March 2010

 

A Serious Man  •  Moon  •  The Informant  •  Black Dynamite

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


A Serious Man

The latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen got a Best Picture nomination, a fortunate side effect of the new 10-nominee system. Sadly, none of the acting categories were similarly expanded, so the star of A Serious Man, Michael Stuhlbarg, got left out, despite giving one of the year’s best, toughest performances.

Set in the Coens’ own childhood milieu of late-’60s Midwestern suburbia, A Serious Man i­s a skewed takeoff on the Book of Job, as college professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) finds his seemingly ideal life crumbling around him. His wife asks for a divorce and kicks him out of the house, his kids are sinking ever deeper into teenage rebellion, his brother might be a criminal — even his career is in jeopardy, thanks to a student’s bribery/blackmail attempt. Larry cannot understand the reasons for his suffering, and the answers offered by the local rabbis range from silly to inscrutable.

­The Coens have no answers for Larry, either, preferring to let the movie end abruptly on the eve of what looks like another crisis. Unlike the biblical story it references, A Serious Man does not justify any of Larry’s misfortunes or put words in the mouth of an all-powerful deity. It simply lets the misery unfold, with desert-dry humor and the sense that Larry himself is the only one who can ultimately make sense of his life. Assuming there’s any sense to be made.

Extras: A fairly personal making-of doc; a feature on the locations and set designs; a guide to the Hebrew and Yiddish terms used in the film. (R) Rating: 3.5 —LL


Moon

Made for a paltry $5 million, Duncan Jones’ Moon is 97 minutes of some of the most imaginative, clever and even, gasp, touching science fiction in recent memory. The seemingly simple story by Jones and Nathan Parker involves a lonely caretaker at a lunar mining outpost. To keep the Earth supplied with a rare form of clean energy, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has been working a three-year tour of duty. His time is almost over, and he’s eager to return home to his wife (Dominique McElligott).

And no wonder, the only company he has is a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). When he has to leave the base to make a repair, he discovers that his corporate overlords (Benedict Wong, Matt Berry) haven’t been honest with him about his assignment.

One of many pleasures from Moon is that the audience discovers plot twists around the same time that Sam does. The jolts become strangely credible on repeat viewings, and Rockwell delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that was inexcusably forgotten in this year’s list of nominees. For nearly all of the film, Rockwell is the only performer on screen (Sam interacts with the others on monitors). It takes a special actor to be able to carry a movie when he’s the only face visible, and Rockwell demonstrates an astonishing range. He’s also unusually sympathetic, so it’s easy to root for him when he tries to turn the tables on his bosses. As good as Morgan Freeman was in Invictus, I’d give the nod to Rockwell.

Despite the modest resources, Moon is so visually astonishing that it almost looks like it was shot on location on Earth’s oldest satellite. And, as the making of featurettes indicates, some of the effects are so subtle and effective that they don’t look as if any digital trickery were used.

While the film is Jones’s feature debut, he was probably born to make it. He’s the son of everyone’s favorite “Space Oddity” David Bowie.

Extras: Two commentaries: an amusingly sarcastic one by Jones and the visual effects crew (the discuss stuffing Spacey into the robot’s body) and a more serious one with Jones and producer Stuart Fenegan. There’s a short titled “Whistle” that Jones directed (it’s a so-so thriller that lacks Moon’s terrific special effects). There are two audience Q&As: The first features Jones and his collaborators during an enthusiastic reception at Sundance. The second is in front of a tougher but appreciative crowd: the scientists at the space center in Houston. (R) Rating: 4.5 —DL


The Informant!

Steve Soderbergh has taken a dramatic true story of corporate malfeasance — the price-fixing scandal that hammered agribusiness giant ADM — and turned it into a very strange, very dark farce. Think The Insider by way of Laugh-In.

It doesn’t immediately sound like a good idea, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have made a brilliant move. ADM whistle-blower Mark Whitacre (an Oscar-worthy Matt Damon) is such a comically bizarre character, there’s no way to play his story straight.

Based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book, The Informant! stays pretty much inside Mark’s head, a place filled with schemes and delusions. When he goes to the FBI with allegations against his bosses, the agents in charge (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) are thrilled to have such a seemingly trustworthy source. Mark has the espionage skills of an idiot savant — his stunts should never work, but they frequently do, to the amazement of his handlers. Mark has shady plans of his own, however, and his pursuit of them nearly derails the investigation.

Despite his own bad behavior, Mark never stops seeing himself as a hero. What’s a little lying and embezzlement when you’re handing the FBI one of its biggest cases? Damon brings every possible nuance to the role, making Mark almost too weird to be true, without slipping into caricature.

Although the events of The Informant! occurred in the ‘90s, Soderbergh puts a decidedly ’60s spin on the film. The Marvin Hamlisch score and groovy cameos (Dick Smothers) feel like they‘re from another movie, and they draw attention to themselves more than they enhance the story. This is one story that doesn’t need the help.

Extras: Deleted scenes; the Blu-Ray also has a commentary by Soderbergh and Burns. (R) Rating: 3.5 —LL


Black Dynamite

If the Man has got you down and your VHS copies of Shaft, Superfly, Dolemite and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka are all worn out, Black Dynamite is here to save the day. Scott Sanders’ satire of ‘70s Blaxploitation movies is made with equal parts affection and mockery. Although the film is of recent vintage, the photography, the hair, the horrifically unsightly polyester clothes, the cars and even the hilariously over-the-top original score by editor Adrian Younge seem as if they’re from a lost Me Decade movie.

Michael Jai White (Spawn), as the title character, nails the sullen, macho attitude of Blaxploitation heroes. When he’s not beating up bad guys (with blows that miss by yards), his face is in a perpetual scowl, even when he’s allegedly smiling. Nonetheless, he can deliver amusingly pompous monologues without ever smirking or winking at the audience. White also has a digital sense of timing so that all of the silly things that come out of his mouth are delivered to maximum mirth.

The appropriately minimal plot features Black Dynamite going after the Italian gangsters who killed his brother, Chinese kung fu scientists, his former employers in the CIA, the drug pushers in his neighborhood, poisonous malt liquor and even the most powerful Man in the land. Along the way, viewers are treated to the same clumsy dialogue, outlandish conspiracy plots, inept acting and technical glitches (boom mikes in picture, out of focus photography) that plagued former KC Chief Fred Williamson’s movies during the era.

But just as the Shaft movies are still pretty damn good, Sanders leavens his derision with an impressive eye for period and genre detail. Even if you haven’t seen any Blaxploitation movies, Black Dynamite is guaranteed to give you a naughty but earned laugh. It should be noted that the film makes Kansas part of a nefarious plot. The impossibly complicated scheme includes the 785 area code, which wasn’t used in the ‘70s, but it’s so funny I can forgive them.

Extras: A commentary track with Sanders, White and actor Byron Minns, all three of whom wrote the script. Outtakes and alternate scenes, a making of featurette and a lively Q&A session with former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. (R) Rating: 4 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.