Cue the John Williams’ drumroll please, as it’s finally here: some long-awaited details and a stunning first look at the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, now officially titled Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong’o, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels and even Carrie Fischer (!!!) and Mark Hammill is the 11th overall Star Wars film and the third of the third trilogy, which is said to be the last dealing with the Skywalker legacy. Read More
Alex Garland, the visionary writer-director behind Ex Machina, obsesses over ideas of what it means to be human. With Ex Machina, he explored the inception of A.I. and how true artificial intelligence blurs the line between human and “other” to dizzying, disorienting and apocalyptic result. In his writing effort Never Let Me Go, Garland posed similar – if less refined – questions, posing an analogous emotional experiment with clones as the test subject, begging his audience to work out what separates “us” from “them”. “If they feel, are they not too human?” was the central thrust and this idea has continue to haunt Garland’s films. Never Let Me Go was a lesser effort but came from a place of ripe ideology and artistic thoughtfulness, traits which Garland has never lacked and has gone on to define to great effect. Read More
Star Wars is and always has been an underdog story. An action-packed intergalactic odyssey about small legions of rebels rising against seemingly insurmountable adversaries, Star Wars is rooted in an idea of hope against all odds, and you don’t need C3P0 on hand to butt in for that calculation. After the politically-charged prequels, The Force Awakens (and Rogue One) returned to this central conceit of a Sisyphusian struggle – toil in the face of utter improbability – depicting new characters taking their turn against a tyrannical empire, its limitless armada and impossibly supercharged firepower and with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, hope has never seemed so out of reach and victory so unachievable. Read More
A Beaver Clever-era, suburbia-set take on the Fargo formula, Suburbicon manages to tack onto its strange plot plagiarism a tone deaf racial integration backdrop and a slew of characters unable to pass as either likable or interesting. It’s an oddly comfortless misfire from director George Clooney, one that seems promising on paper but never is able to click once the tape starts rolling. Snooze-inducing if stylish, Suburbicon takes a host of talent in front of and behind the camera and squanders it in on an effort that, while never outright stupid, is almost unbearably not as smart, clever or funny as it seems to think it is. Read More
“Everyone knows the third one is always the worst,” a young Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) ironically reports, exiting a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi. She’s right of course: Jedi is the lesser of the original Star Wars trilogy. But to her larger point: the culmination of trilogies often results in some degree of disappointment, sometimes even sullying the good name of that whence came before it. Take Godfather: Part III, The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Revolutions, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, ALIEN3, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Terminator: Rise of the Machines and of course, Brett Ratner’s quite bad X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean’s remark, planted as it is in what is the third film of this newfangled X-Men trilogy, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps both a potshot at Ratner’s derided 2006 entry to the franchise and a preemptive snarky parlay to the film’s inevitable detractors, because believe me when I say, X-Men: Apocalypse proves Jean Grey’s point. Read More
There has been an awakening. With a $238 million opening weekend, the box office roared to live, stoked by the Mustafar-sized conflagration of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, quickly making this seventh Star Wars film the biggest opening of all time and putting it on track to dethrone the highest grossing films ever. But all money aside, the real question on everyone’s lips were, is it good? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding yes. With a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, critics and fans alike have rallied around the J.J. Abrams product like Ewoks on a post-Empire Endor. But that doesn’t mean that the film didn’t have its share of lows amongst the highs. Read More
A long time ago in 1977, Star Wars (back then there was no ‘A New Hope’ to it) struck a cultural nerve, resonating like a tuning fork to the farthest reaches of the known galaxy. A flurry of rabid fans stormed the theaters, salivating for a product that was by and large rejected at first glance (Fun Fact: Fox had to strong-arm theater programmers by withholding the right to screen The Other Side of Midnight unless they also screened Star Wars, a film 99 out of 100 people probably don’t recognize today.) If they only knew the power of this sci-fi behemoth, one that even today holds the record for second highest grossing film when adjusted for inflation, there is no doubt that they would have flooded their holy grounds with screening after screening of the lauded space opera but history is a fickle thing. Just ask all those people caught on the news praising Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Read More
In Alex Garland‘s sci-fi opus, Ex Machina – most commonly seen in the phrase “deus ex machina”, meaning “god from the machine” and frequently used to describe convenient plot contrivances (of which Ex Machina has none) – refers to the process by which a machine transcends its “machininess”. The Turing test has come to describe this as-of-yet unrealized phenomenon more specifically. This experiment tests for a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” Thus the barrier to entry for any truly credible A.I. is sky-high.
Not only must you exhibit superlative intelligence but it must also be nigh indistinguishable from that of a human; a tricky task indeed and one that drives the audience to question what it is specifically that makes an intelligence human. Halfway through Garland’s film, a character drives a scalpel into his arm fervently hunting for circuitry. When the aesthetic design and electronic capacities are this close to impeccable, who’s to say what is man and what is machine. Read More
The Two Faces of January is a classical told crime caper centered around a pair of on-the-lamb scalawags and the one vixen they both are vying for. Directed by Drive scribe Hossein Amini and starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, January is a film that relies entirely on engaged, rapturous performances and, while much more slow burning than edge of your seat, delivers on that front mightily.
