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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Anti-Epic Coen Brothers Tale of an Anti-Hero
There are people in the world who are, quite intentionally, their own worst enemy. This is their story. Alternately, it's about a man and his cat.
Like all Coen Brothers films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a character study. Theirs is a style that takes a trait of humanity, cranks it up to 11, and puts it through its paces. In this case, they take on people who purposely sabotage their own happiness.
The film follows Llewyn Davis who, recklessly and tortuously, destroys his relationships at every opportunity. Time after time after time, he returns kindness with selfishness; responsibility with irresponsibility; support with abandonment. Grossly judgmental, incredibly unsympathetic, utterly foolish, this is a man who brings on his own suffering with an odd sort of sustained glee. He seems to revel in his own misery, constantly making bad decisions, and then getting mad at those who did what he told them to do.
This is an odd juxtaposition with his chosen artistic pursuit: folk singing. Folk singing is all about empathy and connection, but Llewyn can't empathize, and definitely can't connect. This is pointed out to him time after time after time, but he just doesn't pick up on it. At all. Therefore, he fails. He is very similar to his co-star, Ulysses, a cat who (in a very characteristically cat-like manner) seems disconnected from what is happening around him, until it's time to wake someone else up from a sound sleep.
It's not a bad film, there are some quirky, funny moments in it. But I gave it 7 out of 10 because it lacks that characteristic "special heartwarming spark" of a Coen Brothers film. "Raising Arizona", "Fargo", "Hudsucker Proxy", and "O Brother, Where Art Thou" had a heartwarming character or situation to help pull you out of the morass of darkness, intentionally acting as counter-point to the misery of life; but "Llewyn Davis" doesn't really have this. I suppose the cat is meant to fill this role (there is a neat little moment when Llewyn and the cat track each other's expressions quite effectively), but it doesn't really work as well as (possibly) intentioned.
An OK movie. Not the Coen Brothers' best.
American Hustle (2013)
American Hustle is a fine movie, I suppose. I'm not really sure, to be honest. The problem is it's such a hamfest of a movie, it's hard to focus to know for sure.
This film has a lot going on beyond the characters and the story. It's set in the 70's, and such a horrendously clichéd version of the 70's it distracts you from those characters & story. You've got the red velvet leisure suits; the badly-fitting toupees; the ridiculously over-sized automobiles; the tight-curl perms; the bra-less, droopy dresses (OK, some distractions are worth it). Folks use "ham" to describe over-the-top acting, but here we have undeniably "hammy" use of sets, costumes, props, and locations. It's as if someone said "find me everything 70's and dump it in this movie!".
The problem is they don't just use these clichés for setting and atmosphere (like "The Ice Storm", for example), they just pile them up throughout the movie, right down to hackneyed scenes involving 70's-era mobsters late in the film. It's a cliché fest, and that distracts from the rest of the story. It's hard to take the main protagonist seriously under those ridiculous glasses.
Then again, it is a fairly shallow plot, with a somewhat weak "surprise ending", wrapping up the con inside a con inside a con. You've seen it all before, in movies of the "con man" genre over the decades. I'm guessing the writers wanted to dump all the 70's clichés into one film and wrote tossed together a con-man script to tie them together; OR they had a fairly weak script and felt they needed to dress it up with 70's nostalgia to generate interest.
The movie is OK. It has some funny moments. But it's not worth a full-price movie ticket, and is definitely not worth an Oscar nod.
Jackson's a kid in a candy store -- and we get the diabetes
Peter Jackson's 3-episode interpretation of The Hobbit is turning into a sticky, gooey mess. What a horrid series of films.
This isn't about book purism or Tolkien loyalty or any of that. I understand the difference between writing and filmmaking, and why one can never translate directly into the other (especially when the latter occurs 75 years after the former). My contempt for the Desolation of Smaug concerns filmmaking itself: storytelling, dramatic tension, character development. Even the framing, action and stuntwork do not work in this film.
