Movie Journal # 3: Capsule Review Catch-Up

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis


An all-caspule review edition, because I’ve seen a lot since I returned from Cuba. I’m mostly caught up (with the exception of one film I loved but want to see again before attempting a longer review). For now, the last ten new movies I’ve seen (more or less), in alphabetical order by title:

You can’t fault this James Franco-directed William Faulkner adaptation for lack of ambition; to even film such a challenging novel (with contains 15 different narrators) requires considerable moxie. While the finished project isn’t always graspable, it’s far from an embarrassment. The first thing you notice is Franco’s decision to shoot a majority of it in split-screen—always a risky choice as its flashiness can threaten to obscure any substance, but here it’s an ideal way to show multiple perspectives at once. It also helps that the cinematography always looks interesting, gracefully swaying between lucid landscape shots and more abstract compositions. The ensemble is uniformly strong and includes Beth Grant (in a rare entirely dramatic role) as the dying matriarch, Tim Blake Nelson as the (literally) toothless voice of sanity and Jim Parrack as the son who physically suffers the most to honor his mother’s last wishes, among others. At times, the story seems incredibly oblique and the tone verging-on-pretentious, but Franco also relays the material with purity and sincerity; if he wants to establish himself as a director who acts (and not just an actor who directs), this is a promising start. Grade: B

On the heels of SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN comes another doc about obscure, unearthed 1970s Detroit musicians, although that’s all the two films have in common. Death were a band composed of the Hackney brothers, three African Americans who eschewed Motown and R&B for an ahead-of-its-time proto-punk. Unfortunately, they were also barely heard because eldest brother/guitarist/songwriter David’s refusal to change the band’s name cost them a record deal. Since no archival footage remains apart from still photos, the film relies heavily on recent interviews with Hackneys, now in their 50s (save David, who died in 2000); however, it doesn’t really take off until their grown children, who recently found out about their fathers’ music and have formed a band of their own, enter the picture. Their enthusiasm in paying tribute to their long-lost legacy makes the strongest case for everyone else to discover it. B

I’ve waited years for someone to make a film out of one of David Sedaris’ autobiographical essays, knowing that any attempt could go either way (see Ryan Murphy’s meh version of Augusten Burroughs’ RUNNING WITH SCISSORS). Fortunately, this fairly straightforward take on Sedaris’ account of his time post-college meandering through rural Oregon works because it fully captures his distinct tone—a sincere, near-deadpan relaying of acerbic, absurd content. Jonathan Groff is well cast as the author’s stand-in—you can sense both the snark and the seeker at odds beneath his detached observer exterior. Even better is the support he gets from a cast full of great character actors, including Dale Dickey as a gruff factory co-worker who hilariously refuses to play into Groff’s feigned eagerness, Corey Stoll as a friendly (and just a tad creepy) foreman and especially Denis O’Hare as a born-again Christian clockmaker who ends up pointing out the hypocrisy of Groff’s actions while inadvertently betraying more than a few of his own. The ending doesn’t work as well here as it does in original essay, coming off as far more abrupt, but overall this is good enough that I encourage Groff and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez to adapt more of Sedaris’ material. A-

On paper, this scans as a calculated attempt by Matthew McConaughey to complete his multi-film rehabilitation from rom-com leading man joke to well-respected, award-winning Actor. However, from the instant you see him startlingly emaciated as Ron Woodruff, you don’t see McConaughey at all, a trickier feat than it sounds. That goes double for Jared Leto, theoretically an insane pick to play the role of saucy transgendered-best-friend until he/she appears on screen and you’re swept away by how complete the transformation is. The well-meaning screenplay is a little hacky at times, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (who helmed the wonderful C.R.A.Z.Y.) favors an understated, matter-of-fact tone that goes a long way in making this perhaps the best mainstream fiction film about AIDS to date (not that it has much competition).  A-

Ostensibly about two graffiti artists/small time pot dealers on a quest to tag New York City’s most desired (and untagged) target, the big apple that pops up whenever the Mets hit a home run at Citi Field, GIMME THE LOOT is really more a slice-of-life in the mold of OUR SONG and RAISING VICTOR VARGAS, only nowhere near as good. Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) both show potential as characters (particularly the latter when he develops a crush on a client), but as the graffiti plot fades in favor of less urgent matters, the film meanders along ever-so-aimlessly—the personalities and plotlines are present, but writer/director Adam Leon can’t shape them into a satisfying whole. C-

The idea of kids playing a game of war so realistic and elaborate that one could almost mistake it for the real thing is a clever one, especially as one kid goes rouge and pushes the game to a far more personal level than the others. It might have made for a fine short, but at feature-length, it becomes almost unbearably repetitious. The cast, exclusively minors, is good, all of them immediately recognizable from the kids most of us played with growing up; maybe too recognizable, because the characters rarely go beyond cliché, like the quiet boy willing to do anything to belong, or Jess, the token girl who’s just there because of a crush she has on one of the boys (a shame, since Mackenzie Munro, the actress who plays her, is terrific). While the filmmakers clearly intend to show the negative consequences of war, they can’t help glorifying the whole process more than a little—in this context (as opposed to a film about real war), it left me feeling a little uneasy and unclear about what their intentions were. C

