A Serious Man
dir Joel & Ethan Coen; with Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind 09/US *****
The Coen Brothers are back with yet another shift of gear. And this is just about as unexpected as you can get from them - a star-free drama about a Jewish guy in 1967 Minnesota trying to figure out why his life seems so out of control. The film is absolutely wonderful, packed with dry wit and laugh-out-loud absurdity, plus excellent performances from the ensemble case, led by the marvellous Stuhlbarg. And as it progresses, it actually grapples with some extremely profound issues without ever getting heavy about it - right up to the big questions about the meaning of life. Their conclusions may seem a bit snarky, but the film really gets our heads spinning, even as it tells a terrific story.
dir Ang Lee; with Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton 09/US ***
While this feels like an oddly light film from Ang Lee, there's actually quite a bit of serious subtext throughout this light comedy tracing the local side of the story behind the Woodstock festival. The oddest thing about the film is the way it centres around a young guy (Martin) who's not hugely interesting but plays the pivotal role in getting the event up and running. Much more fun are characters who are way over the top (Staunton and Eugene Levy), comically zoned out (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) or just plain hilarious (Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber). The 1960s vibe is extremely effective, which is probably why the film feels so loose and groovy, but a bit more edge might have made it important as well.
dir Chris Atkins; with Max Clifford, Wesley Aubrey 09/UK ***
While this doc is packed with terrific material, it takes a far too scattershot approach, linking the material together with a magician/showman motif that never works and actually feels condescending. The focus is society's obsession with celebrity - both reading about them and becoming one - and Atkins makes some startlingly important observations along the way. The film is full of extremely clever and telling pranks, such as planting false stories that are picked up across the newspapers with no fact-checking. But the film feels fragmented and directionless - and many of the small stories could use their own documentary (such as a look at getting onto reality TV and the harsh analysis of Live 8). In the end, we have learned a lot, but feel unsure what to make of it all. Perhaps this would work better as a multi-part TV series with each chapter fleshed out more meaningfully.