Editor | Peter Bowen
Not a pubic wig––it's a "merkin"
Posted September 29, 2009
The Devouring Culture Vulture in New York Magazine cut to the quick on one of the most complicated question rasied by the Coen Brother’s new film A Serious Man. Was Amy Landecker (who plays the erotically adventuresome next door neighbor) historically hirsute down when she shot her full frontal cameo? Even though she was asked to let her self go 70s wild, Landecker admitted: "It's kind of like plucking your eyebrows too many times: It's not going to grow back in. I'll never have seventies bush." What’s a modern gal to do? Get fitted for a Merkin, and even learn to be friends with it. According to New York Magazine:
Landecker also gave her merkin a name: "Cousin It." She keeps a photo of it on her iPhone. "I put it on, and it was like I had the world's largest bush," she said. Her primary fear? That her high-school boyfriend would see it and think, Why doesn't she clip that thing? Or, As she gets older, is she growing more hair?
Keeping the Faith with the Coens
Posted September 28, 2009
In “The Big Picture,” his column for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstien wonders: “The Coen brothers' A Serious Man: More Jewish than matzo balls?” But the answer is complicated. While the movie is certainly about growing up Jewish, it’s theology seems more universal:
In "A Serious Man," we learn -- and I suppose you could call this one of the fundamental tenets of alienation -- that if you desperately look to wise men, in this case your local rabbis, for answers to the big questions in life, you're bound to be disappointed. It's a lesson the Beatles discovered at nearly the same time as this movie occurs, when they went to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who ended up being such a disappointment that he was roundly mocked in the White Album's song, "Sexy Sadie."
In the New York Times, Frank Lidz registered a similar appreciation in his piece “Biblical Adversity in a ’60s Suburb.” After looking at the various biographical similarities between the characters in the film and the people in the Coen’s family, Lidz quotes Rabbi Sklar on the Coens as “modern-day Jewish prophets.” As the good Rabbi explains:
The role of the prophet is to speak truth to power and to speak truth to the people…The Coens see right through the foibles of our humanity. They turn their lens on ‘normalcy’ and make the mundane at once abnormal, beautiful and terrifying.
And very funny.
The Future of Independent Film Now
Posted September 27, 2009
This week, as world leaders gather at the United Nations for a global summit, leaders of the independent film world were gathering a few blocks away at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA. Sponsored by IndieWIRE, MOMA, and Zipline Entertainment, the Indie Summit pulled in a who’s who of indie film (including Focus Features own James Schamus) to consider the fate and fortune of independent film. I won’t summarize the various points made here, but rather point you to three participants who cogently reported on the days of events. First our own Scott Macaulay at the Filmmaker Magazine blog identifies the basic questions up for grabs. Ira Deutchman provides some responses, and at Indiewire, Anne Thompson gives an overview of the whole event.
The "Jewishest" Film Ever?
Posted September 24, 2009
Some people have called A Serious Man the Coen Brothers’ Jewish movie. Unfortunately it can't be the most Jewish, since, according to Julie Klausner, that title should go to Dirty Dancing. In her online essay, “I Remember Baby,” Klausner writes:
Dirty Dancing might be the Jewishest movie ever made, and not just because of the Catskills setting or Jen Grey's original nose and curly hair. There are some impressively Semitic specifics in Eleanor (ahem) Bergstein's script, based in part on her own childhood. From the resort manager Max Kellerman — "This danish is pure protein" — to Wayne Knight as the Kellerman's tummler, alternately seeing over "Simon Says" on the lawn and cracking wise about his mother on stage, to the creepy neocon Yale Med school waiters like Robbie Gould; would-be louses I remember being ignored by when I was a baby myself, matriculating at Solomon Schechter.
Friars Fest Gets Serious
Posted September 22, 2009
The famed Friars Club has joined the Film Festival game by starting their own––the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival. And for their opening night film, they’ve chosen the Coen Brothers’ new comedy A Serious Man. The opening night film will unspool on Thursday September 24 at the famed Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. In case you didn’t know, the Friars Club was started in 1903 as a place for the who’s who of entertainment to relax. Overtime it has become the honor roll for American comics, a place where their friends (and enemies) could have at them, all in the name of a good laugh.
