25 February 2010

Laughing at fate

I know one shouldn't take the annual Academy Awards seriously. It has absurdities such as Avatar even being nominated for "Best Picture", let alone that it is more likely to win than, say, Inglourious Basterds. But come Oscar time I just can't help myself. Call it a guilty displeasure.

That said, the best picture nominee list this year is not bad. Had the Academy stuck to the usual five pictures for this category, and had they been Up in the Air, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and Up I would have been very impressed. Every one of those films is recommended from me. (The Hurt Locker and The Blind Side have not yet been released in cinemas in NZ, and I missed An Education as it finished its cinema run before I found out it was one of the chosen few. I hope to catch Precious this weekend.)

Of the six nominated films I have seen so far, only Avatar has disappointed. However, initially I was also a little disappointed with A Serious Man.

[WARNING: This commentary is best read after viewing the movies discussed, A Serious Man and Up in the Air. Partly because it contains some spoilers (albeit vague ones), but mostly because I can't be bothered to summarise the plots.]

You could almost justify going to A Serious Man just to see the scene which gave us the brilliant still above. As is often the case with good films set in what are usually considered drab or uninteresting environments (rambler home studded bland suburbia in this case) the visuals are surprisingly engaging.

However, although it has largely been reviewed positively, I have sympathy with some of the criticism of the Coen brother's latest effort. I quite liked Joe Morgenstern's sly take on the question posed in the film: what does God want of us? "What do the Coen brothers want of us?" he wonders.

Sometimes I feel as if the Coen's use the "black comedy" label as an excuse to portray the sort of "repellent ... grotesque" caricatures Morgenstern has concerns with in his review. With the exception of the protagonist, physics teacher Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), no one is really likeable, and almost everyone is infuriatingly selfish. Characters like Gopnik's nemesis Sy Ableman are not evil in a straightforward Ming the Merciless way, but they aren't far off, being very nearly as flat and clich├ęd. They all serve largely as cogs in the plot machine for the Job-like journey of the protagonist (almost the opposite of the previous Coen film, No Country for Old Men).

Gopnik seems to maintain his faith throughout the trials of the story, such as his wife leaving him for the aforementioned Ableman, an absolutely repugnant fake of a human being. Yet his faith, honesty, and a portion of dignity remain, while he understandably questions what all that means.

But Gopnik rarely seems to give serious thought to anything else, other than asking "what does it all mean", or "why does this happen to me" and similar questions when things go wrong (which happens a lot).

As Morgenstern mentioned, Gopnik describes Heisenberg's uncertainty principle by explaining that it "means we can never know what's going on." When explaining to a desperate student why he has failed a term test, Gopnik says he failed the maths. The student responds by claiming to have understood the theory in the story of the cat (in reference to Schrodinger's cat). Gopnik brushes this off as mere metaphor - it's really just about the maths. "I mean, even I don't understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works."

In the end, Gopnik's maths washes over him like a Tsunami, as in the image above, perhaps representing his tenuous grasp on the domestic reality that is rapidly untangling around him. At the very end of the story, when things seem like they might be about to look up for Gopnik, he is presented with a moral dilemma - and lo, he is weak. In the context of all that has happened to him many will find his weakness here understandable. But not his God, it seems.

No, not me - I'm an island of such great complexity.
(Pavement - "Shady Lane".)

Another film from the Oscar list this year that could broadly be categorised in the same genre is Up in the Air, my favourite movie of those nominated. Another comedy, this is a sort of 'romantic comedy' rather than a 'black comedy'. However, at times its humour is equally dry.

George Clooney plays frequent flyer extraordinaire Ryan Bingham, who has the job of crossing flyover country in order to assist people in their transitional phase of life - that is, he tells people they no longer have a job. In the process he finally seems to meet that special someone. Also, his own job (at least as he thinks it should be done) may well be under threat.

The depiction of the lone traveller 'man-is-an-island' lifestyle that is practiced and preached by Bingham is done perfectly. The acting is excellent (nominations for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick), the script is about as good as mainstream Hollywood romance gets, and the politics is fairly evenhandedly dealt with by libertarian Jason Reitman (director and co-scriptwriter, along with Sheldon Turner).

But it is myopic to see this film too much in terms of politics or even romance per se. As cheesy as it may sound, this film is a rare instance of Hollywood living up to its own promotion: it is about a man trying to make a connection, in a world increasingly built around superficial connectedness.

Both A Serious Man and Up in the Air are funny movies. Neither film gives us a particularly happy ending, but the former is, ironically, trapped by its own genre nature - forced to buy into its black-comedic biblical twist. Despite the bitter pill delivered at the climax of Up in the Air, it still offers at least the possibility of hope and change, even with its downbeat ending.

There are fewer flaws and problems with tone and intent in Up in the Air than in A Serious Man. They have in common protagonists that try to maintain a certain sense of dignity in the face of what happens around them (albeit more cynically so in the former). Both protagonists have some idea of a faith or philosophy of life that they hold on to, rightly or wrongly, for most of their story. Both betray that philosophy at a crucial point, and in both cases, be it though fate or contingency, they pay a price for that decision.

03 February 2010

Stephen to Academy: You Basterds

A couple of years ago I made a commitment to myself to watch every Oscar 'Best Picture' nominated film. It was an easy year to do so, with There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Juno, Micheal Clayton, and Atonement on the "Best" list. In the end, second best No Country won the Oscar.*

I failed to meet my commitment the following year, but I am determined to get back to the cinema to judge Oscar choices this year.

So fuck you, Academy.

Why? Because the 2010 Oscar nominations are out, and this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed back to ten nominations for the Best Picture category.

Ten films in a short space of time. Okay, it's not so tough as that, because I've already seen four of them. Three of those were pretty darn good: Up, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.

One, Avatar, was pretty darn crap.

And given the Academy's record of highly questionable taste, I'd be surprised if more than half of the remainder will be worth seeing.

Well, we'll see - I have until 7 March (US).


* There Will Be Blood was the best movie, but No Country for Old Men was also excellent. Juno and Atonement were not bad and had aspects of interest, and Micheal Clayton was somewhere in between.