Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Film Babble Blog Top 10 Movies Of 2013

Since it’s nearing the end of January and the Oscar nominations have been announced, I figured it’s about time that I post my Top 10 favorite films of 2013.

Any year that boasts such vital work by film makers as Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, Edgar Wright, 
Alfonso Cuarón, and Spike Jonze is a good year for film, and this last year was the best in my book, or more aptly on my blog, since 2007.

My picks start off with what is, for sure, a very personal favorite:

1. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Dir. Richard Linklater)

No other movie in 2013 spoke to me more than Richard Linklater's third film in the ongoing saga of Jesse and Céline, respectively rendered by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. BEFORE MIDNIGHT catches up with the couple we first met as strangers in Vienna in 1995's BEFORE SUNRISE, having wed since meeting up again in Paris in 2004's BEFORE SUNSET.

Now on a summer vacation in Greece, Hawke and Delpy walk and talk down memory lane while dealing with whether they want to continue on the same path together. It could be that I'm the same age as this couple, and overly relate to the depiction of a marriage that keeps one philosophically on their toes, but, whatever the case, this film got to me big-time. Glad to see it scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. My review is here.

(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers’ 16th film, concerning the failings of a fictional folksinger in early ‘60s New York, may be one of their most divisive films. While it’s won many awards from Film Critics associations (National Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle), it didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and many folks I know, including my wife, thought it lacked an emotional connection. I, however, was transfixed by everything the brothers were going for from the film’s aesthetics aping the iconic album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to the T. Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack of authentic sounding folk tracks to the nuanced performances by Oscar Isaac in the title role, Carey Mulligan as his pissed-off former lover, and John Goodman, in his first Coen brothers’ film since 2000’s O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Read my review.


(Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I wrote in my review last December: “Martin Scorsese’s 23rd film, and fifth with Leonardo DiCaprio, nails the rampant excess of the ‘80s greed era with such a fearlessly funny, and raunchy as Hell glee that it makes Oliver Stone’s 1988 insider trading spectacle WALL STREET look like Sesame Street.” Read the rest of my review.

4. BLUE JASMINE (Dir. Woody Allen)

Cate Blanchett sure looks hard to beat in the Oscar race for Best Actress for her ace acting as hot mess Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis, a former Manhattan socialite previously married to Jack Abramoff-ish millionaire investment banker Alec Baldwin. Allen's film, one of the 77-year old film maker's most substantial later works, is also up for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Helping the film make my Top 10 is its excellent cast including the also nominated (for Best Supporting Actress) Sally Hopkins as Blanchett's adopted sister, the aforementioned Baldwin, Michael Stuhlberg, Peter Sarsgaard, and especially, and a bit surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay. My review.

5. THE WORLD’S END (Dir. Edgar Wright) 

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy concludes with this more than worthy follow-up to SHAWN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Pegg, along with Nick Frost, Paddy Constadine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan, attempt to complete the “Gold Mile” pub crawl they never finished two decades ago and the results are uproarious. My review.

6. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Dir. Steve McQueen)

McQueen's powerful period piece fearlessly tackles one of the most harrowing and hardest-to-take subjects in history: slavery in the pre-Civil War era Deep South. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o all got well deserved acting Oscar noms as did McQueen for direction. The film itself at first seemed a shoo-in for Best Picture, but AMERICAN HUSTLE seems to be gaining momentum these days. My review of 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

(Dir. Alexander Payne)

Read my review of this near perfect piece of major Payne here.

8. THE GREAT BEAUTY (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

This Italian film, nominated by the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, hasn't opened in my area yet so I'll withhold my review, but I'll just say that its a visual feast of Fellini-esque proportions in which pretentious performance art is savaged by the wit of Toni Servillo, as a once promising but now jaded journalist.

(Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

Click here to read my review of this Sandra Bullock/George Clooney outer space-set thriller in which I say that it’s so refreshing to find a film set in the heavens, on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere to be exact, that doesn’t need attacking aliens or big ass asteroids to be scary - the prospect of being stranded, untethered in outer space is terrifying all by itself.

10. HER (Dir. Spike Jonze)

I was delighted that this lovely poetic movie set in the near future about a man (Joaquinn Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Read why here.

More later...

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ralph Fiennes' Wispy THE INVISIBLE WOMAN Doesn't Do Dickens Justice

Now playing in the Triangle at the Raleigh Grande in Raleigh and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill:

(Dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2013) 

In Ralph Fiennes’ follow-up to his directorial debut, the little seen but acclaimed 2011 Shakespeare adaptation CORIOLANUS, the English actor casts himself as literary legend Charles Dickens in this star-crossed Victorian era love story.

Fiennes’ film, adapted by Abi Morgan (THE IRON LADY) from Claire Tomalin’s 1991 bio “The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens,” is an artsy attempt to shed light on the young actress who Dickens left his wife of 22 years for in 1858.

The story is told through the eyes of Nelly Ternan, portrayed by Felicity Jones, who captured many critics’ hearts in Drake Doremus’ 2011 college romance drama LIKE CRAZY.

In 1885, 15 years after Dickens’ death, Jones’ Ternan is the wife of a stuffy British school headmaster (Tom Burke) directing students in a production of one of Dicken’s plays.

This causes her to reminiscence, in cinematic flashback form, about when she was an 18-year old aspiring actress who became the object of Dicken’s affections three decades earlier.

That was when Ternan was part of an acting family with her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and two sisters (Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale). Fiennes’ Dickens has been estranged for some time from his indifferent overweight spouse (Joanna Scanlan keeping poise in an especially especially unflattering role) as we see them walking on egg shells around each other as they sleep in separtate chambers.

When noticing that Ternan is harboring a crush, Mrs. Dickens dismissingly tells her that her husband’s work is merely “designed to be entertainment.” Ternan affectionately counters: “Surely it’s more than that – it changes us.”

We see what a superstar Dickens was when he’s mobbed when recognized at a racetrack (mostly by middle aged men, mind you), but when he dissolves his marriage in order to be with Ternan there is only the mildest talk of a scandal; no real damage appears to be done to Dickens’ reputation.

Cinematographer Tom Hardy gives the film a lush look, and Michael O’Connor’s immaculate costume designs definitely deserve the Oscar nomination (the film’s only nod) it got last week, but the romance between Fiennes and Jones is severely lacking.

Jones, who Hardy’s camera appears to adore in a series of soft focus close-ups, too quickly goes from being smitten with the man behind such works as “Great Expectations,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “David Copperfield,” to seming like she’d rather be anywhere else. This is especially notable in their awkward sex scene.

Seemingly out of respect, Fiennes does what he can to make Dickens more charming than creepy, but the end result is a dull detachment to the character. We never get the feeling that Dickens was madly in love with this woman; in fact the impression is that he’s just slightly happier to be with somebody younger and prettier than his wife of two decades.

Maybe the absence of chemistry can be attributed to Fiennes and Jones having played father and daughter in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s CEMETARY JUNCTION in 2010. That may have gotten in the way of them putting their all into the May-December love story conventions here.

It is also a waste that Scott Thomas, who also acted previously with Fiennes in the Oscar winning Best Picture THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), doesn’t have much to do as Jones’ mother. One scene even has Scott Thomas asleep on a couch while the leads are making moony-eyes at each other.

While its well acted and shot, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is too wispy a film to be engaging.  When first telling the world about Dickens’ mistress, Tomalin wrote of Ternan as having been “someone who almost wasn’t there,” someone “who vanished into thin air.” This all too restrained and uninspired costume drama most likely will have the same fate.

More later...

