Leave it to the Coen brothers to slip in seemingly unannounced.
"A Serious Man" had little fanfare when it hit theaters in the fall; now it's an Oscar- nominated best picture. Not that the brothers are a mystery to Oscar voters; they took home the best picture award two years ago for "No Country for Old Men."
But that doesn't mean that their films aren't mysteries to film audiences and even staunch fans. "A Serious Man" has its own strangeness. The main character is Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher at a small university in Minnesota in 1967. He specializes in theoretical ideas like Schr dinger's Paradox and the Heisenberg Principle. You might think of them as notions only God or Einstein ponder. Speaking of God, like the biblical Job, the supreme being apparently wants to test Larry (played with an appropriate weariness by Michael Stuhlbarg).
He's up for tenure but an anonymous letter has put that in jeopardy.
A record company keeps harassing him about an unpaid bill. His mad brother (Richard Kind), who has to drain pus from a boil, has moved in with him. His kids have no respect for him, and his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce, having taken up with an older widower named Sy (Fred Melamed), who wants to be adult about the whole thing because he's a "serious man."
And there are temptations, too, in the form of the topless sunbathing neighbor, whom Larry spots from the roof while he's fixing the antenna for his ungrateful son who is always complaining about poor reception. She offers Larry pot, and a disgruntled student slips him money to change his grade.
An interesting element of "A Serious Man" is that Joel and Ethan Coen - born in the 1950s - grew up in the heavily Jewish Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, which makes the setting at least somewhat autobiographical. As for what the brothers are trying to get to - well, that's something that can be argued about in any of their films. In some ways, "No Country for Old Men" says it all in the title, but it's how the Coens got there that keeps us watching.
The same thing can be said about "A Serious Man," which - as we watch Larry's woes pile up - can be seen as a joke about God or a joke about man, the paradoxes of life or the complications we create.
'Couples' falls short
"Couples Retreat," the Vince Vaughn comedy about four couples who travel to an island retreat for relationship therapy, scores a couple of laughs and a couple of points about marriage, but it's ultimately a sentimental journey with a raunchy touch.
Mostly, its cast - Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Faizon Love - make it more amusing than it should be. A couple of times it ventures into sharper send-ups on New Age methods but quickly backs off to opt for jokes about sharks and Guitar Hero.
Somewhere in 'Time'
"The Time Traveler's Wife" is a romantic sci-fi fantasy about a guy, Henry (Eric Bana), who keeps showing up in the life of Clare (Rachel McAdams). Henry, you see, has been born with a genetic anomaly that causes him to jumped into different points in time.
His first encounter with Clare is when she is 20. OK, we can buy that, but later he pops into her life when she's 6 and he's 36. Oh, and time travel causes him to shed his clothes; so you get the picture.
Not romantic in my book.
Jane Austen-ites should be delighted with "Emma," the new BBC adaptation of the 19th-century writer's comic, romantic novel about a young woman who enjoys being a matchmaker. Romola Garai plays the title character, who means well, but in her intent on finding suitors for her friends, she is more adept at creating problems.
Jonny Lee Miller is Mr. Knightley, the man who upsets her life, and Michael Gambon is Emma's indulgent father. It's a handsome production that goes to the heart of why Austen's tales of love keep getting retold on screen.
When American historian Howard Zinn died last month, we lost a voice that reminded us how relevant and important the past is. "The People Speak," a documentary inspired by his books "A People's History" and "Voices of a People's History," uses dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches written by everyday Americans to bring history to life. Originally broadcast on the History Channel, the DVD is an extended version and includes readings by Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei and Sandra Oh, along with music performances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder, among others.
"Stargate SG-U: 1.0," the third spin-off of the sci-fi series that was inspired by the movie, is trying to move into a grittier realm than its predecessors, but it still gets lost in its jargon too much and its story line is a bit gimmicky. On the other hand, the complete collection of
"Second Sight," the British mystery series that stars Clive Owen as a partially blind detective, is quite smartly done and shows why Owen has gone on to become a big star.