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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

inside_llewyn_davis_ver2“There’s no success like failure. And failure’s no success at all,” Bob Dylan wrote. He could have been talking about any number of characters in the oeuvre of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Losers and has-beens and could-have-beens fascinate the brothers, and their newest film certainly follows this model. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling musician in the 1961 Greenwich Village, New York folk scene. He rotates crashing with various friends, unable to scrounge up enough money to ever pay his own way. His musical partner recently killed himself and Llewyn has been trying to get traction with his first solo record. His world gets even more complicated when Jean (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she’s pregnant; the baby’s father may be Llewyn or Jean’s husband and fellow performer, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn can’t catch a break.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a classic Coen creation, a character study of a misanthropic loser trying to find direction in a comical universe of indifference. I greatly look forward to every Coen picture and that’s because nobody writes characters like they do. There are no throwaway characters in a Coen universe. Even minor characters like the elevator Attendant or Manager’s Secretary are given sparks of personality, each fully formed figure creating a richer canvas. There is great pleasure in just listening to their characters speak, in natural cadences yet elevated with grace. Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. Their storytelling is always rife with wonderful comic surprises and pit stops. The Coens are such brilliant technical craftsmen, that every shot is gorgeously composed, even without longtime cinematographer Roger Deakens (to give you an idea how old this movie was, Deakens was busy filming Skyfall). The music, supervised by O Brother maestro T. Bone Burnett, is impeccably performed and quite lovely to the ear, if you’re into folk music arrangements. If you’re not, well, it’s going to be a long movie experience.

ART_INSIDE_LLEWYN_DAVIS_-001-676x450But here’s the problem with Inside Llewyn Davis: the film will likely turn off most people. It’s not a comforting movie by any means. We’re stuck following a self-destructive struggling musician bounce around couch-to-couch, chasing dreams that will never seem in reach. And Llewyn is a tough character to love. He’s surly, careless, selfish, egotistical, and also jaded. And he’s just about the only character in the movie. Most of the other famous faces are fleeting supporting players. Only Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) is given a plurality of scenes to expand her perturbed character, and even those may not be enough. Much like Llewyn’s musical direction, this is a one-man show, and he’s not cuddly. But an unlikable protagonist is not uncommon. The Coens tease so many different directions for Llewyn to go that it’s likely that audiences will feel some degree of disappointment where the film does end up. It’s a circuitous path, proving Llewyn is the architect of his own fate, but at that point audiences may not care. They may just be happy to watch Llewyn punched in the face. The plot is pretty light, running into a series of various self-contained scenes, and there isn’t much in the way of closure. I’ve watched the film twice and while I appreciate it more I’m certain that Llewyn Davis will leave a majority of people feeling cold, more so than even A Serious Man.

Unlike former Coen creations, notably in A Serious Man and Barton Fink, our titular character  is the architect of his own misery. He is a musician that identifies with an older class of folk artists, something that strikes him as genuine and touching the soul. He cannot stand artistic compromise. He won’t even accept a winter coat from his music manager. He wants no handouts. He chastises Jean about her and Jim’s attitudes toward the business, calling them “careerist” and “a little bit square.” To Llewyn, to sell out is the worst crime. Jean says that they’re just doing what they can to raise up the musical ranks, and maybe the songs aren’t top-notch, like a catchy but instantly dated novelty song about the Space Race (the sure-to-be Oscar-nominated “Please Mr. Kennedy”), but they’re commercial, they’re finding an audience, they’re making inroads, partially as a husband/wife act and partially due to their own physically attractive appearances, and it frustrates Llewyn greatly. A great example is early in the film a young Army vet on leave performs a wonderfully pure song with a beautiful voice. Llewyn scoffs at the mawkish nature of the tune. “He’s a great performer,” Jim advises. Llewyn takes umbrage at the distinction; a performer is not the same as a musician. The people getting ahead are the performers, the sellouts. One of Jean and Jim’s rising hits, “500 Miles,” lyrically suggests it was an old slave song that has been repackaged and homogenized for safe consumption. Llewyn is going to stick to his guns and make it on his own terms, with expected results. Late in the movie, after Llewyn performs before a record exec (F. Murray Abraham), so aching and affecting as he puts it all into the song, the exec simply responds: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” However, the exec offers Llewyn a chance to be in a trio he’s putting together, if he cleans up and knows how to keep to the background. It’s a real opportunity. Just not for Llewyn.