Friday, January 17, 2014

JACK RYAN: Shallow Reboot

Opening today at a big ass multiplex near you:

(Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2014)

I just got through the painful process of accepting Chris Pine as Captain Kirk in the relaunched STAR TREK series, now I have to accept him as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan in another reboot of a Paramount franchise too?

Apparently so as Pine is the fifth actor to fill the shoes of the intrepid CIA agent since the techno thriller series based on Clancy's novels started in 1992 with Alec Baldwin in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Harrison Ford took over the role for two entries - PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER in 1992 and 1994, then after a break of eight years, Ben Affleck made an unsuccessful stab at the Ryan role in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002).

Now, after another long break we've got JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, helmed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also plays the cold-eyed Russian villain. This being his directorial followup to THOR, Brannaugh has now officially re-branded himself as a big studio action movie maker.

David Koepp and Adam Cozad's screenplay, which isn't based on any particular Clancy novel, rewinds to the beginning of Ryan's career - we first see him as a student at the London School of Economics watching the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers on television. After a stint in the Marines where he almost loses a leg in a helicopter accident, Pine's Ryan gets recruited by Kevin Costner as a CIA operative to be a deep-cover financial analyst working on Wall Street. This is something he keeps secret from his fiancé (Keira Knightley), TRUE LIES-style, into the present day.

So far, so formulaic.

Learning of a possible terrorist attack that would lead to an American financial crash, Pine travels to scenic Moscow to thwart Branaugh's evil industrialist plotting to bring on what he calls the second Great Depression.

I feel like J.K. Simmons as a befuddled CIA man in the Coen brothers' BURN AFTER READING when I ask “the Russians?” I mean, I know that the roots of Ryan are based in Cold War espionage, but here it seems that the Soviet backdrop is aping recent similarly set spy capers like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL or, worse, the fifth DIE HARD movie which came out this same time last year.

The lack of genuine suspense is palpable in this routine mess in which the fight and chase scenes are horribly edited, the dialogue stiff, and the pacing scattered through the distractingly shiny surfaces.

And the film has no business being in IMAX as it wasn't shot by IMAX cameras and it has no big cinematic money shots that warrant such presentation. Even in what's supposed to be the movie's big climax, involving a van carrying a nuclear device going off the side of a bridge into the Hudson river and exploding, they don't show it long enough to make any impact.

There's also a mind-numbing Russian restaurant-set centerpiece sequence in which Knightly (who should go back to Victorian-era costume dramas and not attempt an American accent again) tries to distract Branaugh over dinner while her hubby is breaking into Branaugh's office that drags the whole narrative down. Hard to believe that screenwriters Koepp and Cozad thought that this was inspired material at all.

In a confident yet somewhat wooden performance, Pine is fine as the reluctant title character, but beyond his egghead calculations there's not much of a persona on display. 

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (such a generic title) is a shallow reboot that doesn't know how to elevate its hero into anything approaching the heights of Bond or Bourne, and make itself out to be anything better than standard issue spy fodder. 

More later...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Musings On The Music In The Coen Brothers’ Movies: Part III

Ethan Coen, T. Bone Burnett, and Joel Coen share a laugh in the recording studio during the sessions for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.

The Coen brothers’ newest film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is one of their most musically minded movies so I’ve been taking a chronological look back at the songs and scores of the soundtracks throughout their fine filmography.

Part I covered BLOOD SIMPLE through FARGO: PART I: From the Dark Debut to the Snowblind Breakthrough (1984-1996).

Part II covered THE BIG LEBOWSKI through NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: PART II: From a Movie Mix-tape Made By The Dude to a Muted De-Countrified Terrain With Some Soggy Mountain Boys Songs on the Side (1998-2007).

This update will carry us through BURN AFTER READING to their latest film which is now playing at an indie art house near you

Part III: From a Star Studded Spy-style Lark to a Dark Folksinging Farce (2008-2013)

The Coen brother’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning new fangled Western NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a lowbrow lark with a highbrow cast and production values: 2008’s BURN AFTER READING. George Clooney (returning for his third film with the brothers), Frances McDormond (her sixth), Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, and Tilda Swinton find themselves caught up in a kooky Washington D.C.-set caper involving some not so intelligent members of the intelligence community.

