Monday, 27 April 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis

A week in the life of an aspiring folk singer in New York City in 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has little more than the clothes he is wearing and his guitar - that is apart form a talent to write and perform folk songs. But does he have enough talent to make it on his own? Formerly part of a duo who had a recording deal, Llewyn presents a sad and lonely character as he crashes on friends' couches in and around Greenwich Village, Manhattan.

Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He has very little Emotional Intelligence and hasn't worked out that when you are reliant on the charity of others it is best not to upset them - or get them pregnant. Those who were there at the time say that the film doesn't accurately portray the folk scene of the early 1960s. In one respect that is not important as this film doesn't set out to offer an authoritative documentary retelling of how it was. This is an act of fiction and Joel and Ethan Coen  who wrote and directed it have pulled off an engaging and thoughtful exploration of the persistent promise of artistic recognition and a record deal tomorrow.

The film is quirky and apart form his music Llewyn has little to commend him. He is unable to think beyond the here and now and unable to appreciate that his actions might have an impact on the lives of others. He has a strained relationship with his sister and is distant from his father. He seems to only worry about the possibility of pregnancy after it happens. He is seemingly unable to maintain any healthy relationships, relying instead on people taking pity on him. His orbit lies within the liberal intellectual and artistic elite of the academy and 'The Village'.

There are moments of dark and ironic humour in this film as you would expect from the Coen Brothers. However, it is not an uplifting or enlivening story - and certainly not something budding performers would gain encouragement from. Be that as it may, the film sets up a deep and enduring resonance between the subject matter of the carefully crafted folk songs Llewyn sings and the life he finds himself uncontrollably living.

The acting performances are all very natural and credible - with a great show from Carey Mulligan whom I didn't recognise at first. Justin Timberlake is convincing as her husband and John Goodman delivers a tour-de-force as the dark and sinister heroin addicted jazz musician Roland Turner.

This is a film that majors on the existential angst of the title character as it delivers a week in his life that reveals something of the inside of Llewyn Davis. We get very little back story and are left guessing why he has developed into such a hard, unlikeable and embittered character. Perhaps a forensic analysis of his songs would deliver more evidence. This is one for a rainy evening with a bottle of wine. I enjoyed it and will happily award it 8/10.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Look Both Ways

This indie Australian film by Director Sarah Watts is a thoughtful exploration of the ways people handle death and dying, and view their own mortality. This might not strike you as an immediate recipe for a happy movie watching but the central characters are warm and engaging and their developing romance over the course the weekend in which the story is set is both endearing and believable.

The film begins with a death and ends with the hope of life. Most of the existential angst that drives the film is non-religious but there are occasional engagements with questions of faith, belief and life beyond the here and now. This would be a good film perhaps for a youth group to watch and discuss - there are even a few giggles along the way. (UK 12 Certificate) Anyone who has experienced a loved one suddenly being taken seriously ill or dying will be all too aware that a natural response is a heightened sensitivity that sees every TV programme as being medical or set in a hospital and out and about there is hearse lurking around every corner!

Illness, ageing, accident, abortion and suicide all intertwine as a series of inter-connected people go about their lives at various stages of preparing for the inevitable, grieving over the loss of a loved one after a long illness or coping with the tragedy of accidental death - or was it suicide? The role of family relationships and responsibilities to older and younger relatives gets a thoughtful and useful treatment.

What the film does well, is to delve into the paranoia that can confront some people. The two central characters Meryl Lee (Justine Clarke) and Nick (William McInnes) see death all around them all the time as the film jump edits to animations depicting the scene becoming one in which people are either run over or eaten by a shark! This does become a little tiring after a while. The film does resist the temptation to offer therapy. It also doesn't delve too deeply into the psychological disturbances that give rise to our sense of the fragility of life and how we too often take good health for granted.

There's not a lot more to say without giving the plot away - such as it is. This film is subject rather than plot driven. It depicts suburban Adelaide in less than glamorous terms but that gives the film a earthiness that enhances its sense of reality. It invites a reflection on our own mortality but in a gentle way. Unless this is not a good time for you, I'd say it is worth hunting down a copy. I bought mine for £1.99 in a Hospice Charity Shop! I'll give it 7/10.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens

I want to ride in this!

See more at

and here's the trailer. Christmas is coming ....

It seems that we are have the force and therefore are all Jedi - perhaps the 2001 Census was right after all. How's your midi-chlorian count?

Friday, 10 April 2015

A Late Quartet

With a title like that you would expect the film to be about music. Well it is and it isn't. As much as music, or any of the creative arts, are conduits which allow an exploration of metaphors revealing deeper emotions, so Beethoven's opus 131, his String Quartet No. 14 becomes the metaphor for the relationships between the members of the Fugue Quartet. With an ensemble cast of this quality you know it has to be more than just a film about music. It is a film about fidelity, truth, creative expression and above all how one thing relates to another.

The world renowned Fugue Quartet have been wowing audiences world-wide for 25 years, so it is a little odd that all their demons should manifest themselves at the same time wreaking havoc on the group's dynamics and tearing relationships apart.

As musicians, each member of the quartet is a virtuoso performer. However, they have chosen for a quarter of a century to play together, to meld their creative and technical expertise into forging one super maker of music - the string quartet. It works because the individual puts the collective before themselves. All this begins to unravel when events force the leader to retire. There are many philosophical mumblings and metaphysical ruminations that punctuate the film such as

"Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always now."

