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Time travel is one of the more hit-or-miss story conceits in film; it's
certain to get people's attention, but almost as certain to expose the
film to a barrage of criticism related to logic and the butterfly
effect. In the hands of filmmaker Richard Curtis, however, today's
finest purveyor of charming little films ("Love, Actually," "Pirate
Radio" among other notable writing credits), time travel gets personal.
Whereas so many movies use time travel for exploitative comedic purposes ("Hot Tub Time Machine"), "About Time" more accurately represents what someone would actually use time travel for in their personal life. Time travel doesn't completely take hold of the story; it's simply the key player in main character Tim's (Domhnall Gleeson) quest for romance.
Like the best of us, Tim has a penchant for fudging things up the first time. So when his father (Billy Nighy) reveals the men in their family can time travel to different points throughout their lifetime (except the yet-lived future), he takes advantage of correcting a number of social missteps, such as kissing a girl a New Year's Eve party. When the jaw- dropping gorgeous Charlotte (Margot Robbie) stays at their Cornwall home for the summer, Tim soon learns that time travel only goes so far in swaying someone's feelings. He moves to London to pursue law in the fall, where he endeavors to at last find a girlfriend, and he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams).
If it doesn't sound like "About Time" has a compelling plot, that's because it doesn't. Yet it doesn't suck either. That's how brilliant a writer Curtis is, slapping dumb-looking smiles and movie-watchers' faces with clever dialogue, humorous scenarios and compelling romance. McAdams, unquestionably one of the best the romance genre has ever seen, runs away with this material, which she simply couldn't do in films such as, quite appropriately, "The Time Traveler's Wife." Gleeson also fits perfectly with Curtis' style; he's humorous, awkward and charming all at the same time.
Unlike many who watch this film will be lead to believe, the movie is not about Tim's pursuit of Mary. It's not a two-hour version of the sequence in "Groundhog Day" in which Bill Murray's Phil Connors attempts to use "time travel" to perfectly woo Andie MacDowell's Rita through a series of corrected screw-ups. The narrative scope of "About Time" is much larger in terms of chronology, spanning the entirety of Tim's young adulthood. In fact, three- quarters of the way in, it's not even about Tim and Mary's romance at all.
Eventually, "About Time" becomes about the challenges of living life, enduring the bad and appreciating the good, and what the ability to time travel would really teach us about living day to day and treasuring the present. An expected theme and conclusion indeed, but this final section gets a little long and tiresome without any riveting conflict. Still, Curtis has crafted characters we connect with strongly enough to hold up this last leg of his film.
All that said, it's easy to poke holes in the logic of the time travel in "About Time," but the concept makes enough sense that it's not too distracting and you can still enjoy the characters, the romance and the lessons learned. Curtis might not be one of the greatest filmmakers working, but he understands what it takes to elevate a romantic comedy from the rest of the cheesy pack, and that takes tremendous skill.
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Whatever stigma exists about movies based on toys both in general and
in your mind, "The LEGO Movie" will dismantle it brick by glorious
brick. The writer/director combo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "21 Jump Street") prove
themselves yet again as masterful comic storytellers with an endless
stream of wit and imagination, turning a movie adults were quick to
dismiss into one they will be overjoyed to watch with or without
The world of "The LEGO Movie" is made entirely of LEGO pieces and though it was created using digital animation, contains the photorealism of stop-motion films, which is the first of many spot-on artistic choices Lord and Miller make. Even water, smoke and explosions are all made of bricks. So the way the film looks and operates remains unpredictable throughout the film, keeping the visuals engaging from start to finish.
In terms of the story, Lord and Miller (along with Dan and Kevin Hageman) follow the instructions as far as family films go, but there are plenty of twists and the film's message is both unique and true to the experience of those who love LEGO. Emmet (Chris Pratt), a LEGO construction worker living in Bricksburg, where everything is awesome (as the city's number one hit song goes) because everyone follows the instructions, conforms, works together and is happy all the time. Turns out that's because Lord/President Business (Will Ferrell) wants it that way. Many years before, he stole a weapon called the Kragle from the master builder Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and now he plans to use it as a doomsday device, as it will stick pieces together and keep everything as it should be. When Emmet comes upon the Piece of Resistance, the one thing that can stop the Kragle, he starts to fulfill a prophecy, and with a team of LEGO friends, tries to stop Lord Business.
