Tag Archives: movie reviews

The Brothers’ Soulful Look Inside

Inside Llewyn Davis

by Hope Madden

In some circles, a new Coen brothers‘ film is more hotly anticipated than the next Batman. Those are my people. Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted among the most impressive set of movies of any American filmmakers. Though there are certain thumbprints that mark a film as theirs, they never cease to surprise in the art they produce – which, as often as not, is art for art’s sake. And this is the very theme of their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis.

An immersive experience that takes you directly to the heart of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, the film shadows the titular, beleaguered artist for just a few days as he tries to survive both winter and his chosen field.

The film opens onstage, as Llewyn (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) sings in the smoky Gaslight Club. It’s an intensely intimate segment, and Isaac performs not a snippet, but an entire number. His performance is exceptional, and it tells you more about Llewyn than the next 90 minutes are bound to share.

Isaac and the brothers offer a superbly nuanced character study, so understated as to be almost hypnotic. Isaac’s world-wearied stare and infrequent songs do the majority of the work, but his adventure – as brilliantly written as anything you’d expect from the Coens – captures your attention.

Enough can’t be said about Isaac’s performance, both as an actor and as a musician, because the role requires much from both. He shoulders nearly every second of screen time, offering enough self-destructiveness, tenderness and ego to keep you believing in his trials and almost reluctantly rooting for him.

He’s aided by enigmatic performances in wonderfully odd roles. Coen regular John Goodman adds color as an aging jazz man, while Carey Mulligan spits inspired insults, and Justin Timberlake plays convincingly against type as the group’s square.

It’s not just the performances or the writing that make this film so languidly watchable, but the magically depicted setting – so unerringly authentic that you feel you’re inside a Bob Dylan album cover. Between that and the music – so, so many points made simply with the music – the film shines.

But what sets Llewyn Davis apart from the rest of the Coen stash is its lack of cynicism. Sure, with some battered years under his belt as a musician, not to mention his deeper scars and struggles, Llewyn holds a defensively cynical outlook. But he’s hopelessly true to his art. Can’t imagine where he got that.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

Suffering Middle Child Syndrome

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

by Hope Madden

The fantasy film genre boasts some great sequels, even when those films are little more than bridges from Episode 1 to 3. While the second born may lack closure, it doesn’t bear the burden of exposition that tends to weigh down any first episode, and it lacks the need to tidy up every minute detail that sometimes derails a final installment.

The Empire Strikes Back is the classic example, but the genre offers many others. The Hunger Games sequel, for instance, far surpasses the first. Even the wingnut Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy offered the swiftly paced and satisfying center, The Two Towers.

His next Middle Earth middle child, the beardtastic The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, hits screens this week, and it, too, benefits from a groundwork set in the first installment, and the freedom to end without tidying up.

And Arkenstone be damned, Ian McKellen is the gem of this franchise. Once again, he brings the right mix of humor and gravitas to make Gandalf the coolest guy – excuse me, wizard – in the realm.

Martin Freeman is also spot-on as Bilbo – a perfect mix of humility, courage, and British manners. His Bilbo is very easy to relate to, which is rarely the case in a Tolkien production. Still, many of the million-ish supporting turns, though universally one-dimensional (regardless of cinematic presentation), animate the tale appropriately.

There’s a lot holding it back, though.

Mainly, it suffers from the same condition as An Unexpected Journey, which is that there is no defensible reason to make three films out of the novel The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings was conceived by Tolkien as a trilogy, where The Hobbit is a single volume, so Jackson had to carve it into three, padding and elongating here and there to accomplish this mission. Because if there’s one thing Tolkien needs, it’s more stuff.

The needless bloat is an obstacle to enjoying all that’s right about the film, because the story just becomes tedious too soon and too often. The fact that you realize there will be no satisfying conclusion does not make the pace seem any less leaden, and the result feels more like a rip-off than a cliffhanger.

Yes, the dragon looks cool, the Orcs continue to frighten, and as a tourist video for New Zealand, the location shooting works miracles. But many filmmakers, Jackson included, have been devoted enough to the stepping-stone sequel to craft a film that succeeds where the rest of the franchise fails. This time around, Jackson just adds filler and cashes checks.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

Pederasts and Innocent Men for Your Queue

 

If you’re looking for something intense and fascinating this week, check out The Hunt, available today. Powerful, understated and devastating, the film looks with startling authenticity at the one accusation that can never truly be shaken. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg‘s slyly observational approach offers his lead, a magnificent Mads Mikkelson, the opportunity to show his breathtaking range as an actor. It’s a haunting film, one that takes the less-trod approach to the topic and mines it for all it has.

