Movie Reviews: Travel Back to the '60s and '70s

A Serious Man

The latest film written, produced, and directed by Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) is being billed as a dark comedy. And although there are funny moments, this movie set in 1967 is a serious drama. Michael Stuhlbarg (Cold Souls) plays Larry Gopnik, a physics professor at a Minnesota university who suddenly has his world falling in around him -- and he cannot seem to catch a break. His chance at obtaining tenure seems shaky at best. A student is bribing him for a passing grade. His crazy brother is crashing on his couch. A next door neighbor is clearly unstable. His wife leaves him for an annoying acquaintance. His kids don't give him the time of day -- a son who cares more about F-Troop and Jefferson Airplane than preparing for his bar mitzvah. A daughter who cares more about her hair and nose than her parents' failing marriage. How much can one man take?

Heeding the advice of his Jewish community, he seeks understanding for his hardships from a number of rabbis. But what he learns is that there are no answers. Even when his son gets simple advice from the elder rabbi to "be a good boy," we get the feeling that even being good does not guarantee that life will return the favor.

The acting by all is top-notch. But this is not an easy movie to sit through -- it's pretty painful to watch someone get beaten down over and over. And once again, the Coens like to drive us crazy with an abrupt ending that leaves remaining questions. But don't be scared away by those who say that only Jewish audience will "get it." I am not -- and I get that it's another powerful film from the talented brothers. Co-stars Richard Kind and Adam Arkin. [Rated R; opens wider today]

Grade: B+

Black Dynamite

Director/screenwriter Scott Sanders brings us the latest in film satire -- a spoof of blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Set during the Nixon administration, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White), a former CIA agent, is called back into action when the Italian mob kills his brother, fills black orphanages with heroin, and floods the street with bad malt liquor. And eventually we find out it's all a big conspiracy.

Martial artist White is perfectly cast in the lead role as a kick-ass agent. And Sanders succeeds in recreating the look and feel of the era. It's a trip to revisit the fashion -- and overall cheesy styling of the day. But even though the whole idea was to recreate that look, the low-budget feel grows thin fast. If it wasn't for the bare body parts (and yes, you'll see enough), the movie would be better suited for the small screen.

Arsenio Hall's return to film -- as a pimp -- is a letdown of a brief, unfunny cameo. And overall, the film suffers from far too few funny scenes. White, who co-wrote the screenplay, previously worked with Sanders in 1998's Thick as Thieves, an HBO feature. This time around, I recommend you wait for the film's video release rather than plopping down hard-earned cash now for only a mildly amusing film. [Rated R; opens today]

Grade: C+


  • Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders were in attendance at my screening -- and generously answered questions from the audience. White has a whopping seven black belts -- so you don't want to show him this review -- thanks.
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