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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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.





REVIEW: True Grit

5 01 2011

I haven’t seen the 1969 John Wayne “True Grit,” so I can’t really put the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” into that context or perspective.  What I can do, however, is look at it as just another one of their movies that just happens to be a second film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.  As it turns out, the movie fits in perfectly with all the rest of the Coen canon.  After some of their high-brow humor hit a sour note for me, I’m glad to see them return to form in the kind of movie they are best cut out to make.

Everything moviegoers have come to love in the directing duo over the last quarter-century is on full display in “True Grit.”  The nihilism, the bleakness, the dark humor, the biting dialogue, the crazy and three-dimensional characters are all there in full force.  While it may not be the high point for the Coens, the movie is definitely an exclamation point on their careers thus far.

The truest grit of the movie belongs to 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a tenacious Southern girl who can talk fast enough to make your head spin around, drive one heck of a bargain, and make your jaw drop with her rugged tenacity.  She’s looking for a way to avenge her father’s murderer, the lawless drunk Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Mattie looks to a U.S. Marshal that fits a similar description, the unreliable, uncomely Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

But she’s also not the only one hunting Chaney; Mattie also has to contend with LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a voice uncannily similar to Matthew McConaughey’s and so dead-set on doing his job that he’s about as big of a joke as Matthew McConaughey.  LaBeouf and Cogburn assume they are a two-man searching party, but Mattie, insistent on seeing justice done herself, tags along much to their chagrin.  The three cross into the Indian Territory, enduring much lifeless terrain on Cheney’s trail.

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Oscar Moment: “True Grit”

12 11 2010

Unlike “The Fighter,” which seems Academy-appealing on premise, “True Grit” is appealing on pedigree.  It comes courtesy of the Coen Brothers, who each have three statues thanks to their work producing, writing, and directing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 and another for writing “Fargo” in 1996.  Including the nominations they have received for editing under the alias Roderick Jaynes, Joel and Ethan Coen have each received a whopping TEN Oscar nominations.

Beyond just their own history, the Coen Brothers have roped in some phenomenal talent to make this look like one heck of an Oscar contender on paper.  “True Grit” is an adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis, NOT a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne.  According to sources, the two are very different, and those expecting a remake are in store for something entirely different.  However, John Wayne’s leading turn as Rooster Cogburn won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, so keeping in the same vain wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Jeff Bridges.

Bridges is hot off his Best Actor win for “Crazy Heart” last year and looks to be in striking range of a second trophy.  The “too soon” political argument will surely be a factor, but it’s not a novel concept for an actor to be nominated the year after they win.  It happened twice over the past decade with Russell Crowe nominated in 2001 for “A Beautiful Mind” after winning for “Gladiator” and Penelope Cruz nominated in 2009 for “Nine” after winning for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”  Then, of course, there’s the once in a lifetime case of Tom Hanks, who won back-to-back Best Actor statues for “Philadelphia” and then “Forrest Gump” in 1993 and 1994.  The only other actor to pull this off was Spencer Tracy back in the 1930s.  While I think Bridges has the respect to achieve this massive distinction, I doubt the politics of Academy voting nowadays will allow it.

Bridges isn’t the only threat the movie has in the acting categories.  Two-time nominee Matt Damon looks to make an entry into the Best Supporting Actor category, as does prior nominee Josh Brolin.  The race still has no clear frontrunner (hard to believe), and either of them with enough buzz when the movie screens around Thanksgiving could lead to a major shake-up.

My money is on Damon, the more respected actor in the eyes of the Academy.  He was nominated just last year for “Invictus” and has history with the Oscars dating all the way back to 1997 when he won Best Original Screenplay with pal Ben Affleck for “Good Will Hunting” and also received a Best Actor nomination.  2010 has been yet another banner year for Damon, starring in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” and narrating Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job.”  He has also been recognized as a great humanitarian and just a general class act.  It’s hard to judge his chances without anyone having seen the movie, but I think Damon could easily win the whole thing.

Brolin, on the other hand, has only recently emerged as an actor to be reckoned with thanks to roles in “Milk,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner which earned him a SAG Award for Best Ensemble.  He has a more volatile personality, and this could harm him.  In “True Grit,” he plays the outlaw Tom Chaney, another villainous role that he has gained so much notoriety playing.  Unlike the Best Supporting Actress category where double nominees from the same film are common (see the Oscar Moment on “The Fighter” for statistics), the feat hasn’t been accomplished in Best Supporting Actor since 1991 when Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley were both nominated for “Bugsy.”  So if I had to pick one of the two “True Grit” supporting men, I take Damon at the moment.

Then there’s also the easy Oscar nominations that the movie will pick up since is this is a Coen Brothers movie that happens to take place in the 1880s Wild West.  Best Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design and Film Editing are certainties.  The movie could bomb and those three nominations would still be in the bag.  Best Adapted Screenplay should be an easy nomination to net given that they have been nominees four times in the category and winners twice.  Best Director will be interesting for the same reasons that it will be interesting for Danny Boyle, but if “True Grit” is a huge hit, there’s no way the Coen Brothers won’t come along for the ride here.

But perhaps the movie’s biggest wild card is the spunky teenaged heroine Mattie Ross, played by newcome Hailee Steinfeld.  She will be a more central figure in the 2010 version of “True Grit” since the novel focused more on her perspective. Still, Steinfeld will likely be campaigned for Best Supporting Actress where the field is thin and the category is more hospitable territory for young actresses.  In the past decade, 13-year-old Saiorse Ronan and 10-year-old Abigail Breslin have been nominees for “Atonement” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” respectively.  The category has also seen pint-sized winners like Tatum O’Neal for “Paper Moon” at the age of 10 and Anna Paquin for “The Piano” at the age of 11.

Steinfeld is in good company, but we have nothing other than a trailer and the confidence of the Coen Brothers to indicate whether or not she has the capability to execute this role.  Their word is good, as most actors who have worked with the duo state that they are perfectionists obsessed with precision.  All signs point to this being an inspired casting, and it won’t be hard for Steinfeld to make it a pretty meager Best Supporting Actress category this year.  But still, like everything else about “True Grit,” we still have to wait and see the critical reaction – just to make sure.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actor (Damon), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Brolin), Best Original Score





REVIEW: A Serious Man

27 11 2009

The Coen Brothers have been entertaining audiences with their off-beat filmmaking techniques for many years now.  In “A Serious Man,” their artistry shines bright as they lead you through a miserable string of luck in the life of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).  It is easy to get lost in their style while they present these events that are undeniably captivating.  Knowing that they are Oscar-winning directors and screenwriters lends a sense of confidence that they know what they are doing.  But when the dust settles and the film cuts to black, I couldn’t help but sigh, “Huh?” with a great deal of dissatisfaction.

As I walked out of the theater, the worst feeling was looming over me – not only did I not know what the filmmakers wanted me to take from the movie, I had absolutely no idea what I had just watched other than a life being ripped apart at the seams.  This is tough for anyone to feel, but I am a critic of sorts.  I couldn’t help trembling at what my readers would think if I couldn’t understand it.  “What a philistine, that Marshall, can’t even appreciate simple art,” I thought you might say.

But I’m going to imagine this as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” because I used lifelines so I could report to you something other than my confusion.  With the help of Google and a friend’s mother, I was able to decode some of the movie.
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