2009 Capsule Reviews, Part 3: The Limits of Control, The Hurt Locker, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and A Serious Man
The Limits of Control
The Limits of Control is part Ghost Dog and part Coffee and Cigarettes, meshing those two previous Jarmusch experiments and creating the movie, it seems, he was building towards this whole time. The film is like a great ambient rock album (or as the kids call it these days "Dream Pop")…you just kind of drop the needle and go with the flow of the music. The film meanders from scene to scene, but what an intoxicating meandering it is! Jarmusch always makes films that leave one in a weird state of reverie – whether one likes that or not is what makes the auteur so polarizing – and The Limits of Control is no different as it makes no qualms about taking its sweet time with what it's doing. Either you're into this movie or you're not…again, keeping with album metaphor, either you like it or you don't; and sometimes these things grow on you (I recommend seeing this movie more than once) the more you let the music (or in this case the imagery and peculiar dialogue) marinate. I've read other places that film is in the vein of the great French New Wave filmmaker Jacque Rivette. Here's the deal: I know enough about Rivette's work to notice what Jarmusch is doing here, and yet I'm not familiar enough with Rivette's work to really know what Jarmusch is doing here…nevertheless, that shouldn't stop you (it didn't stop me) from seeing what is a brilliant genre exercise from one of the true auteurs working today.
The Hurt Locker
There's nothing much I can add to the million other glowing accolades this film has received. I've always liked Kathryn Bigelow, and I've always thought that she's one of the more underrated action directors (if you haven't seen the brilliant Strange Days yet I highly recommend you rectify that problem). I just have to ape what everyone else is saying about this movie: tense action scenes that are brilliantly staged, a wonderful performance by Jeremy Renner, and a great storyline that shows how these guys love war because of the tension and excitement it brings to their lives; all of these elements mesh perfectly to create a refreshingly apolitical war film that snuck up on a lot of people upon its initial release. Thankfully more people are starting to see the movie thanks to the award machine, and I can only hope that Bigelow – a James Cameron apprentice – can beat her mentor come award time for the best action film of the year. The Hurt Locker is what an action film should be, and even though I enjoyed elements of Avatar, it's a tad upsetting that it's the action movie everyone is talking about right now. Bigelow knows how to do action right (if you haven't done so I highly recommend looking at Point Break with new eyes…it's one of the best action films of the 90's), and The Hurt Locker is a perfect example of her skills. It's definitely her masterpiece.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Mention the great montage (which is typical of Anderson) when the Badger attorney (Bill Murray) gives his inventory on the seedy tactics (no pun intended) of the farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (who own farms that Fox plans on stealing from)…it reminded me of the standout scene in The
Life Aquatic where the viewer is given the superlative tour of the Belafonte. The voice acting by the entire cast (Clooney and Streep being the only non-Anderson regulars) is top-notch, and Anderson and his editor Andrew Wesiblum construct a franticly paced story (the first part of the story feels like it flies by as we see Fox's three-pronged plan go through its preliminary stages and then we get to see it put into effect…these moments – along with a montage set to people singing along with a banjo around a campfire and a fight between Fox and Rat in a High Voltage area – are the highlight of the film) that is infectious in its whimsy and energy. Essentially what we have here is an animated, 87 minute, Wes Anderson film; however, I enjoyed this film (I think it's time for people, and I've been as guilty as anyone, to stop being apprehensive about films just because they're animated) far more than Anderson's other whimsical affair, The Life Aquatic. Well…just what the cuss am I trying to say? This is one of the best film experiences of the year, and I was really surprised (even though I love Anderson's work) that I was so into every frame of this film.
A Serious Man
The Coen's darkly comic, Job-like tale is obviously one of the most personal films the brothers have made. Taking place in suburban Minneapolis (where the brothers grew up) the film centers around Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg who fits in nicely with the Coen universe) whose life is just one bad piece of news after another. The film is essentially about the absurdity of life, and the even more absurd practice of trying to make sense of that absurdity. This polarization – absurdity vs. certainty – is dealt with in the typically bleak and darkly comic Coen manner. His job, a professor of math who fills his board up with all kinds of proofs, is the perfect metaphor for what the brothers Coen are getting at here. Job-like metaphors and Yiddish symbolism (the film opens with a six minute short film that introduced me to the term dybbuk) flood the everyday occurrences of Larry. The whole idea of things "not making sense" is humorous enough, but the Coen's always look to take things deeper, evidenced by the discussion he has with a confused student: "The stories are just illustrative; the math is how it really works." And sure enough the Coen's hilariously juxtapose the confused Larry with a backdrop of a giant blackboard filled with a proof that is meant to explain mysteries away, or the great scene where he's talking with his attorney (Adam Arkin) and they are surrounded by weighty tomes, a perfect metaphor for the film as knowledge is always bearing down on the protagonist.
"What does all of this mean?" is another question that is broached in the film, and I like the way the Coen's let things just play out in their own weird, humorous way. For instance the scene where Larry has been asked to lunch by his wife and her lover, Sy; they inform him that they think it would be best if he moved out…of his own house. Compound that absurd moment with funny little scenes where he gets emergency calls from his son at work because "F-Troop" is 'coming in fuzzy', or where a Rabbi tells him you can't know everything…which Larry replies "it sounds like you don't know anything."
The Coen's central question – is it important to know everything – is an interesting one, and like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds there's a lot to explicate here. But I think what tends to get lost in all that juicy and more than worthwhile dissecting is that the movie is just really damn entertaining. A Serious Man is darkly comic and typical of the Coen's who specialize in wince-inducing humor. The ending is sure to confuse and befuddle those who don't understand that never has anything made sense with the Coen's upon an initial viewing and initial reflection. You have to let their films swim around in your head for days.
A special shout-out to Carter Burwell whose score is one of the best things of the film, and like he did with the 1999 film Being John Malkovich he creates a starkly effective score that is able to elicit the appropriate emotions. Plus, this has to be the most brilliant use of Jefferson Airplanes "Somebody to Love" I've ever heard.