Archive for March, 2014

The Past (2013)

Starring- Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mossafa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi

Director- Asghar Farhadi

PG-13- mature thematic material and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLKpTRilMFc

   The Past is not as strong a film as A Separation, but it nevertheless continues to establish Asghar Farhadi as a talent to watch and one very possibly on the verge of breaking into the mainstream.

   Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) returns to France after a four-year absence to finalize his divorce with ex-wife Marie-Anne (Berenice Bejo). He arrives to find that she has a new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved in with her. He also finds Marie-Anne’s teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), in the throes of fierce rebellion. In attempting to determine what’s wrong with her, Ahmad discovers a web of secrets far deeper than he ever expected, the consequences of which have spread outward and trapped the entire family in a ring of inescapable hurt.

   The Past seems a bit like the music industry’s one-hit wonders. Their attempts at a second hit, you’ll find, are usually efforts to capture lightning in a bottle again, to recreate what worked about the first song but twist it a little bit. Of course, the retread is transparent, and the new ideas often aren’t all that dangerous and sometimes sap out what made the song popular in the first place.

   That comparison is overdramatic, because to insinuate that it lacks imagination is ridiculous — more so to attach any amount of cynicism to its production. Make no mistake, The Past is still a towering artwork; it’s just a towering artwork that’s perhaps overly beholden to its creator’s widely acclaimed previous project.

   The Past covers a lot of the same ground. It’s clear at this point that Farhadi has a number of fascinations — the way people’s refusal to communicate and tendency to plod through life in a haze of assumption frequently lead to disaster; the effects of separation and divorce on children; the consequences of people being overly self-interested in their dealings; marital infidelity; and even, in a small way, the types of medical conditions that slowly rob people of their identities. Those were all big pieces of A Separation, and they’re all big pieces of The Past — sometimes even bigger ones.

   And if The Past is returning to an old, familiar subject, at least it has the sense to play the hits. Farhadi is really, really good at exploring this material; it’s why I still stand by my declaration that A Separation was at the very least the second-best movie of its year.

   His characters are detailed and complex. They speak and behave in realistic and identifiably human ways. We learn information about them not through heavy-handed explanation but through small moments of behavior and demeanor. Moreover, he’s good at keeping secrets. He always gives us a character who, believably, doesn’t know everything that’s going on, and he allows his reveals to come through that person. His stories reveal themselves gradually, beginning with an ordinary situation and slowly deepening it with more and more context, eventually bringing it all together neatly and moving his pieces to where everything suddenly makes sense — and such perfect sense that you wonder how you ever missed it.

   But what I love even more about Farhadi’s approach is that his films are rarely about actions but rather the consequences they bring about. The terrible decisions have already been made by the time the film starts. This is a story about people living in the world they’ve created for themselves through their misdeeds. And like A Separation, it’s a complicated and hurtful situation where there’s no clear answer, no way for everyone to come out the other side happy and untroubled. And Farhadi accomplishes this without invading his own story and forcing incredible external events upon it to ensure that everyone stays mired in the muck. These characters inhabit this awful situation because that’s what they’d be doing had they done it in real life, in our world.

   But despite the fact that their misery is largely self-inflicted, Farhadi’s is a compassionate approach that understands even the most unlikable of these characters. It’s difficult to discuss the situation in which Marie-Anne and Samir find themselves without getting into what might be considered spoilers — we learn what they’ve done at different points throughout the film, though all of those actions were undertaken prior to its beginning. To put it vaguely, they live now in a situation where the well being of two children, arguably more, hangs in the balance — and one of them will be miserable no matter what they do. They find all sorts of ways, if not to justify what they’ve done, then at least to deflect the blame — honing in on and attacking the people whose actions started the consequences rolling, and not on themselves for doing it in the first place. By the end, they begin to realize exactly where they are — irrevocably on a path to destruction, and they’re taking innocent parties along for the ride. They have no other choice. It could be said that, in the end, both of them learn a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, the world is not always one for forgiveness, and it’s even more rarely one for second chances. I’ve spent a long time thinking about the film’s final shot — why it ends where it does, and why it chose to involve the particular set of characters that it does. And I’ve realized that it’s because everything has come to a head, and what we have in those closing moments is a character sitting next to the film’s magical, Hollywood, happy ending, trying desperately to will it into existence. But that type of thing doesn’t happen in real life.

   It’s much like A Separation in that regard. That film also hinged on bad decisions made in the wake of a contentious divorce that gradually sucked in other parties and created a nearly inescapable moral dilemma — one that was only averted when it revealed that one of those involved was keeping an important secret. I continue to see that as one of the few flaws in an otherwise great film.

   The issue with The Past is that it tries to be the bigger and better version of A Separation. What actually ends up happening is that it only magnifies what problems that movie had.

   At a certain point, The Past almost starts acting like a suspense thriller, if not in tone then at least in the completely ridiculous amount of reveals. Some of those make sense — Ahmad is walking into a new family that he didn’t even know existed prior to his arrival, and their issues are all news to him. Those reveals are largely smaller ones anyway, things that change how we view the situation but that don’t completely rock the story to its foundation.

   But the plot twists somehow keep coming. First, it’s revealed that one character knows far more than what he or she said and that this is what initiated certain behaviors that he/she undertook. That’s not the first big reveal, but it’s probably the first big twist. And I was unsure of it, but I was willing to go with it anyway, if only because it opened up a number of interesting emotional possibilities and also, in some ways, deepened a character who had previously threatened to be a bit of a stereotype.

   And then, there’s another big reveal, one that, as far as I can tell, serves no compelling purpose within the story other than to deepen this surprisingly complex circle of deceit and pettiness. And the movie already had plenty of that. At this point, I was beginning to roll my eyes a bit. And still, I find it overly contrived. It becomes, again, like a suspense thriller, in that it seems to be dropping all these twists solely to surprise us. In so doing, its simple story — nevertheless conveying a deeply complicated situation — becomes overly convoluted and unlikely.

   It also, in so doing, wanders so far out of its core ideas that I seriously began to question who the protagonist of this story was supposed to be, and even now, I don’t know. We begin the film with Ahmad, and he seems to be our reference point as we discover and unravel this heavily dysfunctional family. It seems at first as though he’s here to grow and change and learn a lesson — he certainly has his faults — but slowly, he becomes the blank slate we’re staring through as we sort through other people’s problems. And that’s fine, I suppose; other films have done this well. But those characters get cycled in and out, and eventually, we lose both them and our reference point and get dragged into the farthest-reaching consequences of this whole situation. And by the end, it’s easy to forget for a moment that so many subplots were left completely dangling — not that I demand everything to turn out happily or for everyone to learn something or for the plot to go into intricate detail about where everyone ended up when the whole thing was over. But most of these characters’ last scenes in this movie are completely uneventful; they have some bit of information they share, and then, we’re onto the next moment. Other than one or two of them, the movie spends very little time showing how, in the end, all of these characters have been changed or affected by what’s transpired.

   There are some new flaws, too, that weren’t an issue with A Separation. The main one for me is that, for all the great things that are going on thematically in this film, it fails its female characters pretty badly. Ahmad and Samir aren’t perfect — the former has major failings as a husband, though he appears to be a pretty good father, and it was the latter’s moral blunder that kick-started this whole thing — but they are consistently the most reasonable and level-headed figures as the family navigates this situation. There’s only one other male character (other than the children), in a supporting role, and he’s portrayed largely as an amicable old friend doing what he can to help.

