Monday, February 22, 2010

New stuff coming!

Hello everyone. This is just a little note to fill you in on some things. You may have noticed that recently updates have been few and far between in the Front Row Center world. There are a few reasons for this. Joe is in his last semester of grad school, Watson is in grad school, and me, well I've just been deciding how I want to do my reviews from now on.

See, we've decided to completely rebuild Front Row Center from the ground up. (We'll do it better than Domino's new pizza, I promise!) We are in the process of getting ourselves an honest to goodness real website with a catchy new group name. We also will no longer be reviewing on our podcasts. Instead, we will be discussing topics in cinema, we will be critiquing, and do all that stuff we learned to do in film school, but somehow neglected to do.

I will be posting a few new reviews here coming up, at least until our new site is up and running. We hope that this new incarnation of our little experiment will be more accessable, less rambling, and, yes, more enjoyable. So stay tuned folks, 'cause the times, they are a changin'.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blu-Ray Review: A Serious Man

Well, well, well...  The Oscars are a month away and, slowly but surely, more of this year's Best Picture nominees are starting to appear on DVD.  This week sees the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man.  You'd think after the success of No Country for Old Men that the Coens would be able to get any film they wanted into wide release.  Not so, apparently, as A Serious Man never made it to most theaters in its initial run.  Now that it's in the running for Best Picture, it'll likely show up on more multiplex screens, but why do that when you could just pick up the DVD or Blu-ray?

Speaking of which, how is it?  Well, I'm here to tell you just that.

By the Coens' standards, A Serious Man is a relatively simple film.  It tells the story of a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose normal, simple life slowly starts falling apart.  It starts when his wife informs him that she plans to divorce him and marry a family friend (Fred Melamed), and his troubles escalate as his brother (Richard Kind) becomes more of a nuisance, his children become more of a nuisance, and one of his students attempts to bribe him for grades.

Joel and Ethan Coen are never at a loss for the smart gag or a fun visual shot, and this film is no exception.  They take their jabs at late 1960s culture, Jewish traditions that they no doubt experienced growing up, and the kind of domestic troubles that they've always tackled in oddball ways.  Like in many of their other films, characters interact as though they're from two completely different movies.  It creates a fascinating dissonance between Larry (and the viewer) and the people around him.  It's almost as though Larry has been dropped into an alternate reality in which his life has always been falling apart.  This is key to the Coens' brand of humor; in some ways it's similar to the awkward relationships between characters on, say, The Office, but never goes for the obvious joke.

There are a number of twists and turns along Larry's search for meaning, but compared to films like The Man Who Wasn't There or Barton Fink, A Serious Man is pretty cut and dry.  You could say that the film is sort of the Coens' version of the Old Testament story of Job, and there are indeed some elements of that, but the heart of the film lies more in simply taking life's hardships in stride rather than letting them weigh you down.  Despite such an inspirational message, however, A Serious Man is a considerably dark film, and the Coens wouldn't have it any other way.

This is a film that isn't particularly enhanced by the hi-def transfer.  The disc features Universal's standard "My Scenes" feature, which allows to you bookmark your favorite scenes, but other than that, there's nothing here that's any different from the standard DVD.  The film's blu-ray transfer does indeed look sharp and vibrant, but this is a film where story takes precedent over visual design (not to slight the Coen Bros.' direction or Roger Deakins' excellent cinematography).  It's not the kind of film with which you'd show of your home theater system, though it's definitely worthy of your blu-ray player, I guess is what I'm saying.

THE MOVIE: 8/10  -  This is vintage Coen Bros., and while it's arguable whether or not it's their best work, it definitely ranks among their most interesting.  The mix of humor and, well, seriousness isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're familiar with the Coens' other films, you should at least get a kick out of this one.

THE BLU-RAY: 7/10  - The film looks and sounds great, though it's not outstanding as far as blu-ray transfers go.  Simply put, it doesn't disappoint.
THE FEATURES: 5/10  -  Coen DVDs are notorious for being scarce on the features, and A Serious Man is no exception.  Three featurettes are all you get here. "Becoming Serious", your standard 15-minute making-of feature.  "Creating 1967" is just as long, detailing the look of the film.  Finally, "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" is exactly what it sounds like: a brief series of definitions of Hebrew vernacular for the uninitiated.  Blu-ray and DVD share the same set of features.

OVERALL:  7/10  -  A Serious Man is among Joel and Ethan Coen's best and the blu-ray transfer is impressive, though the extras are scant.  There's no reason not to pick this up, though if you have your doubts or don't have a great HD system, I'd say save yourself a few bucks and pick up the standard DVD instead.  I guarantee you'll enjoy the film just as much.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I've been waiting two years to see this movie. No, no, no.... It had nothing to do with it being Heath Ledger's last movie. No, I'm a Terry Gilliam fan. He's never made a bad movie, in my opinion. Sure, some are average, but he's at least got a stunning visual style and won't compromise his vision. This is his first movie since the very polarizing Tideland, which came out in 2006. This movie won't be quite as controversial, I don't think. It doesn't require a change of thought patterns for the viewer like that one did.

The movie is about a traveling sideshow attraction, and more specifically the people involved with it. The sideshow is run by a Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who has lived a thousand years. See, he made a deal with the devil for eternal life. Now the devil keeps making additional bets to tease Parnassus, making Parnassus' end of the bargain possibly not need to be paid, but Parnassus keeps losing the bets. What Parnassus owes the devil is his only daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), due at the age of 16, which is just two days away. To foil things even further, another member of the team, Anton (Andrew Garfield), has a crush on Valentina, and the team rescues a man hanging by his neck from a bridge. The man turns out the be an amnesiac, who they end up calling George (Heath Ledger). He joins the team and they set off to improve people's souls. How, you may ask....? Why the fake mirror that the sideshow is about... It takes you into Parnassus' mind, where you can fulfill your deepest desires. However, the devil is often there too, to fool you into choosing selfish desires.

The movie is a bit difficult to understand at times, but then again almost all Gilliam movies are... even 12 Monkeys. The visuals are amazing, and include a sort of tango through floating broken glass, climbing ladders into the clouds, and dancing, singing, pantyhose-wearing coppers! (I'm not kidding on that last one either.) Now, I do have to point out that the movie does take a good thirty minutes or so to get going, and even then it'll leave you wondering what the heck it's trying to get to for a while. Unlike a typical Hollywood film, it's really not a build, ebb, build, ebb type of movie. It doesn't go by the same formula as those movies. In fact, as with most Gilliam movies, at the end of the movie you're left feeling somewhat cheated of something. Of what? It's hard to say. It's just a feeling I always get after every movie of his. Is it of a happy ending? A meaningful resolution? Sanity? (Usually yes on the last one...)

Now, I know most people will not be seeing this because it's Terry Gilliam. Most will be seeing it for Heath Ledger and the cameos by Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp. Well, they are in there, with Johnny Depp's screen time being the shortest, and Colin Farrell's the longest of the cameos. Heath Ledger had actually done most of the stuff he was supposed to. They changed the script so that each time the George/Tony character entered the mirror, he changed appearances... Those were the parts that Ledger had not filmed, or at least not completed. It works remarkably well.

It's not Gilliam's best work, nor his least best. It's better than Brothers' Grimm, but not quite up to the level of Time Bandits or Brazil. If you like his movies, you'll probably like this. If not, I'd stay away. It's not for everyone.

**** out of ***** (4 out of 5)