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Review Catch-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a somber American tale following the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) set within 1961’s New York City folk scene. The Coen brothers, obviously, are masters of cinema with an unmistakable creative voice and skill. Here again, as in “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the duo return to an American landscape of music synonymous with a certain time and place. This time around, the odyssey belongs to Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer in Greenwich Village who survives the cold winter months mostly due to the hospitality of friends and neighbors in the upper west side. We first find Llewyn at the Gaslight cafe giving an evocative performance of melancholy mood and airy atmosphere.

After a stirring rendition of an age old folk tale “Hang me, Oh Hang me”, the beleaguered Llewyn is told by the bartender that a friend is waiting for him outside. Que the snarky and sarcastic singer getting beatdown by a shadowy figure for reasons that are initially unknown. Llewyn awakens the next morning on the couch of some wealthy academic friends, the Gorfeins, and heads out after recouping momentarily- but not before accidentally letting their cat escape! Having locked the door on his way out, he grabs the Gorfeins’ cat and heads to the apartment of his friends’ Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan)- though their relationship to Llewyn is strenuous at best. Hoping to stay a night on their couch, with cat in tow, Llewyn is met with polite simmering rage by Jean who has two pieces of bad news for him. First, that the couch had already been offered to a soldier in town for a few musical gigs before heading back to the service, but more importantly, Jean’s pregnant and it could be Llewyn’s unborn child. Jean can’t discern whether the father is truly Llewyn, or Jim to which she is engaged. Llewyn’s allowed to stay, on the floor, after hashing it out with Jean and swearing to pay for her abortion- with money he doesn’t have. Cue another morning of mounting anxieties and you’ll begin to understand the crushing existence that Llewyn lives, right as he watches the Gorfeins’ Cat leap out Jean’s open window and scampering off into wild bluster of the city.

This propels the wandering Llewyn to chase down the cat and it seems as though each step brings him closer to failure or the ultimate sin for artists, giving in to financial pressure. We get a lot of background information about Llewyn through his interactions with those aware of his past and of him encountering those from his past, notably his family and those who knew that he was part of a musical folk duo- that is, until his partner Mike jumped off a bridge. Through Llewyn’s sister and father, there’s a sense of practicality over expression, and a lot of Llewyn’s stubbornness to continue struggling for his art stems from the anxiety and dread he experiences when visiting his father late in the film- which was the push he needed to follow through with a life he wanted versus a life of regret. It’s not necessarily explicitly said in this scene, but you can sense the nature of it. What I really found inspiring in this film is exactly that, Llewyn’s innate nature to get back up after being knocked down, no matter the severity of blows that life throws at him. I’m skipping a bit here to my personal consensus about the film overall, but that’s because the journey that this film, and Llewyn himself, are going on is a great one and I don’t intend to spoil the whole damn thing for any of you out there. There’s a lot of small aspects of the movie that have endeared me to it. The world that Llewyn resides in has a desaturated color palette of cold blues and greens that give it a texture akin to a furled and beaten paperback novel. This analog world of the early 1960’s is lit with soft and full lighting when focused on any of the musical performances throughout the film, while a crisp and harsher eye is applied to scenes shot outside, within small and cramped New York City apartments, the dark and grimy alleyways, or the humorously narrow hallways like the one Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody squeeze past each other at one point. Which brings me to the performances. As with every and all Coen Brothers films, the deadpan, sarcastic, heartening, and unique nature of the characters involved ties the film together with a bow only Ethan and Joel Coen could craft so neatly. Justin Timberlake’s Jim holds no resemblance to the world famous singer, if only through vocal talent- Carey Mulligan is poise perfect with a grumpy under-pinning that makes her “Jean” feel like a real person with dreams and purpose. There’s also, yes, a John Goodman cameo as an aging Jazz man critically destroyed by a Heroin addiction and a nasty case of spite and bitterness. Goodman’s paired with a similar yet opposite side of failure with musicians in Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a quiet poet who’s controlled by an older cynic in the industry, from failure breeds further failure. Llewyn stumbles across these two when deciding to hitch-hike to Chicago to see how the record he’d put out after Mike’s death was any good and to see if he could audition for the studio owner. It’s this audition that drives Llewyn back home to New York City, and ultimately back to the Gaslight Cafe.

