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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REVIEW: Suffragette

9 11 2015

SuffragetteSuffragette” feels somewhat like the cinema’s equivalent of getting a flu shot. It’s a necessary boost of social consciousness that is good for the way it keeps the world honest. But is it fun or enjoyable, something worth looking forward to? Ehh.

Sarah Gavron’s direction gives some urgency to the century-old tale of British women gaining the right to vote that might otherwise reek of mothballs. The film does not need its scrolling list of dates for women’s suffrage worldwide before the credits to convey this. Good filmmaking renders fact recitation dull at worst, unnecessary at best.

Though Gavron’s frequent use of shaky-camera as a shorthand for intense moment is rather uninspired, “Suffragette” feels appropriately militaristic and angry given its subject. She conveys this most effectively when Abi Morgan’s script focuses on the women’s suffrage movement and the splintering divisions within its ranks. Some prefer a more aggressive, confrontational approach; others, however, support playing the politics of respectability to eventually curry enough favor for their right to vote.

Thankfully, the world seems in agreement that women should have the right to determine their own destiny by casting a vote at the ballot box. Yet these sections that specifically examine the challenges of organizing social action prove so compelling because they are applicable to plenty of modern movements, be it LGBTQ rights, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. At times, “Suffragette” even recalls “Selma” in the way it presents a fascinatingly nuanced but generalizable portrayal of organizing collective civil disobedience.

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REVIEW: Far from the Madding Crowd

28 06 2015

All period films should feel as urgent as Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”  Though the story might take place in Victorian England, none of the characters ever feel preserved in amber.  This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel illuminates present-day issues faced by women as they seek agency and independence through a heroine, Carey Mulligan’s Batsheba Everdene, who bristles with the norms of her time.

You would think, in the 140 years since the novel’s publication, that the world has progressed some in respecting the dignity of women.  But alas, two chauvinists sitting next to me served as a potent reminder of just how necessary this story continues to be.  In their eyes, any decision Batsheba made that did not lead her down a path of submission or domesticity evinced that she was a reckless whore.

Bathsheba never aligns herself as opposed to the institution of marriage; at one point, she memorably remarks that she would be a bride if she didn’t have to get a husband.  Her needs are rather peculiar due to a unique set of circumstances that grants her ownership of a sizable portion of land in the English countryside.  Rather than surrender the property to an able-bodied man, Bathsheba possesses enough self-confidence to run the farm herself.

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REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

15 06 2013

Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition (Opening Film)

I found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby” completely captivating and relevant in 11th grade English.  However, I acknowledge that plenty of people may have had the Jazz Age classic spoiled by poor instruction or a general classroom environment.

For all those people who think classic literature has to be boring and stuffy, let me introduce you to Baz Luhrmann, the world’s coolest English teacher.  He takes antiquated texts like Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and reinterprets them for a modern audience, breathing new life into them in the process.  Though some scoff at the idea of combining Fitzgerald and Fergie or jazz and Jay-Z,  it’s that kind of madness that makes Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” such a delightfully fresh take on an old favorite.

It’s Luhrmann on all cylinders firing, which is the source of the film’s vibrant strengths.  On the other hand, it’s also the root of the film’s biggest flaws.  Though “The Great Gatsby” is brilliantly refashioned in the image of “Moulin Rouge,” it’s sometimes a little too pumped up for its own good.  Putting Fitzgerald on steroids comes with some loss of subtlety, particularly in the form of his recurring motifs: the green light and Dr. T.J. Ecklenburg’s eyes.  Rather than letting them sneak up on you, Luhrmann hits you over the head with them like a sledgehammer as if to say, “PAY ATTENTION! THESE ARE REALLY IMPORTANT!”

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REVIEW: Drive

3 10 2011

I don’t know whether “Drive” feels like such a radical movie because of its own merit or because Michael Bay and the “Transformers” culture have made violence and art antonyms in the cultural thesaurus.  Regardless, anyone who realizes that the two can coexist will rejoice in seeing someone approach the genre like a painter with a palette, not a 12-year-old with plenty of testosterone to exude.  Through his stylization and aestheticization of action, director Nicolas Winding Refn gives us hope that the “impending Dark Age,” as Roger Ebert coined it, is not inevitable at a cinema near you as long as people are still willing to take bold risks like combining the art film with the heist film.

Much like his viscerally charged “Bronson,” a career-launching vehicle for Tom Hardy, “Drive” is a dazzling visual experience that struts across the screen with swagger and confidence.  Refn’s film comes with that increasingly rare sense that every moment and every frame have been carefully and purposefully constructed, and as a result, his film will be watched again and again.  Maybe in a few years, this movie will be a textbook for how to actually direct – and not just supervise – an action movie.  (I can dream, can’t I?)  The times call for a new “New Hollywood” movement, and directors like Refn and Steve McQueen are entering mainstream consciousness at the perfect time to lead it.

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REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

16 01 2011

I have no problem with Hollywood approaching the 2008 financial collapse; look no further than my “A” for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job.”  But it’s a slippery slope to walk on, and Oliver Stone’s slanted “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a total face-plant as its blatantly pointed activism destroys any legitimacy the movie might have.  Compared to Ferguson’s fascinating investigation and research, Stone’s allegory is a cowardly and vicious attack on the system of greed that the original film highlighted in 1987.

