Reviews: "A Serious Man," "Where the Wild Things Are," and "Black Dynamite"
So I've seen a few movies the past few weeks and just haven't gotten around to writing reviews. Well here they are.
A Serious Man - A new Coen Brothers movie is an event for some people. I am some people. "A Serious Man" is their 14th feature film but it seems that for the first time they've made something that is at least slightly autobiographical. Set in the world the brothers grew up in, suburban Minnesota in 1967, it tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor whose stable professional and family life suddenly comes apart at the seams. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so that she can marry the sleazy and condescending Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the tenure he's been promised has been threatened, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a gambling addict living in his home, and his teenage children are teenage children.
Larry has tried his best to lead a good and honorable life but when it all comes cosmically crashing down he turns to help from the Rabbi. Actually from several Rabbis, none of whom seem to provide Larry with an answer to his many questions or a solution to his myriad of problems.
As a dyed in the wool fan of the Coen Brothers I have to say that "A Serious Man" was actually strange even for them. It doesn't have quite the sharp focus of their best work (which I deem everything they've made with the exceptions of "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers," and "Burn After Reading"), but it is full of intriguing ideas, strong performances, and some powerhouse scenes. Larry's telephone conversation with a representative from Columbia House is a quietly powerful moment. "But I didn't do anything," Larry says again and again. Like the record that showed up in his mail he didn't ask for any of this and yet it just arrives at his door.
It doesn't stand up to "Fargo," "O Brother," or "No Country," but "A Serious Man" is still a Coen Brothers movie and one that is definitely worth your time. 8/10.
Where the Wild Things Are - Usually when a beloved book is adapted into a film the most common complaint is, "They cut out too much!" It's an unusual thing when filmmakers are put into the position of having to add on to an existing work. This was the unique position director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") found himself in. You would think this would allow Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers free reign to create something new, imaginative, and full of depth. What they deliver however is a film that looks great but has a script so thin it's anorexic.
Quite simply the story is young Max (Max Records) gets mad at his teenage sister, feels ignored by his mom, and runs away to a magical world. While there Max becomes the king of a society of pretty unlikeable monsters and eventually he decides he wants to go home. That's about the amount of depth provided by the film's script.
There are elements I liked quite a bit about "Where the Wild Things Are." It's a great looking film. Jonze's decision to use suits instead of subpar CGI for Max's new friends was the right call and the performance of Records is terrific. He's not a typical movie kid. He's not wise beyond his years, he's not precocious, and he's not there to be cute. He plays Max as an obnoxious, annoying brat. He's a real kid. The film also features a great soundtrack from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
All in all, "Where the Wild Things Are" is an interesting failure, whose problems fall entirely on its weak script. There just isn't any meat on it. 5/10.
Black Dynamite - I have saved easily the best for last. "Black Dynamite" is about as funny as you could ask a movie to be. Michael Jai White stars as the baddest brother on the planet, Black Dynamite. He's out to avenge the death of his brother by declaring war on anyone who sells drugs to the community. "But Black Dyanmite," one character protests, "I sell drugs to the community."
"Black Dynamite" is a successful film in two ways. It parodies the blaxploitation films of the seventies with a broad sense of humor while managing to subtely capture what those movies were. The grain, the bright colors, the cheap sets, the boom mics, the actors reading their lines off of cue cards. It's all there!
White co-wrote the screenplay with Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders which is razor sharp and consistently laugh out loud funny. The moment Black Dynamite and his cohorts unravel an insidious plot inside of a restaurant is easily the funniest thing you'll see in a movie all year. Maybe for a few years. And I defy anyone to come up with a more bizarely funny line than, "Donuts don't wear alligator shoes."
If it's playing anywhere near you "Black Dynamite" is a must see. In Seattle it's in its final week at the Varsity. 9/10.