While some may find this film a bit too Melancholy for their taste, I’d recommend watching (or maybe re-watching) and focusing on how Llewyn navigates his troubles and how nothing seems to stop him. Even though his failures do have an affect on him, he doesn’t let those failures define him, he picks himself back up and goes forward. There’s a wistful nature about the film that suggests that part of the joy of the struggle is the unknown element and pure expression of it all. There are deep undercurrents of the authenticity versus commercialism debate that everyone who’s ever wanted to, or tried to, live off of their art knows full well. Maybe that’s why I was so struck by the beauty of this film’s circular storytelling. At the end of the film Llewyn is back where he started, singing at the Gaslight Cafe and getting beaten up in the alley. Every artist, failed, successful, or otherwise- knows this cycle all too well and it’s a welcome nod to those who keep going for it. Oscar Issac came on the scene in a big way with this film and if you’ve only ever seen him in the recent Star Wars movies, then I suggest giving this one a watch.

Final Score: 2 Cats, 1 Roadtrip

*Check out this video essay on the film! Caution, there are spoilers for the film within the video:

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Review Catch-Up: Fast and Furious presents, Hobbs and Shaw

Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce and directed by David Leitch, “Hobbs and Shaw” is an action film spinoff from the Fast and Furious films chronicling the over-the-top antics of the Fast franchise’s two most memorable antagonists. Forced to work together to save the world from a MacGuffin that could inexplicably kill us all, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) must put their differences aside to track down the deadly super-soldier Brixton (Idris Elba) and stop him from implementing this nefarious plan. Once the duo are on the hunt they run into Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent on the trail of the very same viral MacGuffin and ends up injecting it in her own body to get away with the super-weapon. As you might expect, the movie is a loud, dumb, and highly entertaining series of action set-pieces with some vehicular mayhem thrown in for good measure.

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are the reason to see this movie. Period. Their charisma, banter, and one-liners are pitch perfect and thoroughly entertaining throughout the whole runtime, no matter how massively stupid the plot or action sequences get (and trust me, they get VERY stupid). Vanessa Kirby was a pleasantly surprising addition to the cast offering, providing some solid action performing and that touch of heart you may need to remind you that you’re still human while watching this one. Though, admittedly, Hobbs’ scenes with his daughter (Eliana Sua) are damn cute, if fleeting. Charisma and Machismo are the fuel for this movie and everybody knows that, which is why I was overjoyed that Idris Elba let his performance as Brixton go so far over the top that it seemed appropriately cartoonish at times. Which is apt- this movie is an adult cartoon essentially, these super spies and international security agents are not men- but super heroes in suits and leather jackets. At least the movie is evidently self aware of it’s own absurdity- which forgives a LOT of it’s flaws and faults, for me anyways.

While the paper-thin (what are they doing again?) plot to save the world from imminent destruction may not be the most engaging, that’s not why anyone came to see this movie- at least it shouldn’t be. It’s all about the spectacle, set-pieces, and humor. If you enjoyed the older, but equally absurd, action movies of the 1980’s like “Commando”, “Rambo: First Blood Part 2”, “Robocop”, or “Top Gun” then you’ll likely get a kick out of this one. However, I must note that even a few of those movies I referenced have plotlines that are smarter than this one. There’s also a few fun surprise cameos that I won’t ruin for you, but they were delightful and perfect additions to this series.