It all comes down to legacy and Llewyn contemplating what his will be. His singing partner is now defined by his death, finding cruel irony in their song, “If I Had Wings.” His father is known for his long dedication to the Navy, but now he sits alone in a nursing home, a prisoner to his own infirmary and defeated mind. A road trip partner, the pompous jazz musician Roland Turner (a royally hilarious John Goodman), seems like a Ghost of Christmas Future visit from a possible future Llewyn, the artist who’s an iconoclast only in his own mind. Throughout the film, Llewyn is beset with choices, different options he could take, one in particular stemming from a revelation involving an old girlfriend. And yet, much like the thematic nature of folks songs, we’re told, Llewyn looks for something new with something old, be they routines, goals, or occupations. The folk music scene is on the cusp of change with a more commercialized pendulum swing, as evidenced by a surprise new performer at the Gaslight in the closing minutes. Llewyn is contemplating his life beyond the world of show business and where he goes next.

insidellewyndavis_620_012413And if there is a sad aspect to the Coens’ tale, it’s that Llewyn really is a talented musician. This is a breakout role for Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) especially when you consider that he did all his own singing and guitar playing. It’s one of the most astonishing musical performances by an actor I’ve ever seen in a movie. The level of craft at command, the different slivers of passion he carefully puts into the performances, the trembling emotion, the merging of himself with the song. There’s a reason the Coens open the movie with Isaac performing the full rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It crystallizes right away where the man’s talent level is, both the character and the actor. We’re left to then wonder why he hasn’t found his place in the industry, and the rest of the film is the explanation. This is the first film since perhaps 2007’s Once where full-length performances of songs really do move the story forward (I’m obviously excluding traditional musicals). Some have labeled the heavy use of song as lazy, distracting from an undercooked narrative, but I can literally go through every song in the film and justify its existence. Each tune, and the performance and performers, gives insight to character, plot, and state of mind.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an easy movie to admire but a harder one to love, unless you’re a fan of the Coen brothers or folk music in general. The protagonist is unlikable, his struggles his own doing either by hubris or integrity, the plot is rather loose with scattered supporting characters, and the film ends on a somewhat lackluster note that feels inconclusive. But then I keep going back to the richness of this world, the pop of the characters, the lyrical beauty to the unvarnished songs, and the concept of folk music as its own sense of purgatory (here me out, folk fans), the idea that we seek something new with something old, and so we follow in circles, like Llewyn’s onscreen journey. Isaac gives such a strong performance that you almost wish his character could catch a break. Almost. This is another technical marvel from the Coens, filled with their dark humor and their sense of cosmic melancholy, but Inside Llewyn Davis may ultimately find some strange sense of uplift as Llewyn continues to hold to his ambitions even as the world around him is changing, losing sight of artists like him. As long as we have the Coens, the Llewyn Davis’s of this world will get their due in one form or another.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Great Gatsby (2013)

the-great-gatsby-poster1It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.

In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.

101900_galLuhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).

The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.

101940_galIf I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.

The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.

Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shame (2011)

Most of the press about the seedy drama Shame has centered on the exhibition of star Michael Fassbender’s manhood, hence the NC-17 rating shackled to the film. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen, who teamed with Fassbender on the riveting Irish hunger-strike drama Hunger, decided against recutting his film for a more audience-inclusive R-rating. The Fassbender penis cannot be cut (draw your own circumcision conclusions). All of this fuss over seeing a penis onscreen seems a little ridiculous and immature. It just seems silly to censor a story about sex addiction by being coy with the appearance of the male anatomy. If they gave awards for onscreen penis performances, Harvey Keitel would have gotten a lifetime achievement award years ago. For all the physical nakedness on screen, when it comes to compelling characters and a story, that’s where Shame goes limp.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a high-powered New York City businessman working in a high-powered office doing important business stuff. At least, that’s about the impression the movie gives. What makes Brandon tick, though, is the biological highs of giving in to his carnal desires. He is a sex addict. He has sex daily, some with women he picks up, some with prostitutes. He has a mighty stash of pornography and his work computer is filled to the brim with smut. Brandon’s world of empty physical pleasure is interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drops by to stay a while. She’s a needy, emotionally troubled woman, the kind of girl that gets into bed with her sex addict brother to feel some kind of warmth. Sissy drives Brandon mad, a madness that not even meaningless sex can cure. When sissy sleeps with Brandon’s married boss, his life becomes even more hectic. Perhaps brother and sister aren’t far off in their dysfunction.