The root of the problem is PJ does not have an internal filter. He dreams up ideas of increasing ridiculousness, and throws them on the screen whether the story benefits or not. He dreams up wonderful elvish combat maneuvers: they're in the film. He dreams up various orc prosthetics: they're in the film. He dreams up goofy, hammy character appearances: they're in the film. He dreams up immense set pieces and constructs unbelievable battles in the midst: they're in the film. But you can't do filmmaking that way! Good films, even good action films, need to be built on a solid core of character and story.
In fairness, the Hobbit itself is not particularly meaty in those areas: it's a bit goofy, a bit sparse. It was a children's book, after all. But that's what a good screenplay needs to reinforce in such cases. It's what PJ and his writing team did in LOTR! They beefed up the story and added emotional context to the characters to make the audience care about what was happening. When Frodo was confronted by the Witchking in the Two Towers, you were afraid for the guy because the film, up to that point, made you care!
In the Hobbit, however, they are not shoring up the character and story in this three-layer cake at all. Instead, they are slathering on such a heavy coating of empty frosting in the form of goofy action sequences, sticking on gumdrops of forced slapstick comedy, and pouring on a thin crust of chocolate sprinkles in the form of CGI (much of which is poorly done and pulls you out of the film). In the end, you have a cake that's inedible because of all the sugary crud slathered on top. All this "stuff" totally overwhelms the cake in the center, completely obscuring the overall storyline, and smothering the characters of Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the poor dwarfs (who mumble along in complete obscurity for the duration of the film). Even Smaug gets short-shrift (he is a marvel of visual magnificence, but is also reduced to a slapstick fool before too long).
What PJ does not have is a filter. You can tell he's gained so much power as a filmmaker that no one is challenging his decisions. He gets away with everything no matter how ridiculous, no matter how distracting, no matter how smothering. He has no sanity check, no capacity to self-edit. And the film suffers for it: it's so overdone in action and set pieces, you become bored with it. I was praying for the movie to be over by the end.
When you engage in any creative endeavor, it's important you get all your ideas on the table, no matter how outlandish. But then you ALSO need to learn how to edit, how to scrape away everything that is not helping you tell your story or portray the vision. It can be a hard thing, giving up that great idea, but if it helps you reach your goal, you drop it by the wayside, and focus on what's important.
PJ did not do that, and as a result, we have a sticky, gooey, sickly-sweet mess of a cake that will surely give us all diabetes.
The Master (2012)
I don't even know where to begin. I think it's because this movie really has no sense of direction. It's like waking up in a fog bank: you don't really know where to go.
Yeah, it's a story of the beginning of a cult, so it's not going to make much sense. I get it. But they go beyond that to make it a really bad movie. The big problem is they put the plot focus on the mentally unstable character Freddie Quall, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The problem with Quall is he's not really disturbing (which could be fascinating, see Hannibal Lecter), but just disturbed. You can't make a movie surrounding a character like that! He's not "compelling", he's not "interesting", he's just sad. The writers made a terrible blunder by making this guy TOO disturbed, so disturbed you feel like you're staring at a homeless guy, trying to figure out when he's going to eat his own feces. That makes YOU the creepy one!
This, and other choices by the filmmakers, makes "The Master" a sloppy, unwatchable mess. Besides focusing too much on Quall's lunacy, it skips & jumps around and just when you think it's going to get interesting or deep they skip along to something else. Then it starts this homoerotic undercurrent and then just ... ends.
I wouldn't even call it a good allegory on Scientology or other cults. It is almost worthless in that regard, there's only a few moments that show the malicious intent of groups like this, but then they swoop back to Phoenix acting disturbed again. I suppose I could say Philip Seymour Hoffman does a good job playing cult leader Lancaster Dodd. I wish he was the actual focus of the movie, but for whatever reason, the filmmakers decided not to do that.
Regardless, we spent a good hour afterward complaining about how bad this movie was, and that ended up being the best part of it.
Con Air (1997)
Awful. Utterly awful.
