A Serious Man and An Education

This weekend was all about revisiting films I’ve already seen. Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man improved with a second viewing while the highly praised Sundance favorite An Education lost a little bit of its luster. It’s still good and Carey Mulligan’s place as the new star of the year is secure, but the film itself feels a little more mundane than it did at first.

My only real complaint against A Serious Man originally is that it felt like the Coens were simply reworking the territory of some of their previous films, particularly Barton Fink, Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. After a second viewing, it’s still clear the Coens are revisiting earlier ideas, but they’re presenting them here in their most fully realized form yet. This is a funnier film than the more obviously comic Burn After Reading yet it also stings a little bit. Michael Stuhlbarg was even more impressive the second time around as the put upon lead and the whole supporting cast really shone. It takes a special actor to capture the peculiar rhythms of Coen dialogue and everyone here delivered.

I’m not going to say A Serious Man is the Coen’s best comedy, but it’s their richest and most mature.

Meanwhile, An Education has a lively script by Nick Hornby, terrific comic supporting performances from Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike and a sparkling, star making lead in Carey Mulligan. This is a genuine crowd pleaser, but some predictable melodrama and a too tidy ending lessens its impact. I don’t know. Maybe I’m responding to some of the hype with a bit of backlash. It’s still a very good film, but its repeat value seems limited.

Taking a quick glance at the box office charts, a sub-Land of the Lost Metacritic rating of 24 didn’t stop audiences from forking over $35 million for Couples Retreat. Is that enough to make a $70 million comedy worth the studio’s time? I don’t know. I don’t care

In more interesting news, last week’s box office wonder Paranormal Activity continues to win the per screen average race with $44,000 per ($7 million total box office) $49,000 per ($7.9 million total box office) even after expanding into 160 theaters from 27 and running a full complement of daily showings instead of just midnights.

Meanwhile, An Education debuted in 4 theaters averaging a solid $40,000 per ($162K total) and A Serious Man followed up its strong limited debut by expanding from 6 to 21 theaters and pulling in an additional $21,000 per ($447K total).

24 Responses to “The Watercooler: A Serious Education”

  1. I finally saw Bright Star this weekend, which I really liked. It was so well-made, down to every detail, and the cast was excellent.

    Continuing the at-home Bergman series I watched The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries on DVD.

  2. “A Serious Man improved with a second viewing while An Education lost a little bit of its luster.”

    You’re only a virgin once, but disenchantment lasts forever.

  3. Thursday night I saw Flame and Citron, which I was quite impressed with. A very interesting film and not at all what I expected, but well made. Recommended.

    A Serious Man was great in every detail, but I must confess I felt like a bit of an outsider looking in on it and wasn’t completely subsumed by all the wizardry going on. I’m sure my enjoyment of it will grow with repeat viewings, but for now I’m safe in accepting it’s greatness but feeling a bit detached.

    No Impact Man wasn’t what I expected. It was actually better than I thought it would be. I really liked it. It’s the most original and thought-provoking non-fiction drama I’ve seen on a movie screen this year. Highly recommended.

    Watched The Incredibles once again, because I couldn’t believe some of the comments I was reading over at HND’s Pixar Week. I feel vindicated. It’s still great.

    Also watched REC, the Spanish horror film that inspired the American remake Quarantine (which I saw a few weeks ago). They both have their pluses and minuses and even though the U.S. remake is essentially a scene-by-scene copy, it does improve on some aspects of the original (and falls short in other areas). But this is one of the few instances where I’d suggest seeing either one.

  4. Care to elaborate Joel on the comments at HND? I haven’t been over there for a while, but now maybe I need to.

    I predict if you will like ASM better the second time (ASM is beginning to sound like a sex acronym…creeping me out). My first time through I thought it was funny, but not their best. The ending elevated it, but it still wasn’t one of the classics. Having seen it again, I’m thinking it just might be one of their greats.

    Glad you liked No Impact Man. I didn’t do a very good job of convincing anyone to see that and it’s too bad. It’s my favorite documentary of the year and in the running for my top 10.

    Ditto with Flame & Citron. NIM and F&C are the two movies I should’ve reviewed but didn’t. I suck

    Alison, how about that Abbie Cornish? Everyone is talking about Carey Mulligan right now, but Abbie was great. Beautiful movie.

    Actually Ryan I’m pretty sure there’s a statute of limitations on virginity. I’ll have to check the bylaws but I think I’m officially a virgin again. A disenchanted virgin.