   But the women, from the supporting roles on up, are to a person completely hysterical and/or flighty. (To explain the and/or — they are all hysterical, but not all of them are flighty.) Some seem like they might get better than that, or just phase out after their one important scene, but the movie has larger plans for all of them. Some of them did terrible things solely because, as those womenfolk are wont to do, their emotions got the better of them, they assumed things about a situation without waiting for concrete evidence, and they struck out in vengeance. Others are prone to fits of violent, uncontrolled emotion. Others abuse themselves and others to numb their own pain — an understandable, if not praiseworthy, response to what they’re going through, but one that almost universally seems not to tempt the men in their lives, even though they’re going through the same things. Lucie is the only female character who comes close to getting a balanced portrayal, but being a teenager, she’s sullen and rebellious and difficult — and the only reason she gets a pass on that is because she has really good reasons for that behavior. I’m not suggesting that this is intentional, but it remains very difficult not to read into the implications that emerge here. It’s not because one or two female characters behave badly while most of the men are decent; it’s because all of the female characters are emotionally compromised and incapable of controlling themselves, while all of the men are flawed but largely handling the situation well. And that is so strange, when I reflect upon, again, what a balanced film A Separation was. I don’t think The Past is out to demonize anyone in particular; it feels compassion for its characters. I just wish it wasn’t so selective about their behavior.

   But nevertheless, there’s too much greatness in The Past for me to write it off for any one reason. To be honest, I didn’t get much of it that I didn’t get out of A Separation. But what it does is so detailed and complex and handled with such grace and intelligence that it shines brightly over everything about it that’s somewhat less admirable. This is a very assured film, one that is very at ease with the decisions it makes along the way. It is so difficult to craft a story quite like this one, and yet, this film never seems to break a sweat. And I am eagerly awaiting whatever Asghar Farhadi comes up with next.

   -Matt T.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Starring- Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Magwaza, Fana Mokoena, Thapelo Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto

Director- Justin Chadwick

PG-13- some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAglZjX3HOk

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a biopic’s biopic. As such, there’s plenty to admire — and little of it is connected to anything else that’s happened. It’s compelling on a moment-to-moment basis but never develops any consistent undercurrents. It inhabits, at all times, almost exactly the same degree of intensity and never really unfurls.

Of course, it culminates in the grand, inspiring finale. And of course, that finale is both lovely — and kind of hollow.

The story follows Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) from his time as a young man in a South African village through his career as a lawyer in a nation where his skin color is a constantly obstacle through his beginnings as an activist through his multiple decades in prison through his finally becoming the country’s first black president and a famed peacemaker.

And Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom benefits from the fact that Mandela’s was a lifelong struggle. Purely on that basis, it largely skates away from the usual problem that biopics face in their dogged determination to tell their subject’s entire life story. It gets to be far more focused, because aside from his childhood, Mandela was fighting this singular battle from his youth into his gray years. And his childhood is handled as it should be — as a brief, poetic, quiet, and almost dreamlike opening scene that suggests rather than tells and doesn’t use much more time than it needs to establish where this man came from. Immediately afterwart, he’s a lawyer, and the film is focused on the discrimination.

It makes the film substantially tighter, bereft of the totally unrelated asides that plague other movies of its type as they try to hit every last highlight, and it does that while still, well, hitting most of the highlights. Mandela’s story is not a difficult one to tell, and that makes it all the more confusing that we’ve been hesitant on that point for as long as we have — and even more so that we still haven’t managed a great adaptation.

But there it is — it’s typical, but because it’s telling a story that seems almost made for film, the moments it wants to hit the hardest do manage to get something across. And I like its honesty. We could spend some time debating back and forth whether or not it delves deeply enough into the parts of this story that are a touch more uncomfortable. But it deserves a lot of praise for acknowledging the existence of the ANC, its origins, and some of the things the organization ended up doing — both at Mandela’s command and after it fell from his control.

It benefits from Justin Chadwick’s direction. He’s made a surprisingly good-looking film with a number of instantly memorable images — certainly not the least of which is the film’s last, which was released on its own as its first trailer. A lot of the movie is like that; Chadwick favors evening skies with deep, dark purples and oranges, casting their light onto the characters and landscapes until they melt almost entirely together. He may be overly fond of bright lights and impenetrable darkness, depending on the scene, but on the whole, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is a film that lives up to its hero’s reputation in its creation of a world that is both harsh and beautiful, sometimes simultaneously.

It benefits, too, from its leading man. I don’t know how Idris Elba is not a major, major star yet. He’s proven now that he can do everything — comedy in The Office, charismatic action hero in Pacific Rim, and now, “serious acting.” He absolutely disappears into this role; even when he’s not slathered in old-person makeup, he somehow doesn’t even look like Idris Elba to me. He looks like Nelson Mandela. He sounds like Nelson Mandela. His mannerisms are Nelson Mandela’s. It’s a testament to what a strong year this was for leading men that there was so little discussion about his work here. Seriously, people, it’s time to make this guy very famous.

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is not a film that is explicitly flawed in any sense, making any directly visible decisions that seem like bad ones. Rather, its failing is that it puts all the pieces of a great biopic together and then fails to do much of anything with them.

Even given the fact that nearly everything that happens in it relates somehow to the struggle against apartheid, the film never really hones in on a focus. Namely, is it a pure character study of Nelson Mandela, the man, the myth, the legend, examining both the things that made him great and the flaws that we’d sometimes rather not think about? Or is it a tale of the struggle of black South Africans that happens to be told through the eyes of its most famous figure? It ends up being both, and it doesn’t always budget its time well between the two.

If you’re going to get under the skin of Nelson Mandela, a fairly obvious place to start would be his record as a husband. But the first wife (Terry Pheto) gets hardly any attention, and the film presses the Easy Button on the focus she does get. In essence, it’s another story of the husband who works too hard and the wife who feels neglected, told the way you’ve seen it a thousand times, complete with the scene where he’s sitting at a desk at night and she approaches and says, “Come to bed honey,” and he’s like, “Nope. Work to do,” and she walks away all dejected and blech. This relationship gets scarcely any definition. His relationship with his son from that marriage gets even less, which sells short a major development later on that we’re to assume affects him significantly.

Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) gets significantly more time on screen, and yet, the definition of that relationship is sketchy as well. There are a couple cute scenes where they fall in love that are less character-driven and more people-smiling-and-making-each-other-laugh-driven. There’s enough to get a vague sense of it, to be fair — Winnie, from the beginning, is clearly committed to Nelson’s cause in a way his last wife simply wasn’t. But this becomes the sole facet of their relationship so quickly that Nelson’s failings as a husband become impossible to name, although the film is clear on the point that he has some. Whatever they are.

And while it’s doing that, the movie is removing focus from the civil rights battle. There’s a tendency for such films to devote too much focus to the discrimination and the injustice, to the point that they become what you might call “oppression porn.” Weirdly, Mandela’s problem is that it might not focus on that enough. True, it gives exactly the right amount of focus to some of what happened after the anti-apartheid movement began in force: the riots, the massacres, the police abuses, the excessive security state, etc. Before that, though? An elderly white woman gets huffy with Mandela in a courtroom. More significantly, a black man gets beaten to death in a police station, and the beating is immediately covered up and never brought to court. That second example is what the film needs more of — indications of the systematic abuses and injustices. Otherwise, it seems more like a fight against personal prejudice — which is also an important struggle and one worth telling stories about, perhaps now more than ever, but it’s clearly not the subject of this particular film. Honestly, if you go into Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom not knowing what apartheid was, you’d probably leave it about the same. As far as the film’s concerned, it was a segregation-like thing, but that’s as specific as it dares to get.

And that robs it of immediacy. To place these people in the proper historical context, to understand the importance of what they fought for, you need to know why it was that they were fighting to begin with. And sometimes, it helps to see the specifics and understand how they affect each character individually.

The movie is at its most interesting when Mandela converts to non-violence and Winne very decidedly does not, egging on crowds who drove the ANC to torture and murder. The two of them have a few brief arguments about this, but those arguments remain purely theoretical and don’t play into the actual events of the film. And it’s not clear that either character ever comes to some sort of resolution with that debate. They’re driven apart over this, and other than that, this argument affects very little in the actual film.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom really isn’t a bad movie. It makes individual scenes work. Sometimes, it makes a larger subplot work. But the pieces don’t connect, and the players are occasionally ill defined. And as strong a film as it is in places, the overwhelming feeling with which it left me is this: Can we have at least one more go at bat on a Nelson Mandela movie?

 

-Matt T.

The Counselor (2013)

Starring- Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt

Director- Ridley Scott

R- graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4rTztvVx8E

The Counselor is the very definition of the mixed bag. In a way, this is like my earlier review of The Croods — I’m hoping, through the course of analyzing it in greater depth, to arrive at some sort of overall conclusion about it, because right now, I’m middling.

But unlike that review, which was of a movie that provoked no response in me whatsoever, I had every response to The Counselor, emotionally. There are things I really like about it. And there are things that I really can’t stand about it.

And mostly, I don’t think it’s anyone’s failing in particular. Rather, it’s the collision of two great tastes — writer Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott — that it turns out don’t taste great together.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) — and that’s the only name by which we, the viewers, ever come to know him — is an attorney who has stumbled into vague financial trouble. That financial trouble has sent him to an old acquaintance, Reiner (Javier Bardem), an important figure in the local drug trade. The Counselor wants in on one deal — just one. Enough to get him back on his feet and have the money to marry the love of his life, Laura (Penelope Cruz).

Reiner agrees. The Counselor is in. But as is the tendency with such things, there’s one little hitch in the plan — and it soon puts everyone’s lives in serious jeopardy.

There’s no doubt that The Counselor is no ordinary piece of pulp filmmaking — it has plenty on its mind for a slick, violent crime film. It just gets difficult to tell exactly what that is, sometimes. The moments that it wants you to highlight in big red marker as thematically important are almost heavy-handed in their clarity; they jump out from the rest of the scenes that precede them.

Certainly, it has something to say about sexual politics. It can be hard to piece it together, but to me, it seems to be a portrait of manly men of the old age underestimating and failing to appropriately deal with a new world where women are on an equal playing field. Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), intrigues and confounds him. Her looseness and freedom actually seems terrifying to him. Despite that fact, he clearly sees her as lesser and writes her off, and he speaks of her essentially non-existent morality — Malkina is potentially one of the most amoral and dangerous characters ever committed to film — in extremely hypocritical terms. Once again, as is typical of such films, the criminals seem to share a moral code that makes some sort of sense to them even if it leaves everyone else dumbfounded.

There are other instances, too, where strong men, through their objectification and disregard, complicate their own lives or even bring about their own downfalls.

Conversely, The Counselor, the only person in the film who actually seems to be in love with his significant other, shows a willingness to play equal to her, and sometimes even to submit. Of course, I wonder what it says that Penelope Cruz plays Laura as genuine and kind, but also a bit stupid?

And of course, being the offspring of Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor has no fear of getting its hands dirty in the nature of evil. It could be called Breaking Bad: The Movie — and it even features a brief appearance from Dean Norris that I’m certain is supposed to be meta-humor — in the way it shows the consequences of people’s immoral actions, seemingly small and of little harm, spiraling outward and bringing about ruin as they attempt to hide what they’ve done and escape, scot-free, from their wrongdoing.

I’m more familiar with McCarthy by his reputation than his work, and what familiarity I have with that work is drawn exclusively from the films into which it was adapted. He’s been called a nihilist, and even his staunchest defenders have trouble sliding out of that hole. I’ve read many reviews of his books and his films, some of them trying to twist the whole thing into something uplifting. And if that’s what they truly get out of it, then more power to them. For the moment, I’m not certain I share that opinion. Moreover, I’m not certain I agree with one of their key defenses: that his work is not only about evil but about its inevitability, how it comes to the innocent and guilty alike, how we’ve concocted a false narrative in America specifically that leads us to move without caution. It’s true, in part, but it ignores what I believe to be the most important thing about the human race: that it’s constantly moving forward, to something better.

One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In fact, one of my favorite movie critics, Film Crit Hulk (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like, and yes, I am being completely serious right now), recently wrote a beautiful article on the finale of True Detective (one that convinced me I need to see that show eventually) indicating that it’s about exactly that — the trajectory of the human race.

He shared a quote from one of the show’s characters, at the end of the last episode: “The light is winning.”

Now, I’m not implying that the total eradication of darkness is a meaningful possibility for imperfect human beings. But as history progresses, the darkness grows smaller. And as important as it is to realize that there is evil and that we must know how to deal with it and how to stand for it when it can’t be dealt with, as important as it is to realize that those to whom evil befalls are experiencing nothing new, it’s equally important to remember that light is nothing new either — and it’s going to stand longer.

I suppose the reason I have difficulty getting into many of these films is that I never detect those traces. There are dark, disturbing films out there, and nearly no light shines in them, but something good escapes around the edges — even if only be implication, even if only by being drawn to their opposites. McCarthy sometimes seems interested only in informing me of evil’s existence. The mechanisms and the solutions interest him less. What’s more important is that it’s out there, and it’s pervasive.

But where I think this really goes wrong is in the mixture of the writer and the director. McCarthy writes deeply philosophical, otherworldly dialogue for characters one ordinarily wouldn’t expect to be all that intelligent. In the hands of, say, the Coen Brothers, who seem almost always to set their films in a version of the real world that’s just barely surreal, that plays forward with an unnatural dryness, his material is less distracting and in fact enhances the story.

Ridley Scott is not the Coen Brothers. He’s good with two things — stories that are set completely in the real world, playing by no rules other than those that govern our lives, with dialogue that sounds like ordinary people talking; and stories set in worlds of pure science fiction or fantasy, where one expects grandiosity, simplicity, and a bit of poetry in the words the characters say.

Here, the mixture chafes. Scott’s direction is admittedly beautiful, but it’s also very grounded. Moreover, he directs his actors to behave exactly as they would in real life, which makes it hard for them to pull off this ponderous dialogue. However, I confess that some of this may be McCarthy’s fault — other reviewers have disagreed with me on this point, but the character of the film doesn’t seem to be set solely in this sort of dialogue. It seems instead as though characters regularly take breaks from talking normally in order to expound some philosophy. You can always catch the segue — characters will have an ordinary conversation, exchanging information, and one of them will say, “Have you ever heard of _______? _______ is a thing from a place that does stuff, blah, blah, blah, blah, that thing is like what you do when you commit this action.” And then, we’re back to reality.

And in a strange way, The Counselor seems almost resistant to being enjoyed as a film. And Cormac McCarthy has been at this game forever; that it is that way is no accident. The trick is figuring out what the film gains from this, and I have no idea what that might be. The Counselor is a totally passive character; he never does anything or makes decisions. Other characters talk at him and do things to him, and he just reacts emotionally. And the script gives you only the bare information needed to follow the film — not even necessarily to understand it. The Counselor has money troubles; we don’t know what they are, how bad they are, how desperate his situation is, or how he came to have them in the first place. His relationship with Laura gets sketched in one or two fairly broad scenes. His role in his one drug deal is totally undefined; where he fits in is unclear. We see his and Reiner’s plan fall apart enough to know why it’s coming back to them, but not what it was that prompted outside intervention in the first place. And so on and so forth.

That it is still largely compelling is the result of some sort of alchemy wrought by McCarthy’s talents as a writer, Scott’s talents as a director (primarily from a visual perspective), and almost universally great performances — almost. Cameron Diaz does all right when she plays Cameron Diaz, but other than that, she doesn’t strike me as an actress capable of disappearing into characters totally unlike herself — particularly not a dangerous, sexual, and purely evil person like Malkina. (And for the record, having recently seen the trailer, I’d be pretty surprised if she doesn’t end up being the absolute worst thing about this year’s Annie remake.) Everyone else, though, does noteworthy work — Javier Bardem gets another wacky hairstyle!

But The Counselor remains a mixed bag on just about every level. And now that I have it laid down in front of me, I’m prepared to reach a conclusion — all the pieces are there, but they rarely, if ever, cohere into anything, and when they do, I’m not certain it’s worth it.

 

-Matt T.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Starring- Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

Directors- Joel and Ethan Coen

R- language including some sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc

Little perplexes me more than the extremely talented artist who is also a terrible person. Drawing on my own experience, art is one of the most empathetic things you can do with your spare time, or as a career — whether that’s a story placing you in someone else’s shoes or a great song connecting with your soul. Oh, everybody has his or her flaws, and sometimes, the roots go deep. But we’re talking about those people whose every word and action is harmful and ignorant, lacking in self-awareness — you know the one.

Inside Llewyn Davis is about that person. Having seen it, I’m uncertain that my confusion has been alleviated all that much. But it helps to live in that person’s skin for a while, to experience the world as they experience it — and ultimately, to wade through the incredible disconnect of their character and the unearthly beauty they achieve in their art.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a solo folk musician, formerly part of a duo, wandering the landscape of the 1960s, just prior to the folk revival that was about to strike. Unfortunately, it hasn’t struck yet, and Llewyn is going nowhere. He plays the same lousy bars night after night. He has no place to call his own, and it’s unclear if he ever did. He crashes on the couches of friends — and those among his enemies who are, at the very least, required to tolerate him.

At the end of the day, the fact that Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t really have a plot is either going to gel with you, or it isn’t. We are, after all, talking about a film whose directors have admitted they added a missing cat to the script solely for that reason. But having no plot isn’t the same as not being about anything, and Inside Llewyn Davis is about exactly what you’d expect it to be: Llewyn Davis. And it’s a compelling character study.

The Coen Brothers have, in the past, been accused of misanthropy when it comes to writing their characters. I’ll be honest in that I haven’t seen as much of their work as I should have — although I’ve been making a significant dent in that gap lately — but what I have seen has always left me skeptical of that complaint. I wouldn’t say that they love all of their characters unreservedly, but with most of them, there seems to be an attraction to their quirks and oddities and mannerisms and humor, intentional and otherwise. Inside Llewyn Davis, though…well, I think the prosecution can safely rest.

On one level, it’s hard to feel bad for Llewyn, because 95 percent of his misery is self-caused, and probably more than that. He’s what we might call the “hidden homeless,” except that there aren’t many compassionate souls who would take up his cause. He wanders from couch to couch and musty apartment to musty apartment, looking for anyone who owes him a favor, is connected to him in a way that renders them unable to deny him, or is too naïve to know better. He seems to have basically no aspirations, other than to make it as a musician — and he’s barely chasing that anymore.

He cannot — and maybe will not — make a meaningful connection with anyone. He exploits their generosity — though not so much their increasingly scant goodwill — and usually leaves them worse off for it, not that he’d admit it. Moreover, despite being directionless and completely at the mercy of others, he still finds the room to be a pretentious pseudo-artist who condescends to everyone he meets. They’re trying to make a career out of it, and he’s in it for the art, man. He frequently falls back on his old friends, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), also musicians. Exactly what sort of relationship he had with Jean is unclear, other than that it was sexual and happened while she was with Jim — and other than that she hates Llewyn. Really hates Llewyn. Hates him so much that it approaches outright comedy. She keeps the insults coming fast and hard, and they are biting and hilarious, probably because every last one of them is true.

“You never heard anything good about me from Jean,” Llewyn scoffs, meeting a friend of theirs. And how. Jim, on the other hand, seems oblivious.

Jean is pregnant, too. She doesn’t know if it’s Jim’s and Llewyn’s, but she wants to terminate the pregnancy anyway, just in case. She refers to Llewyn as “King Midas’s idiot brother” and can’t run the risk of expanding his gene pool. Llewyn offers to pay for it, and it’s clear it’s not the first time he’s been in this situation. It’s probably not the last either.

He criticizes Jean for “blueprinting” her life, treating music as a way to achieve a comfortable suburban existence. He just goes with the flow, or so he thinks. In truth, he’s the one locked into a singular blueprint from his life, and he won’t budge from it no matter how worthless his life becomes or how much trouble it is for everyone else.

His life runs in cycles, really. Inside Llewyn Davis is not entirely hopeless, because its protagonist’s path out of his rut is persistently clear, and he repeatedly turns down one opportunity after another to make something out of his life or to do the right thing for once. None of that hope has anything to do with Llewyn Davis, though. It’s hard to take any implication away from it other than that Llewyn is going to be doing this song and dance forever. He will continue to be stuck in his rut of misery and self-loathing until the day he dies or commits suicide — the latter option seeming increasingly likely as his misfortune persists. I would not call the ending a plot twist, as it doesn’t turn much of anything on its head, doesn’t change what any of the characters or story elements are, and doesn’t add new information, but it does reveal something about the way the story is being told that isn’t immediately clear, and it drives the point home — Llewyn is going to repeatedly and always make the wrong decision for his life.

And that’s one thing on its own. Where it maybe treads into misanthropy a little bit is in that the other 5 percent of Llewyn Davis’s misery seems to be a conspiracy on the part of the universe. He’s fate’s punching bag, a source of amusement when repeatedly poked with a stick. He really is King Midas’s idiot brother — everything he touches crumbles in his hands, often for no reason whatsoever. Whether that’s the cat — and let’s be honest; you can’t say he didn’t try — or that brutal, brutal gut punch of an ending, Llewyn Davis seems to be on the receiving end of karma’s darkest whims, or perhaps its most furious compulsion toward humorous justice.

And the weird thing is that all of this is kind of funny. Inside Llewyn Davis, on its surface, is a drama and perhaps a musical as well. But in terms of its overall tone, I would describe it as a black comedy — more subdued than the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre but still very present. Llewyn kind of deserves it, and the arbitrary misery the rest of the world causes him lands with the sort of timing that makes it feel either like perfect punishment or like hilarious overkill.

In other words, misanthropy is definitely not the wrong reading into this film. It might not be the right one. But it definitely isn’t wrong.

But at its heart is a troubling reality — we don’t know who Llewyn was before. I’ve neglected to mention this — Llewyn Davis is a solo act because his partner, Mikey, threw himself off a bridge prior to the film’s beginning. And there’s just no telling if he was this awful, miserable, self-obsessed person before that happened to him. We never see that. We never see Mikey either, nor do we know the specifics of their relationship. But his absence hangs over this dour film, which isolates Llewyn both visually and emotionally. There’s no reason to use one’s suffering to excuse one’s bad behavior — but there is reason in that to care and to realize that, sometimes, people are just broken. And maybe that’s Llewyn. He’s grieving, and it’s possible he’s sinking into depression and disconnecting from reality entirely, sinking into apathy. His behavior, while reprehensible, is easy to explain in that light.

