Category Archives: indie films

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

The Circle: Social Media and the End of Privacy

The Circle, a Netflix original movie, will appeal to fans of the UK series Black Mirror. Each episode of that series was a dark, dystopian look at modern technology and how things that seem to be making life better also have truly sinister consequences. In the case of The Circle, the issues examined are privacy and the prospect of a completely transparent society where all of our actions can be viewed by the public at all times.

The Circle has a well-known and high-quality cast, especially for a movie without a theatrical release. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a young woman who gets an entry level job at a company that’s sort of a combination of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tom Hanks is the charismatic and megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-type cult figure who runs the company known as The Circle. Also appearing are Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, known for her role in Dr. Who.

At first, The Circle evokes familiar images of ultra-hip work environments such as the Google Campus. The setting is Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The campus has the kind of amenities normally associated with a cruise ship. At the same time, the atmosphere is eerily cultlike and employees are all but compelled to socialize constantly, weekends included, and report all of their doings on The Circe’s own social media site.

Mae, at first skeptical of the company’s all-pervasive technology (which includes a mini-camera that can take in entire scenes without being noticed, supposedly to help expose abuses of power) but who is gradually drawn into the mystique. For one thing, her father is suffering from MS and the company helps him with its cutting edge medical technology. Then, she impulsively goes out in a kayak late at night and almost drowns -thanks to The Circle’s cameras, however, she is observed and saved. Then she agrees to participate in an experiment where her life is broadcast 24/7 – sort of like a Truman Show, only in this case the star/victim knows she’s being filmed all the time.

We can question the realism of The Circle -especially the idea that someone like Mae could so quickly go from “guppy” (the company’s cutesy name for new employees) to one of its most powerful and influential spokespeople in a matter of weeks. There are also some actions taken by The Circle that would most likely have been prevented by the company’s legal team to avoid lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

As with Black Mirror, however, it’s best to view the movie as a kind of sci-fi thought experiment and parable rather than hold it to a strict standard of realism. The Circle raises fascinating questions about two opposing values: the right to privacy vs. the benefits of a completely transparent society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and darkly ironic, which leaves the fundamental questions open-ended.

Doomsdays: Dark Comedy About Antisocial Slackers

Doomsdays (2013), written and directed by Eddie Mullins, is an original, low budget independent film with a truly anarchistic spirit. Quietly released in 2013, it is now available on Netflix, where it will gain a wider audience.

The film is, on the surface, a kind of slacker comedy about a pair of drifters, Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose way of life consists of breaking into people’s vacation homes and living off the food and, even more so, booze that they find. Fred is a pure hedonist and nihilist, who is mainly interested in consuming alcohol and having sex. Bruho is an angry idealist who is obsessed with the impending end of civilization due to oil running out (also known as peak oil). To express his disapproval of modern bourgeois existence, Bruho vandalizes every automobile he encounters. He also has a tendency to hit people who get in his way.

The pair aren’t criminals in the ordinary sense, they aren’t very interested in money or valuables. They are, rather, expressing their own version of a Robin Hood fantasy, feeding off the excesses of those who, in their view, possess way more than they need. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other misfits -an overweight teenager named Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) and a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell).

Complications ensue when Fred and Reyna become romantically involved and Jaidon tags along. However, the movie is really about the daily lives of the characters and the plot meandering and incidental. There is virtually no backstory to Doomsdays -Fred and Bruho do what they do, reveal portions of who they are, but there is no explanation of how they met or ended up choosing their improbable existence. Jaidon’s past or reasons for following the pair are never mentioned. Reyna, the most superficially normal of the group, is the only character whose past is revealed at all.

Doomsdays is a darker film than it first appears. The duo first appear like clownish slackers who harmlessly prank middle class homeowners. Yet, unlike most movie slackers, these two are not especially likable or sympathetic. Fred is a casual liar and possibly a narcissist, while Bruho is a sullen character whose anger at the system seems like an excuse to avoid facing his own personal demons. Mullins doesn’t try to romanticize these characters; they are neither heroes or villains, but, at best, fledgling anti-heroes.

There is mostly low key violence throughout the film, reminding us that even supposedly non-violent acts of theft, vandalism and trespass can easily lead to bodily harm. When a more serious act of violence occurs, it is treated rather casual way.

