Trying to single out just what makes the films of the Coen brothers so special is likely an errand fit only for a fool, but if I could point to one aspect of their work I’ve grown to appreciate over the years, it’s their ability to conjure up film environments that delight in switching freely between the real and the unreal. A world created by the Coens has some tenuous connection to reality, but everything is filtered through their own distinctive sensibilities, to the point where what would normally feel familiar ends up feeling otherworldly. Their latest film, a portrait of one man’s artistic struggle during the early years of the 1960s New York folk scene, is no different (and with its many classical allusions and T-Bone Burnett-supervised soundtrack, it almost feels like the distant and considerably more melancholy cousin of O Brother, Where Art Thou?). On the real side of the spectrum, Inside Llewyn Davis excels at capturing both the internal torment of Oscar Isaac’s title character and the external details of the scene around him. Davis takes pride in his own self-perceived image as the uncompromised artist, unwilling to “sell out” like all the others to gain a shot at greater recognition. Eventually, he comes to that crossroads I imagine all art-minded individuals face at some point in their lives: pack it all in and join the real world, or soldier on still clinging to the faintest hope of making it big? Davis chooses the latter, but because of his stubborn nature he finds himself stuck in a seemingly endless loop.
That last point is where those unreal elements I alluded to earlier come into play, when reality takes a backseat to something more mysterious. Inside Llewyn Davis raises a good amount of tantalizing questions and doesn’t seem particularly bothered with leaving them unanswered for the viewer to go mad over. If the film starts in 1961 and supposedly takes place over the span of a week, what to make of the moment near the end when Davis walks past a movie poster for 1963’s The Incredible Journey? Will Carey Mulligan’s pregnant ex character decide to keep Davis’ baby instead of going through with her planned abortion, the same decision an earlier ex made? Is Davis destined to repeat the same cycle over and over again for the rest of his life? How about that surreal and disquieting road trip that dominates the second half? What’s with all the emphasis on cats? There’s a special kind of thrill when you watch a film and it not only leaves you with an enormously positive first impression, but also the knowledge that it’s going to reward you with something new to think about every time you revisit it. 9/10.
Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety’s 1973 film opens with a juxtaposition of images that lays the groundwork for the film as a whole. First, there is the striking and beautiful image of a young boy leading a herd of cows through the African countryside in slow motion. But then the destination of these travelers is revealed, and the camera follows one of the cows into a dark room and stands back to watch its brutal slaughter. You understand immediately the type of world the film is about to show, and you eventually understand why young lovers Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) feel so strongly about leaving their world for the shores of France. Mambety’s unsympathetic portrayal of Senegalese life makes it difficult to not sympathize with the characters’ plight, although the light at the other end of the tunnel might not be too bright either. And escape might prove harder to achieve than initially expected, and the wistful sounds of Josephine Baker’s ‘Paris, Paris’ on the soundtrack gradually take on a desperate quality as it’s replayed over and over again and the characters still haven’t found a way to leave.
I have to say my takeaway from Touki Bouki is that it’s a fairly even split between captivating and ponderous. It’s clear that Mambety was inspired by the films of the French New Wave, particularly those from Jean-Luc Godard. There are stretches that distinctly recall the detached road fantasies of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend, and the interactions between Anta and Mory evoke split-second memories of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. But Mambety also adds his own signature with some Neorealist touches; the contrast between the characters’ reality and their exaggerated dreams is really the film’s main draw. Still, in the same way I usually feel after sitting through a Godard film, I have to admit a general feeling of indifference swept over me as Mambety’s film came to a close. Touki Bouki contains moments that have the power to stick with you, but those moments are spread out between many more scenes that fall flat or pass by without much consequence. The film is the first selection off the recently-released World Cinema Project box-set from Martin Scorcese and Criterion, six films collected together from different areas of the world that have been mostly overlooked and undervalued in the history of the medium. It’s an admirable and exciting prospect to explore material from less-familiar countries, but I can’t say I was completely won over by this introductory viewing. 5/10.
Growing up as a kid, Disney productions, both animated and live-action, were a common fixture in the household. The animated classics rightly got the most playtime; the studio obviously has a wide library of genuine classics from which to draw. But there was still room for some live-action fare, and even though the ratio of hits to misses was a little more troublesome, there were still plenty of selections worth remembering. 1964’s Mary Poppins was never one of my personal favorites in those early years (I was drawn more to That Darn Cat!, The Love Bug, and The Apple Dumpling Gang, to name a few), but looking back on those live-action efforts, the film adaptation of P. L. Travers’ classic children’s book is the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Which brings us to this new film, a chronicling of how that film adaptation came to be made by Walt Disney, and how the hesitance of Travers to let go of her life’s work jeopardized the entire production.
Truthfully, there really isn’t much to say about Saving Mr. Banks other than it’s just an all-around solid film. Tom Hanks makes for a convincing Disney, but it’s Emma Thompson who deserves the most praise for her role as Travers. It’s a role that requires a talent for balancing heavy dramatics and dry comedy, an aptitude Thompson has proven many times over the years she’s more than capable of handling. The film proves equally adept at that task, striking a good balance between the comic setpieces (mostly involving Travers’ bickering with the musical Sherman brothers) and the tragic trajectory of the many flashback sequences. It also raises some interesting topics to consider: the bonds artists have with their work, the fears they can have of someone else misrepresenting their original intentions, and the notion that, once an idea is out in the open for everyone to share, it becomes something bigger than just the personal creation of one person. It’s true that the film sometimes overplays its dramatic hand and the script could certainly be criticized of playing a little too loosely with the facts, but those issues rarely take away from the many strengths on display. Fans of Mary Poppins are more than likely the ones who will get the most out of Saving Mr. Banks, but the film stands well enough on its own that even those who aren’t familiar with Disney’s Oscar-winning musical will still find qualities to admire. 7/10.