So, sometimes, I laughed, and sometimes, I didn’t, even though it’s possible I was supposed to. I wouldn’t say that I ever liked Llewyn Davis, but there’s something recognizably human in his behavior. The film may assure us that there’s hope, just not for its hero, but I think that suggestion rings hollow. We are human beings, and we are imperfect. Sometimes, our imperfections turn us into someone like Llewyn Davis. When you’ve wrecked your life that badly and are seemingly incapable of self-assessing to the point where you can figure out how to escape, what’s left for you?

But I maintain that the Coens are not misanthropists. Thus, I maintain that this isn’t an accident — though where it intended to go other than this, I have yet to determine.

They are the Coen Brothers. They are arguably the most consistent writers and directors currently working, and their output has been both varied and stellar. Inside Llewyn Davis, whatever it intends to say or do about its subject character, is still another one for the books. You’ve got some great writing, some great acting, some great cinematography, and some great music — and when everything is said and done, I can’t ask for a lot more than that.

 

-Matt T.

The Starving Games (2013)

Starring- Maiara Walsh, Diedrich Bader, Cody Christian, Lauren Bowles, Brant Daugherty, Dean J. West, Ross Wyngaarden, Chris Marroy

Directors- Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer

PG-13- crude and sexual content, comic violence, language and partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-c—wf6YLk

So, it occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I last gifted my readers with my reaction to a genuine piece of crap. 2013 has been quite the merciful year in that regard. So, hearing that The Starving Games, the latest feature from known un-comedians Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, had been made available on Netflix Instant Watch, I decided to rectify that situation.

But I’m going to do this a little differently than usual.

Since there’s essentially no chance this will be good, a review seems rather pointless. So, instead, I think it might be more fun to give all of you a direct line into my thoughts, which is to say that I’m going to be live-blogging this: sort of. It won’t be live when you read it, because I have no idea how to do that technologically. But it will be a running transcription of my thoughts while watching the film. So, you’ll get to experience afresh every moment of my suffering.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’m very familiar with Seltzer/Friedberg by reputation and have endured bits and pieces of some of their films but have never successfully viewed any of them in their entirety. So…this should be interesting.

Also, this time, I’m bringing along a guest reviewer: my brother, Daniel! Say hi, Daniel!

…He totally said it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

He may or may not contribute any thoughts to this. That’s the beauty of writing live.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!

7:15: The movie begins.

7:16: Okay. Oz the Great and Powerful. The references begin as early as possible. I guess I can’t complain about that character taking an arrow to the chest. (NON-LIVE ADDENDUM: The cast list calls this character Oz. They’re aware that Oz is, like, the place, right?)

7:16: Gag bread. That’s hilarious.

7:17: So, is Gale, like…Norman Bates or something?

7:18: Daniel: “Those are some of the worst special effects I’ve seen in a long time.” Wouldn’t you know; I just happen to agree.

7:18: The last Harry Potter movie came out in, like…2011, right?

7:19: *checks promotional materials* Kantmiss. Kantmiss Evershot. That’s what they named her. I just had my first “Oh, lord, what have I done?” moment.

7:19: HA HA WOMAN FALL DOWN

7:20: Mel Gibson joke. Easy jar. Five dollars. Also, The Most Interesting Man in the World. What?

7:20: HA HA ANOTHER WOMAN FALL DOWN

7:21: Wait, is that the second Honey Boo Boo joke in this? Or am I just getting the three thousand reality TV references that have already been in this thing mixed up?

7:21: The Starving Games mocks how stupid culture is. Irony meter broken. Fabric of space and time undone. World ended.

7:23: Okay, this is the second time these guys have done the Hugh Janus joke in a movie. It’s not even their joke. Seriously?

7:23: THE JOKE IS ABOUT BALLS HA HA HA BALLS ARE FUNNY

7:24: The joke is that what’s happening is the complete opposite of what happened in the movie. This is what we refer to as satire. Also, is it just me, or is Kantmiss’s celebration going on forever?

7:25: Is she going to…eat the hamster? I’m not sure what this joke is.

7:25: Malarkey. Peter Malarkey. Heaven help me.

7:26: Yes. Of course. The salute is the middle finger. Of course. Of course. OF COURSE.

7:26: Oh, and we have randomly referenced Downton Abbey in a moment that isn’t even kind of attempting to be a joke, so I GUESS WE CAN CHECK THAT BLOCK HURR HURR.

7:27: Daniel: “The joke there was that he’s not going to take care of her.” I’m glad I have someone in here to explain these things; this is all going way over my head.

7:28: The joke is that Oprah is fat.

7:28: Also, who is playing President Snowballs, and could they, like, not afford an actual old man?

7:29: At least The Starving Games understands that The Hunger Games is a media satire. What it doesn’t understand is that also being a media satire but without subtlety just adds a really confusing extra layer to this whole thing. I have no idea what we’re actually parodying anymore.

7:30: Cinnamon. I’m starting to think the logic behind naming these characters is just finding the silliest word they can bend the original name into, regardless of whether or not there’s any satirical angle attached.

7:30: Good grief, did they just use a record scratch to punctuate a joke? Seriously? Are they five?

7:31: They’re really rushing through the plot here. I’m really starting to get worried about how they’re going to sustain an hour and a half here.

7:33: Fifty Shades of Grey reference. I can just hear Seltzer and Friedberg high fiving each other.

7:33: FARTING IS FUNNY RIGHT GUYS I AM TWO

7:34. Okay, that fire is seriously, like, an iMovie effect. Sure, this is a comedy. But that is unacceptable. It’s literally just hovering over the screen.

7:35: He hasn’t said anything yet, but I already suspect that Cleaver Williams is going to end up being terribly racist.

7:35: The Seneca Crane stand-in used Siri. There’s no joke; he just…used it. COMEDY!

7:36: Meanwhile, President Snowballs uses an iPad. Still no joke.

7:36: Is this music recorded on MIDI or something? Or are my ears just going insane? This is like a crappy home movie.

7:36: Or maybe I’ll just see Cleaver in his underwear, center-frame. Keep it classy, guys.

7:37: LMFAO. Somebody remind me when “Sexy and I Know It” was a hit song again. My suspicion is that it was…not recently.

7:38: The bloodbath at the Cornucopia isn’t so much bafflingly unfunny as it is comprised solely of jokes that would be most people’s first guess. Wedgies, a dude screaming like a girl, awkward fumbling. My brothers and I made a home movie years ago, and we were very definitely achieving at least that level of comedy.

7:39: If this girl says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” I’m leaving.

7:40: HITTING PEOPLE IN THE BALLS IS FUNNY.

7:40: IT’S EVEN FUNNIER WHEN YOU PLAY IT FOUR TIMES AND IN SLOW MOTION. You know that movie Idiocracy? That was prophetic. I’m pretty sure they were even using the same tone on the loud, “Ow, my BALLS!”

7:41: Camera crews in the forest is definitely…a satirical idea, but probably there’s somewhere you could go with it other than HA MAN FALL DOWN.

7:42: Okay, are we eventually going to attach a joke to this Siri thing because IT WOULD BE NICE IF WE DID.

7:42. CGI animators should stop doing fire now, ‘kay thanks?

7:43. She has a fire extinguisher. I guess the joke is that…those aren’t in the forest? Which is satire of the original series…how?

7:43: Angry Birds. If all they have to do is mention it in passing, then that’s all I have to do, too.

7:43: Oh, and now, it’s Fruit Ninja.

