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Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.

Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.

Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.

Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.

One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.

Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.

I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.

The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.

I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”

However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.

On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.

Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.

The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.

This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.

Nate’s Grade: B

Suburbicon (2017)

Suburbicon began as a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in the 1980s. They shelved it and went on to other stories and justifiable acclaim. George Clooney came across the old screenplay and rewrote it with his longtime partner Grant Heslov (Monuments Men). Clooney’s version of suburban strife is a wash and also easily the worst effort of Clooney’s Oscar-nominated directing career. I wish Suburbicon would make up its mind on which of the three different movies it wants to tell. This is possible proof that Coen brother stories should best be left chiefly to the Coens.

Set amidst the 1950s, an African-American family moves in to an all-white suburban neighborhood and instantly changes the climate. The Mayers have upset the other middle-class white neighbors who want them gone, and they don’t mind subjecting this black family to all forms of harassment to get the job done. Meanwhile, Gardener (Matt Damon) and his wife (Julianne Moore), her twin sister (also Moore), and his son, are threatened by loan shark goons. The family is never the same but there’s more than meets the eye to this domestic tragedy, and the costly cover-up ensnares everyone in danger.

This is a movie that feels badly stitched together with competing ideas and storylines. Two of these competing movies are so haphazard and lazily explored that it feels like Clooney and company tacked them on for some sort of extra failed social commentary about The Way We Live Now. The shame of it is that either of these vestigial storylines could have existed as their own compelling movie. The integration of the suburbs with a black family brings about an intense reaction. Fellow suburbanites harass the family at all hours of the day, destroy personal property, and do everything to let them know they are unwelcome in this “good-natured” community. The reactions are so virulent and disgusting, and all for a family just existing on the block, shopping at the same grocery store, thinking they too were eligible for the American Dream. There’s a movie there in its own right because, as evidenced in Suburbicon, it’s just background for a larger indictment on suburban values hypocrisy that never generally materializes. At no point does Clooney give the racist response any depth, nuance, or even a deserving spotlight. The only thing we learn is that it’s wrong, which should already be obvious. The entire storyline feels so unfairly attached to another unrelated movie. This family’s story is worth telling right rather than just having something else to cut back to.

Then there’s the larger satire on suburbia itself and its reported family values philosophy. Just because bad people exist and bad things happen in a “nice” community does not mean your satirical work is done. You’re just supplying air quotes to your location. This is the most facile form of irony, lazily slapping together something vulgar against an idyllic setting of morality. That’s why I had no interest in The Little Hours, a comedy that looked to be built around one sole joke, unexpectedly offensive nuns (“Oh ho, that pious person used profanity, and that will never not be funny”). Suburbicon is a story that could have existed in any setting, which further devalues any attempt at legitimate social satire. This isn’t about The Way We Live Now or Even Then.

If you look closely you can see the bones of a Coen brothers’ story here, the only movie of the three that could have worked for Suburbicon. An insurance fraud scam that involves murder and complications is a juicy start for a thriller with some dark comedy edges. This aspect of the movie is the most compelling because it’s obvious that the most attention has been paid to it. Also, there are reversals and unexpected turns that keep the story twisting and turning while accessible. However, the impact of the story is limited by the fact that none of the characters are generally likeable or that interesting. You won’t really feel anxiety over whether or not these people get away with their scheme, which deflates the film’s acceleration of tension despite the best efforts of Alexadre Desplat to replicate an ominous Carter Burwell, a.k.a. “Coen brother,” score. If you don’t care about the characters then they better get into some crazy escalating collateral damage. For a while, it feels like Clooney and Suburbicon understand this principle and begin to ratchet up a body count, though oddly it’s far too fast. Oscar Isaac (The Force Awakens) turns up as a nosy insurance investigation and is taken care of only in his second appearance. The film doesn’t take the time to force the characters to luxuriate in the unease. It just goes straight for the sudden violence, and after awhile it becomes pat and expected.

This is Clooney’s weakest directorial effort yet. He’s clearly working from the visual framework of the Coen brothers’ classics, using the cookie-cutter production design of colorful suburbia for intended kitschy menace. Even some of the camera angles feel like something lifted from the Coen brothers. Alas, Clooney is not the Coens. He is a director capable of great things depending upon the subject matter, but this movie is a misfire from the start. Clooney cannot decide what the tone is supposed to be, so different actors seem to be operating in their own separate, competing movies. Damon (The Martian) is at either turn hapless or malevolent. I never knew what his read on his character was supposed to be. Moore (Kingsmen: The Golden Circle) is so over-the-top as a distressed housewife that you think she might start bouncing off the walls. It’s only Isaac that feels like he finds the sweet spot of what Clooney must have been going for, and thus it’s even more disappointing about his character’s limited screen time.

Messy, tone deaf, and lacking greater commentary, Suburbicon is a fatally flawed, overbearing dark comedy that has things on its mind and no clear idea about how best to articulate them. It feels like dissonant movies badly stitched together. The overall execution is lazy and relies upon the simplest form of irony to substitute as subversive suburban satire. The tone veers too wildly and the actors are desperate for some better sense of grounding. The characters are pretty flat and poorly developed. It’s an altogether mess that has a few inspired moments and a whole lot more uninspired. The victimized black family deserves to have their own movie and not be the backdrop of somebody else’s broad comedy. The racism is far too real to mesh with the comic goofiness of the rest of the criminal shenanigans. Clooney needed to settle on the movie he wanted to tell. I doubt the final version of Suburbicon that I saw is close to the Coen’s original screenplay. There may have been a good reason that they originally shelved it. Clooney shows that replicating the Coen look and style can be a fool’s errand even by an otherwise talented director. This is the worst Coen brother movie and it’s not even theirs.

Nate’s Grade: C-

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

cf7kkqeuuaeqame“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.

In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Storm-Comic-OriginLet’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.

But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.

hqyqxvfnbce8jfpwptqnThe trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.

The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.

Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.

xmen0001Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.

The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.

Nate’s Grade: C

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

latestMay 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.

11875118_1007880092596925_2204135516599208531_oAbrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.

We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.

the-force-awakensAbrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.

And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.

HT_star_wars_force_awakens_trailer_05_jef_150416_16x9_992Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.

The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ex Machina (2015)

wBUWcOKAlex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He’s a science fiction specialist, adapting everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s wrenching Never Let Me Go to the Halo movie. He’s worked with Danny Boyle, adapting his novel The Beach, and then on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If you’ve noticed a theme with the titles, Garland tends to subscribe to a pessimistic view of human nature. And yet each film is grounded by the humanity of its characters no matter the extreme circumstances. Garland’s gift is making the fantastic grounded on a recognizable human level. Ex Machina is his latest and his directorial debut but you’d never have guessed it with how controlled and polished the film comes across. It’s a cerebral sci-fi film that haunts, enchants, and consistently engaged the imagination.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a corporate contest to spend a week’s vacation in the home of a reclusive Google-esque tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is here to test out Nathan’s newest invention – artificial intelligence. He’s built an android woman named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interview her.

Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. At the start, knowing the Turing test, we’re just as interested in Ava as Caleb is, trying to figure her out and how lifelike she may be. But then the conversations start to linger and, during a brief power outage that cuts the feed to the omnipresent cameras, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not whom he thinks. As soon as the power is back and running, it’s as if the comment never happened. The pristine underground quarters have an eerie tranquility to them, almost as if Apple is designing high-end prisons. Garland’s movie becomes consumed in paranoia. Is Ava being honest? Is Nathan being honest or underhanded? What’s in some of those “off limits” rooms? What is the true test at hand? Who is the silent Asian assistant? At one point, Caleb slices open his own arm to search for circuitry, and you completely understand his reasoning. This mounting sense of paranoia and dread, tagged with Garland’s mysterious and well-developed storyline, are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and rapidly second-guessing and triple-guessing your shifting loyalties.

