Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

X-Men: Apocalypse

'X Men - Apocalypse' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cinemablend.com

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens movie poster

Release: Friday, December 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: J.J. Abrams; Lawrence Kasdan; Michael Arndt

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

It’s admittedly difficult to resist feeling giddy when the familiar yellow text starts scrolling into the distance against a background strewn with stars. As John Williams’ iconic score trumpets the arrival of a new era in perhaps the only franchise that seems to matter, excitement slowly gives way to anticipation; anticipation to expectation; expectation to . . . well, this is where the path surely divides.

J.J. Abrams has found success on multiple fronts with his helming of George Lucas’ most lucrative creation. Never mind the fact he managed a dubious transition between both Star-themed universes. His film manifests as a surprisingly efficient blend of fan service and sound judgment. As canon-expanding as it is reverential but without indulging so much it becomes impenetrable to the outsider looking in. The Force Awakens also benefits from the work of a casting director who knows how to put the right pieces in place. On a project of this scale no aspect is unworthy of mention.

POE AND THE MAPQUEST MAGUFFIN 

The Force Awakens grafts nicely together with the story arcs presented in the original trilogy. Set approximately three decades into the future the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, has gone missing following a failed attempt to rebuild Jedi forces that ended in death and destruction thanks to dark warrior Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, for some reason).

The shadows of its predecessors are never far behind, though much to the franchise’s credit, there’s a lot of comfort in familiarity.

Rising out of the ashes of Darth Vader and his Death Star comes Ren and The First Order, suitably villainous nomenclature for the second coming of the Galactic Empire. Resistance Forces, into which Oscar Isaac’s skilled pilot Poe Dameron fits like a Skywalker into cinemythology, carry on the burden of the fallen Republic. There are hauntingly beautiful shots of alien sunrises, strange-looking-people montages, and compulsory (but still pulse-quickening) light saber duels. There’s even a repurposed AT-AT.

Early on Poe comes into possession of a digital map detailing the whereabouts of the apparently self-exiled Jedi. In an effort to keep the secret from falling into the wrong hands, he hides the file in his droid BB-8. Call him the R2-D2 of 2015. After a few close encounters and a chance run-in with defecting Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) that ends in Poe’s crashing back into the very planet he was trying to escape, the bot proves to be an indispensable asset. BB-8 becomes the target of both the Resistance and the First Order, and the task of protecting it at all costs falls to Finn (née Stormtrooper FN-2187) and the orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), who represents another of the year’s resilient, beguiling, tough leading ladies.

The trio eventually encounter an aging Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewie, whose loudly applauded first appearances surely won’t prove to be unique to my screening. They meet after crashing a ship following an escape from heavy Stormtrooper fire on the planet Jakku; a ship that turns out to be none other than the Millennium Falcon. Once Solo learns of the precious information the others are sitting on, he volunteers assistance all while Finn is still trying to escape to an entirely different star system, fearing the repercussions of his actions. And he wants to take Rey with him, but she has her heart set on returning home.

YOU AND YOUR SHINY NEW TOY

There’s nothing wholly original about the Abrams/Kasdan-revised script (originally written by Michael Arndt) but above average turns from newcomers Ridley and Boyega make the film easily accessible and a great deal more fun. They’re also unburdened with any sense of forced-awkward intimacy that, if things were different, could’ve earned Lucas a possible Golden Raspberry nomination.

Little time for that though, when you’re trying to take the production (and yourself) a little more seriously. Pride is most definitely at stake here. There’s an unshakable sense Abrams feels compelled to stay to a safe and conventional narrative arc, one that is largely predictable from beginning to end; that he knows and is quite possibly intimidated by how much is at stake with this production. But Episode VII doesn’t play out mechanically or with a sense of cautious restraint. There is restraint being exercised — imagining forty-five minutes having been cut from the opening action sequences and a few other significant confrontations isn’t very hard to do — but if anything the slightly more somber and straight-faced approach suits the drama.

