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Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 Feb

Inside Llewyn Davis is an extremely uncomfortable masterpiece from the Coen brothers.   What we get is a day in the life of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in the early sixties.  His failure has made him hostile, and his stubborn clinging to artistic credulity limits his options.

This movie really points at the flaws in the American Dream.   First, if you have a dream and work hard enough you will eventually succeed.  Nobody works harder than Llewyn, and he goes nowhere.   The people around him who have a chance of success are no more talented, and often have less passion for the work than Llewyn does.   He’s surrounded by ghosts of his future, people who have followed his road–and none of the endings are happy.  We’ve got John Goodman as the Jazz musician who’s addicted to heroin, Justin Timberlake whose bland persona covers up a suburban worldview where he ignores things that will be obvious trouble later, Carrie Mulligan raging at the whole world, Llewyn’s father who is sinking into blankness under dementia, the professor who has a collector’s appreciation of music, but no feeling for it–nobody in this movie gets fulfillment from their art.

That’s the second myth that this movie pokes holes in–if you follow your bliss, the whole world will unfold before you.   In this movie, Llewyn Davis sacrifices everything for his music.  He throws away his childhood things in a box by the curb, he is broke, he has no place to live, he only has his guitar and a desire to sing–and that makes for a very hard life.   The truth is, he cannot feed off his dreams forever–sooner or later something is going to break.    The world doesn’t run by the secret–wanting something bad enough does not make it happen.

Also talent has nothing to do with it.  Every example in this movie of somebody succeeding has nothing to do with how talented they are or not.   One man in the Army who’s slated for success merely picked up folk singing to pass the time.   The hit song that they recorded was  a novelty.  In fact, for all the music happening in this film, nobody really ever talks about music outside of it being a business.   It’s also clear that the people who are in position to make or break these folkies often have little appreciation for the music.  In fact, during Llewyn’s visit to Chicago, he meets up with a man who’s the biggest producer in folk music, and he mostly judges him in terms of being able to connect with an audience, than how good he is.

Then there’s the myth of the exceptional person.    Nearly every movie is about a person who has that special something which marks them for greatness.  We are told since the beginning of our lives that we are special and we can be anything we want.  Can we?  What if we’re perfectly ordinary?  Or what if we’re even pretty talented and that doesn’t matter?   For many, this is a very depressing thought.  We want to feel like we’re completely in control of our destinies, but generally, we’re not.  Puncturing that illusion of control and significance is a big ego bruise, after all we are all stars in our own lives.   Why isn’t that enough?

In the end Bob Dylan shows up on the stage to perform just as Davis is leaving.   It’s hard to know what we’re meant to feel seeing this.   Perhaps it’s a bit of happiness that somebody gets to become an artist in all this, but at the same time, Dylan is the one who will eventually make the whole folk music scene irrelevant in a few years time.    Also while Dylan is a visionary genius, Llewyn is merely a talented musician.

I find this movie to be excellent–a deconstruction of music history while having every shot look like one of those classic folk covers.   My only quibble is that Justin Timberlake is a very muggy actor.   It’s like everything he says or does is a smirky Saturday night live joke.   Not enough to ruin the movie, but still.

Movie Review: John Dies at the End

2 Feb

john-dies-banner1

 

If you go to a rock concert at a local hole-in-the wall, you aren’t going for perfectly arranged melodies or high production value, rather you’re going for a rock stompin, balls-to-the-wall, wild time.   That’s John Dies at the End.  End of Review.

Ok, so it’s not the end of the review, and ***WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS*** not that I think you can have too many honest-to-goodness spoilers in a movie like this.  John Dies at the end is really an episodic series of stories tied together by this man who’s telling his story to a reporter in a diner.   There’s this drug called soy sauce that opens doors to another dimension that all our main characters take.   So in a drug spiked fantasy, you’ve got a man possessed by a swarm of flies, giant leeches, a meat monster, a gigantic tentacled monster intent on conquering the world, a genius dog, and about a million other little things of that nature.   It’s always interesting, and the movie flows at a pretty good pace.