What’s most shocking about Shame is not the explicit sex scenes or the full-frontal nudity (sigh, another reason to hate Fassbender) but what a shallow move this is. From beginning to end, everything in this movie is surface level. We don’t get to know anything about Brandon except for his expensive interior decorating. Ooo, he has a fine collection of vinyl, it makes perfect sense that he would be a sex addict now. The movie is filled with joyless sex, but just because there’s a lot of it, and the camera takes time to show Fassbender’s remorseful expressions mid-coitus, does not mean we have approached anything introspective or revealing. The most we learn about Brandon is that his longest relationship lasted four months. When Sissy comes to crash with her big bro it seems to unnerve the man. Why? Is it because her emotional neediness holds a mirror up to Brandon about his own broken behavior? Is it because she’s the only person in his life he has some relationship with and he wants to sever this, to cut him off completely from feeling anything? What has caused both of these people to become so dysfunctional? What about their parents? Your guess is as good as mine. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) cannot be bothered to shed light on their characters. This must have been the easiest movie in the world to write, as well as one that almost fulfills some sort of filmmaking exploitation dream (“No no, we’re doing a serious art movie. Now ladies in this scene you’ll be engaged in a threesome for an exhausting amount of screen time. Make sure to lick those nipples like you mean it”).

Because of the narrative shortcomings, the film can grow rather tedious. You never get a real sense of sexual addiction. Just because we watch a guy have sex with strangers, prostitutes, and watch a lot of porn does not mean we are any closer to understanding his urges and compulsions. There’s one brief moment where McQueen seems to communicate Brandon’s thinking, as the camera cuts between sensuous close-ups of a female officemate (Nicole Beharie). This technique is used too sparingly, though, and we’re left to just assume, “Oh, this guy has just gotta have it.” I would have greatly appreciated McQueen taking a more assertive role in communicating the mindset of his main character. Let’s get into his head, let’s see the world the way he does, let’s through the power of editing feel the gnawing craving for physical release. There is one terrific scene during the opening where Brandon and a woman on the subway seem to be communicating a shared desire simply through careful expressions and body configuration. It’s the one scene in Shame that feels like we’ve gotten a peak into Brandon’s world. Instead, the majority of Shame is far too cold and clinical, watching Brandon’s self-destructive behavior from a safe distance like we’re afraid of catching something. I get that all of the onscreen sex is supposed to be seen as unsexy, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have followed Brandon’s point of view deeper. Just following a character’s POV is not the same as consent of their lifestyle. McQueen’s camera favors pretty long takes that voyeuristically eavesdrop on his characters, creating a sense of reality that can become ensnaring. I wanted to break free from a near five-minute take filmed from the back of Brandon and Sissy’s heads while they sit on a couch watching, in a strange moment of public domain access, a cartoon from the 1930s. McQueen’s film almost feels like a bait-and-switch bauble, promising the audience the seedy perversions of a man dominated by his uncontrollable desires, and then just delivering a guy who speaks little and jerks off at work a lot.

From an acting point of view, the lone saving grace of Shame, both Fassbender and Mulligan give captivating performances. Fassbender has had an incredibly varied year performance-wise, posing as Rochester, Magneto, and Carl Jung (one wonders what Freud would make of Brandon). The steely actor has a commanding presence and he’s able to reflect a burning intensity with the power of his eyes. Brandon, on the page, has about maybe 100 words of dialogue, so much is left to the actor’s fluid imagination, and Fassbender makes his character compelling to watch, at least for a while, despite the fact that the screenplay does not give him a compelling character to play. Mulligan (Drive, Never Let Me Go) is becoming rather adept at playing sad-eyed Kewpie doll women. Her character has a bit more to say in Shame, a girl trying to connect to the only family she has left, a brother who wishes to cut himself off from all feelings. The movie is at its best when these two are onscreen together. And for the horndogs out there, Mulligan matches Fassbender’s “I’ll show you mine” dare and delivers the full-frontal goods as well.

