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Movie Reviews: A Serious Man and An Education at the Modern Film Festival

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This past weekend the Modern in Fort Worth played host to modern cinema with a festival of eight films. I missed the Precious buzz (an early packed house) but I got A Serious Man with An Education.

There are many similarities between these two films. Both are set in the 1960s, A Serious Man in 1967 and An Education in 1962; both have Jewish men as the lead character; and both are set in academia. But that is not where the similarities ends — the screenplay for An Education was adapted from Lynn Barber's memoir and A Serious Man is considered to be based on Joel and Ethan Coen's early years.

A Serious Man, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, screened on Saturday, October 3. The film's strong message is don't blame God if your life isn't good — and then it puts God in the stalker's seat! This is the source of the film's dark comedy. While one doesn't have to be religious, Jewish, or into physics to love this movie, the calculus of Jewish culture creates a steep learning curve for the uninitiated. The audience was filled with many members of a local synagogue. I predict that this film will among the critics' choices for 2009 for its daring dialogue and cryptic ending.

The film begins and ends with the mysterious Rabbi Marshak. The hero is physics professor Larry Gopnik, played impeccably by Michael Stuhlburg who does not crack a smile throughout. The film draws the audience into a seeker role along with Prof. Gopnik. Gopnik goes kicking and screaming into solving the spiritual equation observant Jews around him set to zero, but for him it feels like infinity, since he cannot escape the daily karma that has his name on it. He fights with himself, with observant Jews, with his Jewish relatives, and even with one strange Korean grad student.

A Serious Man booms and blooms with shifting scenes between authentic Jewishness and the world of the "goys." The Coen brothers even take jabs at Jewish stereotypes with close-ups on close-set eyes and resonate with the theme that Jews only hired other Jews for legal or medical reasons.

Larry's neighbors on either side of his home in the suburbs embody American apple pie and pot. And with them the Coen brothers' film continues to wax dark. They are the subject of Larry's nightmares. When he awakes the nightmares haunt his day. He is the serious man alright, yet rarely ponders that his presence may be the problem.

There are two main reasons that this film had buzz: first, the strong interrelationship of multiple threads that run through it and continually reconnect its thick story, and secondly, its total Jewish immersion. Love it or hate it, this film rewires the senses and frees them to question existence.

Directed by Lone Scherfig, An Education is a moody coming-of-age film set in 1960s London. I found it to be spot-on super.

An Education opens at an all-girls strict private school with the girls, naturally, walking with books on their heads to ensure good posture. Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) is a sixth form school girl (senior) who can think of nothing but getting into Oxford, singing along with forbidden French records and pleasing her parents — within reason.

Everything changes when Jenny meets the charming but much older David (Peter Sarsgaard) who offers her a lift home in his sports car. Their friendship evolves from exchanging glances over expensive dates that don't end in a kiss to this-is-the-one look.

Jenny makes four and is one quarter of two couples who pal around. David and his friend Danny quickly display their English egos that require well-appointed townhouses, lavish dinners, and trophy consorts. In the life and the film about "Jenny" Danny and Helen have front row seats to the mayhem and deception that awaits the cute 16-year-old turning 17 when she trusts a playboy and his declaration of love.

Films made from memoirs can often drag or focus on one single aspect of a life to the detriment of the overall story. But the brilliant acting by Miss Mulligan has garnered Oscar buzz and quashed the cliche that straightforward movies often get stuck in.

Jenny thinks she is a real woman trapped in a girl's bodice but Mulligan's performance breathes a mountain of life into flat pages because she is neither scripted nor sainted. She rails at her Latin teacher about the expected ennui embedded in English culture. Her rant and the warning voices of authority both come back to bite her in the butt.

She's not a woman after all and will swallow her British pride and turn to the women in her life to complete her education. An Education is all about appeal and lacks nothing. You will leave the theatre but this film won't leave you even after the music is silent and the credits roll.

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