Friday, January 17, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis


The Coen Brothers' inside Llewyn Davis is a curious picture, a film of unspectacular events in the life of a pretty reprehensible man, Mr. Davis of the title (Oscar Isaac), a struggling Greenwich Village folkie in the early '60s who is having a bad week. Though talented, the bleakness of Davis's outlook (and thus his songs) is off-putting but that would be tolerable if he were committed to loftier causes or cared about other people. As played by Isaac (who is terrific), Davis is a self-involved prick who, it seems, dares people to reject him -- which they do. The girlfriend (Carrie Mulligan) of his former folkie partner (Justin Timberlake) despises him because he seduced and quite possibly impregnated her. His response to her not altogether persuasive harangue is "It takes two to tango." But he tries to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and thus continues his descent. Inside Llewyn Davis is beautifully filmed; the smoky cafe scenes are especially evocative but it's not uplifting (has any Coen film been?) and despite featuring fine performances and great tunes might leave you irritated and exhausted like the characters on the screen. Recommended.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Her

Spike Jonze's Her is an interesting cinematic conceit about our dual fixation with detachment and intimacy. For his fourth major feature film, Jonze has crafted the quasi-futuristic tale of a divorcing ghost writer named Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), who pens and sends fulsome love letters for the tongue-tied. He's a masterful wordsmith regarding other people's ardor but has difficulty managing his own. Theodore's brilliant though self-flagellating wife, Catherine, (Rooney Mara) has left him confused and introspective, a common characteristic of the people in Jonze's highly cerebral films (Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation.). When he purchases a new sentient operating system to organize his home and his life, Theordore meets the system's spectral personality, Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), who beguiles lonely Theodore and is beguiled by him. Their romance is touching and sparkling with newness but, as one might expect, not without complications. The world Jonze has created in this film is lousy with folks in high-wasted, belt-less trousers sporting earbuds that are connected to OS's that weed their email, joke with them and line up dates for them. Brave New World? So, Theodore's "relationship" with Samantha doesn't raise an eyebrow and for some -- neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) -- is envied. As with Jonze's other major pictures (he's also directed short films and music videos), I found Her intriguing and intellectually stimulating but not especially warm and affecting. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Nebraska



Alexander Payne directed Laura Dern in 1996's Citizen Ruth, a wonderful movie about a not wholly sympathetic unwed mother, and her father, Bruce Dern, as a wandering fool in his latest  film, Nebraska. Both movies are studies of distressed people, brimming with imperfections, who seem to be both indifferent to and craving compassion from others. This actually might be true for all of Payne's beautifully crafted and highly personal films -- Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants. Nebraska, shot in stunning black and white,  begins in media res with Bruce Dern's codger character Woodrow Grant walking down the shoulder of a Montana highway on the way to Nebraska to pick up his million dollar sweepstake winnings. It's not immediately clear if Woody is eccentric or senile and, much to the film's credit, the question is never really answered because it doesn't matter. What is clear, however, is Woody is determined and miserable, having arrived in his twilight years with little to show for his life -- except two estranged and alienated sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odendirk) and a weary and intemperate wife, Kate (an absolutely marvelous June Squibb).  Son Will agrees to drive his father to Nebraska even though he knows the sweepstake is bogus. He wants to try to connect with his old man before it's too late, but Woody is having none ofi it. The road trip, which includes breathtaking vistas of the prairies, includes a stop in Woody's hometown, the fictitious Hawthorne, Nebraska, where relatives and town locals believe their native son has indeed struck it rich. The film is both gentle and trenchant, with lovely golden threads of nuance woven through. Dern, who is 77, is terrific, and Forte, who for all intents and purposes is a television actor, brings just the right mix of youthful irritation and filial protectiveness to his part. Highly recommended.

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...