Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Good 'Man' Is Hard to Find

Still catching up on some backlogs of work that I amassed while hitting CIFF so heavily over the last two weeks. I've got lots more movies to tell you about and hope you'll keep checking in. But since so many commenters and off-board e-mailers keep writing to ask what went down so badly between me and those "Man" movies, I'll say very, very, very briefly:

A Serious Man is certainly "well made" from any number of angles, often literally, since a major raison d'être of the film is to remind us of how eccentric, hard-edged, but unsettlingly articulate a cinematographer Roger Deakins can be. But "hard-edged" doesn't even scratch the surface, and what an implacable, obnoxious, yet weirdly insubstantial surface it is. A Serious Man raises several "interesting questions," more perhaps about the Coens than about its own characters. Moreover, for me, the film furnished a summary case of the brothers underscoring, avoiding, protracting, and cretinizing all the wrong stuff, at tremendous cost to those questions and perspectives the film pretends to animate. It was unrecognizable to me as a human experience, and feels belabored in a heaping handful of ways without ever clarifying why the writer-directors were going to so much trouble, since they don't seem to exorcise any ghosts from their pasts (much less erode the present-day chips on their shoulders) so much as they exaggerate scenarios and bestialize, narcotize, or trivialize their characters until, finally, the protagonist's spiritual quandary entailed much more of an ordeal for me than it seemed to even for him.

But at least it's an interesting failure, and if it didn't bespeak such lurid shortcomings of compassion and point of view, I might grade it higher. Whereas A Single Man just seems badly made, egregiously clichéd in astonishingly dated ways, and incapable of generating a solid idea for why it's even attempting the sensuous, woozy Wongisms that it's so nakedly trying for (without, for my money, coming anywhere close to them). Firth is fine, but hardly the powerhouse we've been hearing about; Mickey Rourke deserves a good cry if A Single Man makes off with this year's Best Actor Oscar, though I suppose Firth has earned some kind of Good Sport award for consenting to the most jaw-droppingly asinine conversation scenes imaginable with Nicholas Hoult, in a hopelessly shallow turn as an admiring student and self-styled Emissary for the Living. (Spoilerish:) If you always enjoyed the dodgy finale of American Beauty, you'll enjoy it even more when you get to watch it again here, especially if you find yourself hoping for just a bit more morbidification of sexuality and desire, and some even more outlandishly misplaced paeans to the status quo and to a mushy, secularized model of human predestination. And this time, the film itself gets to be the killer! All that, plus some of the most risible university pedagogy since Babs nattered on about courtly love (and, later, prime numbers!) in The Mirror Has Two Faces, which is more maladroit and less sophisticated on the whole than A Single Man, but only by an unexpectedly and tragically small margin.

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Blogger Bill C said...

Yep, that's A SINGLE MAN in a nutshell.

Hoult's performance/character actually made me want to hide under my seat and call animal control. I believe the term "cringe-inducing" was invented just for his philosophic waxings on the metaphorical nature of yellow pencil sharpeners.

10:06 AM, October 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

.... by which rights, a good index of my disappointment in Firth's performance is that he doesn't even try to signal that his character is capable of being bored or embarrassed by these merciless platitudes. And this despite the fact that we already know he finds his students to be a dull, eminently nuke-able bunch. You can be turned on, flattered, infatuated, whatever, you can play along with ham-handed flirtations, and still not want to hear your much-younger seducer talk about pencil sharpeners or about "all the stuff that's always going on in my head, until I'm like, whoa, you know?" Give us something, Colin, that shows that you're massively indulging this, rather than just eating it up. Firth gets the arousal, the grief, and the panic about his own detectability as gay and about his own looming imprudence, but the inanities of Hoult's behavior and self-expression are so colossal that not to address them in Firth's own playing becomes a major demerit of his approach to his own character.

10:42 AM, October 24, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Oh my goodness, thanks for making me think of that first English lit lecture scene in The Mirror Has Two Faces; it's so outlandishly bad that when the movie came on Scottish television while I was staying with two grad school friends of ours, we watched the film until we got to that part, just because I couldn't even describe it to them.

6:44 PM, October 24, 2009  
Anonymous Robert Hamer said...

It breaks my heart that you disliked A Serious Man. I don't see how you could call it any of those things (weirdly insubstantial, trivial, etc.).

Then again, you also gave my favorite film of 1999 a C+, so I guess we can't agree on everything.

9:16 PM, October 24, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

@Dr S: Wow. After your comment on The Mirror Has Two Faces, I hunted down the offending scene on YouTube (it's here, for anyone else with a death wish). I gotta say, I'm in the midst of doing my college apps now, but if I thought any of my college classes would be like that, complete with canned laughter at pseudo-intellectual schtick, I might just curl up and stay that way.

