Seriously? Yes.

Michael Stuhlbarg as the nerdy Professor Larry Gopnik

Ethan and Joel Coen’s filmic offerings are the kind that you either love or hate. Their penchant for dark comedy-drama is offbeat to say the least, and their latest production as writers/directors, A Serious Man, is a clear illustration of this. Loved by many critics and hated by the box-office, the film at least managed two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Picture and the other for Best Original Screenplay.

As usual, the Coen brothers present a story that is dark and well, odd, to say the least. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a meek physics professor at a small-time university somewhere in the Midwest. A series of tribulations befalls the faithful Jewish man. Not only does his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), want a divorce, she forces him to move out of their house and into the Jolly Roger motel down the road. She wants the more capable and aptly-named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) to live with her. Larry’s daughter also steals his money while his son, Danny, is very uninterested in his impending Bar Mitzvah. Someone is writing defamatory letters to the university to prevent him from getting tenure, while a student tries to bribe him for better marks. And he bears with it. Other critics have called Larry the modern day Job, and in a sense, he is: patient and annoyingly enduring.

A Serious Man is filled with many ‘unserious’ moments. Scenes like the one in which Larry’s son attends his Bar Mitzvah stoned, or the incessant calls from a salesman at the Columbia Records club demanding payment for orders Larry never sent, are full of uncanny wit. The Coens’s absurd sense of funny didn’t go down so well with the lady sitting next to me in the cinema, however. Her rumblings about the film being irritating distracted me almost as much as Larry is distracted by his female neighbour’s nude sunbathing. My (cinematic) neighbour kept complaining about how annoying the film is. And it is indeed incredibly frustrating watching the submissive Larry being walked over by everyone around him. At one point I had an intense desire to scream “Just tell them to go screw themselves!” And that is perhaps exactly what the Coen brothers intended: for the audience to experience the frustration of Larry’s seemingly meaningless life, rather than just watch it on screen.

The film essentially embodies Larry’s lectures on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which concerns Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. If you are scientifically-inclined, forgive my inadequacies regarding physics, but the paradox is basically about a cat in a box. Until you open said box, you cannot verify whether the cat is alive or dead. Therefore, it is both dead and alive at the same time, hence, the Uncertainty Principle. If you don’t understand this it doesn’t matter – quantum scientists themselves say that if you understand quantum, it means you don’t. Nevermind, the point is that the Uncertainty Principle that Larry enjoys teaching so much is the reflection of his own existence: is he really alive or dead?

Unlike Job, Larry questions God. He consults three different rabbis for advice on his crumbling life. All Larry really wants is to be respected, to practise his faith in peace, to be a serious man. He asks the universal question: “Why does God make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna give us any answers?” However, none of the learned men is able to give him any clarity. Thus, we return to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As Larry tells his students, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” All that’s left is quiet acceptance and faith. Or is it?

Fans will (probably) like it. Non-fans (probably) won’t. As for those unfamiliar with the Coens, it’s like a cat in a box…

Rating: 3½ out of 5
Written & Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading)
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind
Awards: Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay


Peace, love and rock ‘n roll

Of all the arts, music is arguably the one that is best understood. Music evokes feelings, wherever it’s from or whatever language it’s written in. It is the universal language.  People often connect particular songs or artists to a certain time or person in their lives (Def Leppard, for example, recalls that first awkward boy-girl dance in Standard Five, while any saxophone jazz reminds me of my first love). Music has power. It can change history.

And that’s exactly what happened in August, 1969. Forget Glastonbury. 375 000 people over three days of Robbie Williams live at Knebworth? Please. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival is, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “the most famous event in rock history.” Around half a million people swamped the town of Bethel, New York, for the concert, with tens of thousands more never making it there due to state-wide traffic jams that resulted in the county declaring a state of emergency. For decades, it was the biggest live concert ever performed.

This is the backdrop of indie comedy, Taking Woodstock. Academy Award-winning director, Ang Lee, ditches the drama of Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution and tells the true, and often bizarre, story of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who became one of the accidental organisers of the festival. After failing to make an impression as an interior designer in New York City, Elliot moves back in with his parents at their small-town, dingy motel, the El Monaco (a misnomer if there ever was one). Business is not good, and as the bank wants to foreclose, Teichberg spots a newspaper article about a local music festival being banned from the nearby town of Wallkill. He contacts the producer of a company called Woodstock Ventures (the concert was named after the company not the actual town), to offer his parents’ property and a neighbour’s farm to host the festival.