The film this most reminded me of is a fairly obscure German film from 2003 called The Edukators, about a group of young anarchists who break into people’s homes and rearrange the furniture.

I also detected an underlying similarity to a much darker film, A Clockwork Orange. Though not nearly as violent or shocking, Doomsdays has a similar tone in some ways. Both films deal with characters who are completely alienated from society and who regard normal people as intrinsic enemies to be preyed upon. As the title suggests, these are people for whom society has already collapsed and are just making the best of its remnants. Only Bruho has anything resembling a cause, and for him it’s far too late to save the world so all he can do is strike out against those he blames for its downfall.

I could even recognize shades of Larry Clark’s style of nihilism, as revealed in films such as Kids, in Doomsayers. Yet Mullins’ style is more quirky and low key than anything by Clark or Kubrick’s style in A Clockwork Orange.

The above probably makes Doomsdays sound heavier and more depressing than it actually is. Most of the film’s tone is light and there are more than a few laughs –mainly at the sheer audacity of the group’s actions, especially when they encounter disbelieving homeowners.

Doomsdays is an interesting, entertaining, quasi-political film that is certainly more compelling and original than 95% of what’s being released these days. To his credit, Mullins doesn’t make any attempt to explain, justify, glorify or demonize his little band of thieves. We just get to see them in action for a while and get to make of them what we will.

Glass Chin: Postmodern Boxing Noir

Glass Chin (2014), directed by Noah Buschel and starring Corey Stoll and Billy Cruddup is an interesting hybrid of a film and one of the most interesting and entertaining offerings I’ve found on Netflix in some time. It combines characteristics of Rocky with older (as in 40s and 50s) films about washed up boxers with some 70’s-style Martin Scorcese and 90’s style Quentin Tarantino thrown into the mix. The result may not be seamless perfection, but it’s engaging, intelligently written and has a story that’s actually compelling rather than a mindless sequence of action scenes that you usually find in this type of genre.

Stoll plays Bud, an ex-boxer who is torn between training a promising young prospect and working for a sinister bookie named J.J. (Cruddup). He and his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) live in a working class New Jersey neighborhood but discuss philosophy as they sit in diners. Even the film style of Glass Chin is a hybrid, between old school gritty and extremely stylized shots of city streets, more like you’d find in a French film. The effect, however, is always interesting. I especially enjoyed the dialog, which takes up a good part of the time, a fact that will no doubt bore some viewers.

This is mainly a character (and dialog) driven film with a rather simple plot. It contains not one but two outlandish psychopaths, J.J., a very up to date thug who admires Steve Jobs and owns an art gallery and his volatile assistant Roberto (Yul Vasquez). Bud is hired to collect money from gamblers who owe J.J. money and accompanies Roberto on these shakedowns. During one of these incidents, Roberto commits a murder and Bud is framed, all so that J.J. can compel him to fix a fight.

Glass Chin is full of contradictions. It’s a boxing film with no fight scenes (save seeing boxers train in a gym). It’s a gangster film with no on-screen violence. It’s an old school, noirish film with very stylized scenes more reminiscent of European cinema. It also ends on an inconclusive note that is somewhat frustrating.

The title refers to Bud’s own glass chin, as he was infamously knocked out to end his own boxing career (in what may or may not have been an honest fight). Yet it refers equally to his moral weakness, how easily he gets sucked into J.J.’s corrupt world due to his own dissatisfaction with his ordinary life.

This is actually one of the film’s central themes –the conflict between the ordinary and the glamorous. J.J., who owns a snow leopard, shuns the ordinary at all costs, while Ellen, a student of Buddhism, embraces it. Bud is a tragic character caught in the middle and doomed by his inability to choose.

Hits: Satire Misses the Mark

Hits (2014), directed by David Cross, has the appearance of a low budget indie comedy, yet features some serious talent -Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh and Julia Stiles even makes a cameo appearance. This is the type of film that I found on Netflix and approached with low expectations. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what seemed like a sharp and original satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together and derails completely in the final scenes.

Hits refers to “hits” on sites like YouTube, not contract killings, a more likely guess for a movie title. It seems that with Hits, Cross is trying to do a Tom Wolfe-like satire for the internet/reality show age. The targets, however, are a few too numerous and the tone uneven. We have several distinct characters inhabiting separate universes that intersect uneasily and in an often contrived manner.

