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Entries in Carey Mulligan (5)

Friday
Dec202013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most celebrated filmmakers working today. Their films, even those that fail to reach the lofty standards some have set for them, manage to be insightful, poignant and sometimes even frightening. However, their films have also been more adored by critics and film connoisseurs than the everyday filmgoer. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is perhaps their most accessible film to date. Gone are the religious complexities of “A Serious Man” or the isolating dark humor of “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading.” Instead, it’s a (mostly) straight forward drama about a struggling man trying to live day by day. It’s not their best—in fact, it hardly even feels like a Coen brothers movie at all—but its majestic musical numbers and fantastic performances elevate this well above the humdrum lesser filmmakers churn out.

Oscar Isaac, in a star making role plays the titular role of Llewyn Davis. He’s a struggling musician whose life is in the gutter. No matter what he does, seemingly everything goes wrong. After a performance one night, he’s assaulted in the alley behind the club, he’s currently homeless and living off the generosity of those closest to him who, despite their aggravation, give him a place to crash and a winter coat to wear, his solo career isn’t taking off and he even finds himself in the possession of an unwanted cat after it bolts out of one of the apartments he had been staying in. To top it all off, one of his friends and romantic flings, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, is pregnant and it might be his.

Before any of the above becomes known to the viewer, the film encapsulates it all, opening with a melancholy song about the troubles of one’s life. The folky twang of the strings, the subtle quietness of the vocals and the profundity of the lyrics set the stage perfectly for a movie that is going to be all of those things at once. A fan of folk music or not, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked in while listening to this beautiful, but heartbreaking song. Though not a musical in the traditional sense, the film is filled with similar moments like these, all coming at a time in the story that builds character, when Llewyn needs a release, something to take his mind off his troubles.

These songs are complimented wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, a typical “that guy” of cinema, one whose face is known, but the name eludes. He is magnificent here, smartly downplaying the extravagance of many musical performers and instead opting to let the pain show through. His habit of closing his eyes while performing shows not a sign of smugness, but one of passion and emotional agony. Llewyn Davis is a person who wears his emotions very close to his chest. He doesn’t let them show while out doing his day-to-day business; it’s in the quiet musical moments that they become apparent and Isaac plays it damn near perfectly in what is sure to be an underappreciated performance.

Throughout Llewyn’s journey, characters pop up and disappear as if they were never there, hardly making a blip on the overall picture’s radar. This gives the film an uneven structure, but it’s one that fits its themes, working to show the uncertainty of this man’s unhappy life. When these moments end, most are never brought up again and any type of resolution is left on the table, but it’s okay because the character himself has no resolution in sight. However, the gravity of certain stories outweighs the unobtrusiveness of others, like the aforementioned pregnancy, and it's a shame they aren’t explored in more detail. Later in the film, Llewyn even finds out he actually has a kid with a former lover, but the impact this has on his emotional state or his life in general is left frustratingly vague. Neither this nor Jean’s pregnancy have the narrative impact they should. While they should make Llewyn’s life even more complex and uncertain, they’re instead just kind of there.

The film also ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note, when you finally realize that nothing is going to be resolved, but perhaps that’s the point. This isn’t a “happy ending” type of Hollywood film, nor is it one of crushing sadness. It doesn’t leave you with hope or fear or any other feeling because Llewyn’s life has become one of apathy and the apathetic don’t bother with such feelings.

The Coen brothers have really done something interesting here. They’ve created a movie that is missing their trademark style—the style that allowed them to create jokes via the simple movement of a camera like when it passed over a corpse like a speed bump in their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”—but they haven’t lost their touch. Their abilities are downplayed and they let the performers onscreen shine. So many directors want top billing, to practically scream that they were behind it all, but there’s a refreshing lack of vanity in their approach. This isn’t going to go down as one of their best, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a treat all the same.

Inside Llewyn Davis receives 4/5

Thursday
May092013

The Great Gatsby

Like all movies, there are a number of ways to analyze, interpret and criticize director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby.” More than any other movie in recent memory, it makes a number of unusual decisions with its soundtrack and visual style that seemingly contradict with its time and place. If my screening is any indication, it will be common for the viewing audience to start giggling when a Jay-Z track pops up, given that the film is set in the 1920s, far before his style of music ever emerged onto the public scene. Some will find this decision clumsy and distracting in an otherwise straight forward drama, but others will find the soundtrack appropriate in a movie about the dichotomy between surface-deep lavish lifestyles and the true quest for happiness. I’m in the former category, unfortunately. This baffling decision, along with a number of others, takes a movie that is generally well made and interesting and turns it into something that comes off more like a self-parody.