What an awful movie. Everything in this movie that makes it vaguely interesting has been done in dozens of movies and with far better results. There is practically nothing original in Con Air. This is a Schwarzenegger/Stallone wannabe. There are far better one-liners in "Total Recall" and far better action scenes in "First Blood" than in this knock-off. This is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy: washed out, unnecessary, and says the same stuff as all the action films that preceded it. Plus it's just badly made. Nicholas Cage is not only a fish-out-of-water here, he's at his hammiest worst. The action scenes & stunts are just goofy. The jokes have been done over and over again. It's just lame.
The only redeeming quality is Steve Buscemi, but even there, he's been in a LOT of better roles. Watch "Fargo" or something.
A terrible movie. Shame on you, Hollywood!
The Hunger Games (2012)
"The Hunger Games" is the amateur film of the simplistic screenplay based on the teenage fanfiction for the highly derivative novel by the marketing major. At least that's what it looks like. It's Awful with a capital "A". I continue to be amazed that insipid, sickly-sweet pablum like this continues to be made with any seriousness.
The whole thing seems like a joke on it's own audience, a twisted experiment by Hollywood to see how bad they can make movies before the audience simply abandons them. Based on this experiment, it seems they can make them pretty damned bad.
Here are some of the plot points in this mess:
-- A world starving so badly the answer is to pit children against each other in battles to the death? -- Rich parents train their kids to fight these battles on purpose? Seems to me rich parents keep their kids OUT of battle :coughIraqcough: -- Computers can create matter out of 3D images? Yet people are starving? Make some, like, you know, FOOD!! -- My Little Pony fashions will become the norm? -- Beard trimming by Mandelbrot? -- Flames that don't burn? -- Magic cake-decorating powers? -- Woody Harrelson not stoned to the bejeezus??
This film is an unwatchable mess. Unless you're stoned, perhaps. That's it, next time it's on the ballot, I'm voting to legalize marijuana. At least then I might not regret watching movies like this.
Lessons in What Not to Do
It's hard to write a review of an old, classic movie. Films are crafted in the context of their times. This can be cultural context, political context, technological context, or the context of craft. So it's unfair to write a movie review of a film 50 years old.
Having said that, I think it's still fair to criticize "Becket" on one very important point that applies to all films, regardless of their era. That point is this:
-- It is important to tell the story using elements appropriate to the tone & timbre of the story. --
A corollary would be this:
-- Telling a story using elements not appropriate to the story will distract the viewer from the story. --
And thus we have "Becket".
"Becket" is a tale of political intrigue, set in 12th century England. It involves two very powerful and intense personalities: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English king, Henry II. By extension, it also involves two very powerful and grandiose institutions: the Catholic Church and the English Crown. These are strong elements, indeed, and it would seem entirely appropriate to make this film as they did: as an epic, with extravagant set pieces, wide vistas, and extreme acting. But that's the wrong answer.
The story "Becket" tells is really the story of two friends who grow apart and eventually oppose each other on a philosophical & spiritual level. This is really an intimate character piece (albeit one with elaborate costumes), and not an epic movie! It should be driven by dialog, subtlety, tight camera angles, a soft score, and strong performance; and not by grandeur. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not see this. Their eyes were clouded by other considerations.
This film was made in 1964. What were some of the biggest movies in the early 60s? Big, epic ones. "Spartacus". "Cleopatra". "The Magnificent Seven". "Dr. Zhivago". And, of course, "Lawrence of Arabia", one of the best movies ever created (in my not-so-humble opinion). Unfortunately, the brilliance of "Lawrence" is what actually doomed "Becket". "Lawrence" is a story that demands epicness. It is a vast, sweeping tale of two larger-than-life characters: T. E. Lawrence himself and the vast, desert expanses of the Middle East. It required grandiose sets, spectacular vistas, and a brilliant, over-the-top Peter O'Toole performance. "Becket", on the other hand, is a story that demands subtlety. It's a tragic tale of two friends torn apart by forces larger than they are. It required dialog and subtlety, not bombast and brass. But the filmmakers took the "Lawrence" route with "Becket", and as a result, the former is a masterpiece, and the latter is anachronistic and nearly unwatchable by today's audience.