Shame is a sexually frank movie that seems curiously tight-lipped when it comes to character and plot. It’s filled with body parts but rarely do those parts assemble into a character. The movie is all surface, shallow and repetitive, and if that’s meant to communicate the self-loathing nature of its main character then what a strange mission that McQueen has achieved. The movie is flat, tedious, and distant, too timid to go deeper with its characters and their compulsions. I want to see Brandon’s personal and/or professional life suffer because of his addiction. I want to see the struggle to keep the urges at bay. I want to see Brandon hit rock bottom. I want to feel his desire to change. But we get none of this. Shame ruefully takes its narrative cue from Brandon, which means it’s a whole lot of nothing in between bouts of meaningless, empty sex.

Nate’s Grade: C

Drive (2011)

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver who has a lucrative side-project. For the right price, he can be hired as a personal driver. He gives the client a five-minute window. Whatever happens in that window, he’s their driver no matter what. Miss it and he’s gone. As you can imagine, this kind of job offer is mostly filled with getaway driving duties. Driver takes an interest in his apartment neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has just been released from prison and already feeling heat to pay his debts. He gets winds of a pawnshop holding a million in cash. Driver offers his services to square the guy’s debt and to keep Irene and her son safe. But of course things go wrong, as they tend to in these sorts of pictures, and Driver is left with a sack of money and two very angry gangsters. Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks) would like the money back and to eliminate the number of people that know about their involvement in this scheme.

Drive is being sold as one kind of movie, a high-octane action thriller with plenty of car chases, when it’s really a European art-thriller paying fawning homage to those kinds of movies. That means that Drive plays out much more placidly and contemplatively with sudden bursts of gruesome violence. My audience seemed to grow restless with the purposely plaintive pacing so when the violence exploded they would laugh or cheer, happy that something of conventional entertainment value was finally occurring. I was growing restless myself, not with the infrequent appearances of genre action or the artistic flourishes, but just with the prevalent pauses. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) will have his camera hold onto a scene for several seconds longer than what feels necessary, or he’ll shoot dialogue between actors and Gosling will pause a full 20 seconds before answering. I understand that Refn is establishing a stoic loner akin to Clint Eastwood’s celebrated stable of strong silent types, a modern American cowboy. I’m sure that you could cut 10 minutes of out the film just from snipping these extended pauses and overlong shots, moments that seem to be filling time and giving the audience an opportunity to step outside the movie. I doubt that was ever the intent but it’s certainly the effect. When a scene or camera shot holds on longer than it should, we can feel it, and when it keeps going we start to wonder why, and when an answer is absent then we start to snicker or second-guess the artistic choices. I’m sure audiences that watched Drive will probably be scratching their heads wondering why there isn’t more, well, driving.

The action that does appear onscreen is extremely well choreographed. The car chases thrill and the edits allow for full audience orientation. You know what’s happening and you know what’s at stake. And we care. A car chase after a botched robbery is particularly exciting when Driver starts driving backwards to block his opponent’s view of the road. The opening chase sequence is notably almost an anti-car chase. Driver is listening to a police radio and choosing when to duck around side streets and wait out the patrolling cop cars. The tension isn’t watching one car chase another, it’s watching one car idly sneak away. What I’ve described, however, is about all the movie offers for car action, though Driver does ram one motorist off a ravine later.

