Sunday, December 06, 2009

Film Review : A Serious Man (dir Ethan and Joel Coen)

Is there something profound out there, or is it just fate? One has to ask oneself if the latest offering from the Coen Brothers is simply telling a story, or getting at something deeper. It is certainly an exploration of Jewishness in modern (1967) America in the sort of Midwestern community in which Joel and Ethan Coen were brought up. In interviews, they spoken about their upbringing, but have refused to speculate on the questions the film might raise. But the movie itself – is it full of clues, or does it simply tease?

Before the opening credits roll, we are in a Polish Shtetl. A man is helped at the roadside by an elderly rabbi, so invites him home. But his wife claims she had heard that the rabbi had died three years ago and the stranger was in fact a dybbuk. Is she correct? We never find out for sure, and neither is this strange tale integrated into the film as a whole. But a doubt remains that, generations on, the descendents of the man are in some way paying for the sins of their fathers.

Larry Gopnik (a magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor whose life is starting to fall apart. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for the odious Sy Ablemann (Fred Melamud), his son is into pot, his daughter is into hair, his brother lazing round the house draining his cyst. He is being harassed by his redneck neighbour, bribed by a college student, chased by the record company, and all for no reason – Larry is honest, trusting, decent. It’s as if God is testing him, like he did the honest Job.

Larry turns for support and answers to three rabbis. But the first offers him platitudes, the second a meandering, pointless (and very funny) story about a Jewish dentist who has a goy patient with “Help Me” written in Hebrew characters on the inside of his teeth. The third refuses to see him.

Perhaps the clue lies in Larry’s job – he is teaching about Schrödinger’s Cat, which could exist / not exist in a box simultaneously. A Schrödinger event appears to occur when Larry and another character are both in car crashes at the same time. Larry survives, the other character is killed. Larry’s brother subverts chance by using his numeric skills for card-counting, but fate rounds on him and he is arrested. Towards the end of the film, Larry for the first time when faced with a choice takes the immoral option. As he does, the telephone rings with bad news. Coincidence? Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind which is enveloping the Midwestern community, the storm from which God spoke to Job?

This is a slow-moving, thoughtful film whose humour is whimsical rather than funny, exquisitely constructed and beautifully shot by long-time Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins. It won’t appeal to the multiplex audiences, but will intrigue those who relish intelligent filmmaking that is not afraid to leave all its loose threads hanging.

Film Review : The Men Who Stare at Goats (dir Grant Heslov)

On paper, this looked a winner. Jon Ronson’s book, “The Men who Stare at Goats”, had proved a subversive bestseller. The cast was pure Hollywood A-list – George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. The trailers were very funny. And yet…

When Henry Kissenger won the Nobel Peace prize, Tom Lehrer declared satire redundant. At outset in this film, we are told that some of the events that follow are true. But the story of the First Earth Battalion which is set up to explore opportunities for the use of the paranormal in warfare is so bizarre that it goes well beyond satire, and so the viewer has to decide what is and isn’t true as the film flits between contemporary Iraqi buddy-movie and the story of the setting up of battalion in the 1970s.

The Iraqi framing-device is slight. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has been deserted by his wife for the editor of his small-town American newspaper. He decides to prove his macho credentials by heading for Kuwait at the time of the first Iraq war, where he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) who is set on heading into Iraq on a secret mission. Desparate to become embedded with the troops to see some action, Wilton joins with him and while they cross Iraq, he learns about Cassidy’s background and the history of the First Earth Battalion, set up by seventies hippy-soldier Bill Django (Jeff Bridges playing his stoner Big Lebowski type).

At this point, the movie dips into the area covered by Ronson’s book, and does contain some very funny moments. The de-bleated goats and the use of the theme music to Barney and Friends to break down prisoners are based on fact. But then all the strands get brought together in a fictional denouement which ties up all loose ends in a manner which may have seemed satisfying to the producers, but came over to me as infantile and embarrassing. Apparently there has already been a documentary made based on this story, and that would seem to be the appropriate way to bring this story to the screen and not this hotch-potch.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Theatre Review : Mother Courage and her Children by Bertold Brecht - Olivier (dir Deborah Warner 30/11/09)

Glasgow in the 1980’s was known as the Brecht Capital of Europe. At any time, odds were there would be at least one Brecht play in production. Leading the way was the Citizens Theatre under the directorship of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald. A Brecht play was guaranteed most seasons, and that is where I first saw Mother Courage and her Children. Sadly, the sands of time have erased my recollection of that production, and Brecht seemed to fall from fashion as Thatcherism made his questioning of power and economic relationships seem old-fashioned.

But in recent years he has come back with a bang in a series of productions (Life of Galileo at the National, Good Woman of Szechuan at the Young Vic) which have revealed not only his intellectual power, but also his humour and daring as a dramatist. Now Mother Courage has dragged her cart across the Olivier Stage in yet another revelatory production.

The Olivier is denuded, all scenery removed, stage hands visible where the wings should be. Gore Vidal intones Brecht’s stage directions, setting the scene amongst the bored troops of Sweden during the Thirty Years War. To a crescendo of music Mother Courage enters on the cart drawn by her sons. Fiona Shaw as Courage takes up a microphone and starts singing, looking for the world like Edward Tudor-Pole on Top of the Pops. Shaw may not be the world’s best singer or dancer, but she radiates charisma and hers is an upbeat indomitable Courage.

This is a long piece, structured around 12 scenes from each of a 12 year period in the midst of the 30 Years War, during which Courage and her family follow first one army then another making a living from trading the contents of their wagon. The futility of war is revealed in the banality of the economic relations which prevail. A deal with a recruiting officer takes her son Eiliff (Clifford Samuel) into the army. Her other son Swiss Cheese (Harry Melling) becomes army paymaster, but is captured. Courage bargains too hard for his life and he is killed. Mute daughter Kattrin (the excellent Sophie Stone) is disfigured in an attack by a soldier, and thus loses her value as a potential wife. The Cook (Martin Marquez) wants Courage to escape with him to an Inn in Utrecht that he has inherited, but refuses to take Kattrin with him as well as she will frighten the customers. Courage decides to stay. Kattrin is finally killed alerting a town to the advancing troops, in the single act of altruism that we see. Mother Courage is left to drag her wagon by herself.

This is a play that was born in a time of war, and there are more parallels with recent events, but there is never the sense that these are being forced on the audience. One is left to make the connection with profiteers such Krupp, IG Farben and Haliburton oneself. Ideologies are cheap - a change of shirt, and the pastor becomes a priest - and life becomes devoid of value. It is a short step to the Blasted of Sarah Kane.

But this is not a bleak play. Brecht is always an amusing writer, and Fiona Shaw extracts every ounce of humour in a sparkling performance, ably supported by all around her. The music, by Irish rocker Duke Special, didn’t always work, but to my surprise I found myself humming the main theme on the way home. The sparse staging with projected directions and Gore Vidal’s intonations not only remained true to Brecht’s Verfremsdungeffekt, but gave a potentially baggy piece a great sense of unity.

This was an adventurous, clever production of one of the great plays of the 20th Century.