Category Archives: Reviews

THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 (2014) – FILM REVIEW

THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 - FILM REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT

THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 (2014)

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**

I’m a bit behind with my film reviews presently because I was busy preparing and performing in my comedy show ROCK N DROLL at the Brighton Fringe Festival.  Thus, because I was wowing an army of fans over three nights (77 people total approx.) on the South Coast I am now playing a bit of catch-up on the reviews.  Overall, Brighton Fringe Festival was fantastic and I am grateful to Laughing Horse Comedy, The Hobgoblin and the 77 people (and the dog at Sunday’s show) for the helping make it a success.  From small victories BIG battles are won.

Talking of big battles there aren’t quite enough of them for my liking in THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2.    There is a tremendous opening sequence with Peter Parker/Spiderman fighting what I thought would be one of the main villains — Paul Giamatti’s criminally underused Aleksei Sytsevich — while desperately attempting to get to his graduation ceremony.  If it all feels a little familiar the ghost of Sam Raimi’s Millenium Spiderman series hangs heavy like the Reaper’s scythe over this and Marc Webb’s previous Spiderman film.  The imaginary blade waits there in my mind comparing and contrasting ready to swing the final blow where I just say, “Nah!  Sam Raimi’s films were much better! Thumb down! Off with its’ head.”

I must say though that this is high quality filmmaking of the blockbuster kind and it’s very hard not to like it. Perhaps, I’m asking too much but despite all the stellar work from the whole cast and technical crew I just didn’t connect with this one totally. I mean, I like Andrew Garfield as an actor but feel he’s better as a dramatic actor than cheeky superhero. My choice would’ve been Joseph Gordon Levitt but perhaps he’s too old now.  Anyway, Emma Stone is stunning and so good in this while Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti and Jamie Foxx are all excellent but spread far too thin across the narrative.  DeHaan and Foxx especially deserved much better for their respective energies and ability. Foxx is an Oscar winner goddamit!!  And if you want to see what DeHaan can do then please watch Chronicle (2012) an amazingly good anti-superhero film and the best found-footage film I’ve ever seen.

There’s a lot of story in this sequel dubbed The Rise of Electro.  In fact it has more lines than Tony Montana’s big mahogany desk at the end of Scarface. We have Peter Parker’s on-off romance (yawn!) with gorgeous Gwen Stacy; the mysterious disappearance of his parents (again); his reconnection with school friend Harry Osborn; attempting to keep his Spiderman identity secret from Aunt May (again); and the main foe — lowly Max Dillon — Electro causing New York an energy bill that would make Bill Gates weep.   Alas, the romantic stuff takes a huge chunk out of the other more interesting stories and the action I craved.

I cannot fault the screenwriting team for their effort by trying to entertain the audience but at times I felt overwhelmed as each storyline was elbowed out of the way by the next one; with the narrative jigsaw not quite joining together satisfactorily as a whole. I really wanted to get involved in Max Dillon’s story as a lowly downtrodden OsCorp operative but his origins story isn’t given much time.  As a villain there isn’t much focus other than he idolises Spiderman.  I mean what happened to the vengeful employee as motivation?  I really wanted this humble man to cause even more havoc than he does but he’s imprisoned for some time after his capture.

Another storyline which is dealt with too briskly is Harry Osborn’s relationship with his father Norman (Chris Cooper) which feels like it has fallen straight out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s superlative Magnolia (1998).  Nonetheless, I thought oh, this is interesting, how will this pan out?  He’s dead.  Okay?  Did Harry kill him in anger?  No. Norman Osborn just died.  Oh.  We’re now back to Parker and Stacy’s on-off relationship.  I DON’T CARE!  It’s been half-an-hour since some stuff was blown up. Get back to that please?!?!?!?!

