It’s been film season here the last few days, and Nicole and I last night had our third cinema trip in as many days. It’s nice to have not just a big multiplex on the edge of town but also the excellent Eden Court, which we’ve been visiting a lot since being made “friends” as a result of a wedding present.
Putting on my best Mark Kermode voice, here are my thoughts on the three film we saw.
A Serious Man
The first was the somewhat bizarre “A Serious Man” from American directors the Coen brothers. Apparently a metaphor for the book of Job, it’s a film about an American Jewish man in the 1960s who struggles to make sense of his life as he faces personal and professional problems that seem beyond his control. It features some great characterisation in the form of his family, friends, colleagues and wider community, some dark humour, and fascinating snippets of life in the late 1960s and of Jewish heritage and religion. Indeed, the film kicks off with a prologue (the purpose of which in relation to the rest of the film I can’t yet fathom) set in eastern Europe and filmed entirely in the compelling and engaging sounds of Yiddish.
The story was strange. It bumbles along with no entire sense of direction, and the ending is – for me – quite ridiculous. But I am not sure it matters – the film is simply brilliantly directed, with wonderful camera work, engaging portrayals of the various characters, and some wonderful and unexpected humour. It was far better as a piece of filmcraft than a story well-told, and I imagine film studies students would pour over it. I’ve not seen any other Coen brothers films in entirety, and would definitely be keen on seeing others.
It’s A Wonderful Life
The second film was Frank Zappa Capra‘s “It’s A Wonderful Life“. A quite magnificent film which I’ve now seen three or four times, it’s ostensibly the story of a hard-working and selfless family man who, when things get tough, is shown by his guardian angel a world in which he was never born.
Although hugely popular these days, it’s not universally-loved, and was in fact a commercial disappointment on its release. Indeed, the portrayal of the main character’s downfall at the hands of a greedy banker was seen as potentially Communist at the time. And one modern-day review quoted on Wikipedia argues:
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.
Viewed through one lens, that’s all technically true; but it misses out the fact that it’s a delightful story, with a brilliantly-written script packed with loveable characters and great humour; a film that can be seen as a romance, a gentle comedy, a portrayal of pre-war small-town America, an ever-relevant treatise on the excesses of capitalism, probably the best Christmas film ever made, and most importantly to me an embodiment of the Gospel message of the power of prayer and virtue of charity.
Far from being trapped, the main character is liberated at the end of the film by understanding the life-affirming impact his sacrifices have made on others. That’s a message today’s world needs.
Thirdly, last night’s film was the much-hyped Avatar, from James “Titanic… oh and Terminator” Cameron. Set in the future when humans are attempting to exploit mineral resources on a distant moon, Pandora, Avatar explores a former soldier’s experiences of Pandora and its inhabitants. On one level, Avatar is a cheesy story with all the cliches and plot holes you’d expect from a Hollywood action-adventure-romance. But it’s so much more than that, because the film is technologically cutting-edge, with entirely new types of camera apparently used, and the most amazing computer-generated images behind the beautiful setting of Pandora.
A film of great imagination, the native people, animals, plants and scenery of Pandora are rendered beautifully, and the film has as a core backdrop the intrinsic natural link that bonds Pandora and its lifeforms together, with echoes of both the environmental message and commentary on imperialist wars. The moralising is cumbersome and unsubtle, the characters cliched, but for a film that has jaw-dropping special effects, a passable plot is excusable. Especially when watched in 3D.