What it reminds me of the most is The Naked Gun movies–not in subject matter, but in the sense that you’ve got a bunch of things thrown at you and some things will stick and some things won’t.   In the end more of it sticks than doesn’t.  But don’t look for cohesion, or character development, or a nice pretty little story that comes to a really nice little loop at the end.    I have to give the movie a lot of credit for taking an incoherent storyline and making it consistently interesting.  It’s so easy for a movie like this to fall into weirdness boredom where once you get accustomed to the atmosphere and nothing really adds up to anything beyond that.

However, there are a couple of moments this film where the muddiness of plot caused confusion.   The connection to the creature at the end and the oddities going on in the real world could have been stronger, and I’m still not sure how the main characters ran their ghostbusting business.   However, this isn’t the sort of movie that you’re meant to focus on these things.

One thing that gets me is the amount of very negative reviews this movie gets.   I think it’s because this movie is intentionally messy, a little bit hipster, and slightly smug at times.   I get that, but that movies like this are pulling from movies that are unintentionally entertaining (good-bad movies), and trying to intentionally make something like them with a much bigger budget–I don’t see that as blasphemy.   In fact, John Dies at the End has fewer boring moments and lulls than those good-bad movies tend to.   All in all, I highly recommend this movie, if you’re in the mood for something a little different.

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

11 Jan

SPRING+BREAKERS

 

I wasn’t looking forward to this film.  Harmony Korine can be quite unpleasant, and the subject matter made me think this would be a movie about the downfall of awful people.   However, Spring Breakers is quite the opposite, in fact it’s Korine’s most thoughtful film yet.

Yes, it’s about a bunch of college kids on spring break.   Yes they are shallow and juvenile.  Yes the camera comes from a peeping tom viewpoint, ogling the girls and getting in their space.   But there’s so much more to this.

We have four girls going off to Florida for spring break.    Gradually things descend into more and more depravity.   As it gets to be too much, each girl decides to go home when some invisible line has been crossed and they start to get uncomfortable.  Nobody stops them.   The last two girls are the last ones standing, and after a big shootout they leave with Alien’s car also going home.

Korine has picked up a bunch of influences here that I haven’t seen him use before.   We have Thelma and Louise, Faust, Cassavetes, Scarface, beach movies, Screwballs–and that’s just the beginning.   The film is very constructivist, which is quite odd because up until now I would have called Korine a deconstructionist.   The directions are very clear:  we have growing destruction, growing losses, the colors go from bland and grainy to superinfused with color, to dark and shadowy, when each girl leaves the film starts showing them separating from the group.

Spring Breakers is at heart a parable.  We’ve got four girls who go to spring break.  Three steal money from a local diner to be able to afford to go.   They drive off, get a hotel room, and start to party.   They go to a very wild party that gets a little out of control, and get arrested.  The arrest is enough for one girl, so she goes home.  After getting involved with a local gangster (named Alien), one of the girls gets shot, that’s too much for her so she goes home.   The last two get in a huge shoot-out, where Alien gets killed.  They shoot everybody, and then go home.  All four of the girls call home right before they leave saying that they are coming home and they’ll be good from now on.   All four mean it.

What is intimated here is that this experience is a purging of the wild side before these four enter a conservative life where there will be no drugs or partying.   What’s interesting is that the gang members all seem to be people who “went to spring break” and never left.   While the film doesn’t really comment on whether this rite of passage is a good thing, the film does emphasize that these experiences are meant to be temporary, that if you do try to stay there, you’ll eventually become twisted and wrong.

What’s interesting as well is that it’s unclear how much of a gangster Alien really is.  He doesn’t really have much of a posse, and is more living out a fantasy based on Scarface, than living a real life to speak of.   The other gangster does have a posse, but considering that two girls with guns can get through them very easily, one wonders how real that is as well.

Also through this movie, the four girls talking about finding themselves on spring break.   This seems ironic, because through all the debauchery and sexual games, it’s questionable that these girls are learning anything.  However, they change once things go too far, promise to follow the straight and narrow.   Is that reaction really learning?  Is spring break just a way to winnow out all the subversive elements of a population in the safest way possible so that people will happily live out the rest of their lives in dull grayness?

The reaction to this movie has been mixed.   From what I’ve read there’s two groups that don’t like this film.  People who wanted this to be a party film don’t like it because yes there’s a lot of nudity and sex, but none of it is titillating–in fact most of it is disturbing.   This movie is not a party film at all–it’s a meditation on excess.   There’s another group which seems to think that this really is a party film and that Korine just slapped on some artsy elements to hide that.    I wonder if they saw the same movie I did, with the dreamlike imagery, and repeated lines, and symbolism.  So very smart.  I only hope that Korine continues to build on this level of filmmaking in the future.