Pair it with something a little different. Director Todd Field followed up his devastating In the Bedroom with a complex, brilliant work about two unfaithful lovers, selfish thirtysomethings and sketchy parents, Little Children. It was the best film of 2006, and among its countless successes is the Oscar nominated performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie McGorvey, town sex offender. Field’s playful approach to the film gives it a pleasantly off kilter feel, as if keeping the action at arm’s length, but the immediacy and intimacy of Haley’s performance packs a wallop. The scene between him and Jane Adams is brutal perfection.

Tough Time for a Brother’s Keeper

Out of the Furnace

by Hope Madden

Just in time for the holidays, a bleak look at desperation, blood ties, masculinity and loyalty. Welcome to Braddock, PA and Out of the Furnace.

Part Deer Hunter, part Winter’s Bone, Scott Cooper’s new film casts a haunted image of ugliness scarring natural beauty, whether it’s the steel town petering out and leaving a rusted carcass in a Pennsylvania valley, or the human nastiness up in the hills on the Jersey border.

The tale follows a pair of beleaguered brothers in America’s disappearing rust belt. It’s a deceptively simple story of being your brother’s keeper, but Cooper’s meandering storyline keeps you guessing, often entranced. Nothing is as simple as it seems, although there is an inevitability to everything that makes it feel strangely familiar.

Cooper’s camera evokes a palpable sense of place, and his script positions the film firmly and believably – but without a heavy hand – in a clear time period. The setting itself is so true and absorbing that many of the film’s flaws can almost be forgiven.

At the core of Furnace’s many successes are some powerful performances. Both Christian Bale and the endlessly under-appreciated Casey Affleck, as Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively, dig deep to uncover the anguish and resilience at the heart of the siblings’ relationship and struggles. Bale, in particular, smolders with a tenderness and deep love that is heartbreaking.

On the other hand, Woody Harrelson is just plain scary. As the villain (and excellently named) Harlan DeGroat, Harrelson goes all out, leaves nothing behind. Harlan is a Bad MoFo, no doubt, and Harrelson leaves no scenery unchewed.

Cooper stumbles here and there with his storytelling, though. There is some heavy-handed symbolism, and a letter written from one brother to another that’s almost too clichéd and trite to accept in the otherwise articulate piece of filmmaking.

Just four years ago, in his feature film debut Crazy Heart, Cooper led Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to her first nomination. His sophomore effort is less assured, as if he’s trying too hard. His ability to conjure such a vivid place and time impresses, and both Bale and Affleck are characteristically wonderful, but the director can’t seem to reign in the entire cast, and he borrows too freely from other (excellent) movies.

While the stumbles aren’t crippling, they keep Out of the Furnace from the greatness it otherwise might have reached.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

A Cup of Nog for Your Queue. Maybe Two.

 

Just in time for holiday imbibing, Drinking Buddies releases to the home market today. Easy to mistake for a rom-com, the film – boasting Olivia Wilde’s best performance – is a meandering observation on slacker generation relationships. It’s clever, assured, and forever surprising.

For a bleaker set of drinking buddies, check out the 1987 gem Barfly. This Charles Bukowski penned, Barbet Schroeder directed tale of ne’er do well Henry Chinaski is classic skid row glory (so, classic Bukowski). Mickey Rourke was never better (though his cadence takes some getting used to), and his screen chemistry with Faye Dunaway makes this the most faithful rendition of Chinaski to be found onscreen. Too bad you can’t get the movie from Netflix. Guess you’ll have to watch the whole thing here.

Sayles’s Sisters Deserved Better

Go For Sisters

by Hope Madden

Writer/director John Sayles has built a career on character driven independents and stories that tell uniquely American tales. His latest, Go for Sisters, is a simply stated effort about the value of hard-won relationships.

LisaGay Hamilton plays Bernice, a no-nonsense parole officer who bends her strident ways when her childhood friend Fontayne (an exceptional Yolanda Ross) becomes her client. Fontayne recently found herself in the company of a felon, which breaks her parole. But where Fontayne lives, felons are just about the only company possible to keep.

