Sunday, January 24, 2010

2009 Capsule Reviews, Part 3: The Limits of Control, The Hurt Locker, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and A Serious Man

Well, I've tried to watch as many 2009 films as possible in the past two weeks, but a co-worker got sick and I had to sub all week -- so I was teaching from 8am - 7:30pm -- thus squelching all of my movie-watching possibilities during the day (I normally teach from 3 - 7:30).  There are more than a few movies I had planned to watch that I just didn't get the opportunity to, but I'll list those in a later post.  I'm hoping to get my year-end review/2nd Anniversary post up sometime tomorrow or Tuesday, so for now enjoy these hastily written last reviews for the films of 2009.

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.


  1. Another wonderful capsule round-up Kevin, and one (aside from Jarmusch's film)) I can agree with you lock, stock and barrel. I like some other films by Jarmusch, but this one was a train wreck.
    A SERIOUS MAN, which was recipient to your most extended and masterful work here is the Coens in a most pensive, philosophical mode, and the humor most assuredly has a dark edge. I too loved Burwell's score and the use of the Jefferson Airplane number.
    I like FANTASTIC MR. FOX a lot too, and Roald Dahl is my favorite children's author, so we couldn't miss here. The voice work is superb and that montage you rightly broach is perhaps the best sequence in the film. It's the #2 animated film behind UP this year for me.
    And yes indeed, there really isn't so much more to say about THE HURT LOCKER, but what there is you've said it. It appears that the film is in a real battle with AVATAR for the Best Picture Oscar, but Ms. Bigelow's film has already won all the critics's love.

    Fabulous work here.

  2. There's no rush to get that best of 2009 list out -- I'm still likely two weeks out on mine (10 movies left to watch...+1, now that you have made FOX sound like one I'll likely enjoy).

    I am going to restart THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (fell asleep last night while trying it out), but I liked what I saw and heard -- I still call it ambient rock, too. I definitely. I actually got a Melville vibe from it, with one shot lifted entirely from LE SAMURAI (I'll post a cap of it later).

    On the HURT LOCKER -- that's some good stuff, no? It has actually made me gain some new appreciation for POINT BREAK (ah, auteur theory), though I'll still always laugh at Keanu and Swayze and friends. I'm with you on Cameron v. Bigelow. Looks like she is reteaming with Mark Boal for her next film (an actioner that takes place in South America), so that's a good sign.

    You can read my SERIOUS MAN comments on my blog. I already know I'm going to be in the minority on it, but it just didn't float my boat to the extent it did for others. I'll not argue with others who DID find it as great as you do, though, as I can see where you are grabbing that from.

  3. I really wasn't into what Jarmusch was doing with Limits, and I generally love his films. It just seemed like everything Jarmusch was after here was so academic, covering ground (like the Melville homage) that he'd already covered so much more interestingly elsewhere, in Ghost Dog for one. As for the Rivette comparison, I just don't see it; I think any similarities are pretty superficial. The music by Boris, Earth and Sunn O))) was great, though, as were scattered scenes here and there, like the ones with Tilda Swinton and the nude femme fatale.

    I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, good to see some more appreciation for that one. It's just so much fun.

  4. Yeah, I really loved THE HURT LOCKER too. As much as I dig Kathryn Bigelow's films, she's often been hampered by flawed scripts (for example, STRANGE DAYS was a great film until it completely lost its mind with a ludicrous ending) but really hit it outta the park with this new film.

    That being said, I do love NEAR DARK, which, before HURT LOCKER came out, I think was her best film to date. And, of course, POINT BREAK is good, pulpy fun.

  5. Sam:

    Thanks for the kind words. Looks like we're in agreement across the board here. Well...sort of. What can I say I love the Jarmusch. It just flowed for me. Thanks for linking this at your site. It's good to see you back and blogging again!

  6. Troy:

    I just posted a comment over at your blog. Obviously I liked the Coen movie more than you, but I understand where you're coming from. The Jarmusch isn't for everyone, either, but I loved it. It's just one of those movies. Obviously I'm not going to be getting my year-end list up as early as I want, but I officially thrown in the towel and will watch the films I've missed at a later time. I ended the year on a nice, lighthearted note with The Invention of Lying. Harmless fun with Gervais doing his usual shtick.

