I LOVED reading your review of This is 40, Glenn. Especially as right before choosing This is 40 on OnDemand, I'd been watching Schindler's List on Sundance (and have to admit I had to turn it off to look for lighter fare) ! LOL in light of what you wrote.
This is a tough one. How can a movie so great be so boring? Now I know the Coen Brothers have the ability to pace up a movie better than most (see RAISING ARIZONA), so I have to think this long slog was intentional. Yet somehow INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS adds up to movie perfection. Weird, eh? Stay with me.
Set in 1961 Greenwich Village, Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer whose life consists of low paying gigs, couch surfing, and generally alienating everyone who crosses his path. He's the self-destructive anti-hero who sabotages every possible break he gets. Played with star-making prowess by Oscar Isaac, who has been bubbling under stardom until now with fine turns in such films as DRIVE and SUCKER PUNCH, his performance here should catapult him to the top tier.
Much as I feel Alexander Payne was so heavily influenced by PAPER MOON when making NEBRASKA, the Coen Brothers have seemingly channeled the aesthetic of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, another Peter Bogdanovich masterwork, with this quiet, haunting film which has the howl of the wind on its mind as much as it does on its forlorn music. Both films excel in their depictions of ennui, of lost hope, and in those moments when characters realize that things may not go as planned.
Though it's set in the early 60s, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has the smarts not to use any historical signposts. No JFK assassination to lazily show us how the turbulence of the times affected the characters here. Instead, the Coens want us to experience desperation, ambition, and loss of control in the most intimate and strange ways. For roughly the first third of the film, Llewyn is literally chasing a cat around. It's the type of detail a struggling artist would find himself caught up in, and a much better way to capture his essence than finding out how he feels about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Scrounging around, he asks fellow musicians Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) for a temporary place to stay. Problem is, she despises him, announcing that she's pregnant and he may be the father for all he knows. Never one to shy away from an awkward moment, Llewyn still pushes for that couch, because he doesn't seem to care about anybody. Mulligans's rage, while understandable, is pretty much the only note she strikes in the film, but it still feels like she's stretching as a performer. Timberlake is subtle and quiet in a small role, the better to allow Isaac to shine.
Llewyn is a complicated guy. He's kind of a dick and he's the first to admit it, yet he sings with such passion that you understand why he's such a jerk about his lack of success. Nobody wants to be around an angry guy, but he believes in himself. Isaac provided his own vocals for the film, and while the songs he sings are pretty depressing, he's captivating to watch. It's to the Coen's credit that we experience his talent while at the same time hearing from others that he's not the kind of guy who sells records. It forces us as an audience to question what we're seeing, and this dichotomy is what makes this very slow film so compelling.
Episodic by nature, we follow Llewyn as he takes an impromptu trip on the road, where he encounters an incredibly bizarre, almost somnambulant man (John Goodman) and his driver (a stoic Garrett Hedlund who seemingly just drifted in from his stint in ON THE ROAD). It's this section where we see that all of Llewyn's troubles back in New York mean nothing when you're on a long stretch of wintry road with two people who could give two shits about your problems. From here, it's one literal or figurative punch in the gut for Llewyn as he careens from one desperate situation to the next.
Yet through it all, I don't think we're meant to feel bad for the guy. He's a musician who knows he deserves more yet refuses to sell out. Even at his lowest, he believes in his abilities. In one terrific scene, Timberlake uses him on a novelty track, along with Adam Driver from GIRLS providing goofy vocals, and you can see that while a song like this would have been a hit at the time, Llewyn would never do this on his own. I also enjoyed the scenes between Llewyn and his sister (Jeanine Serralles), as she grounds and reminds him that a life outside of show business is still worthy. I think, overall, this is what the Coen Brothers are trying to say.
Contributing immeasurably to the film is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who gives the film a burnished, inky and desolate feel. I look at his work with AMELIE, INFAMOUS, and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and can see that he's a master of mood. Production Designer Jess Gonchor, a longtime Coen Brothers collaborator, perfectly captures the feel of those underground cafes, those cramped apartment hallways, and an upper class uptown apartment without drifting into novelty territory. The sets are lived-in and add to the credibility of the film.
There will be some who will say this is a big yawner. It is. But I tried to imagine a lighter, snappier version of this story (GRACE OF MY HEART comes to mind), and it just wouldn't work with a guy like Llewyn front and center. This is hard, somewhat depressing material the Coen Brothers are tackling, and in some miraculous way, they've made boredom their bitch.
We're currently living in a point in history where our relationship to technology, well, just like the Facebook status update says, "It's complicated". Our lives have become easier in so many ways, but at the same time, we've cut ourselves off from each other in favor of the myriad of options lighting up our smartphones. With his new film, HER, Spike Jones, who clearly learned a thing or two from working with Charlie Kaufman, has figured out a way to inject an unusual and distancing premise with genuine heart and soul.