You can tell Refn is a fan of Hollywood genre films, and Drive takes typical thriller tropes and puts them through an art-house prism, bringing a near Kubrickian level of beauty to the violence. Drive is a gorgeous movie to watch; the shot selections, the chiaroscuro lighting, the use of the 80s style Euro-synth score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Contagion), it all coalesces into a near hypnotic blend of visual and sound. It’s a beatific landscape even when horrible things are going on. There’s a sequence where Driver, Irene, and one of Nino’s thugs are in an elevator together. Driver notes the imminent danger and slowly motions Irene behind him. He then turns and kisses her, and while he does this the elevator lighting seems to brighten and darken, like it too is being charged through the power of a kiss. And then Driver sharply pivots, blocking the thug’s attack, knocks the guy to the ground and stomps on his head until it bursts. The looming violence is teased through slow motion, and then it hits with the power of a crescendo. The violence is always looming, always seeming to be just on the cusp of an explosion. But under Refn’s direction, the movie fulfills that audience bloodlust in unexpected ways. Instead of a big fight, Driver casually drowns one of the toughs in the surf of a beach. Instead of a brutal elimination, Bernie dispatches someone with what can almost be described as compassion, slitting a major artery and whispering, “It’s done. It’s all over. There’s no pain. Just let it happen.” Even the big showdown between Driver and Bernie plays out with flash-forward edits, giving the meeting an extra level of gravitas knowing what awaits when they leave the table.

Refn has created a beautiful movie, it’s just that it has so much empty space pretending to be nuance. And that’s the rub. I appreciate an art-house sensibilities elevating and celebrating classic American genre pictures. I though Joe Wright did an excellent job of this with Hanna earlier this year. However, Refn shortchanges his actors. The script by Hossein Amini (The Four Feathers) is light when it comes to character detail. Again, this might be because Refn wishes to make a statement on genre films by having his movie populated with genre types and sticking to this limited route of characterization. Whatever the rationale, it makes for some pretty elusive one-note characters. Irene is less a character than a symbol of innocence. It doesn’t help matters that Mulligan has little chemistry with Gosling. Nino and Bernie are interesting characters who have such unspoken histories. They’re mid-level criminals stationed out of a cheap pizza joint in a strip mall. Nino is tired of the criminal higher-ups always disrespecting him. Bernie used to be a movie producer in the 80s, and may have bankrolled something like Drive. He hates getting his hands dirty but he shows an eerie talent for violence. These small glimpses are hints at something more, but that is all Hossein and Refn leave us with.

Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) has very little to say in the film. He probably only ever speaks 80 words, but brevity does not mean he’s just sitting around. Gosling goes for understated in a genre known for histrionics. He plays things very close, a taciturn mystery man. The existential drifter. Gosling sure knows how to hone his flinty stares. Mulligan (An Education) gets very little to do in the film, so it’s another round of her crinkling her pretty face and blinking those glassy eyes. Christina Hendricks (TV’s Mad Men) also appears as a third wheel on the pawnshop scam. The real surprise is Brooks (The Muse). The famous comedian is shockingly believable as somebody you don’t want to cross. Even when he’s trying to be cordial there’s a veil of menace. If only there was more to his role. I would have loved to see him regrettably step back into his past, taking care of business with ruthless yet disdainful efficiency.

Drive is an action thriller that’s more a Euro-infused commentary on the genre. Fans of Hollywood action will likely be put off by the elusive characters, the sluggish pacing with numerous pauses, and the overall art-house nature of the finished product. Refn’s movie is beautiful to watch, with intricate precision taken to making the imagery and sound design mesmerize. If only that same level of care was paid to character and plot. We’re dropped into this criminal scenario and left to flesh out the characters given the hints and nods we accumulate in 100 minutes. I don’t need to be spoon-fed but I’d like my movie to have better attention to character than ambiance. Drive is a beautiful looking vehicle that just doesn’t have any particular place to go.

Nate’s Grade: B

Never Let Me Go (2010)

You’ll be excused for mistaking Never Let Me Go as one of those austere boardinghouse dramas the English are fond of cranking out. I mean it even has Keira Knightley in the thing for goodness sakes. Pretty lily-white British actors trying to find their place in a reserved society spanning the 1970s to the mid 1990s. You’d be forgiven for stifling a yawn. But then Never Let Me Go takes a sudden left turn into a realm of science fiction morality play. It becomes something much deeper and menacing. I am about to go into some major spoilers concerning the sinister premise of the movie, so if you’d prefer to stay pure then politely excuse yourself from the remainder of this review and come back at a later time. I won’t think less of you but only if you promise to come back.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and her pals Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley) all grew up in the remote countryside school of Hailsham. It’s like any other school in most regards, except at Hailsham the children all wear monitoring bracelets, are afraid to leave the boundaries of school for fear of being murdered by outside forces, and are told that her physical fitness and internal health are of “paramount importance.” Figured it out yet? My wife didn’t take long before she leaned over and whispered, “Are these kids organ slaves?” Kathy and her friends find out their true identity when an outside third-grade teacher (Sally Hawkins) takes pity on them. She reveals that the students of Hailsham are clones whose sole purpose is to be raised into healthy adults who will then give “donations” to the ailing public at large. Most clones will go through one to four “donations” before “completing,” unless they so desire. You see Never Let Me Go exists in a realm where medical science has made momentous breakthroughs and now people can live to 100 years of age on average. Kathy and her friends are the dirty details.