There was no reason to resurrect Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko at all, and Stone’s haste to use him as an instrument in unleashing a tirade against Wall Street renders his transformation senseless.  In the first film, he was a slimy representation of greed and excess, and an antagonist meant to be deplored.  Yet in 2010, he has been conveniently reassigned to the voice of the writer and his liberal sensibilities.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this move just doesn’t work under the basic conventions of storytelling.

The movie’s main plot is mostly independent of Gekko, tying him in through a broken relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  She’s engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a young upstart banker who gets caught up in the idea of creating something from nothing that he ultimately winds up without anything.  After the suicide of his mentor, he finds himself reeling and very lost.

Sure, it has its entertaining moments, but the whole movie just reeks of a misplaced sense of political vindication.  Stone doesn’t challenge, inform, or educate, and there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder.  The deranged manifesto that is “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is just a series of thinly veiled pot-shots on everyone involved in the financial meltdown, less based on the facts than on the opinions and convictions of its hardly neutral filmmakers.  C-





Oscar Moment: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

11 09 2010

You absolutely have to love Michael Douglas now.  The man is in the fight of his life against Stage 4 throat cancer, and he’s talking about it openly to millions of Americans on late night television.  Now that’s courage.

Here’s what doctors have to say about Douglas’ future:

Doctors say the therapy is grueling. Many patients develop painful mouth sores that require morphine-like narcotic pain relievers, says Robert Haddad, an oncologist with the head and neck cancer program at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Radiation also can burn the throat, which makes it painful to swallow. About half of patients require a feeding tube, says Haddad, who has no personal knowledge of Douglas’ case.

Despite the side effects, Haddad says, Douglas’ long-term quality of life “should be excellent.”

Although the treatment is tough, it can cure 50% to 80% of patients, depending on the location and other details of the tumor, he says.

Douglas appears optimistic, and everyone in America will certainly be cheering when he beats cancer.  But will the Academy be cheering with everyone?

Will an unintended side effect of Douglas’ treatment be an Oscar nomination?  While we are expecting him to make it through, recovery is not 100% certain.  Just think of how many Oscar nominations have been given to people that we have been afraid are going to leave us – Hal Halbrook, Ruby Dee, and Christopher Plummer, just to name a few.

Douglas also has two horses in the stable for an Oscar run this year: the critically acclaimed indie “Solitary Man” and the sequel to the 1987 movie that won him an Oscar, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  Having a really good year is always a big plus for the Academy, who often like to reward several performances through one nomination.  Case in point: Kate Winslet in 2008 for “The Reader” but also for “Revolutionary Road” and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2006 for “Blood Diamond” but also for “The Departed.” (NOTE: One actor cannot receive two nominations in the same category.)

“Wall Street” represents his best chance seeing as “Solitary Man” was released by a very small company that can’t afford a big enough campaign.  Some have speculated that he will be in the Supporting Actor category for this effort, perhaps to run Shia LaBeouf for leading.  I can’t really see this happening; I think the most likely outcome will be a co-lead push for LaBeouf and Douglas.  He’s solid as always, early word says.  According to Variety‘s Justin Chang, “Older, grayer and perhaps a touch less snakelike, Douglas is still insinuatingly good, and his performance lays the groundwork for the film’s one spectacularly cynical twist.”  I’d say he has a great shot, and the somber spotlight (sadly) only helps.

A funny note, no one has ever won two competitive Oscars for the same role.  In 1946, Harold Russell, a World War II veteran, won Best Supporting Actor for his role in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and an honorary Oscar for inspiring hope.  And the role of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” saga has given Oscars to two actors, Marlon Brando in 1972 and Robert DeNiro in 1974.

As for the rest of the movie’s chances, it gets pretty spotty.  Here’s Guy Lodge of In Contention after seeing the premiere at Cannes back in May, offering what I see as a pretty accurate representation of feelings toward the movie from across the board:

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is one of the more pleasantly surprising studio pictures of the year thus far, and a significant improvement on its po-faced (and, 23 years on, now fearsomely dated) predecessor. If the sequel could never have been deemed “necessary,” it’s certainly as handily timed as can be. As the original served as dumb but not ineffective allegory for the coke-fuelled iniquities of 1980s capitalism, the new film not only does the same for credit-crunch sobriety in the post-2000s, but allows Stone his “Toldja!” moment to boot.

Oliver Stone has two Oscars for Best Director already, so I say there’s no chance that he even gets nominated.  Best Picture is not entirely out of the question, although I wonder if “The Social Network” will fill the movie of the moment quota.  I can see an outside possibility for Shia LaBeouf, but odds are he’s too young and people haven’t forgotten that he’s been in the “Indiana Jones” and “Transformers” series.

Everyone loves Carey Mulligan, and like Douglas, she has two performances in play this year (the other coming from this week’s release “Never Let Me Go”).  They are much more likely to recognize her for the other movie, but if reception for that is tepid, she could sneak into Best Supporting Actress.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Douglas)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Mulligan)