REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 01 2016

Inside Llewyn DavisCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.

Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.

It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.

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F.I.L.M of the Week (April 9, 2015)

9 04 2015

As I Lay DyingWith each passing year, it has become harder and harder not to have an opinion about the multi-hyphenate artist James Franco.  Is he a Renaissance man for our time, a master of many artistic trade?  Or is he merely an Andy Warhol, signing off on other people’s work to make it more commercially viable?  Or perhaps, is he just insane?

After the strange back-to-back pairing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Spring Breakers” in early 2013, I was unsure of where to place Franco on the spectrum of genius and lunatic.  Then, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in an intimate setting at the Cannes Film Festival after seeing his “As I Lay Dying” play in Un Certain Regard (and waiting many long hours to do so), and I made up my mind.  I really think he’s a true artistic talent.

Admittedly, I have not read the William Faulkner novel on which the film is based.  And after seeing the movie, I still do not think I could provide a summary of the events that occurred and somehow make it resemble a plot.  Nonetheless, Franco turns Faulkner’s notoriously difficult prose into a fittingly challenging art film.  By finding a visual match for the author’s words, his take on “As I Lay Dying” makes for a deserving selection for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The novel, notoriously, features multiple narrators, and Franco preserves that aspect by filming those direct addresses in striking close-ups.  But such is a rather predictable choice for adapting the book for the screen, so Franco goes further and really utilizes a unique technique: split screen.  The multiple images flooding the visual field proves an effective, engaging tool to represent narrative fragmentation.  At times, the images complement each other; sometimes, they clash.  “As I Lay Dying” is Malick imagery meets Soviet montage experiments, all wrapped up in the form of a gallery installation.

This makes the story somewhat hard to follow, although I get the sense that few read Faulkner for clarity like a light beach read.  Still, I enjoyed the film on a moment by moment basis, appreciating each scene as it came.  Franco went out on a limb and really experimented with “As I Lay Dying,” a truly bold choice given the familiarity that many have with the text.  He mostly succeeds, and even when a directorial decision falls flat, it’s hard to fault the ambition behind it.  I get the feeling, too, that he might have laid the groundwork for someone to come along and create a true master work with his split screen technique.

 

 





REVIEW: Salvo

24 09 2014

SalvoCannes Film Festival – Critic’s Week, 2013

In my second year at the Cannes Film Festival, I told myself I would expand my viewing beyond the Official Competition to enrich my experience.  (For those who might not know, the festival also has two officially recognized sidebars that boast impressive selections of their own.)  I feared I had run out of time to check out a film from Critic’s Week but noticed that, in a small pocket of freedom, I could catch a repeat screening of the winner, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s “Salvo.”

Perhaps seeing the high expectations surrounding a newly crowned champion are to blame for my intensely negative reaction.  Or maybe I was just fatigued given that this was my fourth film of the day.  But I don’t think I had a more miserable viewing experience at that festival than “Salvo.”

The filmmakers commit themselves to minimalism, which is certainly not an immediate cause for dismissal.  But the reservedness does not draw us in further or illuminate the characters.  It’s the case where nothing just means nothing. “Salvo” has an interesting enough plot – an Italian mafia hitman has a crisis of conscience when faced with the prospect of having to whack a blind girl – but it’s executed with such an excruciating lack of urgency that it renders the final product practically unwatchable.  D / 1star





REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

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REVIEW: The Immigrant

1 07 2014

immigrant_noquote_finalCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Over a year ago, I had the distinct honor to attend a panel in memory of my hero in the realm of film criticism, the late Roger Ebert, in Cannes.  His widow, Chaz, was in attendance a little over a month after his passing.  We all took a “500 Thumbs Up for Roger” picture (if you like a good Where’s Waldo puzzle, try to find me in this picture) and signed a book letting Chaz know how much her husband meant to everyone who cherishes film.

But it was not the words that I left her that mattered that day; rather, it was the words she left me and everyone else in attendance.  Kicking off the panel, she remarked, “Roger said that the cinema expands your imagination.  And when it’s done well, what it will do is allow the individual to be transported beyond linear boundaries and to take you to a world that you hadn’t seen before and allow you inside and outside to become a better person.”

People that take the time to write seriously about these illusionary worlds of light, shadow, and pixel have most likely achieved this exhilarating narrative transport.  It’s a difficult and thus extremely rare feat for a film to pull off.  Yet the sensation feeds the soul in such a sublime manner that it’s worth seeking out even if it means wading through seemingly endless mediocrity.

By year’s end, I manage to let the awards hype delude myself into thinking I have experienced this transcendent feeling multiple times.  In actuality, however, these little miracles only occur every few years or so.  I’m overjoyed to report that James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is one such film.

Most movies nowadays return me to the same spot from which I departed.  This masterpiece, on the other hand, picked me up at one place and deposited me at a higher ground.  The story of “The Immigrant” alone left me feeling spiritually enriched.  The complete package assembled by producer, writer, and director Gray left me renewed and reaffirmed in the power of the cinema.  I remain so stunned in slack-jawed awe at this exquisitely beautiful work that few words can fully capture my strong sentiments.

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REVIEW: Nothing Bad Can Happen

23 06 2014

Nothing Bad Can Happen posterCannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard, 2013

I was on a bit of a moviewatching bender that day I saw “Nothing Bad Can Happen” at the Cannes Film Festival.  (It’s still a bit of an ignominious personal record – I saw four movies in that day alone.)  I began the day with a 9:00 AM screening James Gray’s sublime “The Immigrant” and then quickly hit a mid-morning Director’s Fortnight showing of the instantly forgettable French film “Henri.”

Looking for something else to do with my day, I began to peruse the trades looking for yet another film to see.  As I perused Un Certain Regard, the section of the official competition for edgier and less renowned talent, I noticed a plot description that included the phrase “test of faith.”  Intrigued by that line alone, I went and tried my luck for the line at a repeat projection of “Nothing Bad Can Happen.”

Having very few ideas of what to expect save that brief synopsis, I entered the film rather naively and exited in a form of cinematic shellshock.  In her debut feature, director Katrin Gebbe got deeply underneath my skin and really disturbed me with her unflinching portrayal of the horrifying violence humans are capable of committing.  Her film lingers in my imagination, unsettling me profoundly still with just the thought of it.

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REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »