Oscar Isaac and his not-so-faithful cat in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
A not-so-faithful take on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early-1960s, the Coens brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is part sour Barton Fink satire on creative arrogance and part O Brother, Where Art Thou? roots-music extravaganza. It’s either a haunting odyssey of failure or who-cares? kind of thing, depending on one’s mood. Either way, stupendous music.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens this week. My full review is at PopMatters:
There’s little reason to think that the titular guitar strummer in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis will ever come to much of anything. When first spotted in this chilly film, Davis (Oscar Isaac) is determinedly hunched over a microphone and lavishing bleak care on the traditional number, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” whose chorus notes, “I’ll be dead and gone.” After a polite response from the crowd, he steps into the alley behind the dark coffeehouse and gets socked in the nose by a man who keeps grumbling about “What you did.” Things don’t pick up much after that…
You can see the trailer here, using the number “Fare Thee Well,” which could be to this film what “Man of Constant Sorrow” was to O Brother.
‘The Last Days on Mars’: Anybody out there?
Ruairi Robinson pitched his sci-fi horrorshow The Last Days on Mars as “United 93 in space.” That’s a pretty gutsy presentation, not to mention almost entirely miscalculated.
The Last Days on Mars is opening this week in (highly) limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International:
Outer space is the new haunted house. There was a time when films about first contact involved actual contact—sure, everybody might end up running in terror from the laser beams, but there was at least some attempt at communication. Failing outright conflict, filmmakers wanted to show mankind coming to grips with some unfathomable extraterrestrial phenomenon (2001 to Mission to Mars). But more recently, from Prometheus to Europa Report, humanity ventures to distant planets only to end up kibble for varied alien nasties. That dulling trend continues in Ruairi Robinson’s imagination-challenged astronauts-meet-zombies flick The Last Days on Mars…
You can watch the trailer here:
Christian Bale and Zoe Saldana in ‘Out of the Furnace’
Now that December’s here, the Oscar race can begin in earnest. One of the first out of the barrel is Out of the Furnace, which was a Ridley Scott / Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle sometime back but was later (probably fortunately) retooled by Scott Cooper (2009′s Jeff Bridges crusty heartwarmer Crazy Heart) into a self-consciously gritty blue-collar revenge tale with a whole roster of boldface names.
Out of the Furnace is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:
Although Christian Bale plays a down-to-earth factory guy in Scott Cooper’s bashed-knuckle drama, there’s still a dark superhero glimmer to his too-good-to-be-true character. In a story littered with moral compromises and horrendous decisions, Bale’s Russell Baze doesn’t show a moment of weakness. He stalks right into the very maw of an Appalachian hell without seeming to give it a second thought. After all, he has his family to defend. That would be all well and good were Russell being played by Charles Bronson and this was a world of strict blacks and whites. But Cooper seems to be aiming for something different, trying to tell a familiar vengeance story with uncommon grit and attention to character. Batman just doesn’t fit that well into that kind of universe…
Here’s the trailer:
Rumsfeld: ‘The only things that are lasting are conflict, blackmail, and killing.’
Errol Morris’ riveting new documentary is a feature-length interview with none other than the Bush era’s greatest poetic dissembler, Donald Rumsfeld. The Unknown Known has been playing festival dates recently and is going to hit theaters on December 13.
My early review is at Short Ends & Leader:
In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come…
Here’s a look at the trailer:
In the new documentary Narco Cultura, photographer and journalist Saul Schwarz looks at how the popular narcocorrido music scene revels in and glorifies the splashy lifestyle and ultraviolence of Mexican drug cartels.
My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:
Schwarz splits his murder ballad of a film into two narratives. One is his splashy on-the-road story about Buknas de Culiacan, one of the star bands of the Los Angeles narcocorrido scene, and its leader, Edgar Quintero. A bright-eyed entrepreneurial spirit, Quintero goes beyond just telling stories about the cartel wars taking place just over the border. He happily takes requests directly from the narcos themselves, who are obsessive followers of the scene and eager to get a popular song to burnish their rep. When the crowd sings along to Buknas’ songs, the artistic distance between singer and subject seems practically to disappear…
You can see the trailer here:
It depends what you mean by ‘happy’
What’s the best way to make a documentary about a philosopher? Sit down and talk to him. Better yet, if you’re Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) chatting with Noam Chomsky about life, the universe, and everything, animate the whole thing.
