Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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“I’m a dick,” Llewyn Davis mockingly shouts at his sister, but he really is. Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, yet he heckles other performers and openly rolls his eyes at the vanilla folk his friends sing. Speaking of those friends, he’s knocked up his friend Jean (a feisty Carey Mulligan) even though she’s married to his good friend Jim (a clean cut Justin Timberlake). Yet he has to rely on these friends for a place to sleep and couch surfs (before it was even a thing) across all of New York City’s five boroughs. It’s no wonder he’s singing songs with lyrics like, “Hang me oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone. I wouldn’t mind the hangin’, just laying in the grave so long.”

The problem is Davis is actually a good folksinger. He imbues a pain and raw passion in well worn folk songs. And even when we want to smack Davis over the head with his own guitar, it’s that beautiful voice and tender emotion that make us feel for him. This is mostly thanks to Isaac’s vulnerable performance that makes us understand his frustration without ever pitying him. And directors Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t asking us to like him or even root for him; they know he’s a failure, and that’s the point.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t really have a plot, but it’s a meditation on what the struggle for success feels like. It’s the bleak gray winter weather hanging over the film, which is half a psychological device and half proof that the Coen Brothers grew up in Midwestern winters. It’s the irony that the only people who appreciate your music — plush liberal academics — are exactly the people who don’t understand what it means to you. 1960s folk music is changing as fast Greenwich Village is. Like the beleaguered Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” Davis is in a Job-esque struggle he’ll never win.

It’s this struggle that lends the film a surreal quality. Davis accidentally befriends and repeatedly loses a frisky orange tabby throughout the film. This fateful feline seems to appear just when Davis is on the verge of a existential breakdown, the one constant in his life. The oddest of these breakdowns is during a nightmarish road trip to Chicago, where he shares the car with a laconic, surly beatnik (ironically Garrett Hedlund, who also played Dean Moriarty in “On the Road”) and a belligerent old jazz playing junkie (a slightly over the top John Goodman.) The two men seem to represent Davis’ two fates — washed-up jerk or the fool — neither of which he can accept.

The film begins and culminates with Davis getting the crap beaten out of him behind the alley of a folk club, which puts the entire chronology of the film into question. Was the whole thing a flashback, a flashforward or just evidence of his Sisyphean struggle? It’s a question the Coens don’t answer for you, and that’s a relief in a season of films that beat you over the head with their excess, metaphors, messages and performances. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a film you’ll be thinking about for days and playing its lovely soundtrack for weeks.

Review: American Hustle

new-images-from-the-hobbit-american-hustle-and-the-monuments-men-142354-a-1375953418-470-75“American Hustle” knows just how clever it is. There are two main characters in the film: charismatic conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who you like even though you know he’ll screw you over, and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the suck up who is trying so hard to charm you, he ends up skeeving you out instead. “American Hustle” wants to be Irving but is really Richie.

“American Hustle” is true to its name. On the surface, it’s about two con artists, Iriving and his partner/moll Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are forced to help the FBI (Richie) take down some crooked politicians and mafioso. It’s as flashy as the sequins on Sydney’s plunging necklines, and it not only knows it, but it revels in it. Like a ’70s wet dream, it has the “Saturday Night Fever” dancing, the perfect soundtrack of Elton John and Wings, the ridiculous velvet suits and the slow-mo shots that glorify it all. It’s hustling you with its glitz and glam — trying to get you to ignore its flaws when, ironically, this only draws you to them.

Because “American Hustle” knows just how good it looks, just how it hits the Scorsese pastiche right on the money, just how over-the-top it is. It’s smug and, even worse, smarmy like Richie, who gets so caught up pretending to be a conman that he becomes one. Director David O. Russell thinks he can take you along for the ride by pulling a con over you, too. The plot becomes overwrought with a who’s conning whom cat and mouse game that makes its 2:09 run time feel like an extra hour. It’s almost as if Russell wanted to cram in yet another fabulous outfit for Adams to sport with each scene, and they are some of the best costumes of the year. When Irving repeats, “I have a plan,” we just hope that Russell has a plan to finally end the movie instead of trying to prove how smart he is.