  7. Ed:

    I only made the Rivette comment in terms of the style of the film: long takes, scenes that seem meandering, etc. I haven't seen much by Rivette, but I've read about his work enough to recognize at the very least what Jarmusch was doing here on the surface seemed to be Rivette-esque. The similarities are superficial, as you state, because that's as deep as I can go with it not being that well versed in the man. I think it's obvious that what Jarmusch is doing here is paying homage to the New Wave, and what can I say...I fell for it, hehe. It's just one of those movies that I love, and I hate that I can't articulate why very well...but it just makes me feel the way a really good album makes me feel.

    I'm glad you liked Fox, too. It's definitely one of Anderson's most ambitious pieces. Which is weird because I never thought of Anderson delving into the world of animation, but thinking back on his films, and after watching Fox, it just seemed so obvious that he would end up working in the medium.

    Anywho...thanks for the comment.

  8. J.D.

    Thanks for the comment. I should have mentioned that not only was Bigelow Cameron's apprentice, she was married to him! Hehe. I hope she wins for best director. Also I agree with you about Near Dark. I love that movie. I remember seeing that in high school after I watched Aliens because I would watch anything with Bill Paxton in it.

    I guess I need to re-watch Strange Days, but I remember it being pretty solid all the way throughout. One of Ralph Fiennes; best performances, too.

    Thanks for the comment.

  9. Two of my top five favorites of the year- A Serious Man and Fantastic Mr. Fox- showed up on here. Your take on the Coens' film is perhaps the best capsule I've read anywhere on A Serious Man (my pick for the year's best film). What I really enjoyed about Anderson's film, meanwhile, were all the classic film references: to Welles, to Pakula, to Nicholas Ray, and even a clever nod to Truffaut when the Day for Night Cole Porter theme begins playing during the waterfall scene. Loved that to pieces.

    I'm still warming up to The Hurt Locker. It's, as you say, a knockout action picture, but I have a problem with Bigelow and Boal's refusal to be more open about their thoughts on the war. By comparison I actually much prefer Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, which really helps you understand the Communist side of submarine service and the issues it's forced to deal with in the wake of nuclear panic.

  10. I just finished up THE LIMITS OF CONTROL last night and am firming up my thoughts on it.

    While I liked the look and the music and a couple of the individual scenes, Ed is right on when he says Jarmusch has done this before and done it better.

    Like the ambient music in the film alluded to (as did the line that Tilda Swinton's character says), I sort of accepted it as taking part in a dream. Doesn't make it an outstanding film, but it's one I'm definitely glad I watched.

  11. Adam:

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you mentioned all the rich allusions in Anderson's film. I loved that about it, too. I have to say I'm shocked to see someone liked K-19. I'll admit, though, I don't remember much about it except for Ford's fluctuating accent. I remember trying to give it a shot because it was Bigelow, but I just couldn't care about the movie as I thought the poor acting subtracted from the action, which I remember being pretty good for a submarine movie. I guess my main issue with it is that the submarine sub-genre (no pun intended) is so limited to begin with. A director can essentially do two things with a submarine movie: evoke a feeling of claustrophobia and have actors yell orders at each other. It's my main issue with films like Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October (and to some extent Das Boot). Maybe I'll have to re-visit it, though, if you say it's good.

    Thanks for the comment, Adam. Always great to see you around here.

  12. Troy:

    I like the dream analogy. It's why I likened it to an ambient rock album. It just, for lack of a better word, grooved with me.

    For the record I like Ghost Dog more than Limits...but I find his newest film as equally fascinating as that one, and better than his recent efforts Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Embraces.

    I look forward to your thoughts.

  13. Yeah, GHOST DOG is an awesome film. I need to watch that again, as I actually haven't seen it since watching LE SAMOURAI for the first time.

    I'll post on LIMITS soon enough, but first I have to go find some responses for all these Michael Mann fanatics who commented on my PE review ;P

  14. I would also like to echo Troy's comments that GHOST DOG is a fantastic film with a killer soundtrack. The Japanese import even has more of the funky instrumental tracks.

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