Ex-Machina-Download-WallpapersGarland also smartly doesn’t dance around the obvious plot device of having a beautiful robotic woman, namely the inevitability of romance to bloom. What is it about android women that science fiction seems to love so much? From Blade Runner to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the genre loves the concept of robotic women. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of a genre written by a majority of men, or perhaps it taps into something more unconscious about the desire to control women, or a fear of women, but that’s a conversation for another day. Ava is certainly a stunning creature, thanks to Vikander, but also from the sleek production design that makes her feel like the world’s most gorgeous Mr. Potato Head with her lycra-like skin for easy detachment. Her exposed stomach of bolts and bulbs is also a constant reminder of her “other-ness.” There’s an obviously sexual dynamic to the character, and while she’s technically nude for most of the film, watching her slip out of stockings and a dress has a strange erotic quality. Thankfully, the percolating would-be romance between man and machine actually plays a vital part throughout the script and especially with the end. There’s even a darkly comic yet disconcerting reveal about why Ava looks as she does. Is Ava capable of feelings? Is she falling for Caleb, or does she merely view him as a means to an end?

It’s essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland’s effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. The concept of A.I. has been explored in many sci-fi stories before but Garland finds fresh resonance by paring down his story to a manageable trio. Nathan’s reclusive home is like a twenty-first century version of the haunted house and full of fun detours begging to be explored. Garland’s cinematography and production design are reminiscent of the cool artifice of David Fincher’s films. The world feels like a small step into the future but constantly unsettling. Garland’s story always has another mystery to unlock, always driving the story further as Caleb’s weeklong stay is coming to a close. Garland has a natural eye for images and composes several startling sequences that can equally evoke beauty as well as disquiet. There’s a moment where Ava passes a wall of faces as if they were simply a row of hats. Simple moments like Ava “dressing up” are given a gentle poignancy that isn’t overplayed for effect. Garland’s film is what I wanted 2014’s Under the Skin to be. Both of them are unsettling, moody, and atmospheric with striking Kubrickian imagery, but Garland’s film is less purposely oblique.

The trio of actors provides strong work, especially Swedish actress Vikander (Seventh Son, A Royal Affair). As the film is told from Caleb’s perspective, she has to find a very exact balance with her performance with elements of innocence, uncertainty, and ethereal curiosity. She’s rather placid but you always feel like there’s more just under the surface, whether it’s the ache of sentient realization or something more sinister. She’s a test subject, a captive, and a possible romantic interest. Vikander hits every right note to remain mystifying and beguiling. Gleeson (Unbroken) is becoming a go-to young actor for Hollywood. His awkwardness and enthusiasm to be part of history is an easy channel for the audience, but as Garland’s script spins along, Gleeson’s enthusiasm ebbs to concern, for Ava and then himself. The source of Ex Machina’s surprising font of humor is Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a too cavalier tech genius. He’s so nonchalant and chummy, usually soused, that you start distrusting his amiable nature.

ex-machina-film-imageIt’s a shame then that the film couldn’t quite hold onto these ambiguities to the end. Garland has had third act missteps in many of his films, some tone-altering and simply losing momentum like 28 Days Later, and some as disastrous as Sunshine’s blurry slasher killer, which ruins a perfectly good-to-great sci-fi thriller. Ex Machina too exhibits its own share of third act issues, namely a confluence of contrivances with the characters. There are certain revelations you should already be suspecting giving the nature of the film, and if you’ve watched other movies before. Those reveals work in relation to Garland’s plot; however, the climax feels a bit too forced and obvious for a movie that has been, up to that point, expertly keeping the audience on its toes. Nathan spilling the beans on all the different levels of the experiment comes across not as an outlet of his character’s blasé narcissism and more a need for the script to force a confrontation. The different levels of intrigue fade away to what is a rather conventional climax that feels poorly developed and woefully inadequate for the story being told. I will credit Garland with the courage of his resolution, though, which provides deliberate decisions that cast the rest of the film in another dimension. It also feels completely right, while still allowing for Garland to work his Kubrick fetish fully to its eerie erotic ends.

Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It’s a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland’s scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that is a testament to Garland’s artistic vision. It’s a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn’t forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters. Ex Machina is a stellar debut for Garland as a director and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts shifting more of his attention to getting back into the director’s chair. It’s not a perfect film, as it too suffers from Garland’s streak of third act troubles, but it’s a remarkably assured, sleek, and absorbing movie that gets under your skin.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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-

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

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