"Becket" is a story that should be given another go. It's actually a fascinating story. I think it's ripe for a remake, based on the success of other period-piece dramas on TV and in film. Maybe a new filmmaker could create the proper blend of magnificence appropriate to the characters and institutions with the subtlety required by the story.
Going in to the Hobbit, I had certain expectations based on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I expected the film would be beautifully shot, with fantastic art design, intricate sets, detailed costumes, and spectacular scenery. They did not disappoint. The continuity of the art department and cinematographer from those films to this one shows, and it also shows that they still care about what they are doing. I especially love what they did with the dwarven stronghold of Erebor. My only criticism in this area is the make-up on Thorin Oakenshield, especially the facial hair. He does not look like a dwarf. I know it's a starring role and the actor needs to emote through the makeup in order to "sell" it. You couldn't have him buried in extensive hair/bear/mustache pieces (like John Rys-Davies suffered through in LOTR). But Thorin is just not a dwarf in this film. Kili also does not look like a dwarf, but at least he plays the character in an upbeat, youthful fashion so his "5 o'clock shadow" scruff seems appropriate. But Thorin is a dour character, and his look -- which I call "dwarf metrosexual" -- just does not fit. The rest of The Company have great looks, I know they could have come up with something better for Thorin.
I expected this movie to have a great film score. Howard Shore's work on the trilogy was outstanding, and made those films complete. Here, well, there are few new pieces, but most of the score is derivative from prior works. I know it's important for some continuity. The hobbits, in particular, are very set in their ways, so it's highly appropriate to use the same themes for Hobbiton that Shore used in the first trilogy. But they recycled the Ringwraith theme, even though they don't appear in this film, and they used a lot of the same segue music and other cues. There are a few new songs, cues, and themes, but even there, a few fall flat. I remember one specific choral piece simply not fitting with what was happening on the screen. Choral music is used to imbue pathos into a scene, but I don't recall that scene requiring pathos. I just remember the choral music not fitting the mood.
I expected this movie to have a lot of action sequences. This is where Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is actually above LOTR: it has a lot more action sequences. There's a lot here to excite: Smaug's attack on Erebor is brilliantly portrayed, the above-ground warg chases are pretty harrowing, as is the film's climax. But there's an awful lot of goofy crap in it, too. The underground battle with the goblins has some goofy chase sequences that reminded me of a version of Pitfall produced for the NES some 15 years ago. A friend turned to me and said "obligatory video game sequence", so it wasn't just me. The Goblin King and his odd army are brilliant, but the escape scene is just goofy. There's also this encounter with stone giants in the mountains that, although faithful to the book, is so ridiculous it pulls you out of the film. Then there's the Radagast sequence, which is complete "WTF?" I know "The Hobbit" is a kid's book. I know it's not LOTR. I actually like that they had goofy dwarfs and a generally lighter tone than "Lord of the Rings". But some of these action sequences are just so utterly ridiculous they ruin the whole thing.
Finally, I expected the story to be expanded. The writing team said as much throughout the production. I was hoping it would be a good, meaningful expansion (like the Arwen arc in the LOTR films). I was also hoping the expansion would bring depth to the other characters (JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" could not be considered a "character piece"). I found myself not pleased with the results. I found the additional story elements (specifically the White Council/Necromancer backstory) to be irrelevant and uninteresting and not thematically appropriate to the story. "The Hobbit" is a lighthearted adventure, adding in this heavy plot stuff interrupts that flow. I also found the addition of Frodo and "old" Bilbo in the beginning of the story to be unnecessary. Sure, it was cool to do a transition between Ian Holm's Bilbo and Martin Freeman's, but it could have been simpler and to-the-point instead of the exaggeration it became. I know the filmmaker wanted to include his friends from the first production in The Hobbit, and I am a fan, they are all fine actors, but he should have focused on the story at hand instead.