All eras and styles of LEGO get some spotlight as the adventure grows in scope and imagination. There's the highly skilled action heroine, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett), Benny the '80s spaceman (Charlie Day), Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and a host of other cameos from the DC Comics universe, "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and more. References to Octan, the brand featured on many LEGO products of old, proves just how aware Lord and Miller are of their audience.
But it's the brilliance and hilarity of Emmet that makes "The LEGO Movie" work so well in terms of the story. The childlike wonder that launched Pratt's career on "Parks and Recreation" plays perfectly into the movie's humor. He's a constant laugh reel and a strong main character; his ineptitude is the butt of the other characters' jokes, making him the unlikely hero who has to prove everyone wrong.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Ferrell is also perfect casting as the dastardly President Business. Both he and Pratt have that man-child silliness in their comedy, and let's face it LEGO fans are quite often man-children. This is something the film never loses sight of, as an unusual reveal late into the film puts LEGO within a context that its fans will truly appreciate.
The reason the Danish building blocks have been around so long is their ability to capture imagination, and that's the primary thing "The LEGO Movie" does so well. The characters are constantly building new eye-popping creations to problem-solve their way through the conflict. Although the film is hilarious, so much of the humor comes from its creativity. There are even clever uses of non-LEGO items that play major roles throughout the film.
Audiences who fell in love with Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph," which takes place in the world of video games, will find "The LEGO Movie" to be a kindred spirit. So many different styles and genres converge in a diverse cinematic landscape fueled by the endless creative minds of animators and filmmakers. Both also take time to build emotion connections, not just creative worlds. "The LEGO Movie" will really speak to people who have spent countless hours building with LEGO, but its message will resonate with all ages and LEGO "experience" levels. In other words, Lord, Miller, the Hagemans and the entire creative team have dug down to find what makes LEGO a universally beloved brand and brought out the best of it in a wildly funny, creative and meaningful story.
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The man made famous for glorifying the mob moves over to Wall Street
Martin Scorsese's latest, "The Wolf of Wall Street," based on the
memoir of crooked stockbroker millionaire Jordan Belfort, is a tale of
excess: money, drugs, profanity, nudity, sex even (pardon the cliché)
rock 'n roll, given the soundtrack. So how does Scorsese approach it?
With excess. Measure for measure.
Encapsulated by the three-hour runtime, "Wolf" is an endless train of drugs, nudity, infidelity, flaunted wealth, cursing and political incorrectness. Scorsese wants to drill home just how outrageously this man lived his life. And just when you think you get the point, another outlandish scene will come along and remind you that you haven't fully grasped just how absurd, inane and pathetic it all is.
Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) broke into the trading scene in the late '80s and became quickly captivated by just how much he could fill his pockets. Adopting the doctrine of go get 'em entitlement and tribal chant taught to him by his first employer, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Belfort discovers the human instinct of going out and getting what we think we deserve, and it trickles effortlessly into his sales tactics. Before long, he's started Stratton Oakmont, Inc. with his new pal, Donnie (Jonah Hill), training a bunch of sleazy nobody salesmen to become experts at convincing wealthy people to give away their cash.
Of course his success blinds him (if not, in his mind, justifies him) to amoral behavior. He's never a bachelor at any point in the film yet he has sex with hookers, does more cocaine and quaaludes than you could ever imagine and not before long, he's laundering money left and right. Naturally, he ends up on on the watch list of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). An extremely troubled man who acts first and thinks about the ramifications second, Belfort's prudence with regards to his illegal activities never catches up to his ambition, so it's clear he's not a man who is going to successfully evade the law for long.
Scorsese's approach to this story glorifies Belfort's lifestyle, but at the same time he recognizes that Terence Winter's ("Boardwalk Empire) script speaks for itself in terms of what Belfort's problems are; the audience will come to its own realization about whether this carefree, money-driven life of debauchery is all its cracked up to be. Scorsese also understands his role is as storyteller, not moral arbiter. He doesn't go over the top to prove how bad or despicable Belfort and his associates behaved, but to show the ups as well as the downs.
In fact, Scorsese and his 21st century muse, DiCaprio, actually manage to make Belfort a likable guy. He's fun and he doesn't treat anyone badly for so much of the film, nor does he engage in illegal activity in a deceitful way. He even truly and believably loves his two wives in the film, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), his first wife, and Naomi (Margot Robbie), the bombshell who utterly captivates him. The film avoids the details or moments behind his decision to launder money, painting him as not a guy who chooses to do wrong, but who did bad things because his passion and gusto for making money and living life the way he wanted blinded him to his own wrongdoing. The fact that a moment in the film in which Belfort gets caught elicited gasps from the audience means the film has done its job creating a complicated character portrait.