Here, Mortensen is Chester MacFarland, a wealthy con artist with a thick billfold and a handsome wardrobe, chased through the din of countless European cities by shadows and connected private detectives. He’s a cautious charmer. A snake undoubtedly. From his designer shades to the first-rate cut of his gib, he’s a man who demands admiration. At least, at first glance. Getting to know Chester is part of the game that Amini plans. Seeing the depravity to which he lowers himself, part of the tragedy. As Chester drains bottles, the man as suave as seersucker fades into an angry mule of a man, kicking aimlessly at the world around. Like with any role, Mortensen commits entirely, crafting a petty, often cowardly man that still isn’t beyond the reach of sympathy.
Dunst as Chester’s lovably rosy – though ultimately dim and complacent – wife is better suited as a fatted calf than a partner in crime. Don’t take that as a knock on her performance – which actually is quite solid – but a statement on her character. She’s the gold prize awarded on the pedestal somehow caught up amongst the peloton. She’s a trophy to be enjoyed after the victory lap that has found herself thick in the sweatfields of the race. Suited to costly champagne and shiny bangles, their recent life on the run is undoubtedly getting to her.
When an American traveler living as a Athenian tour guide, Rydal (Isaac), mistakes Chester for his own father, he offers his services as a guide of all trades. Immediately taken with Rydal, Dunst’s Colette accepts empathically, a union that intensifies when Rydal mistakenly witnesses Chester killing, err man slaughtering, off the PI hot on their trail. Matching Mortensen jab-for-jab, Isaac showcases his own knack for understated ferocity, bringing another misunderstood – though less misanthropic – character to life.
With their paths incontrovertibly tangled, the party seeks passage to a nearby country – any nearby country – and a brighter tomorrow. This narrative turn necessitates a fundamental move in something as basic as the nature of the film’s genre and makes for a much more flatlined stretch.
Once Chester, Colette and Rydal escape Athens, January turns from a broiling Hitchcockian thriller to a turgid road movie. And though their languishing trip over rail, bus lines and cobbled streets is imbued with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of the Greek coast and Marcel Zyskind‘s penitent eye, the affair quickly bores. As any train passenger would agree, train-side has the potential to be occasionally stunning but the repetitive character all but serves as nature’s Ambien. In those tedious middle minutes, I caught my head sinking into my chest and my eyes fluttering closed. It isn’t until the group begins to properly implode on themselves that things begin to heat up and intensify, leading to a fully satisfying though not unfamiliar final third.
Bearing no resemblance to some other projects he worked on (Drive) January proves the Iranian Amini has no desire to be written into a corner. Totally missing is the stylized, progressive zest of Drive, replaced by a humbled, deferential, even old fashion stance towards filmmaking. This isn’t a man trying to reinvent the wheel so much as marvel at the perfection of it.
What it does share in common is a collected sense of muted, disquieting scene work. His characters are flawed, moody but not without their charms. As Colette and Rydal’s flirtation turns from simmer to boil, Chester’s wavering acumen is a synonym of circumstance. As a writer, Amini confirms that more can be said by not saying anything at all. Though he doesn’t set out to affirm that all men are redeemable, in a roundabout way, he has. But the bumps along the road are many and the emotions are as fair-weather as often as they are belligerent. If I had a nickel for every time someone let a scowl slip across their face, I’d be 85 cents richer.
The film is deliberately set to the pace of Alberto Iglesias‘ smart score. His jumpy sonatas offers an appropriate overture for Amini’s drab thriller, giving it life in spots, taking it away in other. A somber, reflective romp like this almost demands Iglesias’s score to channel such an exacting and hectic mood. As further evidence of the monotony of the sagging middle parts, Iglesias’s musical touch fades to melancholic whimpering. Oboes croon like a large dog pining for attention. It’s not until his strings dash forward and the notes crescendo that the film does again.
With more in common with the films of the 1960s than the films of 2014, The Two Faces of January has a tendency to turn the pot to a low broil and lean on the actor’s oft mesmerizing performances to guide it through the humdrum elements. Nevertheless, there’s much to love about Amini’s effort and even more to admire. Top to bottom, January is an uncommon romantic thriller; a pretty picture cemented by actors on top of their game.
“Inside Llewyn Davis’
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands
“Can anything be both meaningful and aimless?” Joel and Ethan Coen ask in their latest film. Taking it from Llewyn Davis, the man and movie both, it appears so. But such is the nature of art. A masterpiece isn’t planned, nor is it something that can necessarily be blueprinted. Half the meaning of art is in the legwork itself; the getting there of it all. For within art as self-expression, there is no structure, no path towards inspiration, and no guarantee of success, even for your best work. And yet, to only give yourself half-heartedly to a craft that only stands a snowball’s chance in hell of finding an audience is self-defeating. Folk music, as we see here, isn’t just about singing songs, it’s the burden of searching for meaning, a modus operandi that looks a lot like vagrancy; an outré way of existing. Art is no hobby, Inside Llewyn Davis cries, it’s a lifestyle, and a tiring one at that.