Walsh plays Dave, the type of continually outraged populist misfit who listens to talk radio, writes angry letters to the newspaper and gives long-winded tirades at town board meetings. All places, especially small towns, have characters who are very similar to Dave, and Walsh nails this part very well. The problem is, Hits tries to tack on too many other elements and personalities. Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), is a young woman obsessed with becoming a reality TV star and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve fame, despite being rather limited in the talent department. Hagner is quite good in this role, but by now satirizing reality TV and the obsession with fame is a fairly worn out cliché. While Hits tries to be original by combining the stories of Dave and Katelyn, they don’t really mix.

Further complicating matters are a trio of Brooklyn activist-hipsters who decide to take up Dave’s cause. This is a fairly contrived and unlikely scenario, but since this is a comedy we can give the film this much. The hipsters travel from the city to Liberty and immediately experience culture shock. It’s worth noting that there is a town called Liberty in upstate NY, but certain elements are changed in the film (e.g. the real town is in Sullivan County; in the film, it’s called something else).

The most troubling aspect of Hits is that it can’t make up its mind whether the characters are misguided but sympathetic misfits we should root for or completely contemptible losers deserving our disdain. This is most true of Dave, who, for most of the film, rails harmlessly against potholes and the lack of snow removal services on his block but, inexplicably, turns into a raving racist in the last ten minutes.

There is also an implication that the whole town consists largely of ignorant racists, as when another character tells the hated hipsters to “go back to Jew York.” This comment, apart from its offensiveness, misses the mark culturally,as this is supposedly a town in New York State and only two hours from the city. The real Libery, NY happens to be located in the middle of what used to be called the Borscht Belt, with a large Jewish population. The cultural contrast between Brooklyn and Liberty is just too exaggerated to be credible, even for a satire. The conflict between rednecks and hipsters would have been more believable if the film were set in rural Texas and the hipsters were from Austin.

In addition to making derogatory remarks about Obama, blacks, Jews and Muslims, Dave says “I know its true because Alex Jones says so.” Apart from the fact that well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones isn’t known for making racist remarks, this type of quote just makes Dave sound like a complete idiot, which undercuts the sympathy he garners in other scenes, such as his interactions with his daughter.

Katelyn is similarly ambiguous. Is she sweet and naive or a manipulative bitch? This ambiguity comes to the surface when a sleazy recording studio owner attempts to convince her to have sex with him in exchange for a reduced rate when she can’t afford his services to make a demo tape. Katelyn, like Dave, is alternately sympathetic and contemptible. As for the Brooklyn hipsters, they are mainly just over-the-top ridiculous, if amusing at times. At one point, the film is on the verge of making a valid and interesting point -that liberal, left-leaning urbanites have more in common with populist, conservative small town folk than you might think at first. However, by the end, everyone is cynically skewered, and not in a way that’s especially insightful or funny.

If Hits were a dark satire along the lines of, say, Citizen Ruth, which succeeds at lampooning both sides of the abortion argument, its cynicism would be justified. But this film manages to be ambiguous and slightly offensive without being especially insightful. It’s just funny enough to be entertaining -at least until the last few minutes -but it could have been much better if it had a more targeted objective. For a film that aims for hard-edged social satire, Hits, despite some strong performances and promising early scenes, misses the mark in too many areas.

The Longest Week Review

The Longest Week (2014), directed by Peter Glanz, is an unapologetically derivative comedy/drama that attempts to mimic the genre once dominated by (arguably created by) Woody Allen –the world of affluent yet neurotic New Yorkers. Glanz also picks up stylistic gimmicks from directors such as Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Walt Stillman (Metropolitan, Swingers). Unfortunately, The Longest Week falls far short of anything created by any of these directors, even some of the latter Woody Allen entries.

In a roundabout way, this film reminded me of some of the films that came out in the late 90s and early 00s. Following the success of Pulp Fiction, there was a glut of instantly forgettable Tarantino-influenced films that attempted to mimic that director’s distinctive use of dialogue, violence and time manipulation. Most of them were dismal failures. In a similar way, The Longest Week throws together many of the elements of the best Woody Allen films: impressive décor, wealthy and sophisticated intellectuals suffering from existentialist crises, wayward romances, witty banter and the inevitable sessions with a psychoanalyst -yet it doesn’t add up to anything meaningful or even entertaining.