7:44: …The orange is talking. The terrifying CGI orange. We got two fruit puns out of it, I guess. Seriously, leave Quentin Tarantino out of this, or I’m going to break stuff.

7:44: Okay, so is the joke that Siri is a sassy black lady? Somebody help me figure this out.

7:45: Words with Friends. Are the jokes here playing by a rule of three or something?

7:45: THERE WAS A LADDER THE WHOLE TIME THIS MOVIE IS SO WACKY YOU GUYS

7:46: Seriously, there’s a full hour left on this. Where in the world are we going to get that time?

7:47: HA A PINATA WACKINESS QUOTIENT EXCEEDED

7:48: Naked guy. Second utterance of “Oh, lord, what have I done?” Not the last, I suspect.

7:49: And there’s the third. That’s a lot of bird crap. That is either a very large and/or very sick bird.

7:50: I think this is the second “randomly having a chainsaw” joke.

7:51: I’ve actually seen a double rainbow, for the record. Also, is this the best stoner fantasy they could come up with? If there’s anything I don’t doubt, it’s that Seltzer and Friedberg have smoked copious amounts of weed.

7:52: Avatar? Freakin’…seriously? How can a comedy that just came out last year already be this dated?

7:53: Wow, that was the least impassioned impression of James Cameron I think I’ve ever seen. I’m king of the world, yaaaaaaaaaay. James Cameron by way of Ben Stein.

7:54: Less pedophilia humor, please. Move on from this. Please.

7:55: Ha ha black people are so belligerent those sassy blacks

7:56: Two observations at once. Observation No. 1: HA HA HE SCRATCHED HIS BUTT THAT IS HILARIOUS. Observation No. 2: Okay, I take back what I said about Avatar. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes? Seriously? And of course, it’s all slow-motion groin punches.

7:57: And if it was funny once, it’ll be funny again, in quicker motion.

7:59: I probably should’ve observed this movie’s sexism somewhere around the second or third whore joke or at least the scene where Kantmiss disarmed a dude by rubbing his face in her cleavage. This cheerleader thing, that…that might be the step too far.

8:00: Good. I wanted a halftime-style montage of all the hilarity thus far. Thank you. This movie is so in-tune with my interests.

8:00: Yes. Twitter. That is a thing that exists. Thank you, movie. I had forgotten.

8:01: Are we still doing this ESPN shtick? Man alive, Family Guy doesn’t kill jokes this hard.

8:01: HA HA THAT GUY GOT SHOT IN THE BALLS AND HE’S ALSO MEXICAN AND PROBABLY AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT MURICAAAAA PRAAAAAISE THE LOOOORD AND PASS THE AMMUNITIIIIIIIOOOOOOOONNNNNN…

8:02: The joke is that she kicked him in the shins in the middle of a serious conflict, and he called her a little turd. Ha ha.

8:03: You know, it was a massive hit a little less than a year ago, but “Gangnam Style” has already reached the point where it feels like it never happened. It’s good to have been reminded of it, especially since it had so much to do with that particular scene.

8:04: I don’t even have anything to say about the Taylor Swift joke. This movie has gone so far with these crappy references that the mildly bad ones aren’t even registering anymore.

8:05: You know that moment where you’re watching a bad movie and your emotional state switches from bafflement to suffering? Hi, suffering.

8:05: OKAY I SEE THAT IT IS STARBUCKS TRANSFORM THIS INTO A JOKE NOW YOU STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID—

8:06: I’m doing this for you people. You’d better appreciate me.

8:07: Hot lesbians joke. Sexism. And so forth. This movie is repulsive. My soul hurts.

8:07. JOKE…NOT…WORKING…PLEASE…STOP. EVERYTHING…HURTS.

8:08: OKAY SERIOUSLY HE’S BEEN SHOT THREE TIMES AND NOW THERE ARE EXPLOSIONS THE JOKE IS DEAD OH LORD HELP ME MY CHEST HURTS

8:09: Daniel officially admits his speechlessness. I should suffer from the same affliction. I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it would be this bad. This was a terrible idea; somebody help me. I promise I’ll never do it again.

8:11: A Snuggie. A Snuggie. A Snuggie. A Snuggie. Shut up, movie. Shut up and go away. Shut up and go away and die horribly. Leave me in peace. Leave me alone to die.

8:12: Okay, either the joke is that Peter is gay or that he’s been in love with Kantmiss forever. You have to pick one.

8:12: Peter made hair-dolls of Kantmiss out of strands he plucked from her shower drain. No comment, just…needed to process that thought. Yup, there went a couple of IQ points. I’m dumber now. You’re welcome.

8:13: You know, there was an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will, Carlton, and Uncle Phil went camping. They got stranded in a cave where they found thousands of dollars and fought over it and learned a lesson. I say all this by way of illustrating that that cave looked less plastic than this one, and it was built in front of a freaking live studio audience.

8:15: Oh, please. Please, don’t. Please, just… Don’t do this, movie; I’m begging you.

8:16: Never mind. Do the uncomfortable sex scene. Whatever involves you not doing the version of this where Gandalf and the dwarves are perverts who want to have a foursome with Kantmiss. Anything other than that version.

8:16: Oh, it stopped. Thank you, movie. This is my favorite thing you’ve done.

8:17: Never mind. Never mind.

8:17: This movie was made for very stupid teenagers.

8:18: Okay, so are the President Snowball censors for our benefit, or are those happening in-movie? Because it sure seems like everybody in that audience is seeing something other than little black boxes.

8:18: Daniel is complaining of heartburn. For my part, I just have a headache. And a few anxiety pains.

8:19: Ah, the old “following your enemy around a tree” gag. All the freshness of a Looney Tunes short.

8:19: Stop it with the Siri thing. Just stop it. I don’t know why this bugs me so much. But stop it. Find a joke, or stop it.

8:20: REALLY? THE EXPENDABLES? DID PEOPLE ACTUALLY SEE THAT? WAS THAT A HUGE CULTURAL THING? I want to challenge the Arnold Schwarzenegger stand-in to an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation contest. I’m pretty sure I’d win. And I sound like Wario from Super Mario Bros. when I do my Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. And a Chuck Norris joke. Those are fresh and have not the slightest bit of age attached to them. They age like a fine wine, really. Heeeeeeeeeeeelp.

8:22: I’m not sure how the arrow being bread adds comedy to this moment. Was that, like…set up or something? Has bread been a big motif here? It hardly even looks like bread. In general: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN

8:24: I’d like to pretend that I didn’t see the joke where she just shoots him coming, but, frankly, the only thing I had wrong was the precise timing of the countdown I had going.

8:25: The Avengers. I’m actually surprised by that, but only because this appears to have been written in 2009. Also, that joke doesn’t even make sense on account of the fact that Marvel is not solely making sequels to Iron Man and Thor. Oh, and Hawkeye jokes. Hawkeye jokes that have been made by every living comic book fan. I think Seltzer and Friedberg just google “stuff people joke about” and then copy/paste their findings into the script.

8:26: Holy crap, a schawarma joke. I think…I think Seltzer/Friedberg actually saw that movie. I…I didn’t think they were allowed to do that. Kudos on that, I guess.

8:27: Blooper reel. Turns out no one starring in this movie is funny either. SO MANY SURPRISES.

8:28: Nope. Don’t need a reprise of naked guy. I’m good with once.

8:29: You know, Starving Games, not even good comedies have blooper reels that are A MILLION HOURS LONG.