As Llewyn Davis tries with fleeting enthusiasm to give his folk-sung artistry a last go around the Greenwich folk scene, he learns that art and commercialism could not be further polarized (the iPhone hadn’t been invented just yet). In an ironically staged twist of Coen Bros symmetry, this film, which is as far left of commercial as can be, is a piece of high art. As such, it’ll likely be shuffled away from the mainstream, bolstered only by Coen enthusiast’s enduring adoration, near-universal critical acclaim, and a dollop of love from the awards circuits. But though it’s reach may be limited, it is powerful. And as I’ve tried to preach in movie-related writings, it’s a film best served with a healthy serving of reflection, to be sought out by those who seek a deeper relationship with the films they watch.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a mood piece if there ever was any, rich with soulful folk ballads, colorful characters, and stripped of the usual framework that we call a story. As a microcosm of an era and a subculture, Davis, with his caustic demeanor, is the last man you would expect to lead a story. But for all his many faults, he lives and breathes folk music. His battered existence is the stuff straight from a hokum Bob Dylan lyric. What better subject for a film about a music genre that has by and large represented lost souls and losing investments than a gruff man fading from relevance before he was ever close to it in the first place?
Lumbering around aimless, Davis suffers from destiny lost. He’s recovering from the death of his best friend and musical partner and coming to the harsh acceptance that life has chewed him up, spit him out, and wants no further taste of him. But that’s hardly an excuse for such reprehensible behavior. Especially in front of the ladies!
Muses for Davis come and go with the change of the seasons and, through the power of suggestion and the here-again-there-again nature of Davis, we’re led to believe that he’s notorious for being loose with the ladies. Hell, he’s even slept with his best friend’s wife. But for all the poontang he reaps around town, he’s about as popular with any given lady after a sexual tryst as the music he sings. Doling out abortion money like its a hobby, Davis is the breed of sad, sorrowful ladies man who’s lifestyle is unbefitting of love. There’s only room for one love in his life and that’s his music, however mistreated it seems to be by the rest of the world.
When it comes to telling this tale of harmonious woe, the Coens turn the formula on its head. Rather than meeting a grumbling stick-in-the-mud who then spins his life around, when we meet Davis, he seems like a pretty decent guy. However, the more time we spent with him, the more we see him as an egocentric bastard, using up people’s goodwill and spitting them out like they were nothing to him. But it probably comes with the fact that he
Llewyn’s didactic approach to music has him looking down his nose at his peers – all of which, he has assured himself, are hacks or sell outs – and yet going nowhere fast for it. In such, he’s the Holden Caulfield of folk (and I guess that makes them “phonies”). But Davis is no troubled teenager. He’s a calloused man, hardened by disappointed, burdened with grief and buried in sorrow. The only thing that keeps him ticking is his geetar and his oh so lovely vocal cords. But each time Llewyn caws out a tune, coy as it may be, he is alive. Then, he retreats into something the broken man we know. As lively and rich as his soulful ballads are, he has become a shell. Without his tunes, I’m afraid there is nothing else left in this Oscar the Grouch.
After reading an early draft of the script, the Coens decided they needed more “tradition” in it and so we have Ulysses the cat. Davis’ moral compass is represented by this fat-faced, orange tabby cat who we meet in the opening shot of the film. Ulysses, just as much as Davis, guides us through this week-long saunter. As the film tracks the cat’s journey, we come to new conclusions about the mop-headed Llewyn, conclusions which will ultimately disappoint us and leave Davis heavy with shame.
Teeming with atmosphere, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the feel of grayness, that hard to swallow pill of depression. Even though it’s quite beautiful, Inside Llewyn Davis feels ugly. You can smell the stink of the smoke on your skin, and the nip of the chilly air when Davis walks into the New York streets sans proper winter wear. We shutter when he steps in a puddle, we empathize when he’s told, “I don’t see any money in it” as if that’s all that really matters.
Wet, downtrodden cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel helps to inform a New York that’s just as beat up as Davis himself. Even the most upbeat song of the film, sung to absolute perfection by Justin Timberlake‘s Jim and Adam Driver‘s Al Cody, is a plea against America’s fear of the uncertainty – the next battle against the Ruskos in a blossoming Cold War. That song, so aptly titled Please Mr. Kennedy is perfectly symbolic for the whole feature – and one of the most fun scens in all of 2013. It’s commercial crud and yet, it’s the one song you’ll be singing after the film wraps for days (Puh-puh-puh-please…). If only the whole movie had this upbeat sensibility, humor, and Driver’s timely baritone. But that’s a different movie entirely.
And yet there are a couple chunks to it that may as well be flown in from other films. The car scene with John Goodman seems like its from another movie entirely and, while propelling Llewyn to a climatic meeting with fate, seems a touch bloated for what we get out of it.
Blemishes and all, Inside Llewyn Davis is that rare movie that only the Coens could pull off. Backed by a killer soundtrack, a gloomy visual landscape, and a star-making performance from lead Oscar Isaac, it may be a film reserved for the minority but those lucky few sure will cherish it.