Composer Carter Burwell, returning for his 12th film with the Coens, was called upon by Joel Coen to provide a score that’s “something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.” In a 2008 interview with, Burwell commented:

“I liked the idea that the composer is as deluded as the characters so that his soundtrack fits the movie the characters think they are in, rather than the actual film we are watching.”

The effect works wonders with the film’s dark thriller aesthetics right from the opening percussion-enhanced get-go in the Google Earth-esque credits opening (aptly named “Earth Zoom (In)” on the film’s issued soundtrack. (There's a
“Earth Zoom (Out)” at the end too).
After the minimal music accompaniment in NO COUNTRY, BURN AFTER READING gave us a full wall-to-wall Burwell score that was singled out by many critics including Wendy Ide from The Times who wrote: “Carter Burwell’s brilliant score is the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones’s neurotic soundtrack for THE ANDERSON TAPES - it’s particularly well-judged as it brings a gravity to a collection of characters who we could otherwise dismiss as numbskulls and nincompoops.”

Burwell (again in though had a different film in mind for inspiration: “What I was referencing was [the score for] SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, which is almost entirely percussion and has lots of snare drums and marching sounds. But the [percussion in the BURN AFTER READING] score wasn’t about the military but instead a sense of grandiosity.”

Despite good reviews and respectable box office, BURN AFTER READING has sort of faded away in the years since its release. Re-watching it for this piece I found that it holds up nicely. Sure, it can seem like a throwaway – i.e. the Coens taking a silly breather between bigger statements - but with the amusing actions of its A-list cast and Burwell’s satirically over serious score I think it’s definitely a keeper.

Burwell and the brothers, Coen, re-united the following year for A SERIOUS MAN, an even darker comedy that focused on the trials and tribulations of a Minnesotan physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late ‘60s.

Autobiographical elements from the Coen brothers’ Jewish upbringing were obviously in the mix. The inclusion of three Jefferson Airplane songs on the soundtrack leads me to believe one of the brothers got stoned at their bar mitzvah just like Gobnik’s son (Aaron Wolff) does in one of the film’s best scenes.

Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” appears, as I wrote in my original review of the film, as “a driving force throughout the movie.” Firstly, when the credits slowly start to hit the screen after the odd Yiddish-language opening scene, Burwell’s Stomp-style percussion segues into the 1967 Jefferson Airplane classic. Then we see Wolff listening to the song on his portable transistor radio earplug while sitting in his classroom. The song gets broadcast to the rest of the class when the kid’s instructor angrily yanks the earplug out while confiscating the radio.

Burwell discussed this with “The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It’s a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it’s the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane. That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film.”

Burwell also said of the film: “The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, ‘Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky.’”’

A SERIOUS MAN’S soundtrack features 20 tracks - the aforementioned Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody To Love” along with the San Francisco band’s “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Today” join 17 tracks of Burwell’s scorings, mostly made up of spare harp, strings, and piano stylings.

While his son listens to Jefferson Airplane, Stuhlbarg’s put-upon professor puts Sidor Belarsky on the family parlophone in his downtime. Much of the film concerns Stuhlbarg trying to get in to see the rabbi emeritus, the famous Marshak in order to obtain some wisdom, but it’s his son Wolff who gets a sit-down with the senior rabbi (Alan Mandell) after the blitzed boy’s bar mitzvah. After some well measured silence, the rabbi slowly intones: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies…” Yep, the opening couplet from “Somebody To Love.”

The rabbi then says “Then what? Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma-something. These are the members of the Airplane!” The rabbi gives back the boy’s transistor radio and concludes: “Be a good boy.” Seems like the Coens are saying that the lyrics of a rock song hold just about as much meaning as any religious dogma does. Or something.