These words are spoken by the cellist and leader of the quartet Peter Mitchell played with astounding depth and sensitivity by Christopher Walken who imbues the character with great emotional capital. Beethoven's opus 131 unusually has seven movements rather than the conventional four. Written near the end of his life and seen as one long passage of music through which he attempted to express his own view of life and the meaning of the universe, so the performing of the piece becomes a metaphor for the fragmenting quartet to try and do the same.

There are the usual creative tensions between following the score with meticulous precision and allowing a free and creative expression of the music. Tension between first and second fiddle, tension between a cold and frigid wife and a warm and passionate  flamenco dancer with whom the husband has a one night stand. Tension between the couple and their 25 year old daughter falling for her teacher - the fourth member of the quartet. The whole thing is almost incestuous and as pointed out by the daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) quite 'anal'.

The whole story only involves about eight actors and is set in a wintry New York City with wonderful scenes of a deserted and snow covered Central Park under clear blue skies. A further metaphor for the cold and frozen relationships that 25 years of following the elusive dream of delivering the perfect performance has created.

This film is a drama, a melodrama and also a tragedy - comedy is absent. The metaphor of the quartet with it's ability to harmonise and play off dissonance echoes the lives of its members. Walken gives a tour-de-force performance but then not far behind are Philip Seymour Hoffman and  Catherine Keener. There is also an appearance from Madhur Jaffrey - I had no idea she was also an actress!

This film is in many ways predictable and the plot far from exciting. It does however contain performances of such depth and conviction that it had me in tears two or three times. It has the ability, for me at least, to connect the viewer with the situations of the characters and so draw them into the stories that are unfolding. That is after all why we go to the cinema or buy the disc and why story is such an important thing that helps us all to make meaning. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Deer Hunter

Caught this on TV last night and had to watch it - again. It is still an extremely powerful film with great acting.

Is this a war movie that shows the setting from which a group of friends go off to to do their duty or is this a film about community, brotherhood, sacrifice and making meaning, part of which happens to involve a war? I think it is the latter.

This is a film of stark contrasts as the story oscillates between compassion and cynicism. The monotony of life centred on working at the steel mill in small town Pennsylvania. The desaturated greyness of the drab and uninspiring townscape of Clairton jars against the kaleidoscopic technicolour grandeur of the orthodox church interior and the lushness of the tropical jungles of Vietnam (shot in Thailand).

This film started shooting only two years after the end of the Vietnam war. It's visceral rawness powerfully portrays the contradictions that resonate throughout the story. The three characters at the centre of the story Mike (Robert de Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Stevie (John Savage) are joined by friends and family to celebrate Stevie's wedding to Angela (Rutanya Alda). After the celebrations the three are joined by some more friends as they head into the mountains for a final hunting trip before enlisting.

There are tensions between some of the characters with Mike always seeming to be the wise one who is in control and to whom everyone turns when they are in any kind of difficulty. In an often quoted speech, Mike says "You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen". This establishes the premise that one shot is significant and that with just one shot, a life can be taken - whether that be a deer or a closest friend.

Mike bags a deer with a single shot - a majestic stag whose dying is shown in graphic close-up, although it is apparently only the effects of being shot with a tranquilliser - a deep irony given the violence and killing of humans that permeates the film! The most controversial element of the film is the depiction of the North Vietnamese soldiers forcing their American captives to play Russian roulette while they bet on the outcome for their own amusement. There is apparently no evidence that this practice ever took place - but again it reinforces the concept of the importance of one shot and gives the audience further reason to hate the North Vietnamese.

Mike's love for Nick and Stevie and his sacrificial attempts to save them both only add to his and the collective film's sense of guilt and hopelessness. When Mike sees the home-coming celebrations that have been planned for him he tells the cabbie to drive on by - so changed is he by his experiences that he cannot face his friends. A scene that echoes with the earlier encounter at the wedding celebration with a Green Beret home on leave. Stevie - now a triple amputee cannot face returning home either and Nick only makes it in a coffin. As Mike and the group head into the mountains for another hunting trip, Mike lines up a deer in his sights only to pull up as he squeezes the trigger - 'just one shot'.

The closing scene is set with the group of friends in the bar holding their own wake after Nick's burial. John (George Dzundza) fights back his own tears of grief by starting to sing 'God bless America' and the rest of the group join in. This is an ambiguous ending to the film which throughout always avoids sliding into being patronising. With all that they have suffered and with America's ignominious defeat is that really their sentiment - or is the fact that their rendition of the song is so restrained and low key, a recognition that America really does need God's blessing? The twin themes of compassion and cynicism perfectly entwined.

The film is also noteworthy as this is Meryl Streep's first 'big' film (although a small role) and sadly John Cazale's last film as he was terminally ill with cancer as it was made and died shortly afterwards - never seeing the finished film. It won five Oscars - including Walken as best supporting actor. The haunting theme tune resonates so effectively with the story - another component that contributes to this being a top film. I'm surprised that IMDb only ranks it a 62 in the greatest 100 films and it doesn't even make the top 100 on Rotten Tomatoes - which surprises me. If I were to be critical of the film I would say it's viewpoint is very one-sided. It is also a very long film at just over three hours - but that didn't register as I watched it for the umpteenth time. For me it's worth a 9/10.