Llewyn Davis is just trying to make a living as a folk musician. He was part of a duo that did well enough, but now he’s a solo artist who doesn’t even have his own place to live in NYC. A bad night at one of his regular clubs leads to a whole lot of broken relationships that slowly pull any semblance of stability apart.
The Coen Brothers have created a musical character study through the language of 1960s folk. Inside Llewyn Davis comments on the arbitrary nature of success in the music industry through Llewyn and his contemporaries. Is there any reason the nice young military man is considered such a gifted performer while Llewyn, playing and singing just as well, leaves audiences cold? What explains the popularity of Jean and Jim when other folk groups, small and large, can barely get an audience into the same club space? Every folk musician in the film is talented and performs music that really starts to blur together. There’s no logical way to explain how the interchangeable sounds lead to such wildly different audience reactions.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a quiet character study and romance unlocked by its title alone. Adele, a high school student focusing on literature, tries to fit in by dating the boy everyone knows she’s perfect for. She feels nothing from the relationship and winds up meeting Emma, a university fine arts student, at a lesbian bar. Emma’s bright blue hair catches her interest and helps her begin to form a sense of identity.
The color blue is important to the film. It really is a subtle device reflecting Adele’s self actualization. In the beginning of the film, when Adele is just following whatever her friends and family expect her to do, there is very little blue on the screen. The first memorable appearance of blue is a cross, Romeo & Juliet style, where Adele and Emma’s eyes meet while crossing the street and pass without incident. A bit more blue begins to fill Adele’s life as the thought of the beautiful stranger with blue hair sends her into sensory overload. The color blue grows and fades in shade (light blue is tepid, cyan is vivid, navy is overwhelming) and vibrancy to reflect Adele’s mental state and feeling of independence.
It really is quite remarkable how that kind of detail can set the tone for a film. By the time her high school friends realize Adele is a lesbian, you can’t avoid blue on the screen. Everyone is wearing dark wash jeans and vibrant scarves and hats. The sky is practically glowing and even the lockers in the school seem to transform. The dialogue is so simultaneously slice of life and driven by references to very specific philosophers, writers, and artists that the color conceit really opens up the text.
Lieutenant Matt Kowalski is in charge of a five-person mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to install Dr. Ryan Stone’s new monitoring equipment. Everything is going fine until mission control announces that a Russian satellite has blown up and the debris may be heading their way. That is quickly upgraded to abandon the Hubble and flee the scene to stay alive, which is promptly followed by Kowalski and Stone drifting in space in radio silence, the only survivors of a routine maintenance mission to space gone horribly wrong.
Alfonso Cuarón has crafted his true masterpiece in Gravity. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock create believable characters in Kowalksi and Stone, but it is Cuarón who is the star of the production. Everything is about a deft director handling his own screenplay (written with his son Jonás Cuarón) with incredible style and urgency.
Five time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Children of Men) helps create some of the finest moments of 3D cinema ever projected on a screen. If nothing else, Gravity evokes its haunting terror by showcasing just how vast space is. The screen falls back for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to sell the narrative of two astronauts drifting through space with only the slightest chance of survival.
Grace is the supervisor of the day staff at a foster care facility. She’s her live-in boyfriend’s boss and uses the strength of their relationship to best suit the needs of the young people under her care. When a new foster girl named Jayden digs up memories of her own troubled past, Grace struggles to find the balance between compassion and professionalism in her career.
Short Term 12 is a gentle, moving drama about real problems. Each child in that foster care facility has a story to tell and there’s no way to know all of them. The few that are focused on present a broad range of major issues. From a child struggling to deal with massive emotional trauma to a teenager fighting change as he ages out of the facility, the foster children are each struggling to find a way to keep going that works for them. A child being abused by a parent is not going to need the same kind of attention as a troublemaker who likes to push buttons to get a rise out of people.
The very nature of the facility–a temporary safe home for children waiting for a more permanent living situation–forces the children onto the same schedule and plans with little room for structured individual attention. Aside from medication and therapy, every child is left with the same expectations. No cursing. No closing your bedroom door. Participate in daily recreational activities. Brush your teeth. But like children do all over the world, the foster children rebel in small ways to carve out their own identities. Negative attention is still attention and the day staff have to find the balance between friendship and authority to keep everyone at the facility safe.