Is the Tall Man Happy? is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
[Michel] Gondry’s lovably sincere and chatty Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? starts by telling how he came across [Noam] Chomsky after seeing films on him, like the epic 1992 dissertation on his media critique, Manufacturing Consent. At first, it seems like Gondry is going to overplay the worshipful naïf card in his narration, interrupting himself, acting nervous, and highlighting being out of his depth: “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here.” But Gondry’s natural charisma takes hold of the conversation. Instead of trying to boil down Chomsky’s dense linguistic and political viewpoints, Gondry and he simply talk philosophy…
You can watch the superb trailer here:
‘Caucus’: This man also wanted to be president
Once upon a time, in the land of Iowa, there were people who thought that Rick Perry might become president of these United States. It was a strange time, the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, and something that you really wish that Hunter S. Thompson had still been alive to see and write about.
In the meantime, there’s Caucus, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about all the sun-baked, deep-fried, conservative weirdness. It’s playing now in limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protesters drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”…
The trailer is here:
Saorise Ronan lost in the war zone in ‘How I Live Now’
Meg Rosoff’s phenomenally successful young-adult novel How I Live Now follows a spoiled punkette American teen who is sent off to her British relatives’ farm for the summer just as, unbeknownst to her, war is breaking out. Saorise Ronan stars in this punchy adaptation by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) that doesn’t quite hold together but is more than able to hold one’s attention.
How I Live Now is playing in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:
In most stories about groups fighting for survival, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) would be among the first to die. When the eye-rolling New York teen shows up at her step-cousins’ house in the English countryside for an undesired summer holiday, she works overtime at alienating everyone. She’s a germophobe who doesn’t consume wheat or dairy and is annoyed at being asked to do anything but put her headphones on and curl into a self-excoriating ball of black neurosis. In other words, the worst person to be stuck with in a ramshackle bohemian house where the dishes don’t get done often. Also, not somebody you would want to have to try and survive World War III with…
You can watch the trailer here:
There’s an excerpt from the novel here.
Jerzy Stuhr in ‘Aftermath’
For almost a decade, Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski has been trying to produce a drama based on the real-life story of a village where Polish Catholics conspired in 1941 to murder hundreds of their Jewish neighbors without any help from the Nazis. After the film, Aftermath, was released, right-wing pundits, determined to ignore the past, lined up to denounce it as “anti-Polish” and untruthful.
Now playing in limited release, Aftermath is a powerful drama, if unevenly executed. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
One of the most shocking things about the controversial-in-Poland film Aftermath is just how depressingly un-shocking it is for anybody with even a passing knowledge of the Holocaust. This isn’t a criticism of writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s work. Instead, it’s a sad commentary on just how off-limits aspects of the past apparently remain for some in Poland. History, this grim and tension-laced mystery suggests, can seem easier to bury than acknowledge. But it never goes away—as the death threats that one of the film’s actors received clearly show…
The trailer is here:
Khalid Abdalla (star of ‘The Kite Runner’) and Ahmad Hassan, two of the Tahrir Square activists profiled in ‘The Square’
Jehane Noujaim’s incandescent documentary about the Tahrir Square revolution first played Sundance back in January; she went back to Egypt to shoot later developments. The version of The Square that just opened in limited release now has a dramatic arc, from the 2011 resignation of Mubarak to this summer’s coup that toppled Morsi. It’s an elegantly put-together and passionate story of the tragedy of revolutions and the resilience of ideas.
My review is at Film Journal International:
The film is thick with dense collages of tear gas, gunfire, and seas of people leaping and shouting in unison. But it also cuts away to zoom in on a few of these people who would otherwise just be specks in a pointillist portrait. What Noujami has captured is not just a protest, but a diagnostic of the different emotional and political struggles which protesters like Khalid, Ahmed and Magdy are having in the street or on the phone because they don’t live in a country where those arguments can yet be honestly had at the ballot box.
The trailer is here: