Friday, October 9, 2009

When The Truth Is Found To Be Lies, And All The Joy Within You Dies

Here are my thoughts on a slew of new film releases (and my thoughts on a contemporary classic, which I surprisingly had never seen until this past Wednesday night).

A Serious Man, the new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, is one of the best films of the year. Last Friday, I arrived along with a group of fellow film students at New York's Landmark Sunshine Theater for a packed screening of the film. Luckily, the theater gave away a handful of free shirts before the screening, which said, The New Film By Joel and Ethan Coen - A Serious Man. I am proud to say I was a lucky recipient of one of these fine pieces of movie memorabilia.

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg (the star of Martin McDonagh's masterful play The Pillowman) in a remarkable performance as a physics professor in a Midwest Jewish suburb circa 1967, whose life slowly begins to unravel into chaos as his wife, children and community turn against him. Although the film is by all means a classic Coen Brothers picture (featuring one of their finest supporting characters yet - the hilariously repugnant Sy Ableman, played by Fred Melamed in a performance that should be remembered come Oscar time), I wasn't expecting a film so deeply immersed in faith and religion. It's the kind of film I would expect from Martin Scorsese rather than from Joel and Ethan Coen. That isn't to say that A Serious Man doesn't offer the typically bizarre, offbeat humor for which the Coens are known, but, much like their masterpiece No Country for Old Men, the movie is as disturbing and ambiguous as it is darkly funny.

In short, A Serious Man stands alongside Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Bigelow's The Hurt Locker as one of the year's most exciting releases thus far.

On Saturday evening, a group of fellow film students and I ventured to the AMC Theater on 19th street and caught a screening of Ricky Gervais' new comedy, The Invention of Lying. Not only is the film very funny (especially when Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Bateman show up for surprise cameos), but Gervais has also made an unexpectedly subversive comedy that explores topics as varied as the absurdity of religion and the necessity of telling lies in order to maintain a balanced universe. The laughs often sting, and although the movie doesn't really maintain a consistent tone throughout, it's an enjoyable theatrical experience.

I don't believe I ever expressed my thoughts on Steven Soderbergh's great new movie, The Informant!, which I had the chance to experience with my wonderful girlfriend Anne during my brief visit to Washington D.C. exactly three weeks ago. The exclamation point on the title says everything you need to know about Soderbergh's take on whistleblower corporate dramas, starring Matt Damon in an astonishing performance as the goofy Mark Whitacre, the vice president of an agricultural business firm who decides to confess to the FBI the price-fixing schemes in which the company is complicit. Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and act as an FBI informant, which would all be fine and dandy if he weren't a compulsive liar - to his family, to the FBI, to everyone.

Soderbergh wisely doesn't opt for a serious tone, a la The Insider (1999, Michael Mann). The brilliant use of stream-of-conscious narration from Whitacre helps the audience understand and empathize with an otherwise frustratingly intelligent man who makes some dreadful mistakes. The Informant! is a movie about a man unconsciously leading two different lives, which is more or less what everybody does, albeit to a lesser extreme than Whitacre. His mistakes are idiotic, yes, but his intentions are mostly noble, and Soderbergh and Damon ask the audience to stick with him despite his eccentricities. It's a great movie, and one of the best performances yet from the incredible Damon.

Eight days ago, my friend Mike Cheslik and I were waiting in line for a special screening of Drew Barrymore's Whip It at New York's AMC Theater near Times Square. Ten minutes before the movie was to begin, a screening representative told us that the cinema was full, and offered everyone a Whip It headband as compensation for the time spent waiting in line. Mike and I were about to leave when we were offered last-minute tickets to a screening of Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity, a film with which I wasn't familiar. It was a free movie, though, and so we figured we'd check it out.

As it turns out, Paranormal Activity is one of the most frightening movies I've seen in a very long time. The movie is currently expanding to more theaters nationwide, and I encourage horror enthusiasts to give this film a chance - it's absolutely terrifying.

The final film I'll be discussing is Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), a movie I had never viewed until my Storytelling Strategies instructor, Ezra Sacks, screened the film for our class this past Wednesday evening. Von Trier's film is as emotionally devastating a picture as I've ever seen, and features a lead performance from Emily Watson that is staggering in its complexity and brilliance. As someone eagerly anticipating Von Trier's latest project, the infamously disturbing Antichrist (2009), I enjoyed watching one of his earliest films - and very likely his best.

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