"Wolf" takes this approach to not just Belfort, but all aspects of the story, both in script and direction. Winter and Scorsese are both very interested in the notion of the drive for wealth and success being a matter of biology as opposed to money being something we are conditioned to desire. This is not a film content to just show the rise and fall of a ridiculous man and pretend it's something new.
Hill, who took minimum salary to be in the film, proves to be a real bargain. Somehow, he has managed to fit his comedic style into a role in a dramatic film (can't quite call it a dramatic role) and create a totally different character that stands on its own. What he does with Donnie is the very definition of making a part your own. Are he and DiCaprio the new Pesci and DeNiro? It's a legitimate comparison.
For a film that amounts to an overly long bacchanal, "The Wolf of Wall Street" manages to be thought-provoking and artistic thanks to one of the masters. It might not walk away with many awards, but it will deservedly win some people's votes for best of the year and deserves to be grouped in that category overall.
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The long overdue final installment of Edgar Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy"
that began with "Shaun of the Dead" in 2004 and continued with 2007's
"Hot Fuzz" has arrived. "The World's End" is the most ambitious film in
the trilogy featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and the most creative.
Pegg stars as Gary King, who was the coolest cat in all of Newton Haven back in 1991, when he and his four closest friends, Andy (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) attempted The Golden Mile, a legendary crawl of 12 pubs culminating in a pint at The World's End. Unable to complete it as young men, 20 years later King is desperate to relive his glory days, so he rounds up the old gang to give the crawl another shot. They soon realize, however, that something is amiss in their old stomping grounds.
"The World's End" follows the outline of the "Cornetto Trilogy" in that a group of survivors find themselves pitted against hordes of zombies, odd townspeople or in this case "blanks." Violence then abounds in comical yet impeccably stylish fashion. What makes "World's End" unique from the previous films is that it doesn't play off a genre as "Shaun" and "Fuzz" and creates its own rules.
Another key difference is the relationship between Pegg and Frost's characters. The two play vastly different roles than in the previous films. Pegg turns sharply away from playing the straight-laced character he's a manipulative, self-obsessed alcoholic living in the past. Frost, on the other hand, is a lawyer and a recovered alcoholic with no tolerance for immaturity. Even though these roles differ from their norm, the dynamic between the actors is still spot on, and their bromance gives the film a pulse.
Pegg and Wright have created a brilliant concept. A comedy about friends recreating an epic pub crawl alone wouldn't be enough to sustain an entire film on its own, but the way everything changes when an alien robot conspiracy unfolds is the kicker. Suddenly the dynamic between the five friends, which they build a solid foundation for, shifts into new territory, yet the reveal of said robot alien conspiracy doesn't completely detach the movie from a sense of meaning.
"World's End" also sacrifices no style for substance too. Wright's patented quick-cutting closeups add as much suspense to the film as they did in "Shaun" and "Fuzz," and the action scenes utilize more brilliant fight choreography that's just over-the-top enough to avoid being taken too seriously. Clearly, these middle-aged nobodies aren't capable of shattering robot heads with their fists, let alone holding their own in any sort of fight, so this is all for pure entertainment purposes.
The only challenge of the film is that the story doesn't lend itself well to good script pacing. A crawl consisting of 12 pubs makes sense in the real world, but that's a lot for a one movie. The lore of this pub crawl that the film really builds up turns out to be a slight letdown. Going into the film, you'd expect reaching The World's End to be a glorious moment, but it's just another stop on the railroad of ridiculous sci-fi carnage that the movie turns into in its final act.
As the final chapter in a cult trilogy, "World's End" delivers a good number of easter eggs for "Cornetto" fans, with the more memorable ones being plays on the trilogy's penchant for hedge and fence jumping. The way the film combines the action of a band of friends on the run from masses of mindless creatures and a small-town conspiracy, it's the perfect fusion of "Shaun" and "Fuzz" into the ultimate conclusion.
Its ambition gets the better of it at times, but "World's End" is wildly entertaining, a comedy that both honors and borrows from its predecessors yet does plenty to show that Wright, Pegg and Frost didn't just want to follow their proved blueprint for success they wanted to explore new territory while being faithful to the tone of their prior films.