The final act is a a complete mess when it comes to any kind of continuity. The final fight in Samoa has sequences of abject darkness in the early morning, to a raging storm, or a sunny day depending on the emotion they’re trying to convey for the shot. I have to say it’s absolutely ridiculous, but by this point they’ve earned the complete disregard of all reality. Whatever, I have no expectations of logic or physics at this point in the film series, I just want to be entertained with this completely fun and dumb guilty pleasure. While this film resides within the larger framework of “The Fast and Furious” world, I wouldn’t be surprised if this pairing became a franchise itself- I’d certainly go see a few more outings with these two powerhouse stars. There’s even rumors that Keanu Reeves may join a sequel if one musters up enough interest, and to that possibility I say, bring it on.

Final Score: 1,000 punches and 1 fist bump

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Review Catch-Up: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a film about several topics blended together. Yes, it’s a film about Hollywood experiencing a tumultuous evolution in its creative output at the end of the 1960’s, but it is also a film about ageing and the perspective that comes with the passage of time. It’s also about a few dastardly dirty hippies and a multitude of references to decades-old film and television shows and the actors that appeared in them. At times “Once upon a time in Hollywood” can feel like a departure from Tarantino’s earlier work in that this period-piece rumination about Hollywood at the end of an era takes a slower, almost meditative pace at times, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they can tell you that it’s definitively still a Tarantino picture.

This one centers around film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, and part time chauffeur, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are a fascinating duo, as Rick often plays machismo fueled leading men in westerns and war films, yet he’s obsessed with how others perceive his acting to the point of vanity. He can be soft and vulnerable when alone, depressed and weeping over a bungling of lines on a western TV show. While Cliff on the other hand seems to exude all of the qualities that Rick’s characters represent; calmness, masculinity, and violence when the need arises. Tarantino’s ninth film is happy to let you simmer pleasantly with its two lead characters for long stretches of time. It’s content to follow Cliff as he drives Rick in his creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to his home in the Hollywood hills only then to switch to his blue, beaten-up, 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and traverse a sea of neon lights out to a small trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. These two characters, clearly, live and breathe different air- yet seem inseparable as partners in the world of cinema.

Eventually, the film’s story opens up a bit and some questionable characters take our attention. We get a glimpse of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, but it is fleeting. We also see Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) a few times, but his sightings are almost as rare. However we do get a lot more footage of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she goes about her daily life. We watch her casually going to the theater to see one of her own movies, dancing to records at home, and generally being a good-hearted person. While the film takes fairly massive liberties with how the actual real-life events of the Manson family murders took place, there are a lot of accurate details filling out the world Tarantino has crafted. For example, it isn’t just Tarantino’s oft-reported obsession with women’s feet, apparently Sharon Tate was frequently barefoot and would occasionally put rubber-bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants. So while shots of bare feet may not be everyone’s thing, it is accurate in this case (source linked below). Tarantino simply inserted his two leads next door to the scene of the infamous crime. In “Hollywood”, Rick Dalton is the next door neighbor to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, to which Rick plans to turn a chance meeting with the famed director into an opportunity for the, self described, washed-up actor. Beyond the residents of the Hollywood hills, this film is filled to the gills with celebrity cameos, sometimes as an influential movie mogul as with Al Pacino, other times purely as minimal side characters like Kurt Russell’s ‘Randy’ or Timothy Olyphant’s character actor side-by-side Rick Dalton’s guest appearance on the pilot episode of western show ‘Lancer‘. The dialogue here is, as always with Tarantino, very good. However it isn’t quite as punchy as say “The Hateful Eight” or “Inglorious Basterds”, but that shouldn’t turn you toward the door, it’s just a different spice added to Tarantino’s oeuvre.

By now you probably know whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking is for you, but even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaker- you have to admit that his skill in the medium is ageing like a fine wine. Tarantino has been saying that he’ll put down a ten film legacy and be done with making movies, but this film itself is a great argument against that. If he doesn’t want to make more than ten films, then he has earned that and his place in Hollywood’s history, but I highly doubt someone as in love with the art of filmmaking and movies in general will ever give it up. Here’s hoping for at least a few more films from the legendary director!