I’ve never been able to categorize any of the installments as drama and yet, for the first time, there is a kind of gravity to proceedings that not only demands but earns attention. That’s not to say the film completely lacks humor, though. And I’ll spare details about what looms in the shadows but I will say this: unfortunately this film hasn’t been immune to Weak Villain syndrome. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you’re to get to the heart and soul of a body soon to be excoriated by dissenters.

Rather the reason, any reason to care about what happens rests upon the shoulders of the embattled Finn and Rey, the newcomers to a saga that clearly has territory left to be explored. Ridley might be the most impressive of the lot, optimizing her natural beauty with a strong, confident persona that betrays her apparently tragic past and fairly impoverished life on Jakku. She also might be the most compelling character. Boyega maintains an easy charm throughout, affording a humanity to the iconic, conformist Stormtroopers that will never be looked at the same way again.

And Lupita Nyong’o receives a sweet supporting role as Maz Kanata, an inquisitive but kind-hearted alien who proves helpful in protecting BB-8 from the First Order. Completely rendered in CGI I didn’t even realize it was Nyong’o until credits rolled, yet she offers a character that will be as difficult to forget as some of the main players.

At times it’s painfully obvious how much Star Wars relies on recognizability rather than its content. It will be interesting to see how many repeat viewings a select few character introductions will hold up to before they start feeling a little too protracted. A little too flashy. And the admittedly imposing Kylo Ren bears more than a passing resemblance to the series’ arguably most familiar character. That ain’t coincidence, all familial backstory accounted for and acknowledged. But let’s be honest, the flashiness can’t be avoided; it’s a new chapter in a major story spanning decades, and everything feels new and shiny again. Perhaps more importantly for me than for others: the new toy isn’t all shine and gloss. It has real functionality, too.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 4.20.18 AM

Recommendation: Once again a fairly redundant section of the page here; The Force Awakens doesn’t exactly need my endorsement but for what it’s worth, as a decided non-fan of the series, I really had a good time with this movie. More entertaining and diverting than something I can take really seriously, I was expecting to not like the film. So . . . that is . . . that is kind of neat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not how the Force works!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.business2community.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Most Violent Year

amvy

Release: Friday, January 23, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

In what’s likely to shape up to be one of the year’s most misleading titles I have happened upon cinematic bliss in A Most Violent Year, a love/hate letter to the 1980s that trades in what is presumed to be grueling thematic material for authentic human interaction.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor wades out of the pretentious waters of All is Lost with a stunningly realized mood piece centering on a Columbian immigrant and his wife trying to make an honest living during an historically violent and dangerous year in New York City’s history. In the process, he extracts from the steadily-rising Oscar Isaac a career highlight as Abel Morales, a well-dressed man in charge of his own gasoline-based heating company, Standard Oil located on the banks of what appears to be Jersey City. While the setting is purportedly the Big Apple, on a number of occasions we seem to be standing alongside Abel on the opposite shore, looking out at a sprawling jungle of edifice and cold concrete that looms large and a little more than threatening through the lens of cinematographer Bradford Young.

Either way, this gritty, gravel-laden locale is Abel’s future, a spacious lot he hopes to secure by brokering a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews. In securing a 40% down payment on the property it’s clear Abel has a certain level of confidence in his ability to make the deal happen within a month’s time. Though there is sunshine, we’re being transported back to some dark times indeed. Lurking in the background, aside from his hefty obligation to the Chassidim, are random acts of street violence that have repeatedly caused impediments to the growth and stability of Standard Oil; incidences in which several truck drivers delivering several thousand dollars’ worth of gas are forced at gunpoint to relinquish their duties, or else be shot on the spot, often in broad daylight and in the middle of a busy road.