Yet this is only the surface of “American Hustle.” Like Irving’s elaborate comb over, it’s all a front for something much more vulnerable and deeper. This isn’t really a movie about the ultimate con. It’s a love story of Irving and Sydney, and everything they let get in between them from their work to Irving’s crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Each convoluted element of their con is less about scamming politicians and really just a way of getting back at each other, and when Russell remember this the film becomes something more than a battle of wits but a battle of hearts. This is mostly a testament to Adams and Bale’s passionate performances and natural chemistry that lend an authenticity to movie where even the characters’ curls aren’t real. Both actors are masters of saying one thing while really meaning another and lend the film a subtlety its director couldn’t find.

Russell’s direction is much more evident with less experienced actors, Lawrence and Cooper. To her credit, Lawrence turns the hothouse flower that is Rosalyn Rosenfeld into more than just the hilarious caricature of a Long Island housewife she’s written as; she steals every scene she’s in with her pert comedy yet underlying fragility. Cooper, on the other hand, needs to be reigned in as much as Richie does. He taps into the manic energy that propelled such a great performance in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” but blows it out of proportion here. Whether this is Cooper or Russell’s fault is up to question because “American Hustle” is consistently heavy handed in its storytelling (Irving and Sydney painstakingly narrate the entire film.)

“American Hustle” is entertaining but like any good con, we all leave satisfied but know something is missing. Even with one of the best casts of 2013 and costumes that make you wish it were 1978 again, it’s ultimately a hollow, forgettable caper.

Review: The Best Man Holiday

The Best Man HolidayLet’s get this out of the way first — “The Best Man Holiday” cast is one of the most attractive in cinematic history. It’s rare when the actors actually look better in a sequel, but even rarer is a sequel that’s better than its predecessor.

Initially, “The Best Man Holiday” seems like a dubious followup. It’s been 14 years since the original “The Best Man,” so why resurrect the plot now? But that decade and a half gap is crucial because when we last saw the friends, they were reeling from Harper Stewart’s (Taye Diggs) not-so-fictional novel that nearly derailed his best friend Lance Sullivan’s (Morris Chestnut) marriage. Add a few years, and the conflicts are about a lot more than who slept with whom. Whether it’s a difficult pregnancy, financial woes, inability to commit to a real relationship, past secrets being dredged up or even illness, the friends need each other now more than ever, whether they like it or not. Their past and current problems make their bond a lot deeper and the film much more nuanced.

There’s a lot of drama in this film but also a lot more heart. What keeps the characters and the plot together is the cast’s authentic chemistry. Director Malcolm D. Lee has achieved a rare feat: it’s hard enough to find a pair of actors with great will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry like Diggs and Nia Long (who plays powerhouse Jordan Armstrong), but he managed to put together nine actors that seem like real friends. “The Best Man Holiday” is one of the atypical films where an ensemble cast isn’t just a gimmick but a strength.

The melodrama of the film isn’t anything new, especially with the added tension of the holidays, but the actors make it unique. Terrence Howard, who was a standout of the original “The Best Man” as player Quentin Spivey, once again adds a sense of levity to the otherwise heavy subject matter with his great comic timing. He and Melissa De Sousa (as drama queen and now Real Housewife Shelby) have caustic flirting down to a hilarious art. Yet it’s reluctantly charming Diggs who grounds the film as a conflicted protagonist that wants to stay out the drama even as he creates it. Harper’s friendship with Lance is still one of the most complex male bonds on screen, and Diggs and Chestnut convey the awkwardness yet love for each other well.

“The Best Man Holiday” shouldn’t work. It’s a long overdue sequel with an occasionally cheesy holiday theme and more actors than presents under the tree. Yet Lee cares about these characters too much to make them cliche, and the cast acts with passion. It’s equal parts sexy (see the sequined blazer dance scene above) and tearjerker sad but ultimately sincere.