9:24 PM, October 24, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

Pshaw Colin, you don't know what college is like. I don't know about the rest of you, but I know my English lit classes are pretty similar to that clip. We're all stoned, there's no room to sit so we all huddle by the door and whenever our professor/stand-up comedian says anything - and I mean anything - we all appluad and laugh and whoop. Nothing too intellectual, mind, that's a no-no. Amd I'll admit, I never really understood what "courtly love" was until I watched that clip. Thanks, Babs! all seriousness, I laughed my ass off at the guy punching the air when she mentioned Puccini. What?

12:17 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Hear hear re Hoult. The angora sweater alone was grounds for an intervention, or at least a slap.

All this, and a great big D for Antichrist! Can't say I'm hugely taken aback -- I think of it as an A-/D proposition, and there are any number of ways it might drive you nuts -- but I'd love to know whether you thought it was overbearing and arrogant in its gambits, or just plain stupid, or what, exactly. At any rate, the idea of Coffin Rock being a preferable experience at the cinema is one I may need some help processing.

Better news on my sidebar: I've found my film of the year, the one I'd be crushed if you didn't like...

1:41 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger randomcha said...

And now I'm QUITE happy with my decision to see "Where the Wild Things Are" that evening instead.

4:49 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

And I'll be crushed right along with Tim. The pressure is on!

6:16 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

... thank the heavens for your last line, Catherine. I was readying the noose.

9:24 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Wow! You work for a whole day, and look what happens.

@Dr.S: It really isn't paraphrase-able, is it? I saw it in the old single-screen Loews theater under a Swatch store off Harvard Square, and you can imagine the particularly robust mirth of the hometown audience.

@Robert: I never know how I'll do with the Coens, since I can't find any stable meridian between the films I like and the ones I don't. I guess I'm not surprised it's a critical favorite, and I'm halfway inclined to try it again, except that I just felt so miserable while I was there. Can we talk about those women? Or the unrelieved grotesque-ness of the brother, which eventually gets topped off with a sodomy joke? Or the way they recurrently shoot Stuhlbarg from such unflattering angles in these hard, sort of forced perspective, close-range shots that don't do much in the way of characterization but sure make him an uncomfortable presence to be around... Even Carter Burwell offered no real haven in this thing for me. (And sorry about Fight Club, which I assume is your '99 pet, but that second half is just, for me, a frigging mess.)

@Colin: Never fear. It's all through the rabbit hole. Nothing, anywhere, is really like this.

@Catherine: The Mad Props to Puccini really is a staggering accent on the scene. And I sort of hate to poke such fun at this, since it's hard to watch Barbra and not wish she'd act more, given her lavish gifts for reading lines and holding the camera. But this scene and (sadly) most of this movie are just so laborious.

@Tim: Mostly, it seemed stupid and depressed, like the movie couldn't even get itself together to get a real payoff out of the tableaux that work so well as still shots (particularly the tree-roots with all those limp white hands). It just felt shapeless and belabored, without much conviction to match its puerile "provocations." Though I guess if I'd been hoping to see a gene-splice of Solaris and Saw before I died...

@Tim and Guy: I'd be happy to oblige with A Prophet if only Sony Classics would release it before February. CIFF didn't get it, or else I'd have been all over it. Audiard is one of the few directors I think of during almost everybody else's movies, wondering what he'd have done with them. (Okay, not Whip It or Antichrist, but other ones...)

@RC: I am saving Wild Things for sometime soon, but I can't imagine that you made the wrong choice here.

10:30 PM, October 25, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

"Mad Props to Puccini" - ha! It's an especially weird accent, since that's Eli Roth sitting behind the air-puncher, and it's hard to shed all the lowbrow-horror- and Bear Jew-related intertextuality that's cropped up around him since '96.

1:34 AM, October 26, 2009  
Anonymous Jim T said...

I am curious to read your comments on An Education. I wasn't surprised by the grade (I expect anything from you) but I would like to know why you didn't like it.

1:19 PM, October 27, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Not just why you didn't like An Education, Nick, but also whether your dislike precludes Carey Mulligan actually being as great as she's been touted.

(And while we're reminiscing about Babs' gifts at line delivery: I know the pre-production buzz was all over Meryl Streep and Cyndi Lauper and Toni Collette, but wouldn't Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd have been a wonderful comeback vehicle for Streisand, had she been up to it? The part demands rapidfire line delivery, deft switching between vamping and tragic heroine-ism, and hardcore belting. You just know she'd have nailed that "Yes, I lied 'cause I LOOOVE YOU" line, which no one except maybe Patti LuPone has ever played for the Effie White-ish effect it demands.)

10:48 PM, October 27, 2009  
Anonymous Uwodzenie Mito said...

Old true is that movie shows that what people want to see, not truth...

7:27 AM, September 30, 2010  

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