8:30: NO NOT THE DWARF THING AGAIN PLEASE STOP DOING THAT TO MY CHILDHOOD

8:30: It’s OVER! Daniel and I are sitting in stony silence right now. Letting the credits run. I can’t stand up.

8:31: The last time this happened was Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This is rough stuff. I guess Olympus Has Fallen can relax once I get around to my end-of-the-year worst list. Assuming I ever do. (SPOILERS: I won’t.)

8:32: Okay, I’ve got to get out of here. I’ll write the outro later. I need to go upstairs and stare at the cover of my Criterion Blu-Ray of 12 Angry Men until I remember that good movies are still a thing.

Okay, so… It’s a day later, and I feel suitably recovered. Last evening, my mental state ranged largely from stunned silence to delusional ranting. This was a very bad idea. So, of course, if it amused you, and you’d like to see me do this again in the future, feel free to let me know; I will do my best to accommodate that request.

I’m not sure I should offer commentary on the film itself, since none of it could possibly come as a surprise at this point, but yeah — The Starving Games is everything I expected it to be, and in fact, I should’ve set my expectations lower. I mean, I knew it was going to be unfunny to the nth degree, but I figured it would at least look and feel something like a movie. Instead, it seems like a bad film school project. There are programs my own computer is capable of accommodating that could probably get me the same production value. Of course, that wouldn’t even have come close to saving it.

If you told me to say one nice thing about The Starving Games or get shot in the head, my honesty would probably compel me to take that bullet.

-Matt T.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Starring- Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Carice van Houten, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens, Alexander Beyer, Alexander Siddig, Philip Bretherton

Director- Bill Condon

R- language and some violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT1wb8_tcYU

As we progress further and further into the digital age, it becomes inevitable that more and more of our true-story films about major historical events will be about outcasts with computers who started cultural revolutions — just recently, The Social Network, Jobs, the as-yet untitled Steve Jobs movie written by Aaron Sorkin and potentially directed by David Fincher that I’m already referring to as The Good Steve Jobs Movie, and now, The Fifth Estate.

But if that’s going to be the case, I must submit this qualifier: These movies should definitely stop trying to be The Social Network.

Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) is a computer hacker who does stuff with computers (sue me; I don’t know) when he falls in with self-described revolutionary Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a strange and fiery personality with a long list of overseas achievements and a cloudy past that seemingly includes being born into a cult. Assange views the mainstream media establishment as silly and ineffectual and sees potential for a new check and balance in the Internet. So, he creates WikiLeaks, effective mainly for its promise, largely delivered, of complete anonymity for whistle-blowers and other sources.

Together, he and Daniel achieve their first real success, exposing the corruption of a major bank and putting wealthy elites on trial for their crimes. And it continues, as WikiLeaks grows larger and illuminates corruption, crime, dark secrets, and hidden violence. But the farther they go into their revolution, the more Assange retreats into himself — and the more willing he becomes to use whatever means necessary.

In terms of its tone, in terms of its themes, in terms of its look, in terms of its central relationships and characters, and in terms of its style, The Fifth Estate is somewhat indistinguishable from The Social Network on most fronts other than its overall quality, which is lacking. At the very least, it clearly draws inspiration from that film.

That’s not to say that The Fifth Estate has no merit whatsoever; in truth, I don’t think it’s quite as bad as its reputation. It succeeds largely in the field you’d expect, which is to say its performances.

It’s fortunate that I saw Rush and The Fifth Estate back to back, as it means I can now say with certainty that Daniel Bruhl has plenty of range and ought to stick around. His part here isn’t as complicated and doesn’t require him to give as much, but it does allow him the opportunity to prove that he can also play the affable, sympathetic everyman. Julian Assange may be the figure of interest, but Daniel Berg is the true protagonist of The Fifth Estate, and most of the events are seen through his eyes.

And of course, Benedict Cumberbatch’s continues to exhibit acting skills worthy of his grandiose name. He inhabits Assange in a way that feels vaguely neurotic, in a sense that’s present but never quite boils over to the surface. He’s surprisingly charismatic and even manipulative, but not in a way that feels overly calculated. Assange is no social butterfly; his relationships, even his friendly ones, are all strange and distant and dominated, intentionally or otherwise, entirely by him. He seems like the sort of person who probably drunk-texts his ex-girlfriends endlessly. He knows how to make people work toward his ends but not how to be a real part of society. He’s messy and doesn’t seem to care much about how he looks or comes across. Mostly, he’s enigmatic — he’s more than willing to discuss his past (usually unprompted in cheesy moments of exposition where he stands either on a bridge or a balcony and stares off into the distance), but everything he says feels like a half-truth. You leave the film unsure of how much you really know about his past.

On a storytelling level, I think the film actually almost works, in the sense that it flows out of some solid character drama and interpersonal conflict that both arises very naturally and is ratcheted up as actions continue to bring about consequences. The most damning thing about The Fifth Estate, really, is that it bypasses all of the most interesting bits of this true story.

Most movies would almost inevitably succumb to the need to psychologize a complex guy like Julian Assange, a man famous primarily for a series of actions that we could, at best, describe as morally ambiguous. Maybe it’s for the best that The Fifth Estate doesn’t do this; that insatiable need has destroyed other films. At the same time, this movie barely bothers to define its characters’ relationships with what they’re doing at all, beyond vague and repeated philosophical notions that only begin to work because of the passion with which the actors sell it.

Moreover, it doesn’t really delve that deeply into any of the moral questions raised by this film — moral questions so pervasive in the real-life events that they seem to me to be the most outstanding reason to even tell this story in the first place. Personally, I have mixed feelings about WikiLeaks. Undoubtedly, it exposed some things that needed to be exposed — fiscal corruption, details of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that absolutely should not have been kept from the public, etc. At the same time, it seemed to have no filter of necessity and instead appeared, near the end, to indiscriminately publish everything it received so long as its truthfulness could be verified. Thus, it for no reason unleashed embarrassing diplomatic cables that told the public nothing important and nevertheless frosted international relations, and worse still, it revealed the names of informants — some of whom, I suppose you could argue, were up to no good, but plenty of whom were also just random people in the middle of nowhere who informed on terrorists. I think the film itself arrives at something similar — that WikiLeaks is a good idea, but only in the most careful and trustworthy of hands. But then, one wonders how a project whose strength is in guaranteed anonymity can be held accountable to that extent. No matter how good the person in charge now is, there will always be a successor, and eventually, you’re going to have a bad dice roll. It’s inevitable.

But The Fifth Estate doesn’t really explore that notion. Nor does it explore the sensationalistic mass media and the ways in which the digital age might correct the failures of the fourth estate. Nor does it explore the questions of security and privacy and the balance between the two.

Some have accused it of being pro-government propaganda, in the interest of having greater access to military bases and technology for the upcoming slate of blockbusters. I don’t know that I agree with that — the film seems to be on Assange’s side early in the game, when the site is going after corrupt businessmen and tyrants, and even later on, when it’s exposing civilian casualties and military carelessness overseas — but I would say that it does tread somewhat lightly around the government end of things. Toward the end, it changes sides — and maybe it should, as that’s when Assange reaches pique madness and egotism. But our government heroes, in the end, never really wrestle with or get held accountable for the fact that the organization to which they belong hid important information, including the deaths of civilians, for no other reason than to save face. It seems as though the film wants to slide earlier events under the rug and direct your sympathies rather wholesale in one direction or another.

And maybe that tepidness is why it never bothers to try answering the question of what was positive about this situation and what was negative and how we might find a way to employ this for the greater good in the future. It seems content to settle for middling interpersonal drama centered on egos ballooning out of control. There’s such a great movie in here — if only someone would make it, and not only that, but give it its own voice. After all, that, at the very least, was what WikiLeaks was about, right?

