the night.

Following in the footsteps of films like the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity has already freaked out audiences across America, and is just opening wide this weekend to more theatres, and already has loads of great reviews that are calling this the most terrorizing film of the year.

As Claudia Puig of USA Today wrote, “This unsettling ultra-low-budget tale capitalizes on our innate fear of things that go bump in the night, and adds a supernatural element that will effectively terrorize even the toughest among us.”

While Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “A few people in the audience were laughing during the first half of the film. No one was laughing during the long walk out of the theater.”

The Stepfather
Lastly, Penn Badgley, Sela Ward and Dylan Walsh star in the film, The Stepfather, about a terrible man who may or may not be a horrible serial killer. Going after new families each time this killer sneaks his way into a new family, and then kills everyone.

Although there were no reviews at press time, the film looks horrible, and has very little going for it. As slasher films go though, you probably can’t expect much else.

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