Daily Archives: October 5, 2009

One Decade Two Films From The Modern Film Festival

mm(First published at Blogcritics.org)

This weekend the Modern in Fort Worth played host to modern cinema with a festival of 8 films. I missed the Precious buzz (an early packed house) but I got A Serious Man with An Education.

There were many similarities between the two films. Both were set in the 1960’s,  A Serious Man in 1967 and An Education in 1962, both had Jewish men as the lead character, both set in academia but that is not where the analogy ends — An Education’s screenplay was adapted from Lynn Barber’s memior and A Serious Man considered autobiographical for the Coen Brothers.

A Serious Man (cast) screened on Saturday, October 3rd.  The film’s strong message is don’t blame God if your life is not good–then it puts God in the stalker’s seat! This was the source of the film’s dark comedy. But one did not have to be religious,  Jewish or into physics to love this movie, however,  the calculus of  Jewish culture created a steep learning curve for the uninitiated. The audience was filled by many Jewish members of a local synogogue. I have probably watched more films set in Israel and other foreign films about Jewish culture and/or religion than I can count. And I predict that this film will among the critics’ choice for 2o09 for its daring dialogue and cryptic ending. 

The film begins and ends with the mysterious Rabbi Marshak. The hero is physics’ professor Larry Gopnik played impeccably by Michael Stuhlburg who does not crack a smile throughout.

The film draws the audience into a seeker role along with Prof. Gopnik. Gopnik goes kicking and screaming into solving the spiritual equation observant Jews around him set to zero but for him it feels like infinity, since he cannot escape the daily karma that has his name on it. He fights with himself, observant Jews, his Jewish relatives and even one strange Korean grad student.

A Serious Man booms and blooms with shifting scenes between authentic Jewishness and the world of the “goys.” The Coen brothers even took jabs at Jewish stereotypes with closeups on close-set eyes and resonated with the theme that Jews only hired other  Jews  for legal or medical reasons.

Larry’s neighbors  on either side of his home in the suburbs embody American apple pie and pot. And with them the Coen brothers’ film continues to wax dark. They are the subject of Larry’s nightmares.  When he awakes the nightmares haunt his day. He is the serious man alright, yet rarely ponders that his presence may be the problem.

There are two main reasons that this film had buzz: first, the strong interrelationship of multiple threads that ran through it and continually reconnected its thick story and secondly, its total Jewish immersion. Love it or hate it, this film rewired the senses and freed them to question existence.

An Education (cast)

Publicity released in early 2008  cast Orlando Bloom in one of the male lead roles, either the playboy boyfriend David Goldman played by Peter Sarsgard (an Illinois-born actor) or his best friend Danny played by Dominic Cooper. But  Bloom was not to be found in this 1960’s London mood film.

I have one disclosure to make–I love all films British and this one is no exception. I found it to be spot-on super.

An Education opens at the all-girls strict private school with the girls, naturally, walking with books on their heads to ensure posture. Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) is a sixth-form school girl (senior) who can think of nothing but getting into Oxford, singing along with forbidden French records and pleasing her parents–within reason.

Everything changes when Jenny’s dripping while carrying a big cello.  Enter charm-the-soak-off-you David who offers her a lift home in his sports car. Their friendship evolves from exchanging glances over expensive dates that don’t end in a kiss to this-is-the-one look.

Jenny makes four and is one half of the other couple who pal around. David and Danny quickly display their English egos that require well-appointed townhouses, lavish dinners and trophy consorts. In the life and the film about “Jenny” Danny and Helen have front row seats to the mayhem and deception that awaits the cute 16-year-old turning 17 when she trusts a playboy and his declaration of love.

Films made from memoirs can often drag or focus on one single aspect of a life to the detriment of the story.  But the brilliant acting by Miss Mulligan has garnered Oscar buzz and quashed the cliche that straight-forward movies often get stuck in.  

Jenny thinks she is  a real woman  trapped in a girl’s bodice but Mulligan’s performance breathes a moutain of  life into flat pages because she is neither scripted nor sainted.  She rails at her Latin teacher about the expected ennui embedded in English culture. Her rant and the warning voices of authority both come back to bite her in the butt.

She’s not a woman after all and will swallow her British pride and turn to the women in her life to complete the education.  An Education is all about appeal and lacks nothing. You will leave the theatre but this film won’t leave you even after the music is silent and the film credits roll.