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: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Trouble with the Curve

8 10 2012

Chances are you’ve already seen “Trouble with the Curve” … but you just don’t know it yet.

If you’ve seen “Gran Torino,” you’ve seen it.  Clint Eastwood is just doing a PG-13 version of his cranky, stubborn Walt Kowalski.  Don’t get me wrong, I still find that fairly entertaining though as I intend to pattern my 80-year-old willful disregarding of social conventions on him.  As aging Atlanta Braves scout Gus, he’s still got the ability to make curmudgeonly charming once again.

If you’ve seen “The Fighter,” you’ve seen it.  Amy Adams essentially does a dolled-up reprisal of her role as Charlene the MTV Girl, a tenacious sports groupie and strongly opinionated woman.  Here, she’s got some of those same qualities on display as Gus’ daughter Mickey, a baseball enthusiast looking to climb the corporate ladder but faces casual workplace misogyny.  She gets called onto the road to assist her ailing father, reawakening her love for the game.  Adams is a bright and fun presence on the screen, but it’s hardly of the caliber of performance David O. Russell got out of her.

If you’ve seen … really any Justin Timberlake movie, you’ve seen it.  Whether it’s “The Social Network,” “Bad Teacher,” or “Friends with Benefits,” it’s the same old schtick for the former N*Sync frontman.  It’s less Sean Parker-ish here, however, since the character doesn’t have nearly the dimensionality of an Aaron Sorkin creation.  Timberlake tackles the role of Johnny, a failed baseball player turned novice scout.  Gus has made, then broken, then made his career … and may have made his dreams with Mickey.

If you’ve seen “Moneyball,” you’ve seen this movie.  Even though “Trouble with the Curve”  is about the human calculations of baseball while Bennett Miller’s Best Picture nominee glorified computer models and statistics as the new great tool of baseball, both share an equal goal of bringing back a romanticism quickly disappearing from America’s pastime.

But strangely enough, “Moneyball” does a better job achieving this drawing parallels between computer pixels and the bright stadium lights.  “Trouble with the Curve,” clunking along at a leisurely pace it doesn’t earn (I mean seriously, it feels like an extra innings game), can only muster up cliches to show how much it loves baseball.  The game has seen better, and it deserves better.  C+





REVIEW: Friends with Benefits

22 07 2011

It’s time for a movie to come along that changes the romantic comedy genre for better and for always (or at least reverses the way it’s heading at the present moment). A movie willing to avoid the sappiness and the cliched, predictable genre tropes. A movie willing to be a little bit sneaky and subversive in its delivery of what the audience wants from the genre. A movie that gets to the heart of what the genre is supposed to be – truthful, believable romance with some observations on the tricky thing that is love with some humor sprinkled on top.

Friends with Benefits” is not that movie, although it desperately wants to be. It gets some points for trying, though. It takes some good pot shots at the genre through the very clever usage of a fake romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel inside the movie, and levels some very accurate criticism of them that will no doubt have audiences nodding along with Timberlake and Kunis’ sex pals.

But like so many of the recent onslaught of meta movies, it winds up devolving into the very thing it scorns. It wants all the benefits of self-awareness but none of the responsibilities, which here would include being creative and providing an alternative to the laughable aspects of the genre that it constantly lampoons. To use a sports metaphor, it has the swing but not the followthrough. It boldly goes where few romantic comedies will go and then backs away when honesty and ingenuity is asked of it.

However, it’s nice (for once) to see the movies giving us some indication they realize how RIDICULOUS the romantic comedy has become. Even though “Friends with Benefits” eventually subscribes to the formulaic rules of the genre straight from the textbook, I’ll take a movie with squandered potential over one with no potential any day. Not that it makes it any less disappointing, but the movie sort of gives us a wink and a nudge when it crosses over to the dark side. It’s almost as if director Will Gluck (last year’s excellent “Easy A“) is so apologetic for selling out that he all but superimposes the text “I’M SORRY” over the closing scene.

