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.

Inglourious Basterds

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Audacious, shocking, funny, brilliant, and challenging storytelling.  More than entertainment, Tarantino uses the guise of a war movie to shoot holes in our conceptions of onscreen violence.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Review:  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur if there ever was one.  His striking, consistent, and audacious style is unmistakable and unmatched.  His films are often condemned by the morally conscientious for being violent and sexually explicit, a charge I have issues with, but will not answer in this review.  His cinematic reputation is marked by blood, swearing, and crime.  One would think, from a popular conception, that his films are concerned with reveling in the dark side of life.  I would contest this openly.  And ‘Inglourious Basterds’ provides an excellent reason why.

The story is dark, to be sure.  “Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France”, after all, is the story’s setting.  Blood is bound to be spilled.  The film opens with a truly chilling conversation between a Nazi villain known as Colonel Hans Landa — who I would call one of the greatest screen villains of all time — and a French farmer.  Hans Landa, as an aside, is played by Christoph Waltz, an unbelievably good actor, but not well known in the states.  Hopefully this movie will change that.  Anyway, the farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his house, and Landa knows it.  Tarantino has always been noted for the strength of his characters and the writing in general, and this film is certainly no exception.  The tension builds and builds throughout the scene, a solid ten minutes of rising horror.  Only one Jewish girl escapes the ordeal alive, spared for the hell of it by Landa as she runs away from a sudden machine gun massacre.

This girl grows up to become a cinema owner, through a series of events that the theatergoer is not privy to.  I had the privilege of reading the original screenplay Tarantino typed out, and there is a solid hour of events missing from the final cut, scenes I believe were filmed and should end up on the DVD/Bluray with any luck.

Meanwhile, the Americans have organized an elite fighting team of Jewish soldiers, dubbed the ‘Basterds’ by the Germans.  They are literally terrorists, waging guerrilla warfare behind, around, and between enemy lines, killing Nazis without mercy.

Eventually, both stories converge at the cinema, and let’s just say it becomes hell on Earth as history is dismissed in a brilliant checkmate by Tarantino.  Seriously.

This is not a simple revenge fantasy, however.  Killing Nazis may be the Basterd’s goal, but in the end, if the audience is really paying attention, they may have second thoughts about such simple moral terms.  In the end, there is no “them”, no heartless enemy we can kill without blinking.  They are real human beings, and we are just as evil as they are.  Just about everybody in the story has the chance to be a, well, bastard, and to be a good guy — or at least a decent individual.  Tarantino brilliantly exposes the truth that war, and any violence for that matter, is hell for everybody involved.  The violence, though brief, is utterly devastating and quite realistic.  There are not really any improbable escapes or awesome firefights.  There is a Mexican Standoff where everybody involved, and even some that weren’t, is killed, except for one person.  The violence is played at real time, without any of the slow-motion, Matrix-inspired action gimmicks.  There aren’t any moments where we are called on to enjoy the violence, just to watch and to experience the emotional and sociological implications of seeing those sorts of things happening.  It’s both awful and necessary to the story Quentin’s telling.

The cinematography, unlike all the Michael Bay, rapid-fire bullshit that’s so popular these days, is nearly perfect.  Forget 3-D, this is immersion in the scene.  During the Mexican Standoff, we are placed at the table, and forced to watch the characters interact organically, patiently, as they — and thus, we — try to figure out how to get out of the situation.  The tension is palpable because we are really invested.  Going hand-in-hand with the sheer patience of the cinematography is the way the characters are fleshed out.  Tarantino has claimed more than once that he allows his characters to literally drive the story, rather than following the common practice of moving your principal players around like sprites in a video game world, and it’s extremely well evident.  These are people.  Thank God, then, that the violence is so sparse, or else we’d feel like the characters were being disrespected.  Instead, they react to violence like any real person would, and we find ourselves caught up in sympathy.

Part of the complete package of humanity, of course, is humor.  Tarantino breaks with convention and even laces the humor directly into his filmmaking style, with wacky captions and musical stingers.  It’s a style that must be seen to be believed, and it’s hysterical.  Even the villains get to be the comics.

After all was said and done, history had been changed, and the credits rolled in typical Tarantino fashion, I walked out the theater reminded why I fell in love with Tarantino’s work.  Not only is this one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies Tarantino has made, right behind the cult classic ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In the words of Quentin Tarantino through the character Lt. Aldo Raine, “You know, that right there just might be my masterpiece…”