The good townsfolk, however, are not happy when thousands stream there ahead of the concert. The dope-loving, fornicating hippies will be “stealing by day and raping cattle by night,” according to one resident. But, while there was plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, the festival was later lauded for taking place without incidents of violence, and for creating a sense of peace and community during a time when there was great antagonism over the Vietnam War.

The film takes a fun and offbeat look at how Woodstock came to be such a landslide event. Unfortunately, Lee almost completely ignores the music. Granted, Michael Wadley’s award-winning 1970 documentary, Woodstock, examined the festival’s musical relevance in great detail, and perhaps Lee didn’t want to tamper with perfection. Taking Woodstock has a fantastic soundtrack with tracks by artists who performed at the festival, such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. It’s just a shame the director couldn’t reflect this in the film. While Lee’s movie is about the experience of the festival, not the artists, he could easily have built the film up to a climax ending with one a song or two by one of the musical icons, such as Janis Joplin or The Who.

Still, Taking Woodstock offers plenty of laughs and provides more than average entertainment. Demetri Martin’s performance as Elliot is a little bland, especially considering he’s struggling with issues around his sexuality amid all the hippie-preaching of free love. However, watch out for ‘groovy’ performances by Liev Schreiber, as the cross-dressing ex-marine, Vilma, and Emile Hirsch as a soldier recently returned home from Vietnam.

Peace out.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Henry Goodman, Liev Schreiber
Rating: 3½ out of 5

In a nutshell, the film will make you want make love, not war.

Suit up!

Good Charlotte was wrong: girls don’t like cars and money. Girls like guys in suits. Furthermore, they like hot guys in suits, heroes, men of steel, or in this case, iron.

And this is exactly what Hollywood blockbuster, Iron Man 2, gives us: Robert Downey Jnr in body armour, kicking ass. As a classic skop, skiet en donner-flick, it was interesting that the audience of the show I watched was largely female. Perhaps women are embracing their ‘masculine sides’. It could also just be RDJ’s pristine abs. Not that this makes the film ‘girly’ in any sense. As expected, bullets, explosions and fights make up the bulk of the plot.

Downey Jnr reprises his role as rogue hero, Tony Stark, in director Jon Fraveau’s sequel to the wildly successful first Iron Man movie. And, just as before, Stark is bunches of fun. Unlike most superheroes, he does not hide his identity. In fact, he widely broadcasts his status. He’s the antithesis of the geeky Spiderman and tortured Superman – there’s no sign of internal torment as he tries to come to terms with his superhuman abilities (probably because he’s a self-made saviour). He’s an egotistical, pleasure-seeking, womanising son-of-a-bitch and with good reason. The man has, after all, “successfully privatised world peace” with his arms company, Stark Industries, and prevented nuclear war in his metal suit. We wouldn’t want him any other way than the narcissist he is.

However, powerful or not, the hero must always face some difficulty. In the second film, Stark desperately searches for a replacement to the palladium core of his heart and which powers his suit. The one he developed in the first movie is making him ill and weak. To distract him from his quest, is his work colleague, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his new legal advisor, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). He also has his intermittent daddy-issues to deal with. And then there is the Russian baddie, played by Mickey Rourke (who’s retained his muscles from The Wrestler), who is out to make Iron Man bleed. And bleed he does. It just takes a little long.

As a pure action film, there is too much pseudo-drama, which distracts from the battles at hand. As I mentioned before, Stark is not the same kind of self-reflecting citizen hero as Batman. Thus, sex would have been a better sub-genre than romance. Miss Potts is a yawn-inducingly boring leading lady and more time should have been given to Johansson’s Natalie Rushman (aka Russian agent Natasha Romanov, aka The Black Widow) who is sizzling. In the Marvel comic series, she seduces Iron Man, and the director could have explored this in the film.

I don’t think it’s unfair to compare a sequel to its predecessor. After all, you make another a second film for a reason, even if it’s only to ride on the succes of the first. Iron Man 2 does kick ass, but only on one butt cheek. It simply lacked a little ‘punch’. To quote Elvis it needs “a little less conversation, a little more action, please.” But, with a soundtrack featuring only classic hard-rockers, AC/DC, and an appearance by the god of ass-whipping himself, Samuel L Jackson, the film hits the spot enough for me to want to punch a fist in the air and yell “Yeah!”
Perfect popcorn-and-candy Saturday night entertainment.

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jnr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L Jackson.
Rating: 4 out of 5.