  5. I thought Abbie Cornish was excellent, Craig. A real stand-out performance.

  6. It’s too early for me to be seriously thinking about Oscar (I’m no good even when the noms are announced), but I’m penciling in Abbie and Carey.

  7. I, too, saw ASM for the second time this weekend and enjoyed it even more than the first time. Although the film could get some Academy attention, I agree with you, Craig, when you say you’re “not feeling it” in terms of significant Oscar clout.

    Also, I caught the last 45 minutes or so (on TV) of The Boys From Brazil, a film I’ve never seen in its entirety. It was fun watching Gregory Peck play bad.

    Alison — have you ever seen “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams,” the early ’70s film starring Joanne Woodward? In it, she and screen mum Sylvia Sidney attend a NYC arthouse screening of “Wild Strawberries.”

  8. Craig, there’s a tug of war going on between those that disapprove of The Incredibles because they assert it has Randian Objectivist values and politics (let alone that some of the folks arguing this point just don’t think it’s a very good movie) versus those that disagree. Generally I can see the POV that The Incredibles has some conflicting politics but I think overall the critics citing the Randian thing are picking at certain details out of context, rendering the criticism fairly subjective.

    Plus, I still find it wholly entertaining as a film. It might not be incredibly deep, but it is incredibly satisfying. I think it has more going for it than the critics give it credit for.

  9. Saw one of my very favorite films of the past few years – Children of Men – on blu ray. The format only enhances appreciation of the standout art direction and cinematography. Their artful contribution to the creation of an authentic fictional reality is a major basis for the film’s success.

  10. Ok, anyone who applies the philosophy of Ayn Rand to The Incredibles needs to go out and get some fresh air. I suppose I should read the argument before I dismiss it, but it sounds hinky to me.

    Pierre, that’s great you were moved to see ASM again. Did you find it funnier? I did somehow. But also deeper and more horrifying in away…if that makes sense. Hopefully I’ll have a review up in the next few days and we can talk about it some more.

    Sartre, I haven’t revisited COM since I first saw it (twice in a theater I think). I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s time to see it again on Blu-ray.

  11. Wasn’t Rand opposed to the idea of altruism? Now Mr. and Mrs. Incredible were extremely altruistic.

    Pierre, I’ve never seen that movie but I’ll have to check it out now. :-)

    Also, Francis Ford Coppola has some things to say about the film industry here.

  12. Craig, like I said I think The Incredibles has some slightly confusing (or conflicting) messages to it but overall I don’t think the whole Ayn Rand connection holds a lot of water. Of course, the same people making this argument point out that Byrd’s Ratatouille has some of the same issues (which neglects the fact that most of Ratatouille’s story and characters were completed before Byrd took over). Now that argument might be a little more sound, or at least the evidence is less circumstantial. Anyway, it makes more sense to me than saying that The Incredibles is essentially a fascist statement on the superior class versus the rest of us or that Syndrome is essentially the hero fighting against the fascist repression of the Incredibles’ super-ness and their desire to protect their special status.

    I’m not helping the criticism with my sarcastic summation, but you get the gist of it. On its face it’s an argument for people that either A) want to claim the film as their own political mantra or B) want to chastise a popular film for being a subversive polemic. I think part of it might have been a left wing backlash to conservatives claiming the family values aspect of the film as their own, but I don’t have the energy to figure that out.

  13. Film like any other art form can function as a projective test. There is often sufficient substance to selectively attend to content and declare it evidence for any polemic. That’s a core reason why I often find sociological film criticism banal.

  14. I’ve been reading the Pixar stuff at HND, too, though I haven’t gotten to that particular essay. But I think you nailed it with that last sentence, joel — they started it. Kinda like what happened with The Dark Knight — right-wingers declared it a pro-Bush treatise, causing bloggers like Scott Mendelson to write up their own essays refuting this interpretation. (With DK, it is hard to completely dismiss.)

    [rec] is one of the best horror films of the last decade. If you like the genre at all and haven’t seen it, do. My understanding is that the remake is essentially the same exact film, only not as good, almost like Van Sant’s Psycho. But I haven’t seen it, so I’ll shut up.

    Boys From Brazil is trashy fun, mostly taken straight from the source novel. Gotta love Ira Levin.

    Turns out A Serious Man is actually playing here, now. The info I had found online indicated that it wasn’t opening in my town until the 16th. Lying…dirty…bastaaaaaaaards! And WTWWA is coming up! Better hie me on down to the movie-house.