Final Score: 1 Flamethrower

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/manson-murders-once-upon-time-hollywood-tarantino-ending-868192/

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Review Catch-Up: The Old Man and The Gun

Written and directed by David Lowery, “The Old Man and The Gun” is a charming story about a gentleman bank robber, and a fitting tale for the (supposed) last starring role of one of Hollywood’s most prolific leading men, Robert Redford. His last leading character is a gentle nod to a bygone era of Hollywood and one whose antics are slyly showcased as a metaphor for Redford’s career as a whole. He portrays Forrest Tucker, a serial bank robber (and masterful prison escape artist) who never seems drawn to violence or malcontent, he simply and purely loves what he does, and he keeps getting away with it. Redford must feel some brotherly connection to a man that loves a good challenge, maybe someone that isn’t always successful, but when he is, his presentation and delivery is so pitch perfect that everyone forgets any missteps and becomes infatuated with his rapscallion ways.

This feel good crime caper may not be the most engaging or explosive film based on “mostly true events” involving armed robberies- but it certainly delivers, and that’s based almost entirely on Redford’s legendary charisma. Beyond Redford though, the rest of the cast solidifies the film and assist in adhering to the carefree and calm attitude towards crime, and its repercussions. Rounding out the “Over-The-Hill Gang” are Danny Glover as Teddy and Tom Waits as Waller. They may not have a lot of screen time devoted to their characters, but they get a couple scenes earlier in the film, including one that got a good chuckle out of me when Waller describes his former home life growing up, and how it led to him hating Christmas. Casey Affleck, working again with Lowery after “A Ghost Story”, plays the muted and grizzled cop John Hunt, who determinedly follows Tucker’s trail. Hunt’s peers and those in the media seem to only be bemused by the “Over-The-Hill-Gang”, as Hunt pointedly remarks to those recalling Tucker’s gentlemanly antics, “Nothing’s funnier than armed robbery, right?”

Though I’d be remiss not to include Sissy Spacek as Jewel. Spacek herself is another ace actor from cinema’s silver age, and her scenes with Robert Redford imbue Jewel with heart and tenderness that only she could bring to the character. Which is needed given that she falls for a charming old bank robber all the while knowing of his dastardly dapper indulgences. Jewel’s a simple woman that owns a picturesque ranch with a few horses, one of whom Tucker finally decides to ride (it was on his bucket list) after a thrilling car chase evading dozens of cop cars.

This is a small charming film that embodies that nostalgic American notion of the gentleman bandit, a man that is to be respected and feared equally. The film’s warm pastel hues and hypnotic, suave, and melancholy soundtrack accompanying it, pair to make a grand farewell for Redford, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Final Score: 5 banks in one day

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Review Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)

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Review Catch-Up: Upgrade

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, “Upgrade” is a revenge-thriller with a futuristic sci-fi setting not unlike that of “Blade Runner”s. My plan was to catch this one when it was in theaters this past summer, it just never materialized, but I am so glad I came back to find it after video release. This pulpy, body-horror, grindhouse, genre flick isn’t what I expected going in, but I immediately fell in love with the concept of the film after the hook.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a simple man in a complex world. In a time of fully automated cars and advanced biomedical technologies Grey stands out. He’s a mechanic that works on classic American muscle cars with a deep-seated love for the analog ways of the past. With Laura (Belén Rueda), the love of his life, they lead a productive life together despite the technological gap between them. After putting the finishing touches on one of his sales cars, he brings Laura with him to drop it off to the buyer, a reclusive big-tech genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). While there, Eron shows Grey and Laura his latest project set to revolutionize the world, STEM. A computer chip the size of a beetle, STEM is an A.I. capable of lightning fast processing power and immense data crunching ability. Grey, being the analog purist that he is, isn’t impressed by the reveal while Laura ogles over the new possibilities. On the way home, their automatic car disobeys orders and takes them into dangerous neighborhoods before quickly accelerating into a pole and flipping the car, killing Laura in the process. A gang of people flood the streets and pull Grey from the wreckage and shoot him in the back of the head, paralyzing him from the neck down.

