The weekend of the Oscars my wife and I managed to cram 5 nominees into 3 days. Following in the same pattern I am going to cram 5 reviews into this one post.
My expectations of this movie were completely off. As a British movie about a 16 year old getting involved with an older man, which barely came to any theaters in the area, I was expecting something a bit dark and plodding. Instead “An Education” turned out to be a bit lighter and lot funner than I assumed.
The story unfolds mostly without many shocks. Jenny and David are starting a relationship and there are always certain steps taken to establish a new couple. What did come as a bit of a surprise was how functional everyone seemed. As the movie progresses you see more and more quirks and faults in the characters but there were a couple of cracks I thought would be broken wide open. Instead, Jenny proves to be a much stronger character than nearly anyone else, trying to hold herself together as others around her exposed their weaknesses and vices.
The acting is great. Everyone in it gives an enjoyable performance. Alfred Molina turns out to have one of the best arcs in the story and his casual light antisemitism leads to some of the funniest lines in the movie. Emma Thompson also surprises with unintentional humor as the unyielding head of the school Jenny attends. The real standout among the school staff, though, is Olivia Williams as one of Jenny's teachers. She gives a nuanced performance that keeps her emotional motivations obscured until the end. There's an uncomfortable air between her and Jenny, mostly coming from her. At times she seems frigid, or is it jealous? Williams' turning point is a nice sub-plot that slowly unrolls whenever the camera comes back to her.
One aspect of this film I need to draw attention to is the visual feel. It actually feels a bit old, with a touch of French new-wave. The colors are slightly muted and the tone bright while in Paris. In London the tones aren't as rich but are still toned very deep. Nearly every time I found myself aware of framing on screen the shot could have been vintage post-card or movie poster. After the fact I found out that this won the Cinematography award at Sundance and it is well deserved. Even without an enjoyable movie behind it this film is a treat to watch.
It was one of my top 2 choices for Best Picture. +4.5
Up In The Air
This was a very solid movie where the performances were the real highlight.
While a solid addition to Tarantino's catalog I was surprised that this is what they gave him a Best Picture nomination for. I have a feeling that this one suffered a bit from hype, something that many people would see fitting for a Quinten Tarantino project.
I found the performance either great (Christoph Waltz) or fittingly over the top (Brad Pitt). The alternate history didn't feel forced or awkward or even strange but it did allow the film to achieve something that it seems no one has tried to do: make a World War 2 story where one does not know how it will end.
What didn't work for me was the length and the ending. Tarantino's rambling dialog is a love it or hate it affair and while I do have a high tolerance for his tangents this one pushed at the edges of my attention span. I felt like a full half hour could have been shaved off and still achieved its goal. At times the characters seemed bent on delivering soliloquies, situation be damned, and I couldn't help but feel like there was an underlying love of speaking rather than a love of banter. In short, there was more talking at people when the situations warranted actual conversations.
When the film really started to lose me was at the theater towards the end. This was probably the worst time for this to happen as the thesis of the film seemed to be about film saving the world and that's when it killed this movie. There is a set-up shot of one of the characters, Shosanna, preparing for a Nazi film premier. It's so highly stylized it felt like a period-piece Bond movie intro. Even the song playing pulled me out of the time period. I realize that Tarantino will use anachronistic music in his film but this really was an extended sequence of posing to a song. There is another sequence after this that put the period on my discomfort with the movie but to state it would be to ruin the climax of the film. If curious, ask and I'll put it in the comments.
Overall I'd say this was a good Tarantino movie but by no means his best. While the direction seemed more mature than most of his other films the writing seemed a little bit less restrained and the allusions more over the top than usual.
A Serious Man
It was actually tough for me to rate this as I was torn after viewing it; did I dislike this movie or hate it?It's been a week and I'm still not sure.
The reason that it gets a positive review is that the direction is as tight as No Country For Old Men and there are a number of very funny scenes. Some of the Jewish “in” humor is great. However, I don't feel that these two aspects can save what is overall a failure.
As most people are aware, this is a modern retelling of Job. Here's how the original story of Job goes:
God and Satan (Judaism's Satan, so not the devil) make a bet over a man. Satan says that Job is only pious because he is well off so God gives Satan permission to take everything from Job. A lot of terrible things happen and he loses his property and family. Job breaks down and curses his own life but never god. Then, since he never turned on God he is given new property and a new family.
The whole point of this is that God normally doesn't intervene in everyday life but is still an all powerful being and deserving of praise. And this is where A Serious Man fails. There is no point of their story.
In A Serious Man we meet Larry who is being tested. The problem that the Cohen Brothers introduce in their version is that there really isn't a god in Larry's world. He's not being tested by an almighty being. He's not being tested by God's pal, Satan. He's being tested by the reoccurring awkward fate that the Cohens favor in many of their films, what might be called social entropy. What A Serious Man gives the viewer, essentially, is a morality tale without a moral. It's a highly contrived fable of a man being tested by nothing. He cannot appeal to anything for help nor can he appease any force for relief. For most of the film it is drilled into the viewer that he “does nothing” and his life suffers for it. In the end he does something and... suffers for it. It's not even an existentialist tale of woe where a man learns that he has to take control of his life. It's a nihilist story where a man is presented with various paths of suffering.
Even in light of the introduction of the film, a short story done in the style of Yiddish folk tales, A Serious Man fails. Yiddish tales are meant to show some sort of growth. It could be at the expense of the characters but in the end a point is supposed to be conveyed. While usually a bit mystical and dark, Yiddish tales are often humorous in a way and almost mix self determinism with a reverence for God through everyday magic. The Cohen Brothers give us nothing to hope for, appeal to or learn from. Essentially this is an emotional torture porn; under the masterful direction and fantastic acting (Fred Melamed is a standout as Sy Ableman) we're given little more than an introspective medley of Shaggy Dog-esque abuse.
I gave this movie a positive rating because there are parts of the production worth seeing. Overall I would say that this movie is just bad. The large majority of it is recycle Cohen tropes that have been used better in their other movies:
Surprise murder – Fargo and Burn After Reading
Drug trips and dream sequences – The Big Lebowsky
Slow and plodding pacing – No Country For Old Men
Stylaized fable – O Brother Where Art Thou
Like my other nomination favorite, An Education, this was a pleasant surprise. I usually don't go for war movies but this one transcended war. It was about the characters who just happened to be in war.
I'm not sure what to say about this movie other than each facet of it is great and each piece works together to create something more than the parts. It's that simple. The direction is very tight, filming is intense and immersion, acting is great, pacing is suspenseful. This is actually the only movie I can think of where I didn't look forward to the explosions, though when they happen they make an impact.