The rest of the movie flashes through our trio’s teen years. Kathy has always been kind and affectionate to Tommy, but before she could seal the deal Ruth swooped in and took Tommy for her own. Kathy has waited in vain for the two to break up, but that day just never comes. The trio ventures out to a small farmhouse in their teens to do some work and see the outside world. They’re living with a few other Hailsham alums that show them the knack for social interaction with outsiders. There are two rumors at play. One is that the Hailsham alums think they’ve found Ruth’s “original,” the person she’s been cloned from. The second rumor has greater significance: if two Hailsham students can prove that they’re in love, deep, honest love, then they can defer their donations for a few years. This idea takes hold of Tommy and consumes him. Except, we don’t really know whether Ruth or Kathy will be his partner in love.

So why don’t these people run away, or fight back, or do anything of defiance once they discover the horrible truth that will befall them? I have read several critics taking the film to task for being so painfully prosaic and passive, and Never Let Me Go can admittedly fall prey to those detractions at times. However, this is not the Hollywood version where the abused (clones) fight back for their survival and regain independence in a hostile world. That movie was called The Island, plus the several other films that Michael Bay sort of ripped off and then added extra loud explosions. Never Let Me Go has nary an explosion or moment of triumphant revolution. There is no revolt coming because the film doesn’t want to let anyone off the hook; these people are society’s collective collateral damage. They have been bred to be walking, talking, mostly demure, fleshy warehouses for spare parts. It’s only a matter of time before they leave everything on the operating room table, and these people benignly accept their doomed fate (“We all complete”). They march forward, trying to find some level of dignity and beauty before they get the call for “donations.” These people don’t know what it means to rebel; they have no real concept of liberty. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to obey, and that’s the whole point of the film. They have no self-preservation instincts. Likely any cloned child that was expressing strong feelings of boldness was removed, and destroyed, so as not to taint the rest of group. These people are like gown-up versions of veal. They’ve been cultivated since birth for the purpose of destruction, and their knowledge of the world is limited and cruelly self-serving. Watching innocent characters march off to a merciless fate can be very emotionally draining. It should also make you angry.

These people are hopeless so that the movie’s full impact is absorbed. This isn’t some far off nightmarish scenario, because we as a society are already reaping the rewards of a lifestyle, a lifestyle that we’re loath to think about the mechanics of how we got so fat and happy. I can go to a Walmart and buy a T-shirt for a dollar. I am a happy consumer, but what did it take for me to get that product at such a discounted rate? Sure there are variables up the wazoo, but there are many negative factors that go into why that price stays low, invisible hand of the market be damned. Workers clock long hours in unsafe conditions in order to meet supply, earning a penance just enough to keep them alive and moving product. Environmental concerns are overlooked because that would mess with production. Long-term generational poverty can develop. The worker has ceased to be a person and is merely a dispenser of product, much like our clones in the film. This is not a definitive example of what goes on in the world, mind you. Never Let Me Go isn’t some far off scenario; we’re already there, albeit less explicitly. If the price of gas rose a dollar a gallon but it meant that people in other countries could have safe, uncontaminated water and enough food to stay healthy, what do you think would happen?