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Young boys getting involved with something way over their heads out in
nature almost immediately evokes Rob Reiner's 1986 classic "Stand by
Me." Coming-of-age stories have a certain power to them when the boys
are actually younger than high school age and don't live comfortably
under their parents' roof. "Mud" possesses that same grit and spirit.
The Mississippi River imagery of "Mud" and the story of young boys helping a runaway also strongly evokes "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," only with a more modern world view and a realistic sense of danger. The boys are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), 14-year-old Arkansas boys who look and act as just that. They value their independence and like to get away from home (both have unstable family situations), plus they have become preoccupied with the opposite sex.
One morning they sneak out in a motorboat and head to a small island on the river where Neckbone has discovered a boat lodged in the trees. They explore it and soon discover a man lives there. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) strikes a deal with the boys to let them have the boat in exchange for food. They bring some back and slowly develop a relationship with him, even after they discover he's a wanted man. Turns out Mud is trying to connect with his longtime girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) so they can run away together. Ellis, inspired by their love, puts himself in a dangerous way to help Mud escape.
Writer and director Jeff Nichols could well direct an Oscar-winning film in the not-too-distant future, and at the least, certainly an Oscar-nominated one. His last film, "Take Shelter," was an engaging, suspenseful drama with universal themes and beautiful nature cinematography and "Mud" does the same, proving he's here for the long run.
Most films like "Mud" would utilize voice-over narration, usually from the main character as an adult telling a story of his boyhood, but Nichols relies on nothing but pure visual storytelling and demonstrates a serious knack for it. We can make out for ourselves how the rift between Ellis' parents, played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, drives him away from his riverboat home to seek more time with Mud, and how his own emotions and feelings about love, naive as they are, push him to help Mud and Juniper.
Ellis is definitely the film's main character and that says everything about Sheridan's performance. This young man isn't going away anytime soon. Ellis is a lovable kid despite his occasionally reckless behavior and penchant for trusting others too much. He's strong, fearless and independent, especially for his age, which Sheridan does so well, yet the innocence (and ultimately its loss) is present in his performance.
McConaughey continues his independent film tear in the title role. Mud is a pretty straightforward character, but he's not charming or mysterious or unpredictable. The script puts everything out there that you'd need to know about him, so McConaughey has to put some soul into the part, which he certainly does. Mud is a likable guy because he treats the boys like adults, like true friends, despite questions of his past transgressions.
The rest of the cast is sound, though no roles especially stand out aside from Sam Shepard as Ellis' cross-river neighbor, the man who looked after Mud when he was a boy. Witherspoon, who commands a hefty salary, presumably liked the script so much that she made concessions, because Juniper isn't a particularly strong character, just a tough one.
Those who love films that put a bit of a folk twist on reality will easily take a liking to "Mud." The Arkansas town where the film takes place is about as dingy as they come, but Nichols finds some real beauty in it and his story gives it the same mythic energy as the Southern setting does in "Huck Finn." The film does take some harrowing turns, but they are never so dark and violent that it shatters that folkloric bubble entirely, rather it reminds us about the many hard truths of this world.
It might look like an inaccessible Southern-set drama, but "Mud" will engage, entertain and strike a chord with all types of people with its expert treatment of loss of innocence and coming of age.
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If you're an actor with any degree of prominence, you've probably asked
your agent to get you into the next David O. Russell picture. Including
"American Hustle," the dude has helped his actors to 11 Oscar
nominations in his last three films, with a nod in every major acting
category each of the last two years. That's unheard of. Needless to
say, "American Hustle" is a tremendously acted film, perhaps the most
well-acted con movie ever.
"Hustle" is the kind of film you'd expect from Martin Scorsese, not Russell, who has shown a distinct preference for family drama in his previous films, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook." This is a story about deception, corruption, the American dream and love muddling up all of it.
Set in the '70s, "Hustle" imagines the story behind the FBI's famous Abscam sting, in which the feds, with help from a convicted con-man, exposed several corrupt politicians by disguising an agent as a fake Arab sheik who offered them money for help with illegal activities. The con-man was Melvin Weinberg, the basis of the film's main character, Irving Rosenfeld.