The Best of 2013: The movies

31 Dec

2013

 

Again, I’m continuing into the new year by evaluating the old one.   This time movies.   So, to be clear, these are my favorite movies that I watched in 2013, most of them were not made or even released this year,.   I never feel comfortable saying anything is “the best” of a given year, because I won’t have watched everything.   However I can say something is the best of my year.   By best, I mean most entertaining and has stuck with me the most.

1.  Gravity–I’m sorry to all you pooh-poohers on this one–Gravity is one of the best popcorn movies I have ever seen and is a testament of style.  Yes the story is simple, but it needs to be so we can pay attention to all the movement and action on the screen.   Watch it on the big screen though, I have a feeling it will lose its power on a smaller one.

2.   Dr Who–The Pertwee Years:  This year was the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.  Unfortunately, the Matt Smith show floundered this year, seeming to lose direction.  I went back to Pertwee, and really found his era refreshing.    Pertwee was wanting Dr. Who to be more of a bond styled hero, thus the opera clothes and all the Judo.  Props to Pertwee for (mostly) doing his own stunts.  Besides that, Pertwee has the best luck with companions of any of them–Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, and especially Sarah Jane Smith are all classics that made the show as much as the Doctor did.  Even though the effects are very…seventies…the storytelling brings many of these stories as the best the series ever had.

3.  A Nightmare on Elm Street–Nope, never saw this until this year–and why didn’t anybody ever tell me this movie was so funny.  The mother in particular makes me laugh my heart out.   Eighties effects and Johnny Depp are just the icing on the cake.

4.   Waitress–I normally don’t like this sort of movie at all.   However, beyond it’s sort of Ya-ya premise, there is a definite darkness here.

5.  All That Jazz–This movie is the best classic film I saw this year.  Why isn’t this talked about more?  The main character’s fading and eventual death just works so damn well.   A film that is both mainstream and experimental, and it just delivers.

6.   Cloud Atlas–Beautiful storybook of a movie that is a nice ride.

7.  Robot and Frank–Terrific film–really terrific–I like how realistic the future is here, and the acting is just out of this world.   Spoiler:  The robot will make you cry.

8.   Beasts of the Southern Wild–a movie that flies with the strength of the characters.   A wonderful poem about strength.

9.   The Life of Pi–Another one of the big philosophical movies that  have been coming out lately.  I was very happy to hear that it has done very well.  Though the movie isn’t as deep as it wants to be, it is sweetly moving.

10.    Uncle Boonmee–Another movie about death, this time about how the “real world” and the “believed world” intersect.   Not an easy watch, but absolutely fascinating in its constant subversion of itself.

I also have a bunch of movies that are so bad they’re good:   Disco Godfather, Things, Blue Money (“red wine is my mouthwash”), The Pink Angels, Roller Boogie.  All of these are prime stuff for your bad movie night.

Also a very special acknowledgement to the That Guy With Glasses crew, particularly Nostalgia Chick, Todd in the Shadows, Phelous, Obscuras Lupa, and Brows Held High—this little group represents the best of online commentary there is, both by having fun, but also bringing some sense of meaning to what they do.  Honestly, they deserve all the respect in the world.  I couldn’t do what they do.  They have enriched many a dreary rainy night for me and my partner.

Movie Review: Waitress

4 Dec

Waitress

 

This week I’ve been watching more mainstream fare, most of which has been unspeakably bland.  Then I was pleasantly surprised by Waitress.   At first when it began, I groaned.   It seemed just so twee–the pies she made with every emotion, the big haired waitresses, the bake-off.  And if the movie was just that, you’d be stuck into a Hallmark hell and I wouldn’t see the point of this movie.  However, and this was a BIG surprise, this movie has a serious center as a meditation on jealousy.

Jenna is the titular character with her two coworkers Becky (the sassy one) and Dawn (the lovelorn one).   She’s in an unhappy marriage in a small southern town and is about to have a baby.   Jenna does not want this baby–because to her it symbolizes being stuck in her marriage, and she has 9 months to get herself up and out of there before the baby comes.