Fontayne knows the score, predicting Bernice’s thoughts based on prior experience. “This sorry girl ain’t got her shit together. We gon’ have to lock her up some more.”

To Fontayne’s surprise, Bernice relents. But where Bernice should reassign Fontayne to another parole officer, instead she enlists her help to find her own missing son, an ex-soldier gone missing and likely mixed up in something dodgy.

Though both performances, and that of Edward James Olmos as the retired cop helping them track the missing man, are very strong, Sayles strings together scenes with no panache at all, creating something akin to TV detective show. The plot is so plainly laid out that it becomes an afterthought, no doubt because Sayles’s interest lies with the characters, not their adventure. But the audience has to feel compelled by both.

The adventure contains too many clandestine meetings and coincidences for the investigation to carry the weight of authenticity, and Sayles never mines for real plot-driven tension. It’s far too light a touch given the circumstances of the kidnapping.

Instead, Sayles wonders about the reasons the two women lost each other twenty years ago, and the paths they took to such different lives, and then come back to each other. Theirs is a poignant and probably very familiar kind of struggle, and it deserves our attention. It’s just too bad Sayles had to drag us all across the American Southwest and into Mexico to discover it.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w0mA6Sg_gs

Of Faith and Forgiveness

Philomena

by Hope Madden

Not so very long ago in Ireland, unwed mothers were deemed unfit to raise their children. The “sinners” and their offspring were relinquished to the charge of the nuns, confined to convents around the country to work off their debt to the church and watch as their babies were given to more “deserving” Catholics. Philomena Lee was one of these beleaguered young mums, and Steve Coogan (of all people!) decided her tale would make a great buddy picture.

I’m sorry, what?

Well, weirdly enough, his instincts were not too far off the mark. Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith.  With Stephen Frears at the helm and the great Dame Judi Dench in the lead, Coogan’s cooked up a surprisingly buoyant depiction of what, by all accounts, should be a devastating tale.

Coogan plays Sixsmith, the world-wearied political journalist who stoops to writing Philomena’s human interest story out of desperation. As he and Philomena attempt to track down the child she was forced to give up nearly 50 years before, an odd couple road picture develops.

It’s a strange structure for an enlightening bit of nonfiction about a systemic abuse of power and of faith – one that, through the pair’s sleuthing, uncovers a fascinating parallel with a more modern crisis of shame and secrecy.

Coogan’s script is sharp, funny and layered, and Frears’s direction settles into a decidedly understated presentation of content that would so easily become maudlin or melodramatic. But let’s be honest, Dench is the reason to see Philomena.

As always, she carves out such a unique and real character that the term acting feels too cumbersome to describe her work. Her natural presence and effervescent depiction are a perfect offset for Coogan’s cynical detachment, and the warm chemistry the two share is infectious.

In fact, there are times that the cheery tone feels almost dismissive of the deep injustice uncovered in the story.

In 2002, writer/director Peter Mullan produced the film The Magdalene Sisters, an emotional wallop of a movie that told of Ireland’s shameful not-so-distant treatment of unwed mothers and other girls deemed disreputable by their church and families. It’s a powerful film, but compared to Philomena, it’s a bit like being beaten about the head and neck.

Instead, Philomena uses one woman’s resilience to set the tone of a film not about tragedy, but about forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an honorable attempt.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvIytgxq8QI

Before the Howl

Kill Your Darlings

by Hope Madden

There are countless, fascinating stories surrounding the earliest Beat Generation writers – likely because they were sort of endlessly fascinating themselves. That, plus they kept writing about their adventures, so legends are born.

Any film about the Beats is a dream and a nightmare for writers and cast alike. What writer wouldn’t want to take a shot at a conversation between Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs? And yet, what writer would dare?

The same can be said for any actor hoping to capture these literary characters we know so well from their own pages. But Kill Your Darlings aims to do justice to all of it – the movement, the participants, the socio-political climate, and the true crime story few recall.

Kill Your Darlings revisits that burgeoning circle of geniuses to spin a more somber origins story than those we usually hear. Rather than emphasizing the madcap, mind-altering, conformity-be-damned journeys of Ginsburg, Burroughs or Kerouac we’ve grown accustomed to, the film is based on the murder that splintered the group.

It’s Columbia University of the mid 1940s. As World War II rages, young New Jerseyan Allen Ginsburg (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his life as a college freshman. He quickly falls in with the wrong sort. Thank God!

