Coens get personal with 'A Serious Man'

Known for their original if not off-center films, the prolific Coen brothers have been at work refining and expanding their craft since 1991. During that time, they've garnered eight Academy Award nominations, and most recently won three Oscars for "No Country for Old Men."

Their films are wide ranging, from comedies to thrillers, some unflinchingly violent while others meld various genres. They're also known for boxing the compass regarding settings: "O Brother Where Art Thou?" was set in the South during the Great Depression; "Fargo" in the Heartland; "No Country for Old Men" in the Southwest; "The Big Lebowski" on the West Coast; and "Burn After Reading" in D.C.

Of all their films, "A Serious Man" may be their most contemplative if not their most personal. It focuses on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg), a physics professor, married, two children and a man about to experience an existential crisis of tsunami proportions. Like dominos falling, he is suddenly faced with a series of unexpected developments: his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces she has fallen in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and wants a divorce; his neighbor, an anti-Semite, is encroaching on his yard; his much anticipated tenure seems in jeopardy; his son, on the cusp of his bar mitzvah, is a pothead; his daughter wants a nose job; and his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is sleeping on the sofa and prone to crying jags when he's not up late at night, lancing a boil on his neck.

Though the cultural context is a Midwestern Jewish community, in 1967, his abiding angst is strikingly universal. His life is out of control. Perpetually perplexed, Larry tries to cope and keep up, but he can't summon the will to strongly react. He is drowning in reasonableness as his life slips into a grim comedy of errors, as if the universe is conspiring against him. And though he never laughs, or even smiles, clearly the Coens believe that humor may be, at least for the audience, the only refuge.

"A Serious Man" is a character study that frustrates and infuriates and happily entertains. Life sorts itself out and that pervasive sense of perplexed despair eventually morphs into something more positive, more manageable. It just requires a bit of tenacity, meaning being tenaciously reasonable.

The Blind Side

The trailer for "The Blind Side" has the appearance of another slick Hollywood happy meal. The film will be a two-hour sports cliché, the audience leaving the theater feeling somewhat satisfied but also a bit empty.

Instead, surprisingly, the movie proves to be a solid drama, with Sandra Bullock as can-do southern belle Leigh Anne Tuohy, giving her best performance in years and redeeming herself after the disastrous "All About Steve."

The true story, based on the book by Michael Lewis, while blatantly sentimental, tells the appealing story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), aka Big Mike, a homeless black teen from the projects (ironically named Hurt Village), who is enrolled in a private Christian school in Memphis, Tenn. Late one wintry night he is spotted by Leigh Anne and her husband, Sean (Tim McGraw), walking late at night on a busy road. It's bitterly cold and Michael admits that he has nowhere to go. They take him home, thus beginning the transformation of Michael from an undereducated, silent mountain of a kid to a star athlete who is eventually drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.

It's a remarkable journey, tempered to be sure by Michael's stoic silence and his reluctance to trust, at least initially, this most improbable family that has taken him into their hearts. But he learns. And in the process begins a completely new life. Is the feel-good ending telegraphed almost from the first frame? Of course. But no matter. "The Blind Side" is a sweet holiday movie.

A Christmas Carol

For those movie wonks who have followed motion-capture technology and the work of Robert Zemeckis, creator of "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," his lastest film, "A Christmas Carol," is a must-see.

Motion-capture filmmaking involves hooking the actors up to a bevy of wires that transmit their facial features and body movements to a computer that then digitally enhances each "animated" character. To be sure, it's groundbreaking, labor intensive and does require actors playing the parts. Though it has been refined with each film, it still remains problematical because if realism is the standard, then anything that detracts from the film's naturalness becomes magnified. An example would be the eyes. They seem unfocused, and somewhat distracted, without animation. And the characters can seem wooden, their movements absent a sense of fluidity.

All of this begs the question: If you are going to hire actors to portray each character, and Disney has given the green light for a remake of this Dickens' timeless classic, then why not create an actor's film and let motion capture be used in other ways?

Actually, the best version of "A Christmas Carol" starred George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Scott is masterful as the crotchety old man who counts every pound and pence. It's only later, after enduring the visits of the Three Christmas Ghosts, that he has a wonderful epiphany wherein he discovers that for those who see with a new perspective, both themselves and the world, there is a do-over. A nice Christmas message to be sure. And it is, surprisingly, a message that eluded Zemeckis as he hurried through the denouement and the moving salvation of Tiny Tim by the now-transformed Ebenezer Scrooge.

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