Christian Bale drastically transforms his appearance (yet again) to play Irving, this time putting on significant weight and giving himself a sophisticated comb-over. Watching him, you'll be in shock that this is the man who played Batman for three films. Irving is a businessman who owns a chain of dry cleaners as well as a con artist with a sharp mind and a big heart. So big, in fact, that after we learn how he fell in love with Sydney (Amy Adams), we discover he's a family man with a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and a son.
The script uses voiceovers for each of the main characters to provide some insight into who they are. Sydney, for example, has longed to be anyone but herself, so instead of ditching Irving when she finds out his main line of work, she takes on the persona of a British lady with banking connection in London. Together, they con desperate lowlifes who think they'll land $50,000 on a $5,000 investment.
Everything changes when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act. Knowing he has them by the throat, DiMaso leverages their haplessness into helping him set up sting operations. If they comply, he'll drop everything he has against them and let them walk. They start by setting New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as their mark. As they develop and carry out Abscam, however, DiMaso's brazen behavior gets them all way over their heads.
Every role in Russell and Eric Warren Singer's ("The International") screenplay gets ample material to work with, which is part of what makes "Hustle" such an incredible ensemble film. Even Lawrence, who plays the wild card character who has little to do with the actual plot, gets a few meaty scene-stealing moments. It might be her best performance yet in terms of proving just how diverse an actress she can be.
Adams also does some of the best work of her career. An Academy darling with four nominations in six years, Sydney is her most worthy performance of any of them. The role effectively showcases her one-two punch of toughness and beauty in a way previous roles haven't. Sydney is independent-minded but hopelessly in love, dangerously seductive but morally conscious. Given her outfits, you'd make assumptions about here character, but you'd be wrong.
Cooper's character is hot-headed comic relief as the FBI agent driven by dreams of catching the big fish. Richie controls the pace of the film and Cooper uses that to his advantage. He's another character with a distinct moral "direction," as sometimes he's a confident go-getter, sometimes he's a baby and sometimes he's everywhere in between. Renner's Mayor Polito is also complex; most con marks in a film are despicable scumbags, but he might be the most likable character in the film.
Much of the dialogue was improvised, so that tells you how much of a character-driven film this really is actors truly becoming their roles and bringing out instinctual emotion on screen. A version of this film could've been easily done in a way that focused entirely on the intricacies of the scam, setting up situational humor or melodrama as a result of strictly plot points. "American Hustle" takes on a life of its own with these actors/characters really playing off one another. Production pieces such as costumes and a killer '70s soundtrack set the stylistic tone more so than the direction or the screenplay.
As much as the talent sets "American Hustle" apart from similar genre entries, it's a con film at heart, in which the satisfaction comes from a big twist and seeing who comes out on top when the smoke clears. Although this movie does push the message of people believing what they want to believe, Russell's previous films had more thematic and emotional weight to them. "American Hustle" is more entertaining, but less fulfilling a fun con movie with phenomenal, praiseworthy acting.
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Woody Allen has proved to be a filmmaker of many talents in his
five-decade career, yet he continues to every few films push
himself into new territory, and he's done so with "Blue Jasmine." Cate
Blanchett stars as the severely troubled titular character and she and
Woody prove to be a perfect match for each other, though not quite in
the same way as Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johansson (arguably)
and Penelope Cruz.
I haven't seen every Allen film, but "Blue Jasmine" might be his only true character study. Relationship studies? Been there, done that. This, however, is a piercing psychological portrait of the main character and so it comes as no surprise that Blanchett's performance is surrounded by awards talk.
Jasmine is a middle-aged woman who has moved out to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), because her world has fallen apart. For years she was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), an impossibly wealthy New York businessman, but he was discovered for fraud (among other illegal practices), convicted and imprisoned, so Jasmine has lost everything.
After having been surrounded by wealth and ease since before she was even able to graduate college, Jasmine's state of being is certainly less than stable. She occasionally hallucinates flashbacks of her "previous life" and pops Xanax at the first sign of discomfort, which is often. Allen is well known for characters with neuroses, but Jasmine is a walking diagnosis. Considering she was spoiled rotten her whole life and turned the other way when it came to her husband's business dealings and promiscuous behavior, it's also incredibly hard to have empathy for her.
That's where the real power of Blanchett's performance (with credit of course to the screenplay) comes in. She nails the side of Jasmine that's teetering on the edge of insanity, but the fact that she can convey the complexity of Jasmine's wounded soul and earn sympathy points with the audience is a feat of the highest commendation. Allen has a history of unlikable lead characters, but Jasmine could have easily ranked among the worst given her sense of privilege. Allen does a good job grounding the character well enough to us to truly consider her circumstances and invest ourselves in the story.