Set in the not too distant future, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer for a company that composes personal letters for their customers, who falls for his new operating system, named Samantha. Almost as if Jones took CATFISH and ramped it up to 11, HER gives us a love story between a man and someone he has neither seen nor met. Unlike the aforementioned documentary, there's no chance here he ever will. Only using her voice, Scarlett Johansson brings so much charm and depth to her role, that you end up wishing SIRI would have 1/10 of her personality. I think this is a breakthrough performance for her in that she can't fall back on her beauty to seduce us, and it works incredibly well.
HER is deceptively simple. Mostly contained and fairly quiet, the scenes unfold in either Phoenix's apartment or office, and it's largely just him talking to Samantha. What a terrific achievement that Jones is able to make all of this exciting and compelling. I knew we were in good hands early on when Phoenix has a phone sex scene (with hilarious voice work by Kristen Wiig). It's a well-worn concept, but as the scene grows kinkier, it becomes clear that our focus is on Phoenix's desperation and loneliness, his utter need to connect. Sometimes I find his acting style to be a little too method, but Phoenix has never been this warm and rich. It's a performance, much like that of the rest of its perfect cast, that's on the edge of tears. HER has a swoony, dreamy quality to it, as if its entire reason for being is to ache for our protagonist.
Helping that cause immensely are the contributions of its cinematographer, production designer and costume designer. Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, keeps Phoenix extremely close to us while presenting a simple future where bright pops of color rule the day. Who knew some lighting gels on windows could look so cool? K.K. Barrett, a longtime artistic collaborator with Jones, is in on the concept, providing spacious, airy rooms for our characters to interact. Eschewing the obvious dystopian future look we commonly see in this genre (BRAZIL, 1984), HER is sleek, romantic, and clean. Costume Designer Casey Storm brings some truly memorable men's pants to the table. These high-waisted puppies would be instant Mom Jeans if they didn't look so distinctive and cool on Phoenix.
Amy Adams is stripped down and lovely as Phoenix's unlucky-in-love neighbor. With her curly hair and dewy eyes, she reminded me of a new kind of romantic heroine much in the same way Diane Keaton did with ANNIE HALL. While not as neurotic as Keaton, Adams seems fully engaged and in touch with the longing just beneath the surface of her character. I was charmed and moved. Chris Pratt dials back the goofy tics he displays with great skill on PARKS AND RECREATION, and instead concisely illustrates that a romance between two human beings can still happen in this day and age. It's not a great performance, but it's one that fits well with Jones' overall thesis.
Despite the simple way HER unfolds, the concepts and emotions are complex. Without spoiling any of the story, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha covers a lot of philosophical ground. The details, such as the extras who are constantly ensconced in their own Operating System conversations or the gorgeous ceiling of lights behind Phoenix in one shot, highlight the themes wonderfully.
One very minor quibble. [SLIGHT SPOILER] Late in the movie, Phoenix sells his letters to a publisher, and I couldn't help but think that his company would own the rights to his work. Maybe in the future THE MAN becomes a little more reasonable!
Regardless, HER is a sweet, memorable film, and one of the few out there anymore that addresses the evolution of our relationships. It kind of makes you want to stop what you're doing and hug someone. Seriously, put down your smartphone (ok, maybe after you LIKE this review) and engage with the world.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the target audience for any films adapted from YA Novels. You can try to shove Bella/Edward/Jacob down my throat all you want, but I'm most likely to gag. Having said that, I liked the first HUNGER GAMES mostly because of Jennifer Lawrence's committed performance as the emerging heroine, Katniss Everdeen (totally annoying name btw) and partly because I love pretty much anything set in a dystopian future. Throw in LORD OF THE FLIES meets 1984 meets SURVIVOR and I'm pretty much reserving my seat at the Arclight immediately.
Sure, the first installment had its problems - an over-reliance on shaky camera work, poor introductions of the other contestants (called tributes), an outrageously over-the-top and gaudy depiction of the Capitol city, and an oddly off-balance love triangle. What could have been a foray into intricate strategizing ended up as a reasonably entertaining studio programmer.
Which brings us to the sequel, actually the second of four parts, and while it doesn't feel like a film that can stand on its own (is anyone ever going to top GODFATHER II, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, or ALIENS when it comes to kickass sequels?), I pretty much had fun with this movie. Picking up right where the first part left off, Katniss and her partner, Peeta, return home as the winners of the Hunger Games and are about to embark on a Victory Tour. Unfortunately, their fascist dictator (a terrific Donald Sutherland) senses the rebel in Katniss and wants her dead. He and his Game Planner (Philip Seymour Hoffman) come up with a scheme to bring back all of the past victors for what is basicially an All Stars match. They figure the adoring public won't worship Katniss and honor her thinly-veiled signals of a revolution if she's betraying and killing the best of the best. Not really the best plan. They should just kill her, because we all know that Katniss is a winner, right?