Jenna’s husband is completely jealous of her.   Waitress really gets the idea of jealousy down–see, most people mix up jealousy, envy, and wishing together.  Jealousy is unease because of a fear of losing something.  Jenna’s husband has this–which makes him controlling and unlikable.  Not to mention that he really doesn’t care what she thinks or wants, and sees her as being there for him and him alone.     He even worries about the baby getting more love from her than he will.    He gets in angry spats with her, slapping her at one point, and coming into her work and raising hell.   Then he becomes so insecure that she agrees with him because she’s got no choice.

That’s the thing with Jenna, she’s got no choice.  She doesn’t have the resources to move on, and she sees the baby as another drain on her already tenuous resources.   She is also jealous.   She fears losing her clean start–even though she has money bundled away all through the house, and possibly has enough to make a clean break of it, she still hesitates.   She wants to move on, but she has nothing to move on to.

Paralleling this story is Becky, the long married waitress–however, her husband is severely disabled.  We never know why or how, but he barely functions.  So she has an affair with the cook.   This has no ramifications.  She can’t abandon her husband, she doesn’t really want another family or anything, but at the same time she has some needs to fulfill.    Again, jealousy keeps her down, because she does not want to be the kind of woman who leaves an invalid to fend for himself.

Dawn is viewed as less than attractive.   She goes on mini-dates, and one day a man falls in love with her.   She doesn’t fall in love back, because he becomes obsessed, writing poetry, crying, getting all gooey.   He comes off as a little ridiculous, and at first Dawn is very turned off by this.   However, though he may be a little strange, she falls for him.  The other waitresses see this as desperation, however their relationship becomes one that is full of love, and free of jealousy.  Her husband was envious of her, pursued her, and became a good husband and father.

Jenna’s arc goes through an affair she has with her Doctor, which is clearly acting out because of her unhappy marriage.   She gives her the attention and care that she craves.  Interestingly enough (SPOILERS) they don’t end up together.  He’s happily married, and she just needed someone to show her affection so she knew what it was like.   Once she gets that, the picture of the life she wants to have gets filled in.

Once Jenna has the baby, she finds something that is worth her attention and love.  She kicks her husband out, and her life clicks into place.

Also in this movie is Andy Rooney who is just remarkable as a crotchety old businessman.

Admittedly this movie is a bit gooey, but one thing I have to emphasize is that because the conflict is so real, the fey trappings makes it all the more understandable.  Of course Jenna would through herself into making pies, it’s all she has.  Of course the waitresses would have the same discussions over and over, they know each other that well.   So that at the end, when we get our fairy tale ending, it feels earned.  Jenna tried to leave many times, each time failing, but at the very end, she leaves for good.  And you feel good for her.

Movie Review: Friday the 13th Part 2

9 Nov

frida the 13th part 2

 

Well, even though Halloween is over, I’ve continued my 80’s slasher films, because they’ve been fun.   For Friday the 13th Part 2 I was pleasantly surprised!  This must be one of the best sequels to a movie like this ever.   SPOILERS FOLLOW so proceed with caution!

I think this film could be a good tutorial for anybody trying to make a sequel in a franchise.   Here’s what it does right:

–It assumes you’ve watched the first one, but is still simple enough to follow if you haven’t.   A lot of movies either completely start out new after throwing a few biscuits out to the original without worrying about continuity (annoying) or get so ham-strung in continuity it forgets to be fun.   F13 part 2 does neither of these things.   We get a little flashback scene at the beginning, and clearly all the action is based on the past movie, but it is happy to go in a new direction.

–It messes with its own formula.   This film knows what the audience expects–you think the guy in the wheelchair is gonna get stuck?  Nope.   You think that the girl from the last movie is going to go head-to-head with Jason?  Nope.  You think the funny one is going to die?  Nope.   The film has a deft hand at playing with the expectations an audience would have and changing them.

–The movie has an interesting theme, not covered in the first one.  Sure it’s not Shakespeare, but the theme of urban legend vs. reality is a very interesting one and brings the story into new territory.   The whole set-up is that the Jason story is now well known and there’s a fascination with Crystal Lake as well as the whole Jason experience.  We get campfire stories, and even theories over why he is the way he is.   What we don’t get is the total unvarnished truth.  Very clever.

–The movie doesn’t weigh itself down in exposition.   We don’t need to know the life stories of every counselor that comes to this place.

