August 31, 2016

Inside Llewyn Davis

Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013
The Coen Brothers could quite possibly have the most diverse filmography in movie history. Their body of work is divisive. But one undeniable fact is if you polled anyone on the street who is a true fan of film and asked them what their favorites of all time are, it's almost a certainty that there is going to be a Coen Brothers film on there somewhere in the top 20. They approach widely different topics and you are never quite sure how specific that approach is going to be.

So of course it's intriguing when you hear that they are making a movie about a struggling folk singer named Llewyn Davis. And Llewyn is certainly struggling; freezing his way through the Greenwich Village streets lacking the proper winter attire. He is a man that is stagnant, can't seem to get to that next level in his career. Can't seem to manage his relationships properly, therefore having many displeased people in his periphery. It's a dreary character study. A man sort of ahead of his time. He's working before the big folk explosion in 1961. People haven't really been exposed to Bob Dylan yet. The big question is can Llewyn even survive long enough to make it there. He of course has no clue. While the odds seem more and more insurmountable, he spends a good portion of the film even wondering why he keeps at it. Is it worth it? What's the point? It's this quest for survival that adds the heart to the story. While Llewyn isn't a largely likeable character, you are rooting for him.

But his stagnation continues to be draining on you as you watch. The universe is using him as a punching bag. He doesn't seem to even draw luck from it. So he wakes up daily, stuck in the bondage of desperation. In a sense the film resembles Groundhog Day. Like there is the possibility that if Llewyn could transcend on some level, make some attempt to personally evolve, that there would some kind of epiphany. But he doesn't do himself many favors. He doesn't treat people as well as he could. He has a lot of pride, too much pride. He refuses to work a normal job, although it's exactly the type of thing that could help him upgrade his current situation. He's all in on the music. That alone is admirable.

There's a segment in the film when Llewyn is hitchhiking. It's a segment I can't seem to get out of my head. It so resembles some kind of purgatory. The sound, the visual elements at work. Man, only the Coen Brothers could create a landscape like this in the middle of a film. The fog on the highway, the hypnotic repetition of the painted lines.

Llewyn is certainly not a feel-good film. If anything it's a feel-sorry film. But it's memorable and unique, qualities of all of the good Coen Brothers movies.

August 21, 2016

Bone Tomahawk

S. Craig Zahler, 2015
Bone Tomahawk is going to appeal to viewers that aren't necessarily into the Western genre. It's a pleasant surprise, the great writing grabbing you right away and not letting loose until the end. The violence is going to surprise you. The gore is going to startle you. The performances are going to inspire you.

There are things that were done in this film to the human body that I didn't necessarily want to see at any point in my cinematic journeys, but regardless of seeing said cannibalistic atrocities - this film was an absolute thrill. These are the best films; the ones that sneak up on you. The ones that you weren't bombarded with marketing day in and day out. Everywhere you looked: billboards, television commercials. This is a pure indie shot on a $1.8M budget and somehow managing to cast Kurt Russell, David Arquette, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and an UNRECOGNIZABLE Richard Jenkins. Jenkins was really the exceptional performance in this film. It took about 20 minutes of screen-time to recognize him. There's not much to the story, really. A group of a men set out to rescue a local man's wife and a sheriff's deputy from a tribe of "savages". A template for a lot of standard Western fare, but boy is Tomahawk different.

Zahler does a fantastic job of getting you to despise the brutal tribe that attacked the small town of Bright Hope. You are begging for vengeance, praying for a positive outcome. And when you finally confront the unforgiving Troglodytes, they make the film almost feel like a Western Mad Max or something. There are so many movies that have been made that have these disturbing moments in them. Irreversible, Requiem for a Dream, Human Centipede, Funny Games. They take you so far that you don't want to revisit them again. There's nothing beneficial to go back to. But Bone Tomahawk is interesting, because some of the images shown are on par with some of those barbarous moments in the aforementioned movies. But Bone Tomahawk is a movie that I will almost certainly want to revisit at some point in the future.

Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, 2016
Jeff Nichols is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Rooted in this sort of gritty, southern gothic headspace - he is able to convey images through the eyes of the everyman and sometimes figures struggling at poverty level America.

Viewers got a taste of the supernatural in his 2011 film Take Shelter. By going down that avenue he separated himself from his prior film Shotgun Stories, which was really just a straight drama picture. The supernatural elements in Take Shelter were so well used, and the ending was one of the best endings in modern cinema.

Midnight Special is interesting, because it's a really great film but probably my least favorite of his filmography. For me personally, I would probably rank Nichols films:

1. Take Shelter
2. Mud
3. Shotgun Stories
4. Midnight Special

There are a lot of things to appreciate with this movie. The unique supernatural elements, that in a sense resemble character "11" in 2016's Stranger Things on Netflix. And actually, the two can compared to each other even more with the alternate dimension concepts that both pieces of work experiment with. But Nichols is confident in his film-making, not willing to slow things down or worse - dumb things down for the viewer. There is some decision making with the picture that is bold, and really does pay off at the end of the day. The decision to not show a cliche car chase scene, and instead, focus on the aftermath as the car descends upon it. Some sudden shifts in the story without waiting for the audience to catch up. Midnight operates that way. It is what it is, Nichols probably doesn't care if you don't approve of some of his methods of storytelling. And while the end may be a bit confusing, it's something that is still lingering with me days after viewing.