What really bothers me about these additions is they take away time that could have been used to work on the various characters, specifically Thorin and the relationship between and amongst his fellow dwarfs. Adding a bit of interpersonal conflict between the dwarfs would have made it so much more interesting than just adding another storyline. As it is, they are (as yet) undeveloped. We know Thorin is grumpy and determined, we know his dwarfs are goofy and boisterous, we known Bilbo is a fish out of water. Beyond that, there's not much going on with them. Contrast "Fellowship", with it's touching character-driven scenes such as Gandalf & Frodo's talk in Moria; Aragorn & Boromir's encounter in Rivendell; the hobbit bonding experience running from the Black Riders; and all the touching stuff at the end when the Fellowship breaks. These moments don't really exist in "The Hobbit", and that's the biggest shame of this film.
Bottom line: it's entertaining, it's beautiful to look at, but it's overboard on goofiness, camp, and PJ's favors to actors, and not deep enough on character. It's disappointing.
The Cider House Rules (1999)
An incredibly touching yet difficult film
Good cinema should take you to uncomfortable places. The Cider House Rules definitely takes you to uncomfortable places: orphanages, abortion clinics, migrant worker camps, war-affected households, and a through a variety of dark personal & familial traumas. But it's so well crafted, so well written, so well acted, & so well directed it's OK. It just shows you the discomfort without preachiness or excessive commentary, and let's you absorb & process on your own. It's a difficult film to get through, but it definitely hits an emotional nerve, like all good movies do.
A very strong film. It had stiff competition for the Oscars in 2000, it definitely deserved the Best Picture nomination if not the award itself.
Food, Inc. (2008)
Everything Starts with Food
Boy, what an important topic for a documentary. Of all the topics that have ever been given the documentary treatment, food is the biggest, most important, most fundamental to our very existence. Kudos to the producers for picking this topic and running with it.
We've gone so far off the rails with the production of food in this country. We've given up local production, we've given up sustainable production, we've given up healthful production, and we've given up nutritious production. In true-blue American fashion, the only thing we care about is economical production. Money is king, whether we save it as consumers or whether we make it as businessmen. And yet we're digging our own graves because of it.
"Food, Inc." does a good job putting all the pieces together: how corn subsidies skew our entire food production towards something fundamentally unhealthy; how corporations and their lawyers are effectively drumming independent farmers out of business; how the mass-produced food lobby (and their enablers, the fast-food industry) manipulate our government to keep this horrendous system in place; and how even such seemingly unrelated concepts as Freedom of Speech, the stability of foreign governments, and the country's immigration problems stem from the food policy choices our government has made.
I see a show like this and I think a) I have to give up eating hamburger; and b) how our nation has become so convoluted and so sour that there seemingly isn't a way out of the horrendous pit we've dug for ourselves.
I advise folks to watch this film.
I do, however, have some criticisms.
First, I stated "Food Inc." does a good job putting the pieces together. However, I'm not sure the average Joe will get it, even after seeing it. I grew up in a farming community and worked on them as a boy, plus I pay attention to public policy and all things environmental, so I entered into it with an understanding of the background. I don't think "Food Inc." will resonate to the average layman. There are too many gaps, too many leaps that have to be filled in by the viewer. Such as "why is corn really that bad for us" and "what happens when everything in the food production stream is fed by the same crop". There's a part early in the film where the filmmakers talk about the spread of e coli that I'm sure won't make sense to most folks. Some of the stuff here is pretty heavy yet only gets a quick treatment that relies on audience knowledge. I understand it's only 1-1/2 hours long, and you can't explain everything, but this film still ends up being an elitist film, and that's a shame.
Second, at the end they proclaim the salvation of organic food, but they don't investigate the high probability that the organic food industry will become just that ... an industry. Another corporate-driven market where profit is king and lying to consumers is standard operating procedure. At the end, they say "Kellog bought this organic cereal company, and Colgate bought this organic toothpaste company", but they brush off the notion that these same conglomerates who enabled the destruction of America's current food industry will also adulterate and destroy the products and values that make organics the solution. Then we'll have an elitist documentary in 20 years pondering the failure of the organic movement.
Of course we might all be dead by complications from obesity by that time ...
I give "Food Inc." an 8 out of 10. Solid overall, but a bit elitist and dishonest with itself at the end.