Feb 08 2010

DVDs for 2/9/10 Serious Men, Troubled Waters, Nollywood Dreams

The Bad Girls of Film Noir are hanging out in a separate entry (visit them over here) but there are plenty of other releases this week, not the least of which is the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man (Universal), a serious (and seriously funny) meditation on little themes like the meaning of life and why are we here and how can we know God’s purpose, and is as funny, heartbreaking, questioning, trying, exasperating and sincerely inquisitive a portrait of the human condition as you’ll find on screen. You could call it their take on the story of Job, relocated to the Jewish community of 1967 Minneapolis and reincarnated in the person of university physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who at least is better off than the Biblical Job, with his suburban home and teaching position. The yearning for meaning and explanation (in a world where, in his own words, “we can’t ever really know… what’s going on”) is real but the ordeal is human, a mix of spiritual questing, existential crisis and cosmic joke. And have no fear: the credits assure us that “No Jews were harmed in the making of this picture.” I reviewed the film in 2009 (read the feature review here) and it since placed on scores of Top Ten lists and critics awards and received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes a stand

The DVD and Blu-ray releases feature a modest collection of supplements. The Coens don’t do commentary but they do sit down for an interview that is woven through a half hour’s worth of making-of featurettes. In “Becoming Serious,” which also includes interviews with cast and crew members and behind-the-scenes footage from the set, they talk about the origins of the story (including the Jewish fable that opens the film, which it turns out they made up themselves), and then take a back seat to the set designers and costumers and location scouts describing the art of “Creating 1967.” “Hebrew And Yiddish For Goys,” a whirlwind tour through the cultural vocabulary, rounds out the extras. The Blu-ray includes the usual generic BD-Live functions.

Bronson (Magnet) – “I am Charlie Bronson and I am Britain’s most violent prisoner.” Tom Hardy plays the notorious real-life Bronson in this stylized biographical drama of the scrappy kid who proved to have no talent for thieving but found a real place for himself as a prison bad-ass and parlayed his notoriety into celebrity. Born Michael Peterson, he rechristened himself Charles Bronson and transformed himself into a self-made outlaw. Director Nicolas Winding Refn stages it as a kind of cinematic vaudeville and Hardy, a bald knot of muscle with a fastidiously groomed mustache, plays him with a gusto that verges on sheer insanity: violence as a form of performance art. With such stylized theatrics, it can’t help but recall A Clockwork Orange, but without an real resonance. This isn’t a social satire or even a contemplation of celebrity in all its absurd dimensions and Refn isn’t interested in digging under the tough hide of the madman anti-hero. It’s content to be a kind of freak-show character study of a man who embraces anarchy, not for its own sake but for the fame and adrenaline that it brings him. Features interviews with director Nicolas Winding Refn and actors Tom Hardy and Matt King, featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage and monologues by the real Charlie Bronson (lo-fi audio only, accompanied by stills from the film and the production).

In Troubled Water (Film Movement), soft-spoken convict Jan (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) starts a new life for himself as a church organist who brings services to life with his music and even stirs the interest of the female pastor, a single mother with a sweet young boy. The problem is his past: he was convicted of murdering a child (the same age as the pastor’s son), and even though he swears it was an accident (a mishap during a prank/petty theft gone wrong), it’s all dredged up when he’s recognized by a member of the congregation. Just when the film seems to be a portrait in redemption threatened by this revelation, the film shifts focus to Agnes, the mother of the dead child (Trine Dyrholm). She’s a dedicated schoolteacher and a caring wife and mother of two girls, but seeing Jan again sends her spiraling back into the emotional storm of loss and grief and we are reminded that the damage of Jan’s actions still reverberate through the survivors. There’s a lot of talk of God (Jan plays the organ with a passion but can’t reconcile a benevolent God with his world) and forgiveness and confession but the film is ultimately about responsibility and accountability, and not just for Jan. Agnes, flailing for some kind of justice and closure, descends into obsession and embarks on a path that threatens to end up a repeat of Jan’s sins. It’s a compelling drama with an unsettling story and sympathetic characters with troubled and troubling lives. In Norwegian with English subtitles. The film won awards from film festivals around the world and the disc includes the short film “The Kolaborator,” a American drama about a soldier facing off against a former friend in the Bosnian conflict.

Welcome To Nollywood (IndiePix) – As of 1990, there was no Nigerian film industry. As of 2009, Nigeria is the third largest producer of movies in the world, producing over 2,400 films a year (all shot on video on shoe-string budgets and released straight to video) and generating $286 million a year for the Nigerian economy. Covering everything from action films, social dramas, love stories and crime films, what they have in common is an African identity and cultural grounding that make them more popular than Hollywood films for Nigerian audiences. Director Jamie Meltzer profiles this hidden industry with a lively documentary that focuses on two of the most successful directors. Chico “Mr. Prolific” Ejiro has made 100 movies (by one estimate) since his debut in the mid-1990s, cranking them out by shooting fast (as little as five days of principle photography) on the streets and on the run. While he may be a joke among some in the industry, action movie auteur Izu Ojukwu cites Ejiro as a model for success but has greater ambitions for himself: he embarks on the most expensive and ambitious film in Nigerian film history in the course of this profile, a project so big that it almost ruins him. Meltzer keeps the tone light and lets a sense of humor creep in (the generators keep shutting down through Ojukwu’s auditions and shooting), and though it runs under an hour and ends with almost arbitrary abruptness, it’s a dynamic window into an otherwise unknown industry. One of the most entertaining cinema documentaries you’ll have the pleasure of discovering. The commentary by director Jamie Meltzer adds a lot of background on the industry that he wasn’t able to get into the documentary.

Also new this week: Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (E1), Couples Retreat (Universal), The Time Traveler’s Wife (New Line), Endgame (Monterey), Serious Moonlight (Magnolia) and the 2009 remake of The Stepfather (Sony).

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

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