August 19, 2016

The Limey

Steven Soderbergh, 1999
There’s a reason that film schools study The Limey. Its taking a simple premise and building a sophisticated visual construct around that premise. Something that amateur filmmakers wouldn’t be capable of doing. But someone like Soderbergh can. Soderbergh is one of the more prolific directors working, maybe the most. And I will admit right off the bat, I consider him to be a bit overrated. I am not a fan of all of Soderbergh’s films. While everyone raves about Out of Sight, I am not one of those people. I didn’t care for it. I thought Contagion was dull. I thought Gina Carrano’s distractingly bad acting killed Haywire, which felt too much like Out of Sight for me at times. In fact, in memory the two movies blend together for me in my mind. Girlfriend Experience felt empty and forgettable. And the Ocean’s sequels just lacked that same allurement that the first one had. But then there’s the original Ocean’s Eleven. One of the best remakes ever made. I saw it three times in the theater back in 2001. Side Effects was a really well crafted film, was really able to display some of Channing Tatum’s acting chops while giving Rooney Mara another avenue to display her natural abilities. Behind the Candelabra was an HBO release but that should have had a wide theatrical release. It’s unforgettable. That’s the thing with Soderbergh. You can rattle off a few of the films of his that you really care for and any director would kill to have those films in their filmography. He’s not out there to please everybody with every film. He takes risks and jumps around to vastly different material and that’s admirable.

You can really just boil down the plot of The Limey to a father wanting some closure for his daughter’s death. And Soderbergh is able to build this captivating, tense stylistic film around that premise. Precise editing, great performances, a hypnotic score with haunting piano, this sort of yellowish haze that seems to pour over the screen. It has remarks about social hierarchy and the whole wealthy class on the mountaintop. The complicated nature of a father and daughter relationship. There's even a subtle indictments of Hollywood and celebrity culture. In a sense the Limey is what Pierre Morel’s Taken would be in the hands of an auteur rather than an action director.

August 13, 2016


Bill Paxton, 2001
Bill Paxton is an actor who wouldn't make a good straight up villain because of his charm / likeability factor. That is why his "Dad Meiks" character succeeds in this 2001 directorial debut (screenplay by by Brent Hanley) by Paxton.

Almost immediately you like the Dad character. Hard-working, eats dinner with his boys every night and warmly sends them off to bed before retiring himself. It's when he is awoken by a vision that it all changes. He tells his boys how God will be making a kill list for him, demons that he must rid the world of. Your suspicion of Dad grows, and you find yourself finding a certain comfort in Fenton's character, who is seemingly the only sane character left. His impressionable younger brother Adam is going to do anything his father wishes so there's virtually no hope for him to snap out of it.

What transpires is a dark southern gothic story with some real twists. The way that the film shifts your vision of who is good and bad is impressively executed. It's a good opportunity to see some of McConaughey's early acting chops which are evident in the film. He's kind of in his wheelhouse as the Texas-based drifter type that mutters slowly and thought-out. But overall it's a unique film that grabs you, and there's definitely some black comedy elements at work even if they are a bit buried beneath the surface. Paxton is really so perfect for the role as the eccentric father who really feels like he's God hand and doing something important. A straight up scary guy would never work. And it's his ability to be the benign father early on and get you invested in him as the good guy that is the springboard for all of the alternating that continues throughout the film.

August 8, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Dan Trachtenberg, 2016
Everyone has probably at some point imagined what their emergency plan would be if some catastrophic event were to occur. Perhaps there's a bomb shelter in town. Or perhaps you have that rural family member that is as close to off the grid as it gets.

There is this whole sub-culture of doomsday preppers. They are meticulously building emergency shelters, often underground. It's part of our whole post 9/11 zombie-obsessed culture. Planning for the worst. Some would say it's overcautious, even paranoid. There's a stigma associated with the prepper type. Far right wing, reclusive, lacking certain social skills. What's interesting is that while we often let our imagination run wild when it comes to what we would do in an emergency situation, we probably don't envision ourselves buddying up to the doomsday prepper in order to survive.

Howard (John Goodman) is exactly this type of person. Building his underground bunker for years leading up to this "chemical attack", his efforts finally feel justified when something finally occurs. A doomsday preppers wet dream. And Howard is exactly the socially awkward type of person that you would picture a prepper type to be. Paranoid, controlling, impatient, unpredictable. When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens from her state of unconsciousness after a car accident, Howard doesn't exactly help her feel comfortable. She is chained to the wall, so she might as well assume she's being held captive.

It's a limited storytelling movie for sure. Most of the film takes place in Howard's underground bunker. There is impressive production design here too. Every little nook and cranny of the shelter is decorated. The wallpaper makes it feel kind of homey, and the back-lit glass behind the kitchen sink almost makes you feel like you aren't 20' below grade. And although you don't see the threat above ground, you know it's there from the constant loud noises that suddenly erupt.

It's a satisfying film for sure. You spend a good portion of the film wondering yourself if Howard is a good guy or not. You feel locked in there with Michelle, dealing with that same uncomfortable uncertainty. But of course there's all these things going on above you as well, so it makes you wonder even if Howard is a bad guy you have to weight it out. It's probably still better putting up with the bad guy if it means you aren't falling victim to the chemical attack above you or whatever it is.

A lot of people probably go into this movie having seen Cloverfield (2008) and assuming that it's connected to this film. But it's not really. Producer JJ Abrams has said that it exists in the same universe. But it's probably better to just disregard any connection, because they are really just two completely different films. The only similarity is the extra-terrestrial presence. But that's all. And don't worry, that's no spoiler.