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Serious film for serious reasons

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but as a nation Americans have become very grumpy and discontented bunch. Consumer confidence continues to waver while our anger index (yes, we have one of those) is on the rise.

In a world undone, with issues piling up like unread New Yorkers — unemployment, foreclosures, bank failures, healthcare, to name a few — we’ve turned into a seething mass on our way to a collective “Network”-style “I’m mad as hell” meltdown.

Considering our general state of unease, imagine how movie studios are feeling as we head into Hollywood’s Serious Season. The themes are dark, the dress code is black and the screens are filled with intellectually and emotionally challenging films that wring you dry, leave you weeping or raging or both.

So the question arises: Do we really need anything, especially “entertainment”, to make us feel any worse?

Yes, we do.

As it happens, this is absolutely the best of times to watch the worst of times. Having gotten an early look at many of these films, I can say that Hollywood’s brand of bleak is of such excellent and eclectic quality this year, it’s going to make you feel better. I promise.

We have before us a banquet overflowing with the sombre, the soulful, the sober, the sad and the searing to begin piling onto our plate, with Precious, the provocative Lee Daniels film based on the novel Push by writer-performance artist Sapphire about an illiterate, abused, obese, pregnant teenager.

From there the clouds only gather around us: The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic aftermath infused by death and desperation is joined by other grim futures — from 2012’s end of days to James Cameron’s war of the worlds in Avatar, though their action-adventurism should lighten the load.

There are other high-end literary adaptations with The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s tale of a young girl’s rape and murder by director Peter Jackson, and Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, directed by Tom Ford and starring Colin Firth in a story of death and loss.

Difficult war sagas with their roots in Iraq and Afghanistan come in The Messenger and Jim Sheridan’s Brothers. Even Jason Reitman’s more buoyant Up in the Air starring George Clooney is set in the world of corporate downsizing and turns out to be as much drama as comedy.

I realise you’re probably thinking, “Sure, they reach cinematic highs and offer Oscar-worthy performances, but frankly I’m not in the mood.” Yes, I know, sigh, you haven’t been in the mood for a while, and that really does strain a relationship.

Instead, most of you have gone batty for movies that stay a comfortable distance from harsher realities. Consider 2009’s current top 10 in terms of cents and sensibility: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Up, The Hangover, Star Trek, Monsters vs Aliens, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and The Proposal.

Much of the summer success, of course, is the very nature of blockbusters’ big tent appeal with promises of a good ride without too much thinking or feeling. But even so, serious has struggled mightily in 2009.

Kathryn Bigelow’s consummate character study, The Hurt Locker, about men in military bomb squads, is likely to dominate critics’ top 10 lists, yet it’s made just a shade over $12 million, which means despite rave reviews most people haven’t been able to bring themselves to see it.

Even more problematic is the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, a contemporary when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people tale. Whether it’s a creative misfire or simply too close to home for too many of us, it is shaping up to be one of their least successful films ever, nothing close to 2007’s No Country for Old Men, a violent movie that won four Oscars and made $74 million.

With all the gloom and doom in what we know, we are increasingly unwilling to sample the unknown — even if it’s nothing more than taking a chance on a movie that might not lift sagging spirits.

Certainly no one expects you to ante up precious time and money for a ponderous film that has forgotten to give you great characters and a gripping story. But consider some of those who are asking you to take a leap of faith with them: Sheridan, a master storyteller of such power — remember In the Name of the Father or My Left Foot? Jackson, the true lord of The Rings; Titantic’s Cameron; Reitman, who surprised us with Juno just a couple of years ago; Precious, with Monster’s Ball producer Daniels behind the lens and Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry out working the crowds.

Of course, movies have a way of looking perfect on paper — stars, stories and directors all neatly aligned — and then falling apart on screen. But there are times you just need to close your eyes and jump anyway.

The stories may unsettle you, move you, shake you to the core. But they will remind you of your own humanity with stories that are as wonderfully unexpected as they are well told. So go ahead, step into the dark side where the altered states of reality that great film making offers can prove an excellent antidote to your own misery. I promise.

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