With all of that said, Never Let Me Go can’t fully fight the trappings of inert drama. For two hours we are watching somewhat nice, somewhat bland British kids gawk and smile their way toward the inevitable. The conceit calls for the breeding of rather milquetoast personalities. It simultaneously makes the characters more innocent and less emotionally involving. The screenplay relies on our sense of outrage and injustice to fill in the gaps of emotional connection. There are little molehills of characterization at best. You’re supposed to be choked up on indignation and sadness so as to not notice that the threesome of character are all rather good-natured but boring. That even may be an aim of the screenplay to accentuate the terrible fate that awaits, or maybe I’m just being overly analytical. Never Let Me Go reveals its awful truth fairly early at about the 40-minute mark, making sure that the audience is fully aware that we are definitely not headed for a happy ending. As it is, the actors are all lovely and talented but there’s only so much silent emoting and teary eyes can conjure.

It’s credit to the talents of the actors that you do feel a storm of emotions from such otherwise frail characters. Mulligan (An Education) showcases her great gifts for communicating sadness. Her face just crinkles up, her eyes get glassy, and you want to hug her. She’s our dramatic linchpin. Her looks of conflict and yearning do well to communicate the inner struggle of her character’s abbreviated life. There’s a lot left to the imagination and Mulligan once again crushes it. Garfield (The Social Network) is stuck playing a wishy-washy character, which makes him seem a bit thick at times. He’s the most naïve and hopeful of the three, so when those hopes get crushed again and again his breakdowns have the most emotional heft. Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) has been in six period films since 2005, so she’s got this thing down pat. Ruth is a bit more assertive and angry than her friends, and it’s a pleasure seeing a more calculating side from the actress. It seems like the filmmakers had a troublesome time trying to downplay the attractive features of their cast. So it seems that they relied on the actors eating less. Knightley, and particularly Garfield, look rather gaunt and puckish, even before they begin “donations.”

I’ve gone this far without even mentioning director Mark Romanek’s (One Hour Photo) contributions, or the fact that the film is based off the 2005 novel by author Kazuo Ishiguru (Remains of the Day) and is adapted by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). Great artists that shaped the vision of this film. It’s a shame then that the impact of Never Let Me Go is blunted. It’s an intelligent, poetic, haunting, and emotionally wrenching film experience, and yet it could have been far more penetrating and devastating. The passive nature of the characters accentuates their doom and our sense of outrage. But that same passive nature makes them less than engaging characters. It’s been days since I saw the film and it still lingers in my memory, a testament to the moral quandaries and acting prowess. The existential drama of the film is better suited for the page where the questions of identity and morality can be given more careful and rewarding examination. The movie has an oddly detached feel to so much suffering. Never Let Me Go is a hard film to let go but also a hard film to truly embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B

An Education (2009)

In 1961 Britain, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl plowing away at her education. She?s on track to enroll at Oxford “reading English” and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) have overscheduled the girl with hobbies and clubs to help build her academic portfolio. Then one rainy night she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty something man who offers to give her and her cello a ride. This enchanting man keeps coming back around to see Jenny, sweeping her off her feet. He invites her to go to concert recitals with his older friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), trips to the country, and even a fabulous getaway to Paris. “You have no idea how boring my life was before you,” she confesses to David. But David is coy about how he can pay for such extravagances. Jenny’s grades begin to suffer and it looks like she may miss out on being able to enroll at Oxford. She has to make a decision whether to continue seeing David or going back to her primary school education.

An Education is a handsomely recreated period drama that manages to be very funny, very engaging, and very well acted. It’s also rather insightful and does an exquisite job of conveying that strange wonderful heartsick of love, maybe better than any movie since My Summer of Love. You can practically just drink in all of Jenny’s excitement. Jenny isn’t a silly girl prone to naivety. She’s a smart and clever girl, and not just because other characters say so or we see her stellar test grades destined for prime placement on the fridge. You witness her intelligence in how she interacts through different social circles. Since the movie is entirely Jenny?s story, we need to be convinced that she’s smart in order to believe her willingness to be duped. She has reservations about David’s habits but doesn’t want to risk going back to a dull life of books and family dinners. She has to be a smart, vibrant girl anxious to keep a good thing going, willing to ignore certain warning signs that otherwise might cause her pause. Even Jenny’s parents get caught up in the seduction, swooning over David and his upper class connections and comforts.