Marc Webb is a fine and dandy director as he proved with the brilliant bittersweet anti-rom-com 500 Day’s of Summer but personally I don’t feel he was the right choice for the Spiderman reboots.  His Spiderman films feel too mature and not fun enough. They feel like have TOO much humanity and feelings. His camera is not kinetic enough and the beautiful wide vistas painted on screen don’t get us into the action quickly enough for me.  I mean to get this kind of gig after a successful debut film is pretty amazing but he’s certainly a filmmaker to watch and perhaps his risk-taking and stylistic hands are somewhat tied by a big studio picture such as this. Arguably, perhaps he’s TOO GOOD an artist for this kind of movie.  Just a thought.

I feel like I am being very critical of what is a very decent piece of entertainment but it’s only because I was disappointed that I pretty much had to sit through what was another Spiderman “origins” film.  Because let’s face it the The Amazing Spiderman (2012) wasn’t great. But The Amazing Spiderman 2 has some incredible action notably the Times Square battle between Electro and Spiderman and an absolute spell-binding ending which pulled the dramatic rug from out under my feet.  Moreover, in establishing Dane DeHaan’s devilish Green Goblin the third film promises to be pretty sweet.  I just hope they put the family and romance stuff a bit more to the fringes and concentrate on all-out action.  He is the AMAZING Spiderman after all!!  I’m greedy I want to be more AMAZED for my money!  If I want more young-adult romance from ridiculously attractive people I’ll watch Gossip Girl  or god forbid Hollyoaks! Then again the dramatic unexpected ending does redeem much of this and for the wonderful cast, cracking musical score (Hans Zimmer et al take a bow) and a couple of (not enough though) superb set-pieces the entry fee was worth my hard-earned cash.

BRICK MANSIONS (2014) – FILM REVIEW

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Now, I probably should explain that my rule for this blog is to review EVERY film I see at the CINEMA!   So, why did I go to see this ridiculous excuse for a film at the picture house? Well, mainly because I am an addict and I was getting cold turkey because I hadn’t been to the cinema in a while (10 days) and needed a fix.  But rather than getting the good gear I ended up with a pale shadow of a hit from D-movie BRICK MANSIONS.

It’s my own fault I was tired and chose something that wouldn’t test my intelligence too much. And while it’s a well-edited, pacy film with some okay plot twists throughout there is no way I could recommend this to anyone with one-tenth of a brain and still retain the incredible respect my fans have for me.

It’s a remake of an earlier Luc Besson written/produced movie called District 13 (2004); the kind of unpretentious, slickly crafted and brainless film  Besson’s production arm has been churning out with regular abandon for years.  Arguably the best of these are The Transporter and Taken series which rely on the ample talents of Jason Statham and Liam Neeson to propel the action and narratives.  Paul Walker, alas, is no Statham as he doesn’t have the former diver’s brutish personality or scrapping skills and neither does he have Neeson’s actorial stature, style or  power for smashing up generic bad guys.

Ultimately Paul Walker is such a generic an actor the best way to describe him would be like that of a poor man’s Paul Walker. My favourite film of his was a fun Tarantino knock-off called Running Scared (2006). I urge you to see Running Scared as it is a brilliant twisty-turny, explosive GTA-esque little thriller also starring under-rated Vera Farmiga.  Of course, Walker’s star shines well in the American  movie version of Top Gear; the cash-making-franchise-behemoth-Fast-and-Furious series.

Having said that Walker is/was very likeable, good looking and while lacking in personality his bright blue-eyes carry Brick Mansions along at but overall fail to mask the execrable direction, embarrassing dialogue over-dubs and dreadful acting of his co-stars, notably the RZA who is so wooden his next role should be <insert wooden furniture based pun/analogy here>.  The film does have a plot which is pretty much lifted from Escape From New York (1981).   But it’s nowhere nearly as good as the Carpenter classic although it does feature some fine parkouring skills from master of the physical art David Belle;here playing a nippy career criminal at odds with the RZA’s ridiculous mob boss. These various characters fight, jump over, run, get handcuffed and strap bombs to each other in the deprived, urine-soaked hell-hole called Brick Mansions; a segregated part of Detroit which homes just criminals and lower-runged members of American society.   There’s a piss-poor attempt at social commentary and critique of corrupt officials and politicians but basically it’s laughable.