The film opens with the lead character, Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman) in a session with his long-suffering analyst. There’s even an Allen-esque Jazz soundtrack in the background, so there’s no doubt what type of film this one is attempting to imitate/pay homage to/rip off/satirize. Another gimmick is a retro atmosphere in the middle of an apparently contemporary New York City. People all seem to use landline rotary phones rather than smartphones.

The entire premise of The Longest Week seems contrived and unbelievable. Valmont, heir to a family who owns a luxurious hotel across from Central Park, has suddenly been cut off from his cozy and idle lifestyle. Somehow, his parents getting divorced means that at almost 40 years old, he is being kicked out of his suite and is suddenly broke. Not only does this seem unlikely, but Bateman himself is unable to convey any real concern here. When he tells a sympathetic chauffeur that this will all soon blow over, the audience cannot help but share this sentiment.

Conrad spends this “longest week” mooching off his equally dissolute friend Dylan (Billy Crudup) and a woman named Beatrice (Olivia Wilde), whom both men are romancing. Despite numerous scenes of angst, arguments and betrayal among these three, nothing is really at stake here. Dylan is a character very similar to Conrad; a successful artist who lives in a huge hipster loft. Beatrice is a model with a likewise cushy New York City lifestyle.

Much of the dialogue that is supposed to be witty is actually quite tedious. Having much of it delivered by an invisible narrator (Larry Pine) is a pointless and overused device that doesn’t help matters here. It only drives in the fact that the characters are unable to convey many things on their own. For example, the narrator has to tell us how irresistible Conrad is to Olivia. Otherwise, how can it be explained that they meet on a subway, when he merely glances at her and she hands him her phone number?

The Longest Week also uses the postmodern device of self-criticism that is designed to make its flaws forgivable. It’s as though Glanz was hedging his bets. If we don’t find the story and characters as charming as they find themselves, we can at least see that the script is clever enough to critique itself. There is even an acknowledgment that Conrad’s “pseudo intellectual” conversations are tedious. The most blatant example of this, however, is towards the end of the film, when Conrad is reading from an autobiographical novel. Someone in the audience delivers a pointed criticism of the book (and hence the film we’re watching), saying that the supposed transformation the protagonist undergoes is trivial.

On a similar note, a minor character (unfortunately) named Jocelyn (Jenny Slate) who is a student of postmodern literary criticism at one point ridicules the banality of the world Conrad, Dylan and Beatrice inhabit. The problem is that Jocelyn, while apparently dismissed as an annoying buzzkill, is actually right on the mark and is actually one of the more likable characters in the movie. If The Longest Week was created as a parody of the kind of films it’s imitating, this type of device might be effective. There’s not, however, enough humor here for it to be considered parody or satire. Much of the supposedly witty dialogue in this film, as well as its many literary references, lack any substance. It’s as though words and references are dropped just to remind us that we’re in sophisticated company.

Dylan, for example, is introduced as an “anti-social socialist.” Whether this is a clever bon mot or not, nothing in the film suggests he is any type of socialist. We meet Beatrice reading a Jane Austen novel. She is supposedly trying to model herself according to the standards of Victorian literature; yet nothing in her manner or actions lends credence to this.

Conrad at one point draws an analogy between his relationship with Beatrice and Pygmalion. Another high-brow literary reference, but one that has nothing to do with the story. Beatrice runs in the same social circles as Conrad and Dylan; she’s not someone who needs to be educated and introduced to high society. Other authors, such as Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald are similarly mentioned without purpose -other than to elevate the mood. The same way B action movies throw in pointless car chases, fights and explosions, this film sticks in literary references, impressive architecture and lots of classical music.

Watching The Longest Week actually gives me more appreciation for directors such as Woody Allen. A film like this reveals that it takes more than throwing in a bunch of cultural references and self-consciously witty repartee to create a compelling story. If there is a contemporary director who has managed to take up where Woody Allen left off, it’s probably Noah Baumbach. In his film, Greenberg, for example, Ben Stiller (in one of his best performances) creates the kind of immature, overeducated, underachieving misanthropic character that is somewhere between hero and antihero.

Bateman as Conrad, though he is aiming for something similar here, never manages to pull this off. He is not particularly likable or charming, but he’s not blatantly unlikable either. He just seems like a decent actor doing his best with material that is pointless and futile.

Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”


Inside Llewyn Davis Review

Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.