A Jewlicious contest for A Serious Man
Posted September 21, 2009
The blog Jewlicious gets serious about the Coen Brothers’ new film A Serious Man. They have five tickets to give away for its New York City premiere at the Ziegfield. They give you the instructions about how to enter, but first they admit contest are just not their thing:
We’re not really good at contests here at Jewlicious. We just give stuff away and we don’t ask you to do silly things like write a soul searching essay or eat hot dogs or send us naked photos of your girlfriend (Though feel free to do so anyway). So what do we have to give away today? Well… I guess the title of this post gave it away. Here’s the trailer, details of our lame-o contest after the bump.
Toronto Day 4: Up in a fish tank
Posted September 14, 2009
In Toronto, whether standing in a film line, being shoved about at a party, or staring at one’s shoes in in a hotel elevator, the same question will inevitably be asked: “What films do you like?” Many say A Serious Man, and others say Up in The Air, but for the later, I’m never quite sure if they are referring to Jason Reitman’s comedy about a jet-setting road warrior or about their own ambivalence to the festival so far. Indeed the George Clooney comedy and festival vertigo have a lot in common as Scott Macaulay points out in his witty post “On Up in the Air and a City Full of Those Guys.” Midway through the festival, critics and industry types are trying to find those key films that will not only brand this festival (i.e. the year of Pulp Fiction), but also provide break out financial hits. As Steven Zeitchik points out in his Risky Biz blog post, “Canadian Lottery: A Toronto longshot will be the fest's big winner” “very year at Toronto––most film fests, but Toronto especially––there's the incessant chatter about a few high-profile movies that are on everyone's radar, and then the one or two that no ones knows about that become the real hits.” Zeitchik even goes on to name his choices (which I won’t spoil for you here). But for the most part caution is the buzz word. Jeremy Kay at ScreenDaily points “US buyers cautious as Toronto’s first weekend ends.” Perhaps at this point the branding for the Festival shouldn’t be Up In The Air as much as Fish Tank (the name of Andrea Arnold’s excellent IFC film), as everyone from bloggers to executives sit waiting to see who will make the first move.
Toronto Day 3: Reality and its Discontents
Posted September 13, 2009
Yesterday as most of us were sitting in darkened theaters watching films about gruesome murders and clever robberies, broken lives and bumping sex, a real-life caper was happening a few blocks away at the Four Seasons Hotel. A producer set down a briefcase filled with about $12,000 dollars and a new script in the hobby lobby. Then as TheStar.com reports: “A man, captured by security cameras, entered the lobby, sat down beside the briefcase and placed his knapsack beside it. He then picked up both items and walked.”
Real crime has a peculiar effect at a film festival. A few years ago a man was shot to death at a hotel filled with festival goers. It’s a shame when reality decides to crash the party. For myself, it changes my perspective just a bit. It makes watching an otherwise zany torture porn piece, like the Sean Byrne’s Australian prom night nightmare The Loved Ones, a bit more uncomfortable than usual. It’s news that turns a poignant documentary like Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s How to Fold a Flag, a four-part portrait of Iraq war veterans, all of whom served in the same unit, hard to see as just another movie. The four men all keep the war with them in different ways: one, a gentle man with four kids who competes in the brutal sport of cage fighting to keep the war alive; another returns home only to face death again as his mother struggles with cancer; a third tries to forget by losing himself in heavy metal; and finally one who takes the war to the street as he enters the local Congressional race as an Iraq veteran.