–Most (though not all) of what happens makes perfect sense if you think about it.  Like the ending–we don’t know what truly happened that night because the main actress is insane.   Jason’s house makes sense as well as his obsession with his mother.   Even little things, like how the cop acts, is perfectly in character and not blown over the top.

–The main actress uses her head to get past Jason.   In part 1 all of the characters acted like idiots, but here they make plans, they get prepared, they make semi-sensible decisions.

–The film has a sense of humor about itself.  One of the best jokes is when the girl gets out of the shower, and looks at the camera.  Is she facing a stalker?  Nope, she’s just getting out of the shower.

However, this wouldn’t be a fun movie if I didn’t notice some things.  For instance:

1.  The clothes–Look at the knit plaid overalls the first woman is wearing–why do they balloon like that?  At first I thought she was pregnant, but then later we see her being very unpregnant in a kimono.   Then there’s the shorts the jogger wears that manage to cover her belly button but not her butt cheeks.   Or what about the brown panties one girl changes into that bulge in the back in a very unflattering way?   And I’ve never seen so many half shirts in my life!

2.  So the first girl was traumatized by the killings at Crystal Lake, so she chooses to get a house in the nearby town?   Wasn’t she from far away?  Also what’s up with all the clown paintings she’s doing?  Therapy?

3.  They can’t use the Crystal Lake camp, so these people open up a new camp off the same lake–that’s awfully close.   Also, were there always two camps near this little podunk town?

4.  Jason’s house has a toilet that’s not hooked up with blades of grass in it.  I don’t even know what to do with that information.

5.  And the biggest bit–the dog.  So the dog disappears halfway through the movie, and the kids find a torn up animal with the very same ribbon on it.   They say the animal is unidentifiable.   (Though it looks pretty much like the same dog from here.)  Later the dog just saunters back in.   So did Jason kill some other animal and put a ribbon on it?  The thing is the person who owns the dog never even heard about this finding, so it can’t be to creep people out.   *shrug*

Movie Review: Hellraiser

31 Oct

hellraiser_1_poster_011

 

Here we go again on my jag of movies that my mother wouldn’t let me watch.  This one was VERY naughty because it had the word hell in it.   I wouldn’t have even bothered to ask for this one–if I did I’d have to call it Heckraiser, and watch there be some movie like that which would be very lame because instead of pinhead it would have clothespinhead or something like that.

This movie is much darker than Friday the 13 or Nightmare on Elm Street because unlike those films which are mostly chase movies, this movie wallows in suffering.  Again, I’m not going to bother with explaining the plot, but just a few things I noticed.

1.  For them being in England, not many of the characters seem particularly British.

2.  It’s really hard for me to know when something’s a flashback when this much soft screen is thrown around in general.  Honestly–half the film seems to be dipped in Vaseline.

3.  Clare (the stepmother) is a hoot.  She has these reaction shots to people when nothing particularly happened that looks like they just pooped on her foot.  This is before anything in particular happens.

4.  Ok, so I know this house is evil, but must it also be gross?  Cockroaches and rats–UGH.  I can stand wickedness in movies, but the cenobites could clean things up now and then.

5.  The dragon man, when he’s in human form eats a bunch of crickets.  Why does he do this?  I have no idea.   It’s not like dragons eat crickets in the wild–I think at this point of the movie he’s just bored and wanting to freak out the girl.

6.  Why don’t the cenobites just go in and get Frank since they know he’s there?  It’s not like they can’t leave that room (at the end they’re popping up all over the place).

7.   When Steve shows up and there’s all these monsters running around Kirsty’s house, he’s not very impressed.   He jumps in and helps, but there’s no OHMYGODWHATISTHATTHING….he’s too cool for school.

8.  Having an affair on top of the wedding dress you’re about to use?  Tacky.  Also I hope you have a good dry cleaner for that.

9.   I find it hard to believe that Julia is so attractive that she can pick up men and convince them to sleep with her in a rat infested attic.   Also that thing she does with Frank’s finger and her mouth is not remotely attractive.

10.  And the true horror is the fashions here!   I’d rather dress like pinhead than many of the humans here–Julia’s rainbow eyeliner and helmet hair, Kristy looks like she is wearing Stevie Nick’s castoffs, and some HORRIBLE cosby sweaters on everybody.