The supporting players are an unusual lot for Allen in terms of the actors, but they fit more into his mold as characters. Hawkins, who has been tearing up the British independent film scene for years now, finally gets herself in front of a larger audience as Ginger, who deals with the brunt of the Allen-esque sister tension. Hawkins takes the archetype of the woman who dates big blue-collar guys with tempers and can't seem to break the pattern and turns her into an independent, progressive character. Ginger wrestles with the change in perspective that her sister brings, namely the idea that she deserves better. Her taste in men brings in a most intriguing trio of men for an Allen film: Andrew Dice Clay as her ex- husband, Augie, Bobby Canavale as her overly sensitive new beau, Chili, and Louis CK of all people as Al, with whom she has a fling.
The film is told with extensive flashbacks to try and create a sense of how Jasmine's brain works, with constant triggers to past memories. These memories show key moments in the rise and fall of Jasmine's marriage and life of wealth and slowly tell us more and more about her character. They also illuminate tensions between Jasmine and Ginger, which stem from the fact that Hal's demise essentially caused Ginger's split from Augie.
The script highlights socio-economic tensions and divisions in society and challenges the idea of what it means to be wealthy, happy and to have your life in order. Jasmine's attempt to reinvent herself in San Francisco shows just how hard it is to live in a way that's less luxurious than you're used to. In this way, Allen has done so much more than tell another great story about a neurotic character with relationship problems. His choice to not put his comic bent on this particular film shows just how seriously he feels his main character's problems are in the world we live in.
"Blue Jasmine" lacks the charm of Allen's comedies and the dark, harrowing twists of his dramas, but it still has his fingerprints all over it. How refreshing to see him apply his techniques and story devices toward making a film that explores the deeply troubling divisions embedded in our society as represented by the main character rather than just making another statement about the life of the upper-middle class through characters bickering over trivialities. And all this at 78. Bravo, Woody, bravo.
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"The Spectacular Now," based on the novel by Tim Tharp, does us the
unusual favor of depicting teenage relationships without any
romanticism or moral agendas. It's a little surprising that it was
adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, writers of "(500)
Days of Summer," because that film definitely exaggerated its core
romantic relationship, but what these films have in common is their
avoidance of fairy tale endings.
I won't spoil the end of "Spectacular Now," but it's indicative of the rest of the film: open- ended, morally ambiguous and full of raw, human connection. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a party boy senior in high school fresh out of his best relationship yet with a girl named Cassidy (Brie Larson). Incapable of being alone, when he encounters Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a girl in his class he never knew existed, he sees her as a project of sorts and convinces her to tutor him in geometry in order to spend more time with her. Eventually, of course, he becomes smitten.
Sutter's intentions are a little vague, so at times it's painful to watch Aimee, the shy, quietly beautiful bookworm, fall under his spell, but the reality of high school relationships is thus. It's difficult because most people who watch the film have been there and made these mistakes, but that's part of the authenticity of the story.
The bigger elephant in the movie is Sutter's alcoholism. It's rampant in the film, but goes almost entirely unaddressed. Aimee accepts Sutter's drinking habits and encourages them time to time as well. This is hard to understand and accept as a viewer, but speaks volumes to the film's attitude on the whole. The entire film we wait and wait for some kind of underage drinking accident or for drinking to become part of the conflict, but it doesn't. The story doesn't want to preach; the drinking is part of Sutter's character and tells us about what's going on with him on the inside. Director James Ponsoldt communicates this quite well, no doubt aided by his experience directing the 2012 Sundance hit "Smashed," about a relationship between alcoholics.
Ponsoldt makes much of "The Spectacular Now" feel natural. Scenes between Teller and Woodley have such a relaxed, true-to-life feel. Regardless of whether their dialogue veered from the script or not, their comfort on screen and with one another is evidence of Ponsoldt's ability to work with talent.
"The Spectacular Now" has the look of a typical coming-of-age film, but something about the script and Ponsoldt's direction makes it feel extremely atypical. In terms of the story and screenplay, it's the way the adult characters interact with the young people. The traditional roles parents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler play Sutter's divorced parents) play in the lives of teenage main characters doesn't subscribe to the same, often melodramatic dynamic present in coming-of-age indies.