But reality comes in all forms and shapes. For two world auteurs like French filmmaker Francois Ozon and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, reality is not the subject but the subtext of the films they bring to Toronto. Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of our great poets of death and memory, turns to pure fantasy in Air Doll in order to reflect on the most brutal realities of human existence––we all die. The story begins in one of those juxtapositions of the cute and the obscene that seems quintessentially Japanese. A middle aged man (Itsuji Itao) complains to his spouse Nozomi about the petty politics at the burger joint where he works as a waiter, and then takes her upstairs for a squeaky night of sex. Only it’s not the bed springs that squeak; it Nozomi, who just happens to be a blow-up sex doll dressed in sexy French maid’s outfit. As the film progresses the doll (Bae Doo-na) seems to slowly come alive, look for meaning and love in this strange new world. Based on a popular manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, the film sparks a rich tradition of cultural references, from Pinocchio and Frankenstein to the 1987 Andrew McCarthy flick Mannequin. While Nozomi fulfills her spousal duties every night when she returns home to be an air doll, by day she takes a job in a video rental store and explores what it means to be alive. As she begins to comprehend her identity as a sex substitute, her journey begins to illustrate how much everything in our lives is substitution: videos for films, films for real life, fantasies for emotions, plastic flowers for real ones…and so on. Much of this commentary seems particularly Japanese, but the overall effect is profoundly universal. In the end the question rides on what in our lives can we never substitute for some thing else, and the answers seem to return to Kore-eda’s major themes of time and memory.
In his new film, The Refuge, Francois Ozon again demonstrates that melodrama is not a substitute for reality, but a different way of interpreting it. The story begins with a death (and, yes, ends with a birth). A young couple––Mousse (Isabelle Carre) and Louis (Melvil Poupaud)––are camped out in a abandoned luxury Parisian apartment doing heroin. The next morning Louis’ mother finds them in a coma. Louis dies, and Mousse survives only to learn she is pregnant. Pure melodrama. When Mousse takes refuge in a small country house by the ocean (where she deals with her methadone treatment and her pregnancy), she’s visited by Louis’ brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy), who might at first seem like the perfect substitute for her dead lover, only Paul is gay and not Louis’ blood brother. Ozon then stages a perfectly tuned waltz of personal intrigue, emotional distress, and sexual confusion. As with great melodrama (like those of Sirk and Fassbinder), the story provides the scenery to stage a number of probing questions. Here the normalcy of heterosexuality, the condition of gay marriage and adoption, the fragility of sexual identity itself. And the fun is how tawdry and tittilating they reamin as drama, not insight.
Toronto Day 2: The Men
Posted September 12, 2009
The reactions are coming in from the press screening in Toronto of the Coen Brothers’ new comedy A Serious Man. Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune (who makes the funny leap of comparing his role as a reviewer to the Job-like status of A Serious Man) comments, “If the Coens' Fargo (which I admire enormously) depicts one stylized black-comic corner of Midwestern life, and death, A Serious Man represents another. I look forward to seeing it again." At Screen International, Jan Stuart comments:
A unique alchemy seems to take hold on those sporadic occasions when the Coen brothers decide to get down with their ethnic roots. 18 years after mining the Jewish auteur subculture of 40s Hollywood for their now-classic Barton Fink, the prolific duo deconstruct the Jewish suburban community of their youth with an astringent emotional and atmospheric specificity, producing a frequently inspired and always vigorously felt dark comedy that ranks with their finest.
Anne Thompson in her column for indieWIRE raves on that “The Coens are in top form.” And praise was also heaped on Michael Stuhlbarg:
The discovery here is theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who carries the movie and pulls off the challenge of being a schlep, nebbish, schmuck and honorable man all at the same time. I can relate to his anxieties about family, money, tenure and lack of control over every aspect of his life. As things pile on, his Job-like sufferings are hilarious. And serious.
To learn more about the “Serious Man” Michael Stuhlbarg, see Christy Grosz fascinating profile about the actor in the Los Angeles Times.