Fast forward to Grey immobilized in a hospital bed when, surprise surprise, Eron waltzes into his room to offer him an.. Upgrade. Again, Grey turns down the offer. Seeing his partner die before his very eyes hasn’t exactly motivated him to want to live, and especially thrive, by technological augmentation. After he hits rock bottom emotionally and psychologically, he reconsiders and accepts Eron’s offer. After the surgery, Eron informs Grey of the need for secrecy surrounding STEM as the experimental tech isn’t exactly legal.

With his mobility regained Grey immediately goes into detective mode to find Laura’s killers. It is here that STEM (Simon Maiden) chooses to introduce itself to Grey by helping him follow the clues. STEM is also handy for a good fight. After verbally giving STEM permission, the A.I. takes control of his body and efficiently, brutally, attacks any opponents. The fight scenes in this movie are a great deal of fun! They, cleverly, have an extra layer of visual comedy in play. When Grey is fighting, his face reveals his horror to the actions of his own body with STEM at the wheel. He smashes plates over assailants heads while his face recoiles from the creative violence at hand. That’s just brilliant. Eventually a local cop, Cortez (Betty Gabriel) starts to sniff out Grey’s suspicious activities. She was fun as a threat for Grey in the film but there wasn’t a lot of characterization with her.

This film was exactly the kind of sci-fi that I enjoy. Thought provoking ideas mixed with paranoia about a changing world, and some extreme B-movie violence thrown in for good measure. It was funny, it was dark, it was just a damn good science-fiction film. I highly recommend it, but especially if you enjoy other modern sci-fi flicks like “Annihilation” or “Ex-Machina”.

Final Score: 2 Muscle Cars and 1 talkative A.I.

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Review Catch-Up: Paterson

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson” is a meditation on the struggle, lyricism, and poetry of everyday life. The film focuses on Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry in his fleeting free time. He lives with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), the love of his life and the yang to his ying. While Paterson lives a life of simple routine with flourishes of artistry, Laura chases her dreams of artistic freedom through whichever flight of fancy that catches her imagination. From being the owner/chef of a cupcake bakery one evening to taking Spanish guitar courses online so she can pursue her latest dream of being a country music star.

Paterson (The film) is structured around a week in his life. From overhearing casual conversations on his routes to catching up on the latest developments of the local Romeo and Juliet of the neighborhood bar (William Jackson Harper as Everett and Chasten Harmon as Marie), the film isn’t concerned with anything other than the small, mundane, beat of it’s protagonist. One of the more poignant scenes of the film happens when Paterson is walking home and he decides to accompany a young girl until her mother returns from a nearby apartment. He sees that she has a notebook of writing too, she shares a poem of hers, and in that moment the film captures the beauty of such random acts of serendipity; two strangers sharing an appreciation for their craft.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll love this movie, it is “slow” and “nothing happens”, however if you find yourself needing a break from the noise, confusion, and chaos of your own every day life- then this film may just be what you need. I honestly went into this film not knowing if I would actually enjoy the experience or just be resentful of time spent on this whereas it may have been better spent on other priorities, I’ve seen Jim Jarmusch films films before and haven’t ever been really impressed or absorbed by them. (I’ve seen “Stranger than Paradise” “Dead Man” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and “Broken Flowers”) This is the only film of Jarmusch’s that has worked for me this far, though I can at least understand why some people enjoy “Broken Flowers”, but it’s not for me. This a solid Feel Good movie, perfect for a cold and blustery winter night.

Final Score: 7 days in Paterson, New Jersey