 

-Matt T.

Rush (2013)

Starring- Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino

Director- Ron Howard

R- sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA3XN54J8nY

It didn’t really hit me until I thought about it, but sports movies aren’t a particularly big thing anymore, are they?

I grew up in the 90s, when the sports movie was king. There were seemingly dozens of new ones every year. If you were making a family film, that was the go-to genre: you get the kids with the inoffensive but still electric sports action; you can get some teen-friendly melodrama if you set it in a high school; you could reel in the parents with exactly the right amount of humor and inspiration; and the inclusion of exactly one swear word, two if you were feeling particularly edgy, would get you the then-vaunted PG rating. Heck, we loved sports movies so much that we just plain ran out of ideas and starting making them about dogs and monkeys and whatnot.

Somewhere in the early 2000s, then, the genre just kind of petered out. Now, we get two or three every year — as major theatrical releases, anyway.

And the tradeoff is that most of them are leagues better — pun not initially intended but retroactively claimed — and Rush is no exception.

Rush documents the true events surrounding the infamous 1970s rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).

Hunt is a playboy with a sexual history as legendary as his racing abilities. He’s a no-holds-barred risk-taker with no fear of death who wins races through a combination of skill and sheer bravado, practically scaring his opponents out of keeping pace with him. He’s a free-spirited type with no real philosophy, either for his life or for his game.

Lauda could not be more his opposite. He’s an unlikable personality — and he knows it. More importantly, he doesn’t care. He’s not in it to make friends or to have the media slobbering all over him or to bed whatever women he chooses. He’s blunt and standoffish. On the track, he’s methodical and strategic. He has everything reduced to a mathematical formula — including the risk he’s willing to accommodate in order to win. He knows everything about the car he drives, inside and out, and will not accept anything less than 100 percent — even if he has to fight his own financiers on the point.

Their rivalry became a massive media sensation — on the track, the two often seemed threatened only by one another, and the title of World Champion eventually boiled down to a single race in which only they were contenders.

You have Chris Hemsworth on one end and Daniel Bruhl on the other, and both turn in on-point performances that anchor the rest of the film.

Hemsworth’s star has risen more rapidly than perhaps any other of the past few years’ relative newcomers — from a bit part in the Star Trek reboot to leading man in Thor to major Hollywood icon immediately afterward. It’s deserved. He isn’t doing much here that’s noticeably out of his wheelhouse — Hunt is an arrogant, fun-loving man’s man who’s rather in love with himself and way overly assured of his own abilities. It’d be a shame if he ended up getting typecast in that part, but Rush proves, once again, that there’s a reason that’s a threat — he’s very, very good at this type of part. And it goes deeper than Thor, as one might expect. James Hunt is a more down-to-Earth character in a more grounded film, and as such, there are a few more layers beneath his haughty exterior — beginning, of course, with the fact that his life is essentially empty, and he’s slowly becoming aware of it.

Bruhl was the one who scooped up a bit of awards buzz, and even though nothing ultimately came of it, there’s a reason for that, too. Lauda is a harder character to play if only because he’s quiet and reserved and internalizes much of what he goes through. This is a part that often has to communicate feeling solely through the eyes and subtle, almost unnoticeable facial expressions. Lauda presents a stony, unwavering exterior to nearly everyone he meets, and if anything inside of him begins to war against that, it’s only in Bruhl’s eyes that the audience is going to be able to see that. He’s as complicated as Hunt, if not more so. They’re matched for arrogance, but it’s different in Lauda’s case. Lauda’s ego is perfectly proportionate; he knows beyond doubt exactly what his abilities and limitations are. He simply has the unfortunate side effect of believing he’s earned the right to condescend to everyone who doesn’t match that. He’s cold and seems to care little for the adulation and friendship of others. And yet, his life is fuller. When it comes down to it, Hunt is willing to die in order to win. Lauda is not.

Rush wisely opts not to inflate this rivalry into an obsessive clash a la The Prestige. Lauda states in an opening narration that the media hyped it into something it was not and that he always thought it was merely the two of them “busting each other’s balls.” Without question, they are doggedly determined to defeat one another, and Hunt in particular is willing to take insane risks to do so. But when the fever pitch of their conflict hits the point where it results in catastrophe, both parties take a step back and reevaluate. The rivalry doesn’t cease, but they see it for what it is — a blessing in disguise.

In a strange way, the two men are friends — best friends. Best friends who also happen to utterly despise one another. Sometimes, what you need in your life is someone you can trust entirely in their assessment of what’s wrong with you and who doesn’t like or fear you too much to lay it all out in no uncertain terms. Hunt and Lauda seem gradually to become this for one another, not only behind the wheel but in the game of life itself. It’s that rivalry that eventually causes each man to choose a trajectory for his life and determine what future he wants for himself. In both cases, it is, to some extent, not what they once envisioned.

Rush is a pretty good Ron Howard film, overall. Of course, it is still a Ron Howard film, which means it comes replete with his trademark okay-ness. Rush isn’t a piece of brilliance, just a well-made formula feature. It might not even be “formula” in the traditional sense. It ends on some of the beats you might expect it to, but as with most good sports movies, it isn’t really about the sports, and the relationship it captures is a fairly unique one that plays out in a way that isn’t very common in films like these. But there isn’t much about it that stands out in the memory — it’s only been a few days since I saw it, but this morning, planning out this review, I actually struggled for a moment to pull together enough details to write something in-depth and interesting.

Maybe it’s that we ultimately don’t see enough — not just that the rivalry is lacking in intensity, which I don’t mind, but that the cultural event it turns into happens largely out-of-frame and begins to leave you wondering what it is about this relationship that makes it worthy of the full cinematic treatment. Maybe it’s that the racing scenes, while electric and refreshingly free of noticeable CGI, are too choppy and disorienting to hit peak effectiveness. Maybe it’s the excessive orange-and-teal, or how dour the film is in its approach to lighting.

What might be most damning is that Rush comes across as a little sexist. Obviously, it’s a story about men, and I wasn’t expecting it to pass the Bechdel Test or anything. And while there are only two important female characters, there aren’t many important supporting male players either. This truly is the story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and it doesn’t indulge much of anything that doesn’t immediately relate to that.

At the same time, when women do appear, it seems as though the camera finds their breasts and rear ends pretty much immediately. When the girls come out on the track, the camera immediately cuts them off below the waist and above the head. When Lauda finds himself attracted to the track manager on his new team, the camera assumes his viewpoint and drifts slowly down to the skirt. And you have Hunt’s numerous on-screen escapades, obviously, but at least those fit into some kind of larger context that one could argue is somewhat necessary. And it all fits into what you might call the current Hollywood default setting: stories about men where there are only one or two important women whose primary interest within the plot is those men but who are written with some dignity anyway just to meet the quota, and where any other women who wander into the frame are pure eye candy.

I really try not to be the sort of person who finds these interpretations in everything I see, and I’m not entirely sure why I was so attuned to it in Rush — this problem doesn’t anywhere near encompass the majority of its running time. But it is there, and it became difficult for me not to notice it.

All of this keeps Rush from being great, which is a shame — but not from being pretty good anyway. It’s a fun movie in the setting of a fun sport, anchored by a pair of fairly well observed characters, portrayed with confidence and nuance by two relatively new actors with exciting career prospects. It has a few unfortunate missteps — some more unfortunate than others — but it comes through with its head held high. And it’s worth the ride.

 

-Matt T.