But if the Coens depicted an everyman of anxiety and metaphysical dread, Jacques Audiard’s remarkable A Prophet (left) is about a nobody who defies all expectations. The same could be said about the filmmaker—but not that he was a nobody. The story of a lost soul, an illiterate, violent homeless Arab in France, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) who is sent to prison for attacking a policeman and finds himself getting a cruel education. But this is not a simple school of hard knocks, or Birdman of Alcatraz sentimental education, but in the tradition of Rousseau, Genet and The Count of Monte Christo, about the education of identity, of not so much making something of one’s self, but literally making oneself. While in prison, Malik is forced by a Corsican gang to kill another Arab. Unable to absolve himself, he carries with him instead the soul of the man he murdered. And from then on, he learns to take every experience (good and bad) as an opportunity. A man without a past in this film becomes a prophet, in short, a man with a future. It is a miraculous and magical thing. The film itself does something similar, by both keeping with the cold social realism of the prison genre and flying off into metaphysical and poetic fancy whenever it chooses. And like with Malik, the film finds the freedom to be whatever it wants. In so doing, it records the unbearable (and unavoidable) lightness of being in such a heavy tale.
Toronto Film Festival Day One: Growing Up Female
Posted September 11, 2009
Both Scott Macaulay and I here up at the Toronto Film Festival to take the pulse on contemporary world cinema and cover the premiere of the Coen Brothers new film A Serious Man. Toronto is probably my favorite festival: hundreds and hundreds of films, a minimum of glitz and glamour––it’s Canada––and knowledgeable, enthusiastic audiences. Here are a few facts: A) This is the festival's 34th year; B) It averages about half million admissions per year; C) It deploys over 2,000 volunteers; D) It offers 271 Features from over 64 countries this year.
People are already noticing that many––OK, more than normal--of those features are being directed by women and telling stories about growing up female. The most celebrated ones are, of course, the ones that pull the most star power. Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body––written by Diablo Cody (who’d also penned a previous Toronto hit, Juno)––looks at growing up female from a pop culture point of view. The movie’s tag line, "Hell is a teenage girl" gives a pretty good sense of the its brash mix of po-mo feminism and old school horror. While the film's star, Megan Fox, paraded her killer bod on the red carpet, her character is (literally) a man eater, a teenage girl who wreaks revenge on the man she's loved. And the film is hitting a nerve with fanboys and fangirls. Michael Cieply in the New York Times reports,” According to Natalie Johnson, a spokeswoman for Fox, tickets to the midnight show at the landmark Ryerson Theater, which seats more than 1,200, were gone within two hours of going on sale last week.”
Cieply goes on to wonder if this year marks (once again) the rise of women directors, looking at the number of potential breakout female-directed films, such as Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It about roller derby gals, Jane Campion’s romantic bio-pic of John Keats Bright Star, and Lone Scherfig’s An Education. The same thoughts occurred to me, but quite by accident. Weaving my way through various films on the opening day, I found much to my surprise a powerful theme of growing up female rising up, albeit not in the comic-book version of Jennifer’s Body. And these were all in films directed by women.
First I wandered into Xiaolu Guo’s Locarno winner She, A Chinese, an episodic story of a young woman suffering the indignities of lecherous men, nagging mothers, blind dates and lots of mud, before finding her way out of China and into Europe. It is not coincidentally a journey that parallels that of the filmmaker, who started out as a novelist in China before moving to London.
Despite the specific cultural details, She speaks to the universal humiliation of growing up female, a fact that became all too apparent to me (a man) when I settled in to see Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Mia is your typical teenager—sullen, angry, and abused by all the men around her. Fish Tank is really the story of three women: 15 year-old Mia (a powerful Katie Jarvis), her little sister, and their young (and sexy) mom. So when mom brings in a young man into their home (and her bedroom), their cramped, paper-thin walled council flat indeed becomes a fish tank. While the characters’ Essex accent is as hard to understand as She, A Chinese at times, the grim reality of teenage girls is nearly the same.
Finally Women without Men, the first feature drama from Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat, is a poignant, moving marriage of politics and art. Adapted from Sharnush Parsipur’s magical realist novel about the lives of four women during 1953, the year US helped push out the democratically elected Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh in order to reinstall the Shah. While each women is very different, their oppression in a patriarchal, theologically-based society is palpably similar. And while such allegorical touches comparing the fate of women (the oppression, their hope, their disillusion) to the fate of nation can come off as sophomoric, Neshat handles them was such poetic deftness and visual beauty that the ideas are articulated but never hammered. So is this the year of the woman, or the year we acknowledge again the impossible fate of growing up female?