In a bit of a movie splurge, caught up with three movies last week: Shutter Island, A Serious Man, and, Adaptation. All of them are unusual, each in different ways. Shutter Island is the most mainstream, in that it has plenty of money to throw around, stars Leonardo Di Caprio, and is directed by Martin Scorsese. It's a fairly bleak psychological thriller with echoes of Hitchcock, and overall, I thought was worth watching. The cast is uniformly good, but the thing that stood out for me was the cinematography. Since dreams and memories are a significant part of the story, there's a dream quality to much of what goes on, even when it's meant to be the 'real' part of the story. (The thing hinges on a trick, somewhat like The Sixth Sense, or Hitchcock's own Vertigo.)
A Serious Man was a puzzle. I'm sure it's the sort of movie that leaves plenty of open ends so you can ask questions, but equally, in answering almost nothing, I found it just unsatisfying. It's as if the Coen brothers wanted to make a black comedy where they didn't have to explain anything; they could just go with whatever came up. Again there are dreams that at first appear to be reality.
This isn't to say that it's a poor movie in any sense; the cast are wonderful, with even those characters who are seen only for a minute being fully inhabited by the actors; the cinematography is again rich and full of detail, and it has lots of subtle (often 'Jewish subtle') humour in it. There's even a Jewish folk story sequence at the beginning which is wonderfully done, but appears to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie. An article in Wikipedia has this to say about this sequence:
The Yiddish story that introduces the film was created by the Coen Brothers, as they did not find any folk tales they thought were suitable. They note the story has no developmental relationship to what follows other than to set the tone. One possible interpretation of the faux folk tale at the beginning of the movie is that the couple seen in the folk tale are Larry's [the main character] ancestors and may through their action toward the Visitor have introduced a curse or a strain of sin into the family tree, as Yiddish folk belief would have construed the story. A portrait of Reb Groshkover [the 'visitor'] is glimpsed on the wall outside the Rabbi Marshak's office later in the film.
I suspect that several viewings of the movie would reveal a good deal that isn't picked up in one viewing.
Adaptation is a movie that plays constantly with the idea of movie-making, of adapting books to movies, of screenwriting, and of teasing the audience. In the opening credits we see that the screenplay is written by Charlie Kaufman - who exists, and is played in the movie by Nicholas Cage - and Donald Kaufman - who doesn't exist, and is also played in the movie by Cage. (Charlie Kaufman is the somewhat fat and morose twin - who'd probably benefit from a course of curvatrim - while Donald is the upbeat guy for whom life falls into place, even when he doesn't expect it.)
Three other real people appear in the film, but are played by Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. What these three 'characters' do in the movie isn't what the original 'real' people did, or are likely to do. And then there are several real people who play themselves - if that's what you do when you're just being you.
Kaufman the character is trying to adapt a book by the Streep character - and it's an actual book that was on the NY Times bestselling list. His earlier movie, Being John Malkovich, is seen being made early in this film, and becomes yet another part of the real/fictional/adaptative aspect of this movie. Adaptation also occurs in other areas: in relation to the orchids that are the subject of the book being adapted, in relation to changes in the characters' behaviour, in connection with Charles Darwin's theories about evolution, in relation to the way the movie itself adapts to its audience, since Robert McKee, the scriptwriting guru (he's the person played by Brian Cox) tells Kaufman that there has to be a satisfying third act - so Kaufman, after much internal debate, provides one, which of course, he's part of. Trying to describe this movie is a task.
Of the three movies I think I enjoyed Adaptation the most - its twists and turns at least contributed to a satisfying whole. Serious Man remains something of an enigma, although I enjoyed it while I was watching it. Shutter Island is overlong; some cutting would have improved the suspense and edge.