The fifth film in the Zatoichi series. After three films of consistently high quality and one with a more workmanlike feel but an undeniably strong finish, this is the first Zatoichi effort to leave behind a slightly sour aftertaste. I suppose it was bound to happen; one can’t expect such an extensive series to move along without a handful of less remarkable entries. What’s interesting about Zatoichi On The Road is that it breaks from tradition in a number of welcome areas. It’s in the clash between old and new ideas where the problems surface. The film opens with the blind swordsman once again traveling through the countryside and being ambushed by a gang of foolhardy assassins. After making quick work of his assailants, Zatoichi meets the vengeful wife of one of the fallen, who expresses the desire to make his life a living Hell. Later on, Zatoichi finds himself escorting the young and beautiful Omitsu, a woman hungrily pursued by members of two rival clans in the near vicinity.
As mentioned earlier, the general feeling I took away from the previous film in the series, Zatoichi The Fugitive, was that its memorable conclusion made up for the ho-hum material preceding it. With Zatoichi On The Road, however, it’s almost the exact opposite situation. The opening sections are actually quite strong, and keeping Zatoichi on the road for most of the film is an appreciated shift away from the usual formula. In the past, the blind swordsman’s countryside wanderings would eventually lead to a town, where the rest of the action would take place. In this film, there isn’t a set location until the very end, and that gives the narrative its own unique feel. If only the ending felt as singular. Even with the priceless moment of Zatoichi stopping mid-fight to take a drink of water from a well, the climactic showdown in this film feels all too familiar. To pull an obscure reference out of the air, there’s a quote from Johnny Depp in Secret Window that applies here: “The only thing that matters is the ending. It’s the most important part of the story, the ending.” In general, if a film finishes with a bang, it’s likely to leave behind a more positive impression than a film that finishes with a whimper. And when it comes to that endgame, Zatoichi On The Road just doesn’t quite stick the landing. 5/10.
Watching the first part of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth in the theater in late 2012 was a perplexing experience. And it wasn’t just because of the ill-fated decision to see the film in a high frame-rate screening, a decision I immediately regretted and still have nightmares about to this day. No, it was a perplexing experience because I walked out of the theater feeling almost nothing at all. That in itself was kind of a shock, especially coming from someone who still holds the original Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade ago in high regard. Had this universe lost its capacity to amaze and thrill? That was the question I took into this second part of the story in the last days of 2013. And the good news is that, if only for a handful of precious moments, The Desolation Of Smaug recaptures some of the magic that was mostly missing in An Unexpected Journey.
One could look to many areas as reason for the jump in quality, but I think what I appreciate most about this new film is that it finally feels like its own thing. An Unexpected Journey, while containing its fair share of standout setpieces, was hindered by the decision to play the nostalgia card at every turn, wheeling out familiar faces and hinting continuously at a greater threat lurking in the shadows. This seemed to diminish the urgency of the main plotline; it’s tough to get invested in the quest of a band of dwarves to reclaim their homeland when you’re constantly being reminded of a much grander story to come. With the exception of the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, this second part pushes most of the Lord of the Rings callbacks to the side, and that gives the action a fresher feel. It’s also a faster-paced film than the first, the torturously slow opening and stop-start rhythms of that introductory chapter replaced by a much more breakneck pace. There’s very little time to catch your breath, and while that makes for a wild first two hours, it does finally grows tiresome in the final stretch run. The production doesn’t quit when it’s ahead, and it’s really too bad, because with a little restraint The Desolation Of Smaug could have found a worthy place next to my memories of that first adventure through Middle-earth. 7/10.
If there is one film genre I could point to that for me offers the least amount of personal excitement, it would be the epic crime saga, the decades-spanning chronicle of the criminal’s meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall. It’s a genre that has certainly spawned its share of masterworks, and in part because of that it’s also one that feels the most burnt out. What need is there for American Gangster when we already have the likes of Scarface and City Of God and Goodfellas and Casino? Well, leave it to the director of those last two films to find a fresh approach to this age-old genre. Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, about the wild life and times of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, wisely doesn’t play its material straight. Instead, the film has the tone of a party, albeit one I would never want to frequent. Although certainly a comedy, it’s of the very blackest variety, a satire that is more often painful than it is funny. I’m sure I cringed more often than I laughed, and I’m sure that was the intention.
The way I view it, the film isn’t so much about Belfort’s hellish journey into hedonistic oblivion as it is about his rabid pack of attack dogs who blindly follow him into the fire. The scariest scenes in The Wolf Of Wall Street aren’t the ones which find Belfort and his cronies engaging in countless assortments of wild excess, but the ones where Belfort addresses his office of ravenous associates. You can see the madness in their eyes as they mindlessly chant along to their leader’s battle cries; these people have sold off their souls just for the thrill of having more. It’s those scenes that drive home the film’s main point, that somewhere along the road the values in this country took a wrong turn. Since when did these kinds of soulless, money-seeking stock peddlers become the role models for America? Perhaps that isn’t the best question to ask here. How about this instead: when the end to this 180-minute monster finally comes around, which is more distressing, the idea that Belfort gets to continue preaching his perversion of the American Dream, or that so many are eager to lap up his words? 8/10.
Top five first-time viewings in December 2013:
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf Of Wall Street
New Tale Of Zatoichi