A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.

Review:  Life is complicated.  There’s no easy answers.  It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance.  We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from.  Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative.  What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives?  You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.

From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time.  We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control.  ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be.  The important thing is to make a choice.

Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons.  If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling.  The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness.  A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions:  Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others.  When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.

In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable.  The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations.  We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something.  To remain uncommitted is a great error.  Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control.  If you don’t believe, you can’t act.

‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable.  The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.

I do like food metaphors.  If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that.  An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches.  It’s damn delicious, though.  Very good year.

Batman Begins

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  A splendidly dark little picture, which, like all good movies, led to a whole lotta imitators and the latest craze of rebooting everything.  Gee, thanks Chris.

Holy Batman, Batman!

Holy Batman, Batman!

Review:  The man in the batsuit had experienced some crummy luck in the cinema.  The ’80s and ’90s ‘Batman’ series had a promising start, but quickly fell into unentertaining garbage, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of comic book fans, cinephiles and the general movie-going public.  And even worse than being boring, the cinematic Batman was shallow.  No longer would the Bat-fans accept a simple hero in tights, no, they demanded the complexity and incredible writing that Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others had poured into the comic books.  Thankfully, the Bat-fans had an advocate in the ‘Wood who felt exactly the same way.  Enter Christopher Nolan — and let’s not forget David Goyer and Chris’ brother, Jonathan.  The Nolans were rising stars, having blown minds via their disturbing and visionary movie, ‘Memento’, and they now had the clout to do something about the state of Batman. Thank God that Warner Bros. had the wisdom to hire them.

‘Batman Begins’ pressed the restart button on the franchise, even disregarding the much-loved Burton’s ‘Batman’ from ’89.  This gave them the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with the character and the series, and they milked it for all it was worth.  Christopher Nolan drew influence from one of the best dark sci-fi films in existence, ‘Blade Runner’, to construct the new Gotham and its accompanying tone.  Appropriately, then, ‘Begins’ feels downright dystopian, and could just as easily be set sometime in the far, apocalyptic future.  Though we are given clear indications that Gotham is part of the present day world that you and I know, at times it seems that the city could be an oasis in the middle of a destroyed America.  In contrast, Burton’s Gotham from ’89 and ’92 seemed more fantastical and gothic, almost storybook in quality.  For the ultragritty, post-modern Batman, the ‘Blade Runner’-esque anarchic structure works quite beautifully.  This structure isn’t just part of the set design.  It’s part of the psychology of Bruce Wayne and the story itself, harkening back to Nolan’s ‘Memento’, which was all about that same cinematic interplay.  But while ‘Memento’ was played almost entirely in chronological reverse, which mirrored the mental defects and self-deception of its protagonist, ‘Begins’ is fragmented, with Bruce’s tragedies, bittersweet memories, and journey towards creating his famous caped persona all slowly being put together until they become present.  He’s been shattered, and in picking up the pieces he overcomes himself and becomes the hero.  Brilliant stuff, that.

Christian Bale fills the role perfectly.  There are times I wished he’d shown more of Batman’s trademark maturity and inventiveness, but seeing that this is Batman, you know, beginning, it’s all right that those elements can be growing.  Michael Caine’s Alfred is great, of course.  There have been some complaints about how well Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes may or may not work in the movie, but I found her character performance really wasn’t lacking.  She’s a good romantic character and makes Bale’s Bruce feel more at home in Gotham.  The villains, unfortunately, were a bit weak, though not unmemorable or lacking in good qualities.  Because Nolan insisted on putting more emphasis on Batman this time ’round (again, contrast with Burton’s movie), he ended up putting the main villain, Ra’s Al Ghul, more in the background, so even though the bad guy’s played by the always kickass Liam Neeson, he doesn’t turn out as strong as, say, Nicholson’s Joker, or even DeVito’s abominable Penguin.

Now, onto the philosophy.  The Nolans do love their brainteasers and soul searchers, thankfully, and they more than happily filled the need for complexity.  The sum of the movie’s themes is (taking a deep breath, now!) that humanity has inestimable value even in the midst of moral degradation and chaos, and this value extends even to those playing the role of villain, therefore mercy is more powerful than vengeance, and true fairness and justice serve rather than manipulate.  Okay, breathing normally again.  So Batman, even though he uses fear and intimidation against the darker denizens of Gotham, shows surprising compassion and mercy throughout the narrative.  Early on, he refuses to kill a murderer while under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul, and ends up having to betray the villain’s League of Shadows to keep his integrity (by blowing stuff up) when he learns of Ra’s plans to destroy Gotham.  On top of that, while turning against the villain, he ends up saving his life, even though he didn’t know it was him (watch the movie, it makes sense).  Ra’s later chides him for this, expecting better from a pupil of his.  This comes back to bite the villain in a big way, later, as Batman grants his wish to not be saved and lets him die in a train wreck.  Not only does this stay in line with Batman’s classic code of no-killing, it makes a pretty good point, even theologically.  According to Christ, Ra’s behavior is a good way to be self-damned. By refusing to embrace mercy and to show it, some people refuse it for themselves and end up destroying themselves.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  The inverse, unfortunately, is also true.

‘Batman Begins’, of course, was a hit.  It is dark, gritty, dystopian, philosophical, and it is still pulpy fun.  If you’re among the aforementioned Bat-fans, this deserves your notice, and it certainly deserves to be on your movie shelf, and regularly spinning in the player of your choice.