Isaac’s Abel Morales is a man to be admired, particularly in this time, in this place, where a clean business deal is as commonplace as an mP3 player. Crooked men are Walkmans. Abel stands alone as he refuses to stoop to his competitors’ fear-mongering sales tactics. But what price is he paying for his attempt to keep his head above water? After all, he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are guilty by association anyway: Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is in the process of going after several gasoline heating companies for assorted fraudulent business practices, his company included. Anna would rather her husband get his hands dirty too and silence his competition — if for no other reason than to keep his family protected — but Abel knows it would be one more thing for the suits to pin on them.

In A Most Violent Year, paranoia doesn’t run rampant; danger truly lurks around every corner. For men like Abel who are head-and-shoulders above their competitors in terms of being a decent human being; for women like Anna who’d rather act first and worry about consequences later, there is entirely too much to lose. Money is an object, but not really. Arguably Abel’s greatest challenge is convincing himself that his approach is right and his wife’s righteously trigger-happy tendencies ultimately are threats to what could become an empire. Stakes run high enough in Chandor’s time capsule without the melodrama some of the more prestigious crime dramas are all too eager to run away with, i.e. backstabbings, betrayals, sudden tragedies.

A Most Violent year is bereft of all but the latter. This beautiful film is an exercise in restraint, and while that was the aim in Chandor’s previous effort, here we can actually really dig into characters that deserve positive outcomes. We can dissect them and discuss them. Not dismiss them. It’s early in the year, but I might have found one of my favorites of 2015 in this gripping morality play.

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4-0Recommendation: Though the promotional effort surrounding J.C. Chandor’s latest is somewhat misleading (this is hardly an action thriller), those wanting a realistic, humanistic piece will certainly get it in A Most Violent Year. Fans of the incredibly talented Oscar Isaac (and the rest of this cast) are sure to not be disappointed either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Inside Llewyn Davis

inside_llewyn_davis___poster_minimalist_by_jorislaquittant-d6x84bd

Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

“A folk singer with a cat. Is that part of your act? Every time you hit a C-major, does he puke a hairball?”

For whatever it’s worth, this line delivered by John Goodman’s character was intended to hurt Llewyn Davis’ feelings, not the cat’s. I suppose if the poor feline had to audition for its (substantial) role as Llewyn’s traveling pants, it probably managed to develop a thick skin (fur?) and wasn’t quite as sensitive as all the other Garfield-looking actors who didn’t get the part.

If that’s not a strange enough introduction to throw you completely off-balance, then you definitely need to see this film. Somehow the intro will seem more fitting and less like a rambling filler paragraph. The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) step forward into the limelight once again with a darkly comical week-in-the-life of a permanently embittered yet talented musician who constantly fumbled in his attempts to make something of himself against the backdrop of the folk music scene in 1960s New York City. If Greenwich Village (largely a residential borough of west Lower Manhattan) was the rose garden in which young artists blossomed, Llewyn would be the thorn of thorns growing on the tallest rose stem. Antisocial and abrasive, the character is not the kind one would immediately associate with potentially award-winning storytelling.

Ordinarily that presumption — that miserable characters tend to make for bad times at the movies — is a good one to keep in the back pocket; why pay money for an experience that’s going to ultimately irritate or rub you the wrong way? While that reservation is still understandable here, writing off the Coens’ latest gem as not a good film because the main character doesn’t appeal would be a mistake.

For starters, missing this film means missing out on Oscar Isaac’s sharpest performance to date, and it also means missing a chance to see/hear Justin Timberlake do some real singing. (For the readers who are choosing to stay through this review even after I have mentioned that name, I thank you kindly. And yes, I do accept tips.) In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to see this film is for the music. That the performers have a chance to incorporate their musical inclinations is surprisingly rewarding; Isaac’s voice is incredible. Timberlake is quite tolerable since his contributions are minimal, yet they endure as much as Isaac’s mopey face; and the film serves as a great showcase for Carey Mulligan’s beautiful voice as well.