For TRUE GRIT, the Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation of the novel not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, Burwell explained to Variety that for the tale of a 14-year-old girl bent on avenging her father’s murder in the Old West: “I thought that hymns, or music that sounded like hymns, would remind you that what’s driving the whole story is a biblical sense of righteousness.”

“19th Century church music” was another way Burwell put it in the same interview, and that’s what’s all over TRUE GRIT especially in the 1888 hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which accounts for a fourth of the score. Iris Dement’s version of the song that accompanies the end credits isn’t available on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD, but it’s available on the iTunes version of the release.

Other old timey hymns referenced in the orchestral score are “The Glory-Land Way” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Hold to God's Unchanging Hand, and Talk About Suffering.

Of course, because the hymns are considered pre-composed music, the movie didn’t get any Oscar nomination action for its score but it did get nominated for just about everything else (Jeff Bridges’ great grizzled turn as Rooster Coogburn nagged him his first Best Actor Academy Award).

The film also features a vocal turn by Bridges on the 19th century folk song “Greer County Bachelor,” but don’t go expecting Bad Blake from CRAZY HEART here.

In his very favorable review of the soundtrack, Tom Jurek of remarked: “Of the 14 collaborations between the Coens and Burwell, this is among the most unique and satisfying for its enfolding of historic music into modern composition.”

Burwell wouldn’t return for the filmmaking sibling’s next film, but for the Coen brothers’ other favorite musical collaborator, T. Bone Burnett, it was a project he was born to produce. 

Historic music is what the lead character of the Coen brothers’ 2013 film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, says he pays his rent with: “If it’s never been new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” he tells the audience at the Gaslight Café in 1961 Greenwich Village.

Trouble is, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has no home because he can’t afford to pay rent. Davis is loosely modeled on ‘60s folksinger Dave Von Ronk in his repertoire (Isaac’s Davis sings songs that Ronk covered like “Green, Green Rocky Road” and “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) his almost identical album cover, and, as Ilijah Wald writes on the Inside Llewyn Davis website “shares his background as a working class kid who split his life between playing guitar and shipping out in the Merchant Marine.”

Davis was once part of a folk singing duo, Timlin & Davis. Timlin’s vocal is provided by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons on the soundtrack, but the character is not seen as he committed suicide before the events in the film. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan portray a folk duo, Jim & Jean, based on the real life Jim and Jean (Jim Glover and Jean Ray) who were also one of the inspirations for Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s Mitch & Mickey characters in Christopher Guest’s A MIGHTY WIND.

One of the film’s catchiest moments, to Davis’s chagrin, occurs when Jim and Jean join Stark Sands as clean cut military man/folk singer Tom Nelson onstage to sing the popular folk song “Five Hundred Miles,” written by Hedy West. There also seems to be some Peter, Paul and Mary action in this bit.

Stark Sands’ Nelson is loosely based on folk singer Tom Paxton (confirmed by Nelson singsing Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” at the Gaslight), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is represented by Al Cody (played by Girls’ Adam Driver), and John Goodman’s Roland Turner is somewhat based on Doc Pomus, who wrote the hits “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment” (and was profiled in the biodoc A.K.A. DOC POMUS). Then again, some are surmissing that Goodman's Turner is modeled on Dr. John.

One thing many critics have agreed on is that one of the musical highlights of the film is “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a purposely hokey protest song written by Timberlake’s character that Davis reluctantly plays guitar and sings back-up on because he needs the money. The song is based on a few similar songs from the early ‘60s such as “Please Mr. Kennedy Don't Send Me Off to Vietnam” so this is why, as amusing and well performed as it is by Isaac, Timberlake, and Driver, the song won’t be eligible for an Oscar nomination.