Walker plays another in a long line of maverick cops but what lets this film down is he has no code or specific set of skills (like Statham/Neeson) or even characterisation and it’s left to the parkour-man Belle to give the action some oomph. I mean it’s entertaining enough, has some crunching violence and fun fight scenes but I was laughing unintentionally at times especially when the RZA was trying to play the tough guy.   The film’s biggest crime is it has no suspense or defined look and the whole thing had all the visual flair of a daytime soap opera.  It would have benefited (like Escape From New York) from some stylish noir night scenes but alas there are little or none

As epitaphs go to the sadly departed Paul Walker, Brick Mansions, is a desperately poor excuse for a movie. Thankfully the James Wan-helmed Fast and Furious 7 will somehow repair Walker’s mixed-bag of a CV.  Which probably tells you how bad Brick Mansions is.

CALVARY (2014) – FILM REVIEW

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CALVARY (2014) – FILM REVIEW

**Contains clips and spoilers**

There are many, many different kinds of films and filmmakers who come from innumerable backgrounds, places and cultures. They have also had a variety of paths to making films such as: film school, television, scriptwriting, novels, plays, stand-up or sketch comedy, being rich or even working in a video-shop. Certain filmmakers have a distinctive visual and thematic style and if using the historical parlance one may call them auteurs. Such a list may include: Hitchcock, Scorcese, Godard, Coppola, DePalma, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Hawks, Lee, Campion, Cronenberg, Kubrik, Coen Brothers, Lean, Lynch, Almodovar, Allen, McQueen, Ramsay, Polanski, Ray, Chaplin, Wilder, and Michael Bay. That last one is a joke by the way.

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These greats would make some of the greatest films of our times – some formalistic and artistic masterpieces others emotional and heartrending character pieces and others comedic. They’ve also made great films which maybe I didn’t enjoy first time round or didn’t understand but later come to love or appreciate. Of course, you’re asking yourself: what has this got to do with John Michael McDonagh’s dramatic film CALVARY (2014) – I’m not sure to be honest. What I would say is that this film has received much critical acclaim according to the posters I saw and I’m sure reviews will be very good, but, on first watch I didn’t enjoy it that much. It’s billed as dark comedic drama but I didn’t find it funny enough or dramatic enough and while it was a great opening the plot wasn’t enough to sustain a feature film.

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Calvary – named after a site immediately outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified – opens brilliantly when Father James Lavelle (acting behemoth Brendan Gleeson’s) is taking confession. He is then threatened by an unknown parishioner and informed he is going to be murdered in just over a week’s time. This sets in motion a potentially interesting “whodunnit” plot with which to structure the story and introduce an ever-increasing set of quirky and troubled rural characters. Gleeson’s Priest is not externally bothered by the threat and even admits to his superior he may know who it is. Thus, any suspense is rendered redundant throughout really.


Over the next week with Judgment Day approaching Father Lavelle comes into contact with a brilliant ensemble cast including: Dylan Moran (Black Books), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), M. Emmet Walsh (Bladerunner, Blood Simple), Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd, Crimson and the Petal, Bridesmaids), Domnhall Gleeson (Harry Potter, Judge Dredd), Isaach De Bankole (Casino Royale) and the always memorable Pat Shortt (Garage) etc. Each character could potentially be a suspect but there’s no real narrative urgency as, while very well performed, the ‘suspects’ don’t really do very much dramatically. Don’t get me wrong there are some wonderful one-liners in the script and Aiden Gillen’s cynical Doctor impressed me. But even his character was aware of his own redundancy in the piece during a verbally erudite and metatextual joust with Father Lavelle. Throw into the mix Kelly Reilly – as Lavelle’s suicidal daughter – and you get another character on the edge of a nervous breakdown that you don’t really care about.

I really enjoyed John Michael McDonagh’s first film THE GUARD (2011), also starring Gleeson with Don Cheadle and another motley crew of quirky characters. But that had more heart and humour than Calvary which almost collapses under the weight of its’ own pretensions. Perhaps, because I’m not Catholic or Irish I did not get many of the cultural and religious references. However, I certainly got the themes of guilt, death, revenge, existential detachment and I also understood the severity of the historical crimes perpetrated by Catholic Priests against children and Irish citizens. Indeed, the film quite rightly deals with this sensitively giving a voice to the victims of these heinous crimes.  Even the ending — which is superbly staged — left me slightly confused and desiring more of a surprise or narrative reversal.