Review: About Time

I reviewed “About Time” for Vox Magazine. You can read my review at the website or below:

ABOUT TIME

“About Time” is not the Richard Curtis film we know and love. Yes, a charming Brit is the hero. Yes, he falls in love with an audacious American. And yes, there is even a hilariously botched wedding. Yet “About Time” shirks the romantic foppery that initially made the director famous and hones in on the emotional sincerity that makes his films classics.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is your typical maladroit romantic, but he has inherited a gene that runs in the men of his family — the ability to time travel. Step into any closet (there appears to be a surplus of them in England according to this film), and he can go back to any point in his life and relive or rectify the situation. At first, Tim uses his powers for love by fixing ruined flirtations. Until he meets the wallflower Mary (Rachel McAdams in her third time travel romance) and sees no need to change the situation but only to perfect it.

Their courtship is straightforward, as if Curtis has grown bored with the back-and-forth of his past films, and consequently Mary feels undeveloped. Fortunately, McAdams’ natural charisma saves her character from being just another girlfriend.

However, “About Time is not a romantic comedy but a sardonic look at life. Just because Tim is a time traveler does not mean he escapes quotidian pleasures and plights. Gleeson keeps his dilemma down to earth by going from bumbling Hugh Grant stand-in to one of Curtis’ most fully realized protagonists. He has endearingly awkward comic timing but can also convey subtle tenderness and honesty.

A great supporting cast bolsters Gleeson. A surly Tom Hollander plays Tim’s London roommate and adds a good dose of snark to tone down the occasional sentimentality. Yet it’s the delightfully eccentric Bill Nighy, as Tim’s dad, who elevates the film. Their father-and-son dynamic feels authentic even if the reason for it isn’t.

The time travel premise seems like a gimmick because it is. Yet Curtis uses it to mine life for its daily profundities and ultimately makes one of his most realistic films.

Review: Gravity

105575-gravity-movie“Are you sure you aren’t nauseous?” Houston asks Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) during “Gravity.” She might not be, but we are. Between the spinning cinematography and the sentimental dialogue, it’s hard not to leave the movie with your stomach (or at least your eyes) rolling.

The premise for “Gravity” is intriguing — what if you became detached from your space shuttle and left to free float completely alone — but the idea aimlessly drifts like the astronaut tumbling through space. Stone is the mission specialist on her first spacewalk along with veteran commander Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) when debris from a Russian satellite destroys their shuttle and hopes for survival. Yes, that’s right, the villain in this film is satellite debris. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, Stone and Kowalski play astronaut musical chairs by hopping from shuttle to shuttle in attempt to get back home alive. The film alternates between moments of introspection that try hard to be poignant but are ultimately boring and showdowns between Stone and the satellite debris.

We are supposed to be rooting for them, but their back stories are as thin as the oxygen left in their helmets. Kolwalski is a charmer full of crazy anecdotes and pep talks, so Clooney is basically playing himself. The debris have more personality than Stone, though. She’s a workaholic researcher who lost her daughter in a freak accident. There’s not much for her to return to on Earth, so why should we care about her? She doesn’t seem to either and spends half the film nearly hyperventilating to suicide. When Kolwalski and Stone speak, the dialogue is almost as cliche as a bad disaster movie and laughable, cutting the hard-earned tension in all the wrong ways.

But this film isn’t about the acting (and it’s not really Clooney and Bullock’s fault that their roles are so flat), it’s about the visuals. Director Alfonso Cuarón has always had a flair for style over story, and he takes it to an extreme in “Gravity.” We float, flip and crash through space along with Stone as we see the view through her helmet. At best, we feel like we’re in a really beautiful video game. At worst, it’s downright disorienting. In all seriousness, skip this movie if you’re easily prone to motion sickness.

“Gravity” asks a lot of the big questions: What does it mean to be truly alone? How do we cope with loss? How and why do we try to survive? Yet its grandiose visuals don’t make up for its minimalist answers.