But while Ponsoldt, Neustadter and Weber have treated Tharp's story with a heavy dose of maturity, it doesn't mean the behaviors of all the characters reflect the same maturity. In fact, it's the lack of maturity in a lot of cases that makes the film so honest. It's troubling for us to watch the bad things that we expect to happen unfold on screen, like the indie coming-of- age equivalent of the horror movie character who opens that stupid door, but it can be liberating to let go of the concept that filmmakers should be moral arbiters of the story they're telling. It's like parents who let their children learn the hard way.
Living in the moment is a message most people get when they walk away from a coming-of- age film, but "The Spectacular Now" treats that as square one. Sutter is all about living in the moment, he has the whole "live while you're young" thing figured out, and the movie tells a story that complicates our understanding of what it means to live in the present.
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Slavery is rightfully considered the darkest mark on America's 237-year
history. It was the issue that defined 19th Century America, and one of
many examples in humanity's narrative of the oppression of one people
at the hands of another. "12 Years a Slave" is a brutal but necessary
reminder of that evil. It is a film that sugarcoats nothing and
struggles desperately with the entire notion of justice.
Director Steve McQueen makes a big career leap with this biographical epic of Solomon Northup, a free black man and talented violinist who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery, which he remained in for 12 years before a fortunate encounter with an abolitionist eventually led to his freedom. McQueen has shown a deft hand for uncomfortable subject matters (his last film, "Shame," tackled sex addiction) and so slavery is something he seems apt to handle, and he does so with painful magnificence.
As with "Shame," McQueen works diligently at transmitting the experience of his characters onto the audience, and so "12 Years a Slave" becomes more than a mental and intellectual exercise, but an emotional, full-body experience. It is eye-opening, heartbreaking, gut- wrenching and soul-shaking, the kind of film that will challenge you for a seemingly endless 2 hours and 15 minutes and then for a long time after you walk away from it.
And that seems to be the idea. McQueen doesn't want anyone who sees his film to get too comfortable, because there's nothing comfortable about what African-Americans endured as slaves. All the beating, whipping, hanging, abusing, raping and degrading slurs occur with a relentlessness arguably unprecedented in film history. Every scene featuring one of these horrific things goes on just a little longer than we expect or what Hollywood has conditioned us for enough so that we must really internalize it and practically beg for it to stop. Rarely do these kinds of large-scope biopics ever feel as though they occur in real time, but McQueen gives us a number of scenes that do, and it has a serious impact.
From the moment the drugged Solomon wakes up to find his hands and feet chained, the abuse begins. When he refuses to accept his newly given identity as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, he gets a brutal beating from his captors, and he continues to face violence the more he speaks up and/or demonstrates the qualities of a learned man. Solomon's decision process on how he should behave factors throughout the film. He must constantly weigh whether to hold steadfast to his identity and his beliefs at risk of provoking anger and getting himself killed, or to keep his head down and feign ignorance in order to survive.
This balancing act in the face of all kinds of horrific circumstances comprises Chiwetel Ejiofor's career-making performance as Solomon. Solomon works hard for the two plantation owners in the film, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Epps (Michael Fassbender), but he must lie and manipulate to save his hide (literally in some cases) and he never stands down when mistreated or falsely accused. Then there's the underlying element of Solomon's longing for home and family, his simple but powerful motivation throughout the film. Ejiofor elicits our sympathy with ease and conveys Solomon's inner toil at countless points throughout the film with complex emotions rather than riding the more dominant ones such as anger, fear and sadness, which John Ridley's script and McQueen's direction craft so effectively.
Much of the film's stellar cast is difficult to praise, because they play such despicable characters. Fassbender is brilliant as Epps despite the character's countless flaws, and it's even worse because the script gives us a window into Epps' conscience, and we see him make the choice to fall victim to his pride and continue his poor behavior time after time. Even the seemingly "better" characters, aren't any good. Cumberbatch's Ford is a sympathetic and caring man, but one with no stones, as he accepts the slave system and does nothing to stand up to those who show true bigotry. The only praiseworthy supporting performance of a praiseworthy character is comes from Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a young slave woman who works hard and keeps her chin up only to be struck down time and time again. What she had to do as an actress is award-worthy in and of itself.
McQueen pulls off what every true cinephile fantasizes about; independent directors bringing their non-traditional artistic vision to the type of film you'd expect Hollywood to make and consequently dumb down. This is not the Steven Spielberg with a sweeping John Williams score version of slavery; this is an the unapologetic, gritty, haunting and beautiful version.
