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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: Annihilation

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Annihilation” is his second directorial feature after the hit “Ex-Machina” released a few years back.  This film, while maintaining an evolving yet clear style, is one of those rare movies that sticks with you-it buries itself inside your mind to stay with you after the credits have ended and you’ve driven home. This movie is everything I want from straight sci-fi films-no fantasy here (Which is fine, I enjoy ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Star Wars’ too), this is simply a different kind of science fiction. It’s a film that, in my experience, grows on you with time. So, the plot of the film is that Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, is a biologist professor who has lost her husband (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who perished on his last mission. She teaches her classes solemnly in her grief before an event occurs that gets her sent to Area X, an observatory stationed just outside a mysterious phenomena nicknamed “The Shimmer”. Her dead husband was part of the last mission sent into ‘the shimmer’, nobody ever sent in has returned. At the observatory she is met by other experts preparing for a crucial final mission into ‘the shimmer’, the only scientific group so far- all other efforts had been military minded. All four members Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) each have their own personal reasons for joining a mission that is concerned by all others to be a death sentence. Finally Lena, an accredited biologist, decides to join the team, as her skills could be an asset to the potential research findings.

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There are elements from the works of David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, H.P. Lovecraft, and Kubrick sprinkled throughout while never becoming homage or an ode to a specific style or anything other than itself. It reminds me of the greats of sci-fi without ever being subservient to what came before it. This film is somewhat difficult to discuss or review without giving up all of the secrets that the film has to give, so in the interest of piquing your interests reader, but without giving you all of the details, I implore you to give this film a chance. So, in order to facilitate a sense of the film so that you can better decide whether this is something you would enjoy or not, I’ll vaguely describe what I found to be the aspects of the film that made me love it.

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First, and most reviews of this film will note on this, the film has some beautiful imagery once the team is inside ‘the shimmer’. The production design and the practical effects that went into making the effects that ‘the shimmer’ would have on our planet are fascinating, the flora and fauna have been altered by these effects in brilliant colors and mutations on a cellular level. The sound design, and choice of music paired with soundtrack, is crisp and tactile, warm and familiar, but cold and strange in other ways. A pairing of folksy acoustic guitar with moody and bellowing synth seems like it shouldn’t work, but the way the film incorporates these two distinct sounds and tones throughout the runtime works to great effect. The characters are also a real treat, none of them make illogical or unsound decisions, they are smart characters that seem like the experts they claim to be. No character turns out to be a dumb foil for another and they all make as much sense of the mystery they’re wading into as best they can. Let it be said though that while this film is slow and fairly brooding, concerned more with asking thoughtful questions than crafting horror movie antics to get butts into seats- it does have scenes of truly creepy imagery and horrifying brutality.

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I feel as though revealing more would only be a detriment to those who might go and check this film out. Which I highly suggest doing. Smart sci-fi films like this are a rarity and if you enjoy such films, vote with your money. That’s the only way to encourage more risk taking from our cinematic storytellers. I say, go out there, make it weirder, make the story that drives you and fascinates you! Or at the very least, go watch a film that challenges you.

Final Score: 5 scientific explorers, 1 shimmer

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Review: Star Wars Episode VIII The Last Jedi

*This is your warning- THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW*

   -SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!-

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson, the eighth episode of the Star Wars saga, “The Last Jedi” is upon us. Thus I and countless other nerds and movie critics across the internet and on opposite sides of the lunch table will be debating, praising, cursing, and analyzing this latest episode of the decade spanning space opera. After the seventh episode left the Resistance (Rebels) triumphant with the Starkiller Base (Death Star) destroyed after the loss of one of our heroes in Han Solo (Obi-Wan Kenobi) we had several new heroes in Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron to pick up the pieces of the fallen republic and continue the fight against the dark side. So what happened after that cliffhanger ending of Rey seeking out Luke Skywalker and holding out his father’s lightsaber? Subverted expectations, that’s what.

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So, let’s dive into it. First, since I have less negative things to say about the film overall, we’ll address the things that didn’t work for me in the film. 1) The humor (in parts). Personally, I am okay with a film that subverts your expectations, I would rather be surprised than being able to predict every beat and scene before they happen, however when Rey finally hands over the Lightsaber that has transitioned all three sagas- Luke nonchalantly tosses it over his shoulder as it’s played for a laugh- this did not work for me. I understand where Luke is at that point after seeing the movie, but I just didn’t care for the tone of the moment, he could have discarded it without playing the scene for a laugh. The only other major play for humor that didn’t work for me was Poe’s jokey attempt to buy time in the opening scene with General Hux, granted, that style of humor has already been built into Poe’s character like when he was captured by Kylo-Ren on Jakku in The Force Awakens, but that specific style of comedy doesn’t exactly work for me. 2) Holdo withholding info from Poe. I have mixed feelings about this aspect of Poe’s story arc. Overall I really enjoyed the ace pilot’s story in The Last Jedi, he learned that you can’t always “Jump in an X-Wing and blow something up” to solve your problems and that leadership can be cumbersome at times. The part I take issue with is Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s decision to withhold her plan to save the Resistance from total destruction. I understand that this was a story technique and it helped to further the film’s style of subverting the audience’s expectations by allowing us to side with Poe but then realizing that both he and we were wrong- but what did she gain from not informing the few people that were left alive? Alas, this is one small pet peeve surrounding this story arc. 3) Finn and Rose’s Canto Bight adventure. This part of the film, while being important in the larger scheme of the story, was a tad overlong in my opinion. I wasn’t as bothered as some critics have been with this segment of the film, but this does hurt the pacing of the film a bit. I feel that there were more efficient ways to get those story beats across without using up as much time as they did, they could have kept the main point of the story intact without sacrificing the mood of the film as a whole. Moving onward however, there is much more of the film that I enjoyed than what I did not.