The first act, an over-extended setup, contains some of the most compelling sequences in the film. The chess pieces are all put into play as the screws tighten and tighten around poor Katniss. For a while there, the girl just can't seem to catch a break. Once the games begin, however, the film, while fast-paced and a blistering assault on the senses, starts to feel pretty random. Things just keep happening to Katniss, instead of her driving the action. She and her alliance encounter one non-human entity after another instead of getting down to the business of killing each other. While it all comes together eventually (and I must say, beautifully), Katniss feels more like a passive observer in the film instead of the smart girl with a plan. Now it doesn't hurt that this largely reactive character is played so well by Lawrence, who beat-by-beat makes you truly feel her predicament. She's so good that I kind of felt that it didn't matter that the entirety of the games here didn't really seem to have any bearing on the main story. I will chalk it up to Second Installment issues and hope that everything eventually pays off down the road.
Also incredibly fun here is Stanley Tucci, who is campy and kitschy all at once, with a laugh I hope Drag Queens will bring to RuPaul's Drag Race sometime in the near future. Jenna Malone is fierce and has an oddball energy as one of the tributes. Elizabeth Banks is oddly loveable as Effie Trinket, but let's face it, the real achievement here is the stupendous costume design by Trish Sommerville and great makeup work. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson don't seem like evenly matched suitors. I haven't read the novels, but I'm guessing that Katniss would be an idiot to favor a bland Abercrombie Model over her dynamic cohort in running, jumping, and killing.
Speaking of which, there just isn't enough killing in this film, and the stakes don't seem so high as a result. Killing a baboon isn't the same as ending a young teen's life. Despite the PG-13 nature of the first film, there at least was a little attention paid to feeling the weight of each death. In this sequel, many people kind of come and go so quickly, that you can barely remember their one character trait. Lynn Cohen, best known as Magda on SEX AND THE CITY, plays Mags here (really? barely a name change?), and she doesn't even utter one line. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer make a very odd, disconnected pair, but at least they're memorable.
The games portion of the movie actually felt like an episode of LOST, with its shaking trees and science experiment gone wrong vibe. Still, Jennifer Lawrence kept me interested. The very abrupt ending sets things up nicely for next installments, but I would have preferred a few more beats showing us how Katniss feels and what she plans on doing. I mean, the film is almost 2 1/2 hours long, what's the hurry?!! For fans of this sort of thing, CATCHING FIRE delivers, but would it have hurt to let Katniss figure things out herself, or kill somebody, or simply drive the action for more than just the 3rd act set piece? At least she's still a master with a bow and arrow, and at least there's a woman front and center in an action tentpole film, and for that, I applaud this fun but flawed film.
Call me what you will, but animation (except for SOUTH PARK) has never been my favorite genre. There have been wonderful exceptions, such as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, TANGLED, and the first half hour of WALL-E, and yes, I did shed a tear during TOY STORY 3, but more often than not, I get a sugar overload and strained eyes.
So, I'm happy to report that Disney's new FROZEN is a pretty terrific film. Sure, it has some cloying non-human characters just waiting to get packed into a Happy Meal, and what would a Disney Princess be without those creepy Margaret Keane-esque bug-eyes? But, for the most part, this is a shimmering, wintry saga, complete with some memorable, Broadway-caliber tunes and a girl power message to boot.
Based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's THE SNOW QUEEN, FROZEN tells the tale of two Princesses, one, Elsa, who possesses the power to freeze things at will and her sister, Anna, who is separated from her sibling to stay out of harm's way. Their "Let's Build A Snowman" number is arguably the best in the film and beautifully lays out their special bond. Once apart, Anna strives to reunite with Elsa in order to not only save their relationship, but to save the kingdom, which Elsa has turned into a frozen nightmare.
I won't spoil any more of the plot, as it's filled with wonderful twists, and every shot is a mini-masterpiece. Hauntingly lit and flawlessly composed, the experience of watching this is one big gaping smile. Now, it's not perfect. The last act is music-free and could have used a reprieve of its signature song, and you'd have to have been deprived of fairy tales while growing up to not be able to guess where this is all leading to, but the journey is quite remarkable. Such Disney staples as non-human comic relief feel a tad strained at times (the Trolls never really caught on for me, and Sven the reindeer followed the cute Disney handbook rules to the letter). Strangest of all was the opening music, which evoked THE LION KING chanting, yet this film is set in Scandinavia and the scene involved burly men procuring blocks of ice from a frozen fjord. Random.