With few exceptions, Joel and Ethan Coen rarely make something expected of them, so a project centered on the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene and one of its struggling (fictional) talents doesn’t seem so much a departure. Still, this is by far the gentlest, dare I say most affectionate thing they’ve done, surveying and almost longing for a long lost era… but don’t call it nostalgia. The titular “hero” is a talent worth rooting for, but he’s also often boorish, a nebbish, unmotivated and self-sabotaging, even though his heart’s (usually) in the right place. The character wouldn’t work without an actor as nimble and assured, as likable and arguably unknown as Oscar Isaac—like the series of cats Davis cares for throughout, Isaac carries the film. He serves as the focal point from dual perspectives of everyman and the man who never made it. By expressing himself so vividly in his art, you believe Davis really had something to say, even though he sang other people’s songs. As late-period Coen Bros go, the darker, funnier, bolder A SERIOUS MAN is still their peak; this is almost its B-side, full of the same nihilism and absurdity, but more soulful and contemplative. A

As a teenaged Milwaukee native/resident, the Jeffrey Dahmer case obviously hit close to home for me, as it would for anyone to have something so high profile and extremely grotesque occur in your backyard. This documentary is both a history and a covert examination on what effect Dahmer had on the city via its residents nearly twenty years later; it really shouldn’t work as it only profiles three people and supplements them with scenes of Dahmer played by an actor. Fortunately, the interviewees are all excellent and each provide a distinct perspective: (former) Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass, and homicide detective Pat Kennedy. In particular, Kennedy (the man to whom Dahmer confessed) is an entertaining, insightful figure, one that possibly could’ve carried the entire film, Errol Morris style. As for the fictional Dahmer scenes, they’re not altogether unnecessary. Whether they show Jeff buying tropical fish at a pet store or a dozen bottles of hydrofluoric acid at a supermarket or taking a doomed trick to a hotel, they wisely stay on the right side of good taste while giving us a visual aid to ponder just who this seemingly unassuming psycho killer was. Andrew Swant also plays Dahmer with the right balance of humane and creepy. A curious film, for sure, but one that has stayed with me. B+

If the “That’s Amore!” opening credits (or the mere presence of Pierce Brosnan in MAMMA MIA! mode) seem a little… light for a Susanne Bier (OPEN HEARTS, BROTHERS) picture, rest assured it begins with the lead, Ida (Trine Dyrholm) fresh home from chemo treatment for cancer, walking in on her husband cheating on her in their living room. From the moment she and Brosnan’s Philip meet (more awkwardly than cute), you know the two will get together, quite possibly during the impending wedding of her daughter and his son. For all its predictability, the film still has its share of curveballs, many of them delivered with an agile touch that bespeaks life’s uncertainty and messiness even when picturesque, sun-drenched Italy serves as a backdrop. Dyrholm is a winning protagonist and certainly not your standard rom-com lead; as usual, Paprika Steen makes the most of her smallish role as Philip’s bubbly, bossy sister-in-law. B+

Olivier Assayas is a master when it comes to style and tone, but he hits (CLEAN, SUMMER HOURS) as much as he misses (DEMONLOVER) in telling a satisfying story. This presumably autobiographical 1971-set study of French anarchist teenagers influenced by the student protests of three years before sadly falls into the latter category even though it contains enough thrilling, intricate sequences (such as the epic, breakneck-paced vandalizing of a school building and a bonfire-fueled spectacle set to Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping”) to justify a two-hour-long running time. If Assayas’ stand-in, Gilles (Clément Métayer) came off as less of a cipher or had a character arc that transcended the old “budding artist sleeps with various women as he finds himself” trope, then the film might have signified as more than just another coming-of-age period piece with few distinguishing marks beyond time and place. B-

Also Seen:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a silly, silly film and sublimely so at its best, which often involves Steve Carell doing anything or Ron Burgundy going blind (or bly-iiiind!)… in-between snatches of the annual A Christmas Story marathon, I watched two other holiday classics: It Happened On 5th Avenue, which has become a tradition in my household, and, for the first time, The Shop Around The Corner, which might have my favorite pre-Hitchcock James Stewart performance… although I was in Cuba during the 35th International Festival of Latin Cinema, so packed was my schedule that I saw only one film, Havana Suite, a lovely elegy for its residents and one to seek out if you’re interested in the culture. Speaking of Cuba, I also finally watched Buena Vista Social Club, which took a while to get going but eventually drew me in with its understated reverence and grace.