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REVIEW: Bad Teacher

10 07 2011

High concept comedies like “The Hangover” and “Horrible Bosses” work because they maintain a level of implausibility and ridiculousness throughout.  In the end, no one is going to get so drunk that they forget marrying a stripper or pulling out a tooth, just like no one is going to get so worked up at work that they execute a plan to murder their boss. Because their humor borders on fantasy, we can laugh despite the incorrectness of it all.

Bad Teacher,” on the other hand, walks on some dangerous ground by presenting its central character with an unflinching realism.  Cameron Diaz’s teacher is a pot-smoking, whiskey-gulping, foul-mouthed, shallow mess that could care less about the kids that she’s getting paid to educate.  Instead, she would rather focus on getting a nice new pair of breasts and a rich man to fondle them.  When she needs money, rather than work hard like a respectable person, she embezzles, cheats, steals, and bribes.

Sadly, this actually happens in the real world; it’s not some cock-and-bull story concocted by some bored screenwriters.  In just the past five years going through private secondary school, I have seen two teachers lose their jobs from accusations of sexual impropriety with a minor and possession of child pornography.  These people are very much real.  Same goes for negligent teachers, which are very prevalent in poorer school districts.  My cousin works in junior high public education (not unlike Diaz’s character) in one of the most at-risk neighborhoods in the country, and I’ve heard too many horror stories from her about the people who work there that don’t even deserve to be called an educator.

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REVIEW: The Social Network

9 10 2010

Has Facebook made us more connected to our friends?  Or does hopelessly staring at their pictures, their moments, their lives only increase our feeling of isolation?  Such has been the question for the past five years as the Silicon Valley start-up has all but taken over the world.  We have been forced to ponder how much we want people to know about who we are, using our profile pages as a façade to cover the person hiding deep inside.  We can sculpt social perfection on the site, and perhaps that is why we pour so much time into it.

That’s the story of us in the Facebook age.  However, anyone not willing to closely scrutinize “The Social Network” might have the mistaken notion that the movie is only about the founders of the site.  While Aaron Sorkin’s script concerns itself entirely with the Facebook’s early years, the perspective is not limited merely to those intimately involved in creating the predominant social networking site of our time.

If Sorkin and director David Fincher had been interested in doing that, they would have made a documentary on the birth of Facebook.  Instead, their fictionalized account is meant to challenge our conceptions of communication and friendship in the digital era, as well as the changing nature of innovation.  As the face of human interaction becomes increasingly digital, this commentary will be an important work to consult.  “The Social Network” could very well be the movie that future generations will watch to get an idea of the millenials (or whatever history will call us).  The movie now puts the pressure on us to decide how to interpret its message: do we go polish our Facebook profiles or become disillusioned with the site?

Since creator Mark Zuckerberg refused to participate with the production, Sorkin and Fincher present him as they see him: a visionary with his fair share of vices who winds being torn asunder by two people with different ideas for the future of his creation.  Jesse Eisenberg hardly makes him sympathetic, but the ultimate interpretation of Zuckerberg is left to the viewer.  Is he a hero, a villain, or an antihero?  Whatever mold he fits, it cannot be denied that he is a figure of huge importance to the digital age.  Take his social idiosyncrasies out of the picture, and his journey is not too different than our journey with Facebook.

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Oscar Moment: “The Social Network”

13 08 2010

Are we just a month and a half away from the release of 2010’s Best Picture?  Ask some Oscar pundits today and they might say just that.  No one has seen “The Social Network,” which hits theaters October 1, in its entirety, but people have sky-high expectations based on the brilliant marketing campaign.

The buzz started with the release of some tantalizing teaser trailers and an intriguingly mysterious poster.  When we saw the full trailer playing before “Inception,” it was a wowing experience (that would still pale in comparison to the two and a half hours afterwards).  The trailer’s opening minute is very unique as it has nothing to do with the movie at all.  Rather, we watch people interacting on Facebook, a reminder of how much it has enhanced our connections to our friends.  Then we pixelate to Mark Zuckerberg, and the history begins.