The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) discussing the experiences he had with his millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious man living in New York that has rarely been seen, to the point where some claim him to not even exist. Nick quickly finds out he does, however, when one of his famous parties is thrown and he introduces himself. They quickly become friends and though Nick questions the stories that Mr. Gatsby tells him, he finds something oddly appealing about him. He soon realizes that Gatsby knew his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), from many years ago and had fallen in love with her. Although she’s now married to another wealthy man named Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick agrees to set them up. Things aren’t as they seem with Mr. Gatsby, however, and it’s all about to surface.

One thing you can say about director Baz Luhrmann is that he knows what he wants. With each movie he directs, he has a clear vision of how it should be and sets out to make it, with mixed results. In “The Great Gatsby,” he attempts to do what he did with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and modernize it for a new audience. Yet those attempts to make something old new again come with their drawbacks, not the least of which is the setting of the source material. As mentioned before, “The Great Gatsby” relies heavily on modern day music, including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Fergie and more. Although one’s affinity for this conflict between modern music and classic time period boils down to little more than personal preference and is not necessarily a bad idea given the tone the film is trying to convey, it’s in its usage that the film becomes seriously wounded.

Much of the early footage in “The Great Gatsby” takes place at one of Mr. Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where nearly everyone from all walks of life drop by to have a good time and, expectedly, this is where the soundtrack is most prominent. However, using it like this—as the source music for the party itself—makes the music diegetic, meaning it exists within the world of the film and not as an outside source most scores and soundtracks exist as. One can’t help but wonder how this could possibly happen in a movie with its time period planted firmly in the past. When you begin catching extras or minor characters in the background singing the words, it really becomes tough to swallow.

This isn’t an isolated example, however. This problem of conflicting styles and settings is indicative of the entire film. The bright, exaggerated colors and excessive use of obviously superficial CGI backgrounds sometimes make this thing feel more like an adaptation of a graphic novel than a classic novel. The vertigo shots, slow motion and onscreen text similarly add flair to a story that doesn’t particularly need it. Frankly, the story is interesting enough without these supposed upgrades. Mr. Gatsby, as portrayed by DiCaprio in yet another knockout performance, is a wonderful character, one with a rich past and a terrific personality, yet he has skeletons in his closet. He has secrets that nobody else knows about. If you aren’t familiar with the source material, you may even question whether this man is good or bad due to a terrific balancing act and great display of skilled storytelling. Likewise, its themes, regardless of how closely one might argue it does or does not stick to the novel, are interesting, showing the power to love as a man’s greatest strength and, depending on how one approaches it, his greatest weakness.

This is a good story with good ideas and great performances that is told well. Furthermore, the tone and style of the film do indeed form a cohesive whole, but it left me cold. Its style, despite its cohesion, is misplaced. Sitting through “The Great Gatsby” is a frustrating endeavor because one can’t help but recognize that the final product almost certainly matches the director’s intentions, yet one must remember that the director’s intentions aren’t always of sound reasoning. This is a film that is surely going to be divisive due to this, but given its title, I personally expected something a little better.

The Great Gatsby receives 2/5

Friday
Sep162011

Drive

Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5

Friday
Sep242010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Being a movie critic sometimes means having to go back and watch older films to prepare for new ones. If something is being remade, it’s my duty to watch the original first. The same rule applies to sequels. In some cases, it doesn’t really matter, but in others, it is absolutely crucial to be up to date on the story. Such is the case with Wall Street. Having just watched it only 24 hours before the sequel entitled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I believe I appreciate it more than I would have had I not. Although outdated, that 1987 drama was solid and entertaining. The modern sequel is pretty much the same.

The movie begins with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) getting out of jail after serving eight years in a federal prison. He has lost everything: his money, his family and his friends. Flash forward seven years and we meet Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a “Wall Street guy” that is in a relationship with Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), despite her hatred brought on by her father for anything associated with Wall Street. After the death of Jake’s mentor and friend, he meets and begins a casual relationship with Gekko, much to Winnie's disapproval, vowing to take revenge on Bretton James (Josh Brolin), his hedge fund manager that he suspects led his mentor to suicide.

I’m not a business man and I don’t pretend to be. The workings of Wall Street are confusing to me. When to buy, when to sell, what the repercussions are if you’ve invested stock in a company that goes under; all of that boggles my mind. Throw in equity loans, leverage, bailouts, insider training and a scheme to somehow take a multi-billionaire down by making him more money, and my brain begins to hurt.