Ultimately, this was a superbly written and acted piece rather than a fully-fledged satisfactory storytelling experience. The quality of the writer’s ideas, dialogue and themes outweighed the humour, drama and suspense. Good use is made of a terrific cast and beautiful Irish coastal landscapes but overall I felt detached from the characters due to the over-authorial nature of the film. I felt like I was watching a film rather than a proper story and could hear the writer speaking rather than the characters. But, I have been wrong about other great films and filmmakers in the past and have come to appreciate them more on second or third viewings. Calvary could just be one of those films.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – FILM REVIEW

CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – FILM REVIEW

**Contains clips and spoilers**

Literary and filmic characters are aspirational figures; icons to live one’s life vicariously through in order to escape the often mundane drudge of everyday existence. Essentially, I mostly go to the cinema to witness characters doing incredible things which I either cannot do or will never get the opportunity to do.  Some characters I aspire to be more like than others. I’m not a fan of Wolverine or neither am I mad about Superman but can understand why people are.  I like Batman and I loved the Avengers film and perhaps surprisingly my favourite character — along with the Hulk and Iron Man — is good old Captain America AKA – Steve Rogers.  The reason I like him is thus:

1) He doesn’t like bullies.

2) His character never knew when he was beaten.

3) He’s very by the book and organised and likes order. I imagine he would be very good at managing an office.

4) Having said that he will break the rules if the need arises and question authority if the authority needs to be questioned.

5) His shield is made from Vibranium – a seemingly made-up element which sounds really really cool.

6) He’s an anachronism and character tension comes from not fitting into the present.  As I get older I feel the same.

7) Anyone who beats the crap out of movie Nazis is fine by me!

8) Chris Evans is a decent actor as he demonstrated in films like:
Puncture, The Iceman and Captain America: The First Avenger.

9) Captain America’s origins are of working class stock. A little guy come good. He’s not a god or scientist or billionaire or spy. He’s a believable figure to aspire to.

10) He’s living proof drug experimentation can work.

So, divorcing my mind from the overly jingoistic American theme of the costume and political associations with US foreign policy I really looked forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I loved Iron Man, The Avengers, and Thor and compared to some opinions I read I thought the first Captain America worked well as an origins film. Iron Man 2 and Thor 2 were lacking a bit while Iron Man 3 had some great moments and a witty script. Moreover, Avengers Assemble was an amazing bit of entertainment and Joss Whedon did a great job bringing the team together. Likewise, Captain America: TWS delivers in a way The Avengers did. Although it’s a darker, grounded and more complex film as the screenplay transplants the story of conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975) into the Marvel Universe. Also, the CGI is played in a somewhat lower key as the action sequences have a raw, immediate feel to them with proper stunts and hand-to-hand combat rather than feeling green-screened to hell. It felt like the production team had been watching Michael Mann’s Heat and the Bourne trilogy for homework.  And boy did that work!

After a prologue where we meet Steve Roger’s soon-to-be-ally Falcon (Anthony Mackie) the Captain is thrown into a mission to rescue a hijacked SHIELD ship in foreign waters. So far-so-Bond but what happens after gets pretty complicated as we’re thrown into a plot involving dirty cops and agents as SHIELD’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked in one of many great set-piece action chases within the movie. The filmmakers don’t rest there though as Captain America himself becomes under suspicion and goes on the run from SHIELD with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) helping him on the road. They got the script pretty decent too when compared to the awful Man of Steel.  Definitely worth the price of a cinema ticket and then some.