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The opening space battle between the Resistance’s bombers against the Dreadnought Starship was exhilarating! Poe Dameron may have made poor leadership choices that led to massive Resistance losses, but damn was it an enjoyable and effective edge-of-your-seat sequence. From the overly red lit deck of the Dreadnought with a First Order Captain barking orders to the last second success of Rose’s sister, this scene was ecstatic and I loved it. From there we’re introduced to Luke Skywalker and his life on Ahch-To, the ocean planet with several islands dotting the surface. We’re greeted by an older and far more cynical Luke Skywalker that wants nothing to do with the Empire, Sith, the First Order or even Jedi newcomer Rey. Rey follows him around begging for direction and training but it isn’t until Luke boards the Millennium Falcon once more and finds R2-D2 waiting there that he finds a spark of hope. There are flashes of the old Luke Skywalker in this scene as he happily rejoices at seeing his old droid, but when R2 shows the hologram of Leia from a New Hope he chides his robot friend for pulling a “A cheap move”. This gets Luke to begin to guide Rey, though he isn’t exactly a cheery mentor.

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There are scenes and sequences throughout the remainder of the film that hint at, and sometimes outright say, what the theme of this film is- failure. Every arc or main character experiences failure in this film. From Rey leaving Ahch-To to heading straight to Kylo-Ren in order to attempt to turn him to the light side, to Finn and Poe being sent to Canto-Bight to retrieve a master code breaker but ultimately escaping with another code breaker that has no allegiances to the light side or the dark, there are massive failures throughout but as force-ghost Yoda pointedly tells Luke at one point (which may be my favorite scene in the film) “Failure, the best teacher is..”. It is what these characters learn from their failures that propels them through the third act. Luke’s part in the third act was right on point for me, he displayed new and mesmerizing powers of the force and had his cinematic journey book-ended with his first appearance in A New Hope. Luke Skywalker is again shown in a wide shot with two setting suns before vanishing to become one with the force.

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While there are no lightsaber on lightsaber fight scenes in this episode of the never-ending saga, a first for the series, there is one amazingly directed fight scene between Kylo-Ren, Rey, and Snoke’s Elite Praetorian guard (pictured above in the red) and it was a visual spectacle. The fight scene was also punctuated by the story elements surrounding it in which neither Rey or the audience know if Kylo-Ren has turned to the Light Side or merely seeking more power among the remains of the First Order. This takes place roughly about the same time in the film as Amilyn Holdo’s sacrifice which was another spellbinding moment of shear fantasy science fiction as she aimed the Resistance’s last major Starship directly at Snoke’s behemoth Star Destroyer. I have rarely been in a theater where a scene goes silent to the point of being able to hear audible jaws dropping at the spectacle of it all.

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While Finn was relegated to the back of this film’s attention he did get several moments to shine in. I honestly loved the short moment of Captain Phasma’s return and Finn’s subsequent victory against her. I say bring her back for the third one, why not? She got out of the Trash compacter of a planet sized base that was blown to smithereens- she can escape this death too!

Carrie Fisher’s scenes in this film were handled quite well. I believe she had finished all of her scenes by the time she had passed, which in itself was tragic and disheartening for all of us, but this film truly places her iconic character’s end in the hands of JJ Abrams’ ninth (and final?) installment in the episodic saga. She had a lot more to do in this film and personally, I wasn’t really bothered by her use of the force in this film, it was a unique scene and it added another layer to her silver screen legacy. Speaking of the force, personally, I found Kylo-Ren, Rey, and Luke’s evolution of using the force to be mysterious and exciting. I love that this film has made the force more mystical and magical once again, I am okay with an evolving interpretation of the force. Cue all the GIFs of Han Solo telling Finn “That’s not how the force works!” you want, I enjoyed this idea and hope it’s expanded on in episode nine.

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In the end, this is a film that has moments of greatness spattered amongst a decent Star Wars backdrop. This film is a little too long, a shade or two more uneven than The Force Awakens, and the humor doesn’t always mesh with the tone at hand or the spirit/feel of Star Wars- however, this film took chances and I like how the material was handled for the most part. Let’s face it, making a perfect Star Wars film is nearly impossible these days with the range of expectations that fans new and old bring to the theater with them, but this film was a damn good effort.

Final Score: 8 Episodes