Many will argue against the authenticity of this version, that it is excessively violent and pointlessly so, that McQueen has exaggerated and amplified the horrible nature of slavery for the purpose of shock value. Taking such a position, however, comes from a place of fear. To insist that "12 Years a Slave" be less brutal is to wish slavery were less brutal. Real life does not cut, fade to black or a pick a gentler angle when it comes to hate and violence. The fact that McQueen dared to take such a stance with his film and that the producers all appear to have stood behind him based on the film's final cut, deserves to be lauded as an act of true cinematic bravery.
Film is considered an escapist medium, but "12 Years a Slave" shows how powerful narrative storytelling can be when it is used to explore the deepest darkest corners of human existence, the things we prefer not to confront or talk about yet define us as much as anything. It is the kind of film that has the potential to profoundly affect your perspective as a human being and that happens so very rarely.
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Nothing the Coen Brothers ever do is really a change of pace, but
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is about as close to one as you're likely to get
from the filmmaking duo that has rolled out nothing but critically
acclaimed hits since 2008 Best Picture winner "No Country for Old Men."
Even with a three-year break between directorial projects for the first
time in almost 20 years, they strike again with "Llewyn Davis," perhaps
their most understated and emotional effort to date.
"Davis" is a melancholy story that finds occasional moments of classic Coen Brothers humor (that killer combination of wit, frankness, exaggeration and irony) and stirs the soul with an influx of folk music. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a couch-surfing folk singer of unquestionable talent struggling to make money in New York's Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. Plagued by a number of mistakes in his work and personal life and followed by the shadow of his stint as one half of a folk duo, Llewyn impatiently pursues his big break despite the lousy circumstances.
Isaac get his much-deserved big break as Davis, a role that could really only be played by someone yet to become a full-fledge movie star. In fact, the Coen Brothers veer away from casting their usual suspects entirely (except for John Goodman in a small role), which gives "Davis" both a different feel for the Coens in general and helps to get across the sense of anonymity in the folk scene. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play supporting roles as Jean and Jim, some lovable local favorites performing in the scene, but they're a small part of the film overall.
This is Llewyn's story entirely, a disheartening portrayal of the American dream, and without an ounce of sugarcoating. Plus, Llewyn is far from the brave and naive optimist who's hopelessly in love with his craft. He sees it very much as his passion, but it is his career, his work a means to a paycheck. He's not the smartest or the most likable character, so it's actually the scenes in which he performs so beautifully that will move the audience to root for his success. We can observe his talent, but objectively, we can also see the very qualities in his personality and even his music that account for his struggle.
Although "Davis" has a number of striking scenes, some of which are difficult to watch, there's not much shock factor in this particular Coen Brothers film. The plot is non-traditional in the sense that there's no main conflict with scenes that move toward a resolution, rather everything that happens is meant to give us a window into the unforgiving nature of the life Llewyn has chosen for himself. His desperation road trip to Chicago to try and land a gig for a man with a prominent club sums a lot of this up. He bums a ride with Goodman's character Roland Turner, a jazz musician who tests Llewyn's wits to no end, and his "chauffeur," Johnny Five, (Garrett Hedlund), a poet of few verbal words. The trip takes a strange turn with less than desirable results.
In most Coen films, each character or event, no matter how small, has something to say to the greater overall theme and ideas of the film. "Davis" is no exception, though it does so in much more subtle ways. One of the more prominent metaphors involves an orange cat that falls into Llewyn's care. Although the symbolism is obvious, the meaning remains open to interpretation in a way the Coens do so well.
Music is of course integral to this film in a way it has not been for the Coens since "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" Music immediately sets the tone in addition to creating a nostalgic, poignant feeling throughout the film. The script explores the many uses of folk music as well. There are soul-bearing, intimate ballads like those sung by Llewyn to the political hijacking of folk music such as the scene in which Llewyn and Jim record "Please, Mr. Kennedy," to the way folk music has evolved from songs from the "old country." "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a film that all artists will appreciate, and quite possibly anyone who has dedicated themselves to something only to end up disappointed time and time again. The Coens approach this subject with brute honesty but also a certain poetic sensitivity. Especially when held up to their many irreverent comedies, "Llewyn Davis" will long be used as evidence supporting the Coens' knack for artistic, nuanced filmmaking.
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