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A Serious Man [Blu-ray]  [Region Free]
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Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.
While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?
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For me, watching it could be likened to the overall appearance of a blemished sandwich, a mouldy top slice of bread (the start of the film), a delicious filling (the majority middle part) and an odd offcut bottom piece of bread (the ending !) - fortunately this film is eaten top to bottom, so you get rid of the unpleasant taste of the start quite quickly and are left only mildly dissatisfied by the end (courtesy of the unsatisfactory bottom slice of bread). Don't get me wrong, I completely understood the ending and to a degree it fits in with the overall 'enigmatic' nature of the film (especially the beginning), but it is only suggestive rather than definitive - but I suppose that does at least allow the viewers mind to wander and/or ponder....I hope my intentional vagueness tempts you to audition this film !
A bonus is that on Blu-ray the presentation is superb, with a vivid and gloriously sharp picture and a clear, if essentially dialogue-driven, soundtrack.
The overall plot is not that complicated, and is especially easy for me to describe as I won't (in part, can't !) explain the opening in any meaningful way and will not be tempted to outline too much of the rest (unlike others, including the Amazon synopsis) as it is revelationary, so mentioning it would spoil things for first-time viewers. Essentially, the story is set in the late '60s and covers the ever-increasing series of traumatic events which befall a Jewish (it is SO pertinent to state the specifics of his religion) Physics university professor in both his professional and domestic life almost immediately after we 'meet' him.
However, before we get to this main part of the story we have to first endure (and boy do I mean that !) a lengthy, quite bizarre, opening scene which must be very personally important to the Coens as I have yet to fathom what relevance it has to the rest of the film and didn't understand it at all; all I can say is that it (apparently) is set some time in the past, occurs within a house occupied by a married couple, features dialogue in Yiddish (there are forced English subtitles and it's presented in full-frame format) and portrays a scene where a clearly unwanted visitor enters - watch and be confused..... The pertinence of that opening is brought into focus by watching the first extra on the disc, where the Coens 'fess up' that it really does have no real relevance to the film and that it was created by them as an opener in the same way that films long ago started with a cartoon (I'll take their word for it - it must have been before my time because whilst I do remember often lengthy single pre-film adverts when I went to the cinema in the 60s/early 70s I never saw anything like THAT !).
We are then transported to present times (of the film ie 1967) to see, what presumably was up until then, the 'normal' life of said professor rapidly collapse around him courtesy of a series of ever-worsening situations and dilemmas of a very personal nature. It is clear very little that occurs is his fault and he is very much the victim, which explains why he becomes depressed, confused and very desperate; his state of mind is clearly profoundly affected, prompting him to seek assistance in order to try and make sense of his crumbling world...... It can be quite excruciating to witness the bizarre behaviour, logic and attitudes which are presented to him and it becomes easy to understand how he quickly becomes so 'lost'. Very dark, yet extremely humorous, although unique the overall sense from 'A Serious Man' is similar to how the life of the car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (played superbly by William H Macy), disintegrates in the earlier (excellent) Coen brothers film 'Fargo'. However, in this film a LOT of the 'flavour' is unarguably VERY Jewish in the most stark sense possible, not just courtesy of 'that' opening scene but also because much of the assistance sought is provided by the local Rabbi.
And that's it, no embellishment of those dilemmas or the ending - you've got to watch it for yourself as I think there are many sub-surface 'messages'. I will hopefully unearth them over time as I intend to watch this film many times ! The only thing I will add is that the period production qualities are superb and that the lead character is played to huge effect by Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor previously unknown to me, and everyone else contributes with great success.
As hinted at earlier, on Blu-ray everything is presented quite marvellously - a lovely rich, if a slightly washed-out picture and a clear DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (perhaps a bit OTT as most of what we hear is dialogue). True to form, the Coens provide no commentary - perhaps more necessary here than usual, if for no other reason that they might have explained more fully the background and content of the opening ! There are also a few short production featurettes. Deliciously dark and enigmatic, this film is well worth catching and is likely to mean different things to different people (especially if you're Jewish !) but is likely to be enjoyed by all; for me it sits towards the upper-end of the Coen brothers 'barometer of excellence', but could go higher after more viewings....
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