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Entries in john goodman (4)

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
Jun202013

Monsters University

With last year’s middling, but still solid, “Brave” and 2011’s “Cars 2,” the only movie ever to receive negative reviews from the otherwise untouchable Pixar, people began to question whether or not the animation studio had lost its edge. Their warm, emotional and downright brilliant movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise had devolved into kiddie fare (as opposed to the family friendly movies that had come before and were accessible to everyone) with simplistic themes and unimpressive stories. Well, it looks like they’re back on track with “Monsters University,” a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child’s imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship.

The movie begins with Young Mike (Noah Johnston). He’s a happy-go-lucky kid with a wonderfully positive attitude despite his classmates’ negativity towards him. While on a field trip to Monsters Inc., the company responsible for scaring children and powering the monster world with their screams, he finds his calling. He’s going to be the greatest scarer that ever lived. Now he’s all grown up and Mike (Billy Crystal) is headed off to college at Monsters University. His entire life has led up to this moment and nothing will stand in the way of him achieving his dream. However, when it’s decided he’s just simply not scary, he’s taken out of Scare School along with the unfocused Sully (John Goodman). But his determination won’t keep him down, so he partners with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and his newfound frenemy to compete in the school hosted Scare Games. If they win, they’ll all be allowed back into Scare School and Mike will have a second chance at achieving his dreams.

And if you’ve seen “Monsters Inc.,” you know he doesn’t. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined.

It’s a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the “you can be whatever you want to be” message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you had planned, it’s ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths.

This is exactly the type of theme Pixar needed to tackle, one that is necessary for children, but also relatable to adults. Very few people have lived their lives and achieved their one lifelong dream, so many in the audience may be shocked to see such a truthful representation of themselves in a movie about monsters learning to scare children. As far as storytelling goes, “Monsters University” is nearly flawless, if only one little inconsistency that fails to connect the two movies didn’t rear its ugly head. In “Monsters Inc.,” Mike specifically says to Sully, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” implying that they have known each other nearly all their lives. But in “Monsters University,” they’re meeting for the first time at college. Although relatively minor in the big scheme of things, the stories of the two movies don’t connect as they should, which is a cardinal sin for any sequel or prequel.

Nevertheless, the most important aspect of “Monsters Inc.” carries over without a hitch: its amiable charm. In terms of pure wit, this is perhaps the cleverest movie Pixar has done since, well, “Monsters Inc.” As Mike walks down the main university strip on his first day, for instance, he passes by the debate team led by a monster with two heads that can’t seem to agree with each other and the improv club that can’t even improvise their pitch to get him to join. These small moments are delightful and really give the film a humorous appeal.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Pixar after their last couple films, especially when those disappointments followed their three best and most mature efforts to date, “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but they’ve renewed my faith in them after this. “Monsters University” is gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced (with additional help from John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren as the Dean of the school) and all around magical. It’s that rare film that mixes childlike wonder with adult themes while never neglecting the details that are needed to bring the world to life. “Monsters University” is a joyous experience.

Monsters University receives 5/5

Thursday
May232013

The Hangover Part III

Years from now, when people discuss the best comedies of this generation, I fully expect 2009’s “The Hangover” to feature prominently in their conversation. Although it certainly had its detractors, it was widely found to be quite funny, a consensus made by both the movie going public and the critic community. Its sequel, which can more appropriately be called a remake, was less successful in terms of quality because comedy requires the element of surprise to work and surprises were few and far between due to recycled jokes and plot lines. This week’s “The Hangover Part III” abandons the narrative structure of the previous films and successfully sets itself apart. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only things it’s successful at doing.

This time, the boys don’t have anything crazy planned. They have moved past the events from the previous two movies and are content with their lives, that is except for Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who tries to fill his emptiness with things like the purchasing of a giraffe, which he promptly and accidentally decapitates soon after. His wild life has led Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to stage an intervention. This convinces Alan to enter rehab to get his life under control, but on the way, a drug kingpin named Marshall (John Goodman) rams them off the road. It turns out Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen over $20 million in gold from him. Mr. Chow’s whereabouts are unknown since his escape from a prison near Bangkok, so he figures the Wolfpack may be able to find him. He takes Doug hostage and gives the trio three days to get his money back. Otherwise, Doug is dead.

The most common criticism that “The Hangover Part II” received was that it followed too closely to its predecessor. It’s a fair complaint, but it’s also understandable. Director Todd Phillips had something special with the first movie, a comedy that fired on all cylinders, provided plenty of laughs, had likable characters and a story with an intriguing mystery at its core. To want to recreate that magic a second time is perfectly reasonable, even if it did ultimately fail. But “The Hangover Part III” is another beast altogether. It does nothing but coast by on the franchise name and star power of its leads. It has no material to sustain a full length movie, only the thinnest of paper thin plots to move it along and jokes that oftentimes can hardly be considered such.

The jokes this time come at a far less frequent pace (and legitimate laughs even less so). Large chunks of the movie go by with nary a joke in sight, the only humorous moments coming from Galifianakis’ goofy demeanor and not from a witty script. This comes as no surprise since Galifianakis is the only one even trying, the others merely coasting by for the paycheck, clearly uninterested in what’s going on, but it’s a futile attempt. Galifianakis’ character was always written as the dimwitted one, the one that spoke before thinking, but his simplemindedness from the previous movies has now devolved into outright cruelty. Few would argue that the characters were walking examples of morality in the other movies, but much of their meanness came from name calling and harsh jokes among themselves, a normal occurrence between male friends. Here, the characters spill glasses on purpose for the house maid to clean up, verbally abuse old ladies in motorized wheelchairs and talk poorly to their mothers, to the point where Alan even wishes his mother dead.

Cruelty does not equate to comedy, a revelation made clear by recent debacles like “Bachelorette” and “Project X,” yet that’s nearly all “The Hangover Part III” has to offer. What little actual jokes it does have are unfunny or rehashes of other familiar jokes, like the model building joke from “Zoolander.” Its locations—prisons, funerals and interventions, just to name a few—simply aren’t ripe for comedy and very few movies with similar settings pull it off (the 2007 British film “Death at a Funeral” being a standout exception).

Although I’m sure many will prefer this narratively new film over the rehash that was “Part II,” this is nevertheless far worse. At least “Part II” tried. It was a lazy attempt, but it had a desire to be funny. This has no comedic flow or energy and laughs are scarce. What’s worse, the focus on Alan and Mr. Chow relegates both Stu and Phil to sidekicks who are given little to do. “The Hangover Part III” is a comedic abomination and, as a third entry to one of the funniest movies in recent memory, a colossal disappointment.

The Hangover Part III receives 1/5

Friday
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5