The film shadows Ginsburg along his journey toward self-expression by way of an infatuation with schoolmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Carr introduces him to elder statesman/criminal element William H. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and later, to football playing senior and part time merchant marine Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston – of those Hustons). Together they alter their minds and begin a framework for a new world order for writers.

Carr also introduces Ginsburg to David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whom Carr would later murder.

Though first time feature director John Krokidas has trouble deciding whether his is a coming of age tale or a murder mystery, and though he’s never able to clearly define the events’ connection to the actual writing that would eventually flood from these poets and scoundrels, he pulls together a competently crafted tale buoyed by well defined and tenderly animated characters.

Radcliffe’s growth as an actor continues to impress, as does his somewhat fearless choice of projects, but it’s DeHaan who steals the film. Damaged, vulnerable and seductive, he’s exactly the cauldron of conflict that inspires an artistic revolution.

Hall, Huston and Foster also impress as Krokidas throws light on some fascinating (if one-sided, fairly fictionalized, perfectly lurid) details of the spark that burst into the Beat Generation. They can’t quite transcend the limitations of a novice director and an under-focused screenplay, but they will compel your attention while they have you.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Heaping Helping of Holiday Pandering

Best Man Holiday

by Hope Madden

One film opening this weekend guarantees to make you laugh and cry, or kill you trying. It’s Best Man Holiday, the most exuberantly emotionally manipulative film, perhaps ever.

The entire cast of 1999’s Best Man returns, gathering to celebrate the holidays at the home of the old bride and groom, Mia (Monica Calhoun) and Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut). It appears that the Sullivans are doing well for themselves, living in a New York mansion with four well behaved and impossibly well groomed children.

The formulaic gathering lets us all catch up on how life treated Quentin (Terrence Howard), Shelby (Melissa de Sousa), Candace (Regina Hal) and Julian (Harold Perrineau), and Jordan (Nia Long). Did they all settle down? Find success?

And what about Harper (Taye Diggs) and Robyn (Sanaa Lathan)? Happily ever after? New book?

This is a film that knows its audience. If you fell in love with this crew back in 1999, Best Man Holiday is looking at you. Don’t you want to check back in, see how the fellas are faring 14 years later? Maybe, like you, they’ve moved on to family, career. How do they look mid-life without their shirts?

Pretty damn good.

If you are not this very specific target audience, you don’t mean much to Best Man Holiday. It’s a movie that is out to please, but not to please everyone. The target audience is like a woman who wants bacon and eggs for breakfast, so her man makes her bacon and eggs.  If you prefer pancakes, who cares? This breakfast is not for you.

With its one, very specific goal, there is no denying that BMH succeeds. As a real movie, though, it has more than a few problems.

The cast generates a charming chemistry, and their sense of fun and tenderness buoys the otherwise cliché riddled, wildly heavy-handed script by director Malcolm D. Lee. No serving of side dishes with this holiday ham is light, whether it’s the raucous sex, the silly comedy, the sermonizing, or the tear jerking.

You will foresee every single plot point 40 minutes before it happens, as this film is bound and determine to surprise no one. But Terrence Howard gets off some very funny lines and Morris Chestnut looks good, and if you’re not paying close attention, it might not even occur to you to wonder where they found matching boy band outfits for their talent show.

On the whole, you won’t want to pay very close attention to this one.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

Two Indie Gems for Your Queue

Earlier this year the indie gem Frances Ha was released, not that the world noticed. Well, world, here’s your opportunity to make amends, because this loosely articulated but deftly crafted character study of a New York dork could come home with you today on DVD.

The creative pairing of unrepentant misanthrope, writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and unabashedly likeable writer/star Greta Gerwig, the film gives Baumbach the opportunity to explore the lives of damaged neurotics, as usual, but gifts us with a protagonist we cannot help but love. As Frances tumbles, limbs akimbo, out of her arrested adolescence and into her long-dormant adulthood, a delightful journey emerges.

For something as impressive, if not quite so effervescent, you must see Baumbach’s masterpiece of awkward family dysfunction, The Squid and the Whale. This dark, semi-autobiographical comedy follows a self-absorbed adolescent, his divorcing narcissist parents, and his perhaps irrevocably weird little brother. Baumbach’s wicked writing created endless opportunities for the film’s dream cast, boasting, among other triumphs, the most brilliant performance of Jeff Daniels’s career.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQEnAtMxVXw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpg1f6ZVxh0