The teen-girl-with-older-male aspect might make us squirm, but in the realm of 1961 Britain, it’s acceptable. Jenny and David don?t need to hide their affair in dank hotel rooms and avoid any suspicious eyes. We don’t get any agonizing inner turmoil over dating a teenage girl, mostly because it’s from Jenny’s perspective and that everybody else seems okay with it all. This acceptance means that the drama for An Education can focus on something less seamy. That doesn’t mean that everybody approves. While Jenny’s friends think she hit the jackpot, and hang from her every word about her amazing sophisticated boyfriend, her literature teacher (Olivia Williams) sees through David?s whirlwind of charms. This isn’t the tale of some girl being drawn into the dark side, turning into an unsavory, rebellious teenager flouting the law and good manners. Jenny is not that kind of gal.

Mulligan is fantastic and delivers such a sumptuous performance that you feel like a human being is coming alive before your eyes. She lights up with the dawning realization that a charming and worldly man is courting her, and you feel every moments of her swirling delight and awe. Mulligan even goes so far as to get even the small details right, like the way Jenny opens her eyes to peak during a kiss to make sure it’s all not just some passing dream, or the way she has to look away at times and break eye-contact because she’s just so happy, with those twinkling eyes and a mouth curling like a cherry stem. She’s bashfully coquettish in her physical attraction to David, though in my praise it also sounds like I, too, have fallen for the girl. Much ink has been spilled declaring Mulligan as a rising Audrey Hepburn figure, mostly because she sports that famous short bob of a haircut that many girls had in 1961. To me, Mulligan gives a stronger impression as being the luminescent little sister to Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point). Mulligan is a fresh young actress that delivers a performance of stirring vulnerability. It’s a breakout performance that will likely mean that Hollywood will come calling when they need the worrisome girlfriend role for the next factory-produced mass-market entertainment (she’s finished filming the Wall Street sequel, so perhaps we’re already there).

Adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) from a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education follows the coming-of-age track well with enough swipes at class-consciousness. But man, I was really surprised how funny this movie is. An Education is routinely crackling with a fine comic wit, and Jenny and her father have the best repartee. Molina is an unsung actor and he dutifully carries out the role of “uptight neurotic father” with more than a stiff upper lip; the man puts his all in the role. While he can come across as hysterical at times, Molina is paternal with a capital P. It’s refreshing just to listen to smart people banter at an intelligent level.

The movie’s theme ponders the significance of education. There’s the broader view of education, learning throughout one’s life from new and enriching experiences. She gets to learn a bit more of the way of the world, and Jenny feels that she can learn more and have fun with David than sitting through lectures and slogging through homework. She values what David has to teach her above what she can find in a textbook. Jenny’s father stresses the virtues of learning and thinking but once Jenny has a chance to marry an upper class, cultured male then education no longer matters. She is now set for life through David. All that learning to become a dutiful housewife in a lovely, gilded cage. Is that the real desired end to personal growth: to snag a husband? The school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson in practically a cameo) doesn’t serve as a great ambassador to higher learning: she stresses the lonely hardships, internal dedication, and she herself is openly anti-Semitic, proving that an intelligent mind is not the same as being open-minded. To her, Jenny is jeopardizing her lone chance at a respectable life.

Jenny rejects the traditional route of education and chooses to pursue a life with David, that is, until the third act complications beckon. Jenny finds out about David’s secret rather too easily, I’m afraid (secret letters should never be hidden the glove compartment). While the end revelations are somewhat expected, what is unexpected is that every character pretty much escapes consequences by the end of the film. No one is really held accountable for his or her decisions. Pretty much everyone is exactly where he or she left off just with a tad more street smarts. It’s the equivalent of learning not to trust every person after getting ripped off.

Despite all the hesitation, and the age difference, An Education is an actual romantic movie. It’s a coming-of-age charmer with all the preen and gloss of an awards caliber film. You feel the delight in the sheer possibility of life for Jenny. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace and allows the audience to feel every point of anxiety and bubbling excitement for Jenny. Mulligan gives a star-making performance and practically glows with happiness during the movie’s key moments, making us love her even more. The plot may be conventional but the movie manages to be charming without much in the way of surprises. Still, An Education is a breezy, elegant, and clever movie that flies by, even if its biggest point of learning is that age-old chestnut that something too good to be true must be.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Public Enemies (2009)

Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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