It’s New Year’s Eve 2009. Oscar, a young man with a daughter and a troubled past, is planning a series of celebrations. His mother’s birthday is December 31 and he’s going with his friends and girlfriend to San Francisco afterwards to watch the fireworks at midnight. A cascade of bad events falls upon Oscar the last day of the year, but he’s hopeful that a train ride for New Year’s will be the start of a better life.
Fruitvale Station is based on a recent true crime story put to rest by cellphones. Bystanders at the scene of the crime recorded everything that happened. Without cellphones, the case might not have been resolved and it definitely would not have received the attention needed to begin major safety reforms to a public transportation system.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler hitches Fruitvale Station to cellphone technology. Continue reading →
Woody Allen’s newest film Blue Jasmine is all about Jasmine, formerly Jeanette, and her sister Ginger. Jasmine was on top of the world until her husband was arrested for all sorts of financial crimes. She’s now forced to move in with her sister Ginger, who already let everyone know that Jasmine had a nervous breakdown and now pops Xanax like Pez to even come close to functioning in society. For the first time in her life, Jasmine has to learn to take care of herself.
Woody Allen’s direction is solid but the screenplay is far too mean-spirited. The film is a drama that encourages the audience to laugh at Jasmine and Ginger for the failings, not laugh with them because of their circumstances and actions. It’s rather disturbing to see severe anxiety used as a punchline in and of itself with no accompanying joke. The audience is meant to laugh at Jasmine babbling to herself when she has an episode, demonstrated by commentary or wacky sitcom-level reactions to her behavior.
The Great Gatsby is, for better or worse, a product of Modernism. For people who like Modernism with all the trimmings, that’s a great thing. The novel is heavily influenced by jazz culture (in setting and story structure). Everything and nothing happens as the plot very slowly unwinds. The focus is placed heavily on style and theme over character and story though, to be fair, The Great Gatsby has more plot than many other Modernist novels. For all the raucous bootleg liquor-fueled parties and general mayhem, the story is very quiet and small in its scope and ambitions.
Baz Lurhmann is the last man I expected to adapt this Jazz Age masterpiece of American Modernism for that very reason. Lurhmann is at his best with spectacle. Sure, the simple story and heavy romantic elements make The Great Gatsby a strong fit in his oeuvre–Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge! aren’t exactly heavy on the narrative. It is the intimate and tender nature of the work that would most likely prove problematic; it did.
The Great Gatsby is adapted here as a quasi-memoir within a wannabe writer’s therapy sessions. Nick Carraway is a WWI veteran, a failed writer, and a new bonds trader living in a small cottage in an affluent area of Long Island. His neighbor is Jay Gatsby, a famous and wealthy man who no one ever sees even at the garish parties he throws every weekend. Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan married millionaire Tom Buchanan and also live in the same Long Island neighborhood. Jordan Baker, the most famous female golfer in America and a friend of Daisy’s, tells Nick all the gossip about town, including how Tom is cheating on Daisy with a mechanic’s wife. Everything changes in Nick’s life when he becomes the first person to ever receive a written invitation to one of Gatsby’s elaborate parties.
In some ways, Baz Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is incredibly faithful. The scenes that move painfully slow in the book crawl onscreen. The shocking revelations and twisted series of secrets are as intriguing on film as they are on the page. Gatsby’s secret love is incredibly touching and Daisy’s life is tragic in spite of her own actions. The liberties that are taken have no bearing on the plot of the tiny thread Lurhmann and Pearce focus on.
However, in choosing not to pump up the story or trim away the meandering narration of this work of Modernism, Lurhmann and Pearce have crafted a screenplay that rejects the expected standards of cinema. The story moves in waves, ebbing and flowing in action and character development. Nothing will change for 30 minutes, then everything swings in a wildly different direction. It’s page-accurate to a fault.
A less extravagant director would have found a way to craft the intimacy and isolation necessary to take a literal approach to The Great Gatsby; not Baz Lurhmann. He provides spectacle in every scene even when it’s not needed. A string of pearls shoot out from the screen while Daisy recalls her wedding day with Tom. Cartoonish CGI automobiles fly down expressionist paintings of the fictional towns of East and West Egg and the valley of ashes. Every frame is so packed with details and anachronistic but thematically meaningful music that the story is never given room to breathe or even feel as hollow as it should.