From just the trailer alone, “The Social Network” looked like a movie for our time, more clearly zeitgeist-tapping than any movie in recent memory.  It takes a dramatic look the founding of Facebook, one of the defining inventions of our time, but also seems to tackle the subject of how the social networking site has affected the way humans communicate with each other.

How much of a judgement call, though, can we make on the movie based on the trailer?

When I thought about the Oscar contenders with the best trailers over the past few years, a few names stuck out in my mind.  “Brothers.”  No nominations.  “Revolutionary Road.”  One major nomination, no Best Picture nomination.  “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  13 nominations including Best Picture.  It’s a mixed bag of results.  Trailers can be a sign of great things to come or merely disguise the lackluster by showing everything good to offer in two minutes.  So I don’t think we can call it a sure bet just because of the trailer.

And is being the presumed frontrunner the best thing for “The Social Network?”  I analyzed some movies in the same position last year in my Oscar Moment on “Invictus,” and here’s what I found:

The only real conclusion that can be drawn from those results is that having sky-high expectations can often yield unfavorable results.  If people expect something amazing, it is all the easier to underwhelm.

There’s a more in-depth look at the fates of these movies on that posting, but there has been a definite tendency for these movies to underperform in awards season.  This isn’t your traditional awards candidate – at least it isn’t being sold like one.

Sony is selling the movie mainly on the subject.  I bet the average American knows “The Social Network” as “The Facebook movie,” which is certainly good for drawing in an audience.  I think the premise alone draws in $80 million in revenue, but the fact that it’s going to be really good will increase its total take to somewhere in the range of $120-150 million.  I’m hardly a box office analyst, I know, yet I feel pretty confident making this financial prediction.  Judging from the amount of trailer parodies hitting the web, it’s definitely reaching the younger crowd, the most volatile demographic for movies like this.

When it comes to awards, though, money isn’t everything.  “The Social Network” has a lot working in its corner, namely director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  Fincher is a well-respected figure, earning his first Oscar nomination in 2008 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  Before that, he directed cult favorites like “Seven” and “Fight Club.”  I didn’t think that his prior resumé qualified him for a project like this, but Fincher has proven himself at being versatile in the past.

While Sorkin doesn’t have an Academy Award nomination to his name, he has earned a great deal of acclaim for his work in writing for movies, television, and the stage.  His style is greatly admired, and he is one of very few writers whose name could sell a product.  Sorkin adapted “The Social Network” from last year’s book “The Accidental Billionaires,” but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has written off the movie as pure fiction.  The fact that he has so vehemently denied the movie being factual only increase the intrigue around the movie.  Could there be some parts so true he doesn’t want us to know?

Those are the big names of “The Social Network,” and I think most of the praise will fall on the two of them.  Will there be any love for the actors?  Could Jesse Eisenberg, at 27, gain any heat in the Best Actor race?  If the movie winds up being the talk of the town, he could easily find himself in heavy consideration.  If he were to win, Eisenberg would be the youngest Best Actor winner ever.

Best Supporting Actor could get interesting, too.  I don’t think people can take Justin Timberlake seriously enough for a nomination, although anything can happen if the movie is huge.  The first Academy Award nominated boy band member … wouldn’t that be something.

The more likely candidate, it seems, is Andrew Garfield.  Seen him recently?  He was just cast as the new Spider-Man.  The trailer sure makes his performance seem like the kind the Academy loves, lots of screaming and shouting to be found.  Garfield also stars in awards hopeful “Never Let Me Go,” so he could receive a nomination in “The Social Network” as a reward for a great year of work from such a new actor on the scene.  Plus, how cool would it be to have an Oscar winner playing a superhero?

The first time the world gets a glimpse of the movie is at the New York Film Festival.  Until then, we wait.  And watch the trailer again … and again … and again …

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Garfield), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Timberlake), Best Original Score