  15. Frank, are you aware of REC 2?


  16. The Incredibles commentary trails over multiple articles from last week’s Pixar series at HND, but annoyingly no one really takes it on except in the comments. I was thinking of The Dark Knight too, Frank, Any big successful movie these days that appeals to a broad group of people seems to be a political pinata that everyone wants to break open and own the contents of. I tend to find that irritating, except in the case of 300, which the conservatives can have. By all means.

    Frank, have you heard there’s a trailer to the sequel for REC out?

    I’m not suggesting you run out and see Quarantine, Frank, as it is mostly a copy of the original but I admit that I liked some of the things they did different (and was annoyed by some of the things they did different too). REC is definitely better shot and edited than Quarantine. I’m just saying that as a Hollywood remake (copy) of an excellent original piece of work, Quarantine isn’t the travesty one might expect. I was impressed that they didn’t water it down and they found an interesting way to make the climax American without eliminating any of the story elements.

  17. I’m aware of it and have seen the teaser. I don’t want to see anything else. Hope it doesn’t suck.

  18. I had another busy week on the cultural scene, though my theatrical movie total total was down from last week. At the Metropolitan Opera I saw the new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which was later broadcast on Saturday afternoon at area movie theatres. I decided to take the opera in a second time on HD to gain the close-up perspective. (My review of the on-live staging appeared here on Friday of last week). On Saturday night I attended a staging of a “vampire musical” titled The Cure on 54th Street in Manhattan, which I personally found awful in every way imaginable.

    On the movie scene I saw the following:

    35 Shots of Rum ***** (Film Forum; Monday night)
    Paranormal Activity **** (Sunday night; Clifton, N. J. multiplex)
    An Education **** (Friday night; Union Square Cinemas)
    Good Hair *** 1/2 (Saturday afternoon; Edgewater multiplex)
    The Boys Are Back *** 1/2 (Sunday afternoon; Montclair Claridge Cinemas)

    Paranormal Activity, reportedly produced for $11,000 with a hand-held camera slowly builds tension, and the final twenty minutes is as horrifying as anything I’ve seen in ages. An Education contains an extraordinary performance by Carey Mulligan and brilliant script of Nick Hornsby set in 60’s Britain. This variation on the coming-of-age theme is lovingly textured and felt, and it’s re-creation of period is remarkable. Good Hair is a surprisingly effective social documentary about African-American hair, with humor and perceptive insights in black femininity. The Boys Are Back is a passable family drama about a father thrust into the role of single-parent by tragedy, which sometimes veers precariously into melodrama. Clive Owen delivers a moving performance. Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum is a masterpiece. It’s another observational, detailed expression (with few words) much in the style of Ozu that conveys the disperate feelings in a socially-changing France of loneliness, and the small gestures that define a simple existence entwined with spirituality. In the end this is a deeply moving work of humanism. My good friend Jason Giampietro, who attended with me, was also blown away by the film.

  19. Joel, I’ll have to wade in and read it for myself before I start passing judgment. Probably wouldn’t hurt if I saw the film again. I wish it would come on out blu-ray…

    Sartre: “I often find sociological film criticism banal.” Agreed. I find it says more about the critic than the film itself.

    Alison, Coppola would know as well as anyone what’s happening in the business, but at the same time people have always been talking about the end of cinema as we know it. It’s constantly changing. Does it claim a mass audience the way it used to? No, but I don’t see the form going anywhere. We still read books, right?

    Sam, it sounds like you hand another winning weekend at the theater.

  20. Loved your writing about 35 Shots of Rum, Sam. Can’t wait to see it.

  21. Thanks very much sartre. The film is actually releasing next week on a Region 2 DVD. It’s absolutely a strong contender for film of the year with the likes of BRIGHT STAR, SUMMER HOURS and A SERIOUS MAN.

  22. Sartre: “I often find sociological film criticism banal.” Agreed. I find it says more about the critic than the film itself.

    Nail hit on head. And yeah, the Randian Objectivist stuff is way overthinking it. I’m tempted to post a comment arguing that the film’s themes are more accurately a stinging critique of the dialectical materialism apparent in the subtext of the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning 80s cartoon.

    That’s great that you guys loved [REC] and Paranormal Activity. I still won’t see them, being a stick- the-horror-DVD-in-freezer-where-it-can’t-get-me type. It’s good Paranormal has such a strong ending, too–so many of those just peter out. I think strong endings are paramount to small films like that building buzz, going viral.

    As for me, saw nothing, nada, zilch. Not sure what I did with myself. Oh well.

  23. Potential trivia spoiler for A Serious Man

    Did anyone notice the disclaimer at the very end of the credits: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this film”?

  24. multiple endings…


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