As for the movie capturing the moment before Bob Dylan broke big, Dylan's name is never uttered in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS but Benjamin Davis, a dead-on Dylan lookalike, credited as “Young Bob” takes the stage at the Gaslight towards the end to sing (actually lip synch to) Dylan’s “Farewell.” 

The song, one of many unreleased Dylan gems from that era, is overheard while Davis gets beaten up in the alley – a signifier of a coming sea change for sure. Incidentally the soundtrack has a different version of the song than is used in the film - a studio outtake of “Farewell” appears on the record while Dylan's Whitmark Demo version appears in the film.

Also significant is that Dylan's “Farewell,” which he adapted from the British folk ballad “Leaving of Liverpool”is a similar song and sentiment to “Fare The Well (Dink's Song),” which appears twice on the soundtrack. These songs about leaving one life for another encapsulate the themes that seem to be hiding under the cold surface of the film.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a good example of how the music in the Coen brothers movies continues to be as memorable, or sometimes more memorable, as the imagery, acting, and thorny themes in their colossal canon. Here’s hoping that one day they’ll actually do an old school people-break-out-in-song Hollywood musical, and add that to the genres they’ve tackled.

Until then they’ve given us, as Stephen Root says in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU, some “fine a-pickin’ and a-singin’” Fare thee well for now.

More later…

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Joaquin Phoenix Is Smitten With His Operating System In Spike Jonze’s HER

HER (Dir. Spike Jonze, 2013) 

This is way too lovely and poetic a film to find mixed in with the formulaic fodder at your local multiplex. Yet that’s where it’s playing in my area having bypassed the independent theater circuit because of awards season buzz.

Set in a shiny clean Los Angeles in the near future, where everyone wears beltless high-waisted pants, the film concerns a love story between a meek mustached Joaquin Phoenix and his phone’s sentient operating system voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson.

Having weathered a painful breakup (we catch fleeting glimpses in flashbacks of Phoenix in an extremely emotional relationship with Rooney Mara, best known for the American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), our soft spoken protagonist purchases said OS1, which is billed as the first artificially intelligent operating system, and is immediately taken with the disembodied voice of Johansson.

Johansson, names herself Samantha after reading the book “How To Name Your Baby” in two one hundredths of a second, and goes about sorting through all of Phoenix’s files on his hard drive.

Phoenix writes for a company that produces custom made greeting cards (
Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com), so his sentimental “sad and mopey” (as Amy Adams, his documentary film maker friend, puts it) nature comes in handy.

After Adams sets him up on a blind date (played by Olivia Wilde in a small but crucial cameo) that at first goes well but ends badly when commitment comes up, Phoenix finds himself falling hard for Samantha. What’s freaky is that Samantha feels the same and even hires a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to act as her body so they can have sex.

Phoenix’s predicament isn’t an anomaly as many others are having relationships with their OS’s including Adams since her marriage (to a jaded Matt Letscher) went south. The film’s take on a future world in which isolationism is a lifestyle choice, isn’t so farfetched as anybody who’s been in a public place filled with folks with their faces buried in the screens of their devices can attest.

Jonze first solo screenplay, which won Best Screenplay at Sunday’s Golden Globes Awards), shows that he learned much from Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the director’s first few films (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION).

There’s a lot of emotional material that’s hard to pull off on display here, but Jonze handles it with endearing delicacy and a pure sense of purpose. He’s greatly aided by Phoenix putting in one of his most fully realized performances as the supremely sympathetic lead – a man who looks like he’s aching inside even when he’s smiling. 

Factor in Johansson conveying the OS’s evolving vulnerability with poise, and Adams making a stunning transition from being a ‘70s glamour puss con woman in AMERICAN HUSTLE to embodying the mousy insecure frizzy-haired could-be love interest and you’ve got a cast as charming as the film itself.

