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: Bridge of Spies

18 10 2015

Bridge of SpiesI’m young enough that I cannot remember a time when director Steven Spielberg’s name was not synonymous with cinematic excellence at the highest echelon. I am also of the age that I have never been able to experience the kind of film that earned him such a reputation in any manner other than through the lens of retrospection.

That is, until “Bridge of Spies” came along, the first Spielberg effort since 2005’s “Munich” that serves as an adequate calling card for a generation-defining artist.  Making the sort of mid-range budget ($40 million) adult drama that have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, he issues a strong reminder that his formidable skills should not be undervalued or underestimated.

It’s fitting, then, that this film should star Tom Hanks, another already minted national treasure whose cultural footprint often dwarfs the power of his work. While both director and actor could easily coast on their merits, neither does in “Bridge of Spies.” The film operates at an impeccably high level of craft and precision because Hanks and Spielberg flex their muscles so potently.  Calling it a return to form feels wrong since neither has precipitously declined, but this is clearly them at peak performance.

Hanks plays William Donovan, an idealistic Brooklyn lawyer given the thankless task of providing legal counsel in a sham trial meant as a PR play.  His client is Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy captured at the peak of Cold War mania.  Donovan’s task recalls the central case in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s a good thing that Hanks can channel Atticus Finch (pre-racism) so deftly.

Only a few actors could pull off this unironic, unashamed portrait of the nobility all Americans like to believe is woven into our national fabric.  Hanks, with his steady hand and calm resolve, makes a better case for the Constitution’s guiding light than anyone currently in public office.  In fact, many of them could learn a thing or two from Donovan regarding Edward Snowden, the Middle East, and immigration.

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REVIEW: Unbroken

21 12 2014

In terms of below-the-line talent on “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie assumes the role of Nick Fury by essentially assembling The Avengers of the cinema.  Every writer credited on “Unbroken” has penned an Oscar-nominated script.  Behind the camera as director of photography is Roger Deakins, cinematographer to great directors like the Coen Brothers as well as franchises like James Bond.

Those images are then spliced and joined together in the editing room by William Goldenberg (Oscar winner for “Argo“) and Tim Squyres (a consistent collaborator of Ang Lee who was Oscar nominated for “Life of Pi“).  And underscoring it all is Alexandre Desplat, the absurdly prolific composer for everything from “Philomena” to the “Harry Potter” series.  Essentially, “Unbroken” boasts what would be the ultimate fantasy squad if such a concept existed in Hollywood.

Rather than exuding passion for the craft, though, everyone phones it in. This dream team works in service of a rather bland and familiar inspirational story, and their respective skills do little to change that.  Instead of elevating the material, they are complicit with Jolie in playing it safe to ensure “Unbroken” plays to the least common denominator of audiences. They color by numbers when they could have been painting something truly inspiring and extraordinary.

The incredible true-life heroism and survival of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) has all the makings of a truly rousing film.  He had to triumph in the face adversity and anti-immigrant taunts as a child.  He funneled all that into the sport of track, which eventually took him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Then, he survived for months at sea in WWII before getting captured as a POW by the Japanese.  These events give “Unbroken” quite a story to work with, yet the extraordinary feels rather ordinary.

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