While the film rightly puts focus on Leonardo DiCaprio’s masterful performance as Jay Gatsby, the next best performance is relegated to the sidelines to the determent of the adaptation. Elizabeth Debicki is stunning as Jordan Baker, the gossiping golfer and curiosity capturing America’s interest with her sporting achievements. Her physicality, her expression, and her conspiratorial whisper make every moment she has onscreen a treasure to behold.
In the novel, Jordan dates Nick Carroway for most of the story, adding a steady relationship to the potent mix of Daisy and Tom and the mistresses and fornicators. In Baz Lurhmann’s vision of the story, Jordan is discarded at the earliest possible moment with no fanfare or story of her own. It’s a big chunk of the thematic portrait of The Great Gatsby and one that is sorely missing in the over the top spectacle of mismatched partners.
The Great Gatsby is a really attractive film brought down by its own beauty and splendor. There can be an argument for the 3D spectacle of the film representing the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, but there is nothing to indicate that in the screenplay or visual text of the film. What we’re left with is a pretty but hollow shell of an incredible novel that mimics but never fully realizes the great depth required to bring such shallow and petty characters to life.
The Iceman is inspired by the shocking true story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. Kuklinski began taking on any mob job that came his way after his longtime boss laid him off for letting a witness go. He developed a technique to kill anyone without suspicion, freeze their bodies to hide the time of death, then leave them to thaw where the coroner’s report would declare death by natural causes.
The greatest strength of The Iceman is the authenticity of the screenplay. The only thing more important in the suburbs than status is family. Screenwriter Morgan Land and writer/director Ariel Vromen make Kuklinski a family man above all else. His mob boss is a family man. The rival gang leader is a family man. His partner in the killer for hire business is a family man. They all lead perfectly normal lives except for when the illegal business is happening.
This does not mean that their neighbors, friends, and families are depicted as naive rubes, the standard trope for any mob story. Kuklinski’s wife begins to suspect something is wrong pretty early on. She chooses to ignore it so long as her family is safe.
The girlfriends and wives teach each other to maintain control of the house and make sure the family is properly provided for. The neighbors and friends do their best to stay on Kuklinski’s good side even when strange men in fancy cars start pulling him out of birthday parties and private dinners for quick meetings. They all know what Kuklinski is involved in; they’re just smart enough to keep their mouths shut and their noses clean.
The Iceman is a smart and engaging crime drama. Kuklinski’s story is sensational enough that the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Ariel Vromen aims for realism at every turn. The film begins with a recreated scene from the documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer, where Kuklinski is asked if he has any regrets about his life of crime.
The story jumps back many years to when Kuklinski went on his first date with his future wife Deborah. We get to see the sparks fly that started a strong family before we see any illegal activity in the film. Shoot, Vromen opts to actually downplay the depravity of The Iceman to make the story more believable, only hinting at potential spousal abuse and Kuklinski’s own criminal history before getting tangled up in the mob.
The cast is more than up to this naturalistic approach. Michael Shannon once again proves he’s one of the greatest working actors with a totally transformative performance as the strong and silent Kuklinski. Winona Ryder gives her best performance in years as the increasingly put-upon Deborah, actually coming across as more cunning and calculating than the mob hitman.
Ray Liotta is in familiar territory as Kuklinski’s mob boss. However, the focus on family wherever you choose to form it gives him a much wider emotional range to explore than his typical tough guy roles. Chris Evans rounds out the main cast as a rival hitman who will do anything for money. The actors play so well off of each other that none of their scenes seemed forced or contrived.
Like the killer himself, The Iceman is a quiet film that carefully chooses when to let its voice be heard loud and clear. It’s brutally accurate to period–the high fashion looks of the wealthy suburbanites in 1970s Jersey are as terrible as you would imagine–and never insensitive to the lives of the victims or criminals involved in the story.
It’s very telling when a narrative film pulled straight from the headlines doesn’t brag about it being a true story in the opening credits; a true story doesn’t need to advertise its origins to be great.