HER’s soundtrack doesn’t expand much on the musical palette of Jonze’s previous film, his and David Egger’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, as both Arcade Fire and Karen O. both return to provide songs, but this is so not a complaint as their music, especially when matched with Hoyte van Hoytema’s incredible cinematography effectively fits the highs and lows of the lightly surreal scenario.

The concept of having cyber sex with Siri aside, I can’t think of another recent film dealing with romance that better captures the way it feels to first fall in love; how wonderfully intense and scary it can be. It also nails how painfully fleeting the losing of love can be as well. HER is an immersive and beautiful cinematic conversation about what our real wants and needs are.

But it may not be for everybody – just those with two eyes, two ears, and a heart.

More later...

Friday, January 10, 2014

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at a indie art house near you:

(Dirs. Ethan & Joen Coen, 2013)

We first meet the protagonist of the Coen brothers' 16th film performing at the Gaslight Cafe in the Greenwich Village of the early '60s. Bathed in white light, Oscar Isaacs' Llewyn Davis beautifully sings the traditional folk song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” on the same stage that artists such as Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan cut their musical teeth.

The film sets out to capture the moment right before Dylan exploded on the scene; before the '60s really became the '60s and there were only faint whiffs of the revolution to come in the air.

Davis is caught in a shaky place in his crumbling career - his partner in a folk singing duo (Timlin and Davis) commited suicide, his solo album (also named “Inside Llewyn Davis”) isn't selling, and he has no fixed abode or even a winter coat. Davis also gets the news that he got his friend Jim's (Justin Timberlake) wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant so he has to come up with the money for an abortion.

Oh, and there's a cat he's saddled with because he accidentally let it loose from the last place he crashed.

Yep, it looks like Llewyn's life is getting dumped on in the same 'what does it all mean' manner that previous Coen character Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gobnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) had to contend with in their next to last film A SERIOUS MAN (2008).

At least Davis has his music to help get him through, but even that seems to be less and less comfort during these dour days. Especially as the music others are making seem to be catching on much more - in one scene a despondent Davis watches disgusted as a Gaslight audience starts singing along with Mulligan, Timberlake, and Stark Sands as a clean cut military man/folksinger on Hedy West's “500 Miles.”

Seeking new management in the form of F. Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman (based on Dylan manager Albert Grossman), Davis goes on a road trip with a spaced out beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and a surly jazz musician (John Goodman).

It's a gas to see Goodman back in a Coen brothers film after well over a decade (his last was O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? in 2000) amusingly berating Davis, his music, and cat (“Is that part of your act? Every time you play a C major he pukes a hairball?”) from the back seat.

The film takes some troubling turns which I won't spoil in this extended side trip, but nothing that I grew weary of like I'm hearing in some other critics' grumblings.

I'm incredibly biased both because I'm a big Coen brothers fan and can follow them down just about any tangent no matter how seemingly meaningless, and because I'm a huge fan of the era they're meticulously depicting here.

The Coens and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who they previously worked with on their segment for the short film anthology PARIS JE T' AIME (2006), used the iconic album cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan as an aesthetic reference point. The slightly faded blue and yellowish tint adds to the film authenticity in the exterior show covered street scenes, while the interior atmospheric lighting in the Gaslight bits made me feel like I was there at that historic time and place.

Despite the dead-on look of the film, and the wealth of great songs and performances throughout, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS may still be a tough sell to some folks because its title subject can be a bit of a dick who doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There is a definite humanity to him as he tries to do the right thing whether its dealing with the angry Mulligan's pregnancy or taking care of the cat, but neither approaches real redemption.

There's a lot to the fact that the film begins and ends with the same scene, but from different angles and a notably different addition to the soundtrack the second time around, involving Davis getting beaten up by a mysterious stranger in an alley behind the Gaslight.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS may not be one of their all-time greats, but it's still one of the best films of year because the Coen brothers keenly capture the times right before they really went a-changin,' and their week in the life of a failing troubadour premise explains precisely why somebody would want to beat up a folksinger.

More later...