Fortunately, this movie, nor its predecessor, is too concerned with all of that. The nature of the movie says those things must exist, but the story and messages are easy to decipher. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is about greed and how it corrupts individuals into partaking in illegal activities, even if that means hurting those close to them. Within the film, that simple, prevalent theme works.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t go further by relating it to our country now. When asked if their company was going under, Jake’s mentor casually says, “Who isn’t?” At one point, the movie mentions how those laid off by a failing company eventually end up with “no income, no job and no assets.” But those are merely passing statements. It never truly makes a point on how jobs and our economy have been affected by, among other things, corruption on Wall Street.

Given Oliver Stone’s political slant, it comes as surprising that those areas weren’t explored to give the movie a bit more intellectualism, but no matter. The actors, specifically Michael Douglas, do a fine job of keeping our attention. As mentioned, watching Wall Street prior to the sequel boosted my enjoyment, and here’s how. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, Gordon Gekko went from being the villain in the original to the hero here. He is shown in a much more sympathetic light and, try as you might, you will come to like and understand the old guy. His life experiences, which include his time in jail, have made him more aware of what really matters in life, telling Jake at one point, “Money is not the prime asset in life. Time is.” He still does some bad things—after all, old habits are hard to break—but he’s a human being this time and, more than anything else in the world, wants to be there for his daughter, though she has rejected him ever since he has been in jail. Walking out of the gates for the first time in eight years, he expects Winnie to be there waiting for him. When she isn’t, sadness sweeps over his face. Watching the evolution of character from one movie to the next was fascinating and Douglas gives a wonderful performance.

Nevertheless, this is still a messy movie. Stone goes overboard with distracting visual excess, including the use of wipes and split screen, and there’s a subplot involving Jake’s mother that fits no logical place in the story and should have been cut. In another 23 years, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may be just as outdated as its predecessor—besides, business changes and Wall Street does along with it—but good drama is good no matter what time period and, despite some shortcomings, this movie works.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps receives 3/5

Friday
Sep242010

Never Let Me Go

It seems that 2010 is the year of underwhelming films. So many movies with so much potential have come out and struggled to reach the top. Special people with real talent have come together and delivered quality, but few have been worthy of consideration on a best of the year list. Last week’s The Town was one of those movies. Never Let Me Go is another. A handful of great performers team up with a prized director in what is yet again a good, but all the same disappointing, film.

In the early 1960’s, medical science had a breakthrough that expanded the life expectancy of humans to over 100 years. Unfortunately, it required harvesting the organs of people genetically engineered specifically for that purpose, which, consequently, killed them in the process. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are three of those people. They were friends as children, but now they’re all grown up and Tommy and Ruth have begun a romantic relationship while Kathy remains alone. Perhaps because of this, Kathy decides to become a “carer,” a person who comforts donors as they go through their period of giving away their organs. The trio has now grown apart, having not seen each other in 10 years, but Kathy soon finds out that Ruth has been called upon to donate, which brings them together again.

Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go feels like it was adapted literally page by page. Although I haven’t read it, I say this because novels tend to move a bit slower, taking more time to flesh out its details. What the movie does is skip over the details while keeping the sluggish pace.

And its slow pacing is a problem because there's a general lack of connection to the characters. Although it’s emotionally complex, it’s also curiously flat. The characters go through a range of feelings—happiness, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, rage and regret—but there’s a detachment between them and the audience. We don't feel what they do. Their world feels faked and the ending doesn’t work because of a disregard for character building. So little time was spent crafting a believable connection between the two end characters (whom shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers) that I cared little about what happened to them. I was always aware I was watching a movie.

Although Never Let Me Go stumbles in its character development, it is thematically rich and offers up plenty to think about and discuss. It may tackle similar territory as something like Repo Men or Repo! The Genetic Opera, but this movie isn’t simply about blood and violence. It asks what makes one person more valuable than another. It wonders if cloned organisms can be considered actual living things or merely soulless tools with which to slaughter and use at our behest. It even shows the benefit of one person sacrificing their life to save another, an allegory for a number of things, including war.

There’s a certain scariness to Never Let Me Go, similar to what I imagine it would be like to be on death row. These characters know their fate is sealed. They know one day they will be summoned to die and, once summoned, it's like a ticking clock counting down to the end. It’s an unsettling thought, one I would never want to live with. I suppose that’s where the movie impresses the most. It’s dramatically lacking, but it still keeps you hooked because it deftly explores morality and mortality, knowing full well that death is too often caused by the hands of others.

Never Let Me Go receives 3.5/5