The classic Hollywood movie model is to standardize and differentiate production and Marvel comic-book films follow the same formula. We know what we’re going to get as standards: one-liners, action, chases, explosions, hand-to-hand combat, big noises and crashes interspersed with some quieter moments where exposition and some character is revealed before the next big on-screen bang. Having said that Captain America: Winter Soldier differentiates itself in terms of characterisation, action and plot twists and it is also pretty strong thematically.  It links well the past and present; soldiers attempting to come to terms with post-war issues; Roger’s regret over historical events and a touching Benjamin Buttonesque scene with a character from the first movie. Moreover, there’s also some neat socio-political commentary in their too with references to shadowy NSA operations and Government kill lists.  Of course none of this gets in the way of the rip-roaring action.

The action is unrelenting and explosive as he is aided by the gorgeous but deadly Black Widow and war veteran the Falcon.  You can see the twists coming (even from the trailer to be honest) and you can’t escape some silly dialogue.  Robert Redford adds some class and I really look forward to more in the franchise. You’re going to get a few workmanlike efforts like Iron Man 2 and Thor 2 but this was a blinder. Chris Evans carries the role off perfectly too offering enough grit, humour, muscle and film-star good looks to carry the film brilliantly. And after her amazing performance in weird but wonderful Under The Skin it was good to see Scarlett Johansson kicking butt again. The chemistry between Evans and Johansson adds a fun dimension to the action too.

This isn’t just a great comic-book film it is also a very, very well-crafted big-budget slice of cinema.  Directed with verve by the creative duo of the Russo Brothers and the massive production team, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America finds himself post-Avengers pitted against an impressive foe in the Winter Soldier and a legion of other enemies – some very close to home. Of course it wouldn’t be a Marvel film if they didn’t make you wait until the end to see what’s coming next and all I can say is if quality shown in Captain America: Winter Soldier and Avengers: Assemble are anything to go by then Age of Ultron promises to something very special entertainment wise indeed.

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – FILM REVIEW

UNDER THE SKIN (2013)  – FILM REVIEW

UNDER THE SKIN (2013)  - FILM REVIEW - PAUL LAIGHT

**Contains plot + interpretative spoilers**

UNIQUE filmmaking comes along every so often into the Multiplexes. This is cinematic Art of the highest quality, a sheer visual treat and an unnerving and very memorable experience.

NAKED and nameless at the start Scarlett’s character is a literal void or blank; her birth begins with an eye filling the screen backed by ambient, eerie and almost silent noise.  We then find her — against a stark white background — removing the clothes of a seemingly dead woman as she appears to steal her identity.

DEATH hangs over the film she is dropped at a grim rotting house located somewhere in Scotland and provided with a white van with which to seduce and kill unsuspecting men.   Her only contact here is a male “handler” or “pimp” on a motorcycle who cleans and collects her victims after she has led them to their demise.

EROTICISM initially drives the film as an often naked Scarlett becomes the focus of our gaze.  But her murderous actions render all sexual feelings redundant as we become accomplices to her crimes.

RELATIONSHIPS between Scarlett and the men is at the heart of the narrative. She connects with them coldly relying on her looks to hook them in then ends their lives and seemingly passes them onto her handler.

TORMENTED by her actions Scarlett becomes trapped by her mission. The story hinges on how the character becomes affected by her actions.  She slowly connects with her prey and ultimately becomes the hunted having gone absent without leave.

HORROR arrives not from shock tactics but the slow build-up of tension as events occur at a glacial pace. The scene on the beach is one of the most horrific I have seen at the cinema in recent years. Hack cuts and slashing music so prevalent in modern horror is eschewed in favour of strangeness, visual imagination and intense performances.

EERIE and unnerving the score is atmospheric while the dialogue is stripped naked and bare. Nothing is forced. The film is both highly stylised but seems natural simultaneously. You only have to look at Glazer’s work on music videos and adverts to know nothing is by accident.

SCARLETT Johansson is incredible under fantastic direction from Jonathan Glazer. My understanding is many of the scenes were improvised with untrained actors supporting her. She uses her sexuality to great impact but also shows an intensity perhaps not seen in her other performances.

KILLING and murder is shown in an incredibly imaginative way; shot in a dark room where she strips and leads the men to a weird liquid where they drown.  This is very surreal and symbolic. What this symbolises is down to the audience to decide. Like the rest of the film the makers deny us easy explanations refusing to spoon-feed meaning and reason into our Hollywood factory-fattened guts.