Still, Olaf (well-voiced by BOOK OF MORMON star Josh Gad) is a great creation, a snowman who longs to experience Summer. Stealing every scene, his big moment, "In Summer" is on a par with "Under The Sea". Just watching him come in contact with heat is one of the true joys of this holiday season. Kristen Bell does a great job of giving neurotic nuance to Anna, and Idina Menzel sings the hell out of her big number and convincingly walks the tightrope of making a somewhat villainous character sympathetic. When she unleashes her powers at the big ball, I couldn't help but think of CARRIE at the prom, minus the pig's blood and the dead Gym Teacher, of course.
FROZEN is preceded by a fantastic short, GET A HORSE, which mixes black and white animation with dazzlingly colored CGI. A must-see in 3D, this is an amazing technical achievement, and the less you know about it, the better.
FROZEN deserves all of the accolades it will undoubtedly receive (a certain animated Oscar winner), and is a feather in the Disney cap. If only it would have remembered to be a musical all the way through. Oh well, they can't all be BIGGER, LONGER AND UNCUT.
In the grand tradition of good movies with forgettable titles (see ENOUGH SAID), comes SAVING MR. BANKS, which most people will end up referring to as "That Mary Poppins Movie". Regardless, this is stodgy, Hollywood Studio filmmaking of the highest order...if you're into that sort of thing. Director John Lee Hancock, who has built a veritable cottage industry out of said Hollywood films (THE BLIND SIDE, THE ALAMO, THE ROOKIE), along with screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, elevate what could have been a fairly interesting but mundane story about the conception of Disney's MARY POPPINS and turned it into a sweet elegy on the creative process.
Emma Thompson is truly commanding as P.L. Travers, the author of MARY POPPINS, who reluctantly travels to Los Angeles to work with Walk Disney (a perfect Tom Hanks) on the screen adaptation. Taking her cues from authors like J.D. Salinger, who insisted (and rightly so) that Hollywood ruins everything; Travers is a prickly, stubborn woman who clings to her past while fiercely protecting her baby. The past is intercut throughout and tells the tale of a young Travers growing up in Australia under very trying circumstances. Unfolding like a mystery, these flashbacks provide the heart so seemingly missing from her adult self. Playing a young Travers is a wonderful child actor named Annie Rose Buckley, who grew up with an alcoholic but adoring father (Colin Farrell doing terrific work here). Farrell's character is clearly the inspiration for Mr. Banks from the novel, and Travers fears Disney will sanitize the past and make a cartoon out of her baby. After unsuccessfully pursuing her for 20 years, Disney finally gets Travers to Los Angeles, and the sparks fly.
Aside from the aforementioned actors, this is a great ensemble, from Paul Giamatti as Travers' driver to Michelle Arthur as Disney's fragile, put-upon secretary, who savors every reaction shot. Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak and Bradley Whitford do wonderful slow burns as the songwriters and screenwriters of MARY POPPINS. The trio worked most closely with Travers and have the battle scars to prove it. Watching them read through the script, or test out a song with her is vivid, fly-on-the-wall stuff rarely portrayed in films. As Travers gives condescending note after note to the men, we see them quietly imploding, wondering what they did to deserve such an awful situation. Without spoiling anything, we get to experience the REAL Travers and it's clear Thompson did her homework.
Still, Thompson remains hugely likeable because we grow to understand her and her convictions. Her reaction alone to entering her swanky Beverly Hills Hotel room and finding a huge mountain of Disney memorabilia is enough to make me want to start printing TEAM TRAVERS t-shirts stat. Her scenes with Giamatti, although they remain the one mostly fictional aspect of the film, deepen your appreciation for her even more.
After all, despite its lush period detail, great costuming, and often poetic cinematography, this is a film about sticking to your guns and killing your darlings. It's about going line-by-line through a story and doing the hard work. It's about questioning everything until you realize that sometimes letting go is the best move. Late in the film, Hanks gives an impassioned speech about storytelling and why he won't let Travers down. It's a stunning moment, filled with tenderness, emotion, and just the right words to soften anyone's heart. What could have been pure corny syrup is just the right spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. By the end, I was truly moved.
The same goes for SAVING MR. BANKS. It has just the right amount of edge to help you digest the corn properly. Nobody is going to mistake this for a Sundance-esque independent film, but with characters this precisely drawn, with performances this engaging, and with a script filled with memorable scene after memorable scene, I'll have the Old Fashioned for now. There's plenty of time later for a hipster's mulled raspberry and bitters with a lemon wedge, aged whiskey and quail egg.