Review: Don Jon

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Within the first ten minutes of “Don Jon” an older couple walked out of the theater because the film was “terrible” and “disgusting.” What else did they expect for a movie about a porn addict? Yet “Don Jon” is fairly graphic — a tell-all, show-all of every “money shot” and the lewd desire behind it. This is both Jon and his namesake film’s problem; they try too hard to show and be too many things: the romantic comedy, the recovering addict movie, the critique on porn while paradoxically playing a lot of it. And just like porn is never fully satisfying, neither is “Don Jon.”

Jon wouldn’t be out of place in the cast of “Jersey Shore.” He loves only a few things in life: his body, his apartment, his car, his family, God, the ladies, oh, and especially porn. Smut is his escape and salvation — the one moment when he’s just empty. Jon is a deplorable character, but Gordon-Levitt plays him with a charisma and vulnerability that makes you like him. Unsurprisingly, being a porn addict makes it hard to keep a girlfriend, but when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) he’s determined to kick his habit, and this is when the film loses itself, too.

Barbara is a Jersey caricature, tacky accent, clothes and all. For all the nuance of Jon’s character, Barbara isn’t nearly as realized and seems to fulfill the stereotype of “the more beautiful the woman, the crazier she is.” Johansson plays her for camp, and even though she’s having a lot of fun, we’re not. Barbara falls into the part of the film trying to be a romantic comedy, but we don’t want Jon to get with this princess.

That’s okay because “Don Jon” swaps more genres than Jon swaps women. For the recovering addict part of the film, enter Julianne Moore as the sexy yet strange woman he meets in his night classes. Moore seems to fulfill the manic pixie dream girl stage of the film and barely gets a coherent subplot of her own as she tries to fix Jon’s life.

It’s clear Gordon-Levitt has been in the business for awhile. He can cast some of the best actors, knows how to direct with flash and style and writes a complex character he’s unexpectedly perfect at playing. Yet like the women in Jon’s porn, everything else is two dimensional and as self-indulgent as his addiction.

Review: The Spectacular Now

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“The Spectacular Now” should be titled “The Awesome Now.” Its characters say the word “awesome” more than its protagonist drinks. But this isn’t meant to be a sarcastic jab, rather “The Spectacular Now” captures all of that arrogant (if somewhat naive) ebullience of what it’s like to be a teenager in love, without mocking it, but with total sincerity.

The initial premise of the film seems cliche and set up for disaster — bad boy Sutter (Miles Teller) falls for the nice girl next door Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and his life changes for the better. But just like Sutter is more than the high school slacker, “The Spectacular Now” is more than an overdone coming-of-age story. The simple structure allows director James Ponsoldt (who also directed “Smashed” with its similarly well worn territory of alcoholism) to build complex back stories for characters that are much more than their stereotype.

As with most class clowns, the charming Sutter has a dark reason for his sense of humor. He drinks just like his father, who abandoned his family. It could be easy to turn Sutter into an after school special or another Marissa Cooper-style teenager fulfilling every rebel cliche, but his story is nuanced. It’s clear that Ponsoldt actually respects his teenage characters instead of making them into examples. No melodrama is necessary because being a teenager is melodramatic enough. Teller, for his part, is reminiscent of a young John Cusack, cute in a slightly wonky way and disarmingly smooth and witty for someone so young, yet there is a hidden complexity and pain behind all that bravado.

This explains why someone as unflashy as Aimee, without a speck of makeup on her face but with an intrigue to her, could bring out the troubled side of Sutter. Woodley is such a natural at playing the  self-conscious teenager that it seems like she isn’t even acting — she’s one of the true talents of this acting generation. Similarly, the sex scene between Sutter and Aimee is one of the most authentic in a teenage movie ever. It’s awkward yet sweet and much more emotionally intimate than most American movies. Yet Aimee seems to flow into Sutter’s lifestyle too easily, taking on his drinking and issues like they are her own in a way that is underdeveloped at best and unbelievable at worst. Ponsoldt doesn’t give Aimee the same breadth and depth he gives Sutter, and the film ends rather abruptly.

If you were ever in high school, ever in love or want to see two of most promising young actors, see “The Spectacular Now.” It’s awesome.

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