INTROSPECTIVE and moody the film really moved me. Scarlett’s character is a tragic figure who gains our eventual sympathy from being used, sexualised and pursued by men. She doesn’t want to be a murderer and desires herself humanity and attempts escape but finds she is unable to get away from an oppressive, pervasive patriarchy. This is reflected by a stunning ending that will haunt me for some time.

NOT quite a non-narrative film this is a surreal treat which while linear owes much to the work of David Lynch and Luis Bunuel. Based on Michael Faber’s novel I understand the lead character is an alien killing men for their flesh but this is totally left out of the movie version.

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I am happy that a British independent film got a proper release. I would hazard a guess Jonathan Glazer’s poetic, visceral and disturbing mood poem has found distribution amongst the popcorn strewn, coke-guzzling reaches of the Odeons and Vues due to the impressive presence of bona fide movie star and sex symbol Scarlett Johansson.

Overall, I wasn’t sure about Under The Skin (2013) after I had seen it. But like all great art it stayed with me and I could not get it out of my mind. And I still can’t. It’s not a super-hero film. It’s not a date movie. It’s not a 3-D CGI sick-fest. It’s pure, pulsing, hypnotic cinema of the highest quality that – IN MY OPINION – is about the exploitation of foreign sex workers brought to this country without hope, humanity or identity.

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NON-STOP – Film Review

NON-STOP – Film Review

Having recently been intellectually challenged by heavyweight cinematic offerings such as 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Lego Movie (2014), I decided to go see Liam Neeson’s latest actioner for a change of pace and mood.  Indeed, Non-Stop (2014) wears its’ B-movie credentials proudly and passes as very serviceable entertainment if you don’t want to have to think too hard for 106 minutes.

**CONTAINS CLIPS & SPOILERS**

The story is an intriguing one.  Bill Marks (Neeson) – identikit tragi-alcoholic-cop with bereaved past – is a US Air Marshal responsible for flight security.  However, this journey is going to be a very bumpy ride as one mysterious passenger has it in for Bill.  The baddie is going to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes if their demands aren’t met.  This plays out with a great deal of suspense and Neeson fighting against the clock to save lives as death comes-a-knocking.  The claustrophobic nature of the setting really cranks up the tension and there’s a neat little twist as Marks’ himself becomes the main suspect.

The film opens slowly establishing all the players and as it progresses it reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery with Neeson playing rugged, brutish and ever-more frantic detective.  It’s great fun as the criminal gives Marks the runaround as they kill off passengers in some imaginative ways. Everyone becomes a suspect and the plot deftly keep you guessing with misdirection as your suspicions move from one character to another. It reminded me of another decent B-movie I saw last year Red Riding Hood (2011).    In all honesty the film falls apart slightly at the end with a mildly ridiculous reveal that’s masked during the rip-roaring final set-piece. But overall I enjoyed this unpretentious movie helmed by the very competent genre director Jaume Collet-Serra.

The main asset of Non-Stop is an excellent cast notably one of my favourite actresses – the stunning Julianne Moore.   Moore, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy add some quality in support to the main man: Liam Neeson.   The tough Irishman rises above some  silly dialogue and clichéd characters as he once again proves himself an excellent action hero. Who would have thought the star of historical epics such as Michael Collins (1996), Schindler’s List (1993) would’ve carved out a latter-day career as an ass-kicking tough guy.  But he’s always mixed it up throughout his career appearing in big budget blockbusters and lower budget movies.