However great the many musical imbuements are (and they really are something), all they do is factor into the story — a story of a struggling musician trying to be noticed in a world filled with competing interests and, perhaps, more favorable personalities. These interludes demonstrate these people at their best. When the spotlight turns off of them (particularly Llewyn) though, the Coens’ carefully constructed tone and mood — even the cityscape — seems that much darker.

Isaac portrays a character loosely based on the music and experiences of folk singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Indeed, there was no such folk singer named Llewyn Davis — a reality that is difficult to accept considering the power of Isaac’s essence. Instead, the Coen brothers drafted up a period piece so rich in detail they created real, breathing human beings; even fictitious acts like Davis, like Al Cody (Adam Driver), like duos such as Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) (who actually were based on the real-life duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray) are byproducts of a fully-realized script that epitomizes one particular point in music history.

Such is the value of the ticket into this particular Coen production: the sense of time and place. Steeped in a little corner of America that was brimming with talent in a much-overlooked genre, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer to what’s ostensibly the 60s; so much so, that the story presented comes in second to the ambience. Llewyn was once part of a duo himself, but after his friend and fellow songwriter decided to commit suicide, he has been left in an aching hollow, a dark melancholy from which he seemingly cannot awaken. His last album (which he recorded with his late friend) hasn’t sold well at all, rendering him completely broke. So he bounces from couch to couch, finding increasingly desperate ways of securing the next gig that may or may not tide him over for awhile. Llewyn doesn’t so much live as much as he exists.

On top of his real-world issues, Llewyn has a myriad of ideological problems that don’t seem to help his cause. He can’t fathom why audiences are taking to other acts more than his own; why does everything he touch seemingly fall to pieces? His jealousy of Jim and Jean might be understandable on a more personal level, and yet, for him, it’s so much more. Llewyn doesn’t like people, clearly. Painfully ironically, he has plenty of kind-hearted “friends” and acquaintances who have been trying to help him out and get him off of his feet. (Hey, at least there’s the cat. . . .he won’t help to pay rent or whatever, but, meow. . .)

The directorial duo of brothers weave a slight, if daydreaming, narrative in between rousing on-screen performances and tremendous stage presences. It’s difficult to believe Isaac and Mulligan — and, yes. . .okay, Timberlake, get in here too — are this talented, musically as well as visually. We don’t see Llewyn do much other than mope around between apartments he’s staying in, smoke cigarettes and complain; but we do meet a full cast of characters who do more than their fair share of bringing this story to life. John Goodman adds some color (as per usual) as Roland Turner, a jazz musician Llewyn meets on the road who might be more obnoxious than he is; Garrett Hedlund makes a brief appearance as Turner’s driver, cigarette un-sharing, beat-poet Johnny Five; and F. Murray Abraham plays up the big whig (or as big as they get at this point) Bud Grossman, a potential label representative Llewyn has been eyeing in Chicago, his possible ticket for getting out of all of this mess.

The Coens won’t make it easy on the viewer (after all, they did hire Justin Timberlake. . . but in all honesty, he’s nothing to worry about here). Inside Llewyn Davis suffers from a minor case of anti-hero. However, in this case, the viewer must be able to distinguish between bad person and great performance. Isaac turns in an affecting performance; arguably one of the more memorable of 2013. Capturing the drama and the anxieties of working in this kind of market during this time in this place is a task left up to Joel and Ethan Coen. And they deliver, as only they can.

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4-0Recommendation: Inside Llewyn Davis may very well appeal to far more fans of Coens’ previous work than to newcomers, but it should also have a strong sway with anyone who loves good music. Packed full of great little songs, a few of which are sung to perfection by the cast, the film is a real joy to watch unfold, despite it’s rough-around-the-edges subject and the circumstances surrounding him/it. The performances are stellar, and, unless the Oscars are completely and unabashedly fixed (maybe they are), they should receive at least some sort of recognition come February.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

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