The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.

Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.

In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.


Joe: Nicolas Cage in Grim Southern Gothic Tale

Joe (2013)
Directed by David Gordon Green

Joe is a grim, gritty, low key yet violent drama set in modern day rural Texas, but it could just as easily have been set 50 years, or even a Western set over a century ago. Nicolas Cage plays the title character Joe, an ex-convict who struggles with alcohol, a violent temper and a self-destructive streak. He leads a group of men who, fittingly enough, spend their days killing trees (so that stronger ones may be planted later). When a teenage boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in another gritty rural melodrama, Mud) shows up needing a job, Joe takes the troubled boy under his wing.

Gary has an abusive, alcoholic father (expertly played by Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor who died shortly after the film was made) and a mute sister. Both Gary and Joe are targeted by a psychotic local named Willie who was slapped by Joe in a bar fight. The plot here, however, almost seems secondary. These seem like characters who are so hard up and haunted by inner demons that they fabricate conflicts with one another to have a target for their rage and disappointments. Joe can be seen as a hybrid of several genres -coming of age, Southern Gothic and violent revenge melodrama.

The film is full of despair, hopelessness and senseless violence. The most violent scene depicts a brutal murder committed for no motive beyond one downtrodden character wanting to steal a bottle of booze from a weaker, even more downtrodden character. When Joe, ostensibly the hero, gets annoyed that a dog barks at him, he orders his own pit bull to kill the other dog. Joe also seems intent on returning to prison as he regularly taunts and provokes the local cops into arresting him.

There are a couple of other films that Joe reminded me of. Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is cut from the same cloth. Like Joe, that film has many amateur local actors (that one is set in Appalachia rather than Texas) and evokes the hardness and casual violence of life among the rural poor. Another film, probably even less well known, that covers similar territory is Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the 2003 documentary directed by Andrew Douglas, also set in the Appalachian region.

If Joe has a fault it has nothing to do with the performances, which are all top notch, starting with Cage, who is in everything from silly Hollywood blockbusters to fascinating offbeat works such as Wild At Heart. The darkness and grimness of Joe, however, sometimes borders on parody. This is a world where no one even seems to have electricity, as most of the night scenes are shot in dim rooms (they do have TVs, though, so apparently the darkness is to maintain the mood). At one point, Joe gives Gary a windup clock so he can wake up for work -even basic timepieces are exotic in this neck of the woods.

Joe is a gripping, well-acted film that explores an America usually hidden from view. Though it ends on a tentatively upbeat, if appropriately somber note, it certainly won’t leave you feeling very positive about the prospects of the human species.


Winter’s Bone

2010
Directed by Debra Granik

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389361/

I’m Obsessed With You movie review

I’m Obsessed with You (But You’ve Got to Leave Me Alone), the 2014 film directed by Jon Goracy, is one of several new indie films currently available for streaming on Hulu. This is an interesting, somewhat experimental movie based on a play by Genevieve Adams (who is also in the cast).

The film follows the lives of a group of college friends who meet in an improv group on a liberal arts college campus. Improv, the style of spontaneous theater where the players take suggestions from the audience, serves as the underlying theme of the entire movie. Essentially, the film is an exploration of what might happen if people refuse to acknowledge a distinction between (improve style) theater and real life.

The main rule of improve, we are reminded is to “always say yes!” As you might imagine, trying to live by this commandment could make life complicated. This concept makes for an often fascinating, though at times confusing, storyline, where it’s not always clear what is supposed to be happening and what is imagined. For example, throughout the film we hear voiceovers of (presumably hypothetical) obituaries for the characters. The film also skips around in time quite a bit. Around halfway through, it began to sink in that it would be pointless to try to see I’m Obsessed With You as having any type of conventional linear plot.

The characters, played by Adams, Rachel Broshnahan, Manish Dayal, Thomas McDonnell and Jason Ralph, get involved in a variety of romantic triangles, career related mishaps and suffer from the type of existential crises and mood disorders typical of bohemians and people who attempt to allow their lives to be dictated by art.

Movies based on plays usually tend to be dialog-heavy and this one, which is overtly about the medium of theater, is certainly no exception. Still, much of the dialogue is witty and insightful and the performances are strong. This is not a movie for everyone, but fans of improv -or anyone interested in the possibility of a life that remains true to art at all costs- should find it worthwhile.