Interestingly, Neeson is reportedly have turned down the role of James Bond in the 1990s. Which is a shame because as he demonstrated in massive sleeper hit Taken (2008), really good Euro-thriller Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2013) he is a magnetic presence on screen, someone who you root for and also very decent in a punch-up.  While socio-politicists may argue Taken was xenophobic and tapped into a subconscious fear of foreigners – who really cares!  Sometimes you just want to watch a film where a bloke built like a brick shithouse beats the crap out of a load of bad guys! And Neeson does this with aplomb in Non-Stop, but this time it’s wrapped in a murder mystery whodunnit set in the mile-high club.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) – Film Review

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – Film Review

**CONTAINS CLIPS & SPOILERS**

It’s always a good reason to carry on living when you know Joel and Ethan Coen are bringing out a new film. Their sophisticated melding of genre and art movies are always beautifully shot and carefully constructed  with terrific scripts and casts.  They also have an inimitable quirkiness, memorable characters and a fantastic use of music. Even their remakes are generally better than most filmmakers’ “original” offerings.  What I’m saying is that I really wanted to enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis  and do you know what: Inside Llewyn Davis rocked. Well, it melodically swayed to its’ own harmonious beat.

The Coen Bros.  last film was the impressive big budget remake of John Wayne horse-opera True Grit (2010) while Inside Llewyn Davis is a lower-budget affair with more akin to their dark character comedies Barton Fink (1991) and A Serious Man (2009). It centres on eponymous anti-heroic folk-musician Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles with both his personal and professional life on a day-to-day basis in 1960s New York.  He’s not a likeable character but is a wonderful musician with an earthy if not wholly commercial talent.  Here the film works as companion piece to Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) which was also about a talented but far more scummy jazz musician.

The Coen Bros. often place their characters in interesting settings e.g.  the snowy landscapes of Fargo (1996);  or give them jobs not usually seen in movies such as the Barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Gym Instructors in Burn After Reading (2008); or hobbies like the bowling dudes in The Big Lebowski (1998).  Moreover, they are also very fond of period pieces and have featured the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s etc. within their oeuvre; in fact the only era they may not have covered is the future. Inside Llewyn Davis is a nostalgia-filled journey back in time to the 60s folk and smoke-filled, bohemian, beatnik back bars of Greenwich Village, New York. I don’t know much about this period of Americana but it is a time that is beautifully evoked and stunningly designed; browns and beiges dominating a cool yet also warm wintry palette. It is a expertly crafted simulacrum that never slips into parody either as shown in the songs used which are faithful renditions of traditional and original numbers.

Episodic in structure the film drifts like couch-surfing Llewyn Davis introducing us to a whole new set of Coenesque eccentrics. Our ‘hero’ is an archetypal rolling stone gathering no moss but rather a whole host of issues. These problems range from a missing neighbour’s cat, pregnant “girlfriend”, homelessness, family dysfunction, indifferent agent, lack of money and career prospects.  Described as an anti-Midas by Carey Mulligan’s very angry Jean, Llewyn’s life has stalled and while he plays and sings beautifully he is more menstrual than minstrel. He’s a rather pathetic character drifting through life having seemingly fallen out of love with music despite still pursuing a career as a solo artist.   Throughout, actor Oscar Isaac delivers a phenomenal performance full of anger, pain and heart all with an underlying glint of sly humour.

As someone who has been in a band when I was young and someone who continues to try a forge some semblance of a path as a filmmaker and comedian I recognised much of the jaded feelings the character experienced and empathised with the continual rejections he faced. But I also felt distanced as in my opinion one should relax a bit and enjoy the journey. Llewyn Davis has a gift — more talented than I could ever hope — but is a character that is depressed by his current existence and nothing seems to be able to shake him out of the funk. There is an air of self-destructiveness, anger and bitterness too which affects his relationships with the decent group of people around who try to help him. The Coen Bros. have in the past been accused of making films that lack heart. I never agreed with that but could see why people may see their work as more style than substance. This film strums away such accusations with a truly mesmerising character study full of heart and soul and regret and fear, humour and emotion.

On the surface the film could be described as a “musician trying to make it” film but underneath it’s about loss and grief in my view; loss of a career following the death of his double-act partner, loss of direction, loss of love for music.   Part mood-poem, part-road-movie, part-musical, part-comedy it has a brilliant cast and some wonderful acting and musical performances.  I’m not a fan of folk music per se, and have little knowledge of the era but that didn’t matter as this is a gem of a film; a cyclical-structured study of loss about an unlovable loser and struggling artist with a bit of Greek tragedy thrown in. If you love the Coen Bros. you’ll certainly love Llewyn Davis.