Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New(ish) Releases: Snowpiercer (2014) & Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Bong, Joon-ho

Sometimes, we could all use a flashy, violent allegory for the world's social ills. Snowpiercer gives it to us.

With a narrative and technique that can border on acid-trippy at times, Snowpiercer provides a fast-moving and creative commentary on class divisions. Playing the part of "the world" is a massive train, known in fact as "The World Train," which is perpetually transporting the few hundred remaining humans around an Earth which has been plunged into an unlivable Ice Age by a botched attempt to cure global warming.

This, of course, is a pretty big jump to make, as far as suspension of disbelief is concerned. But the explanation is satisfying enough, if not exactly the best science you'll find in science fiction. Once you can accept that, then the film grows more interesting as the plot builds. The primary story follows Curtis, a man who is old enough to remember life before the train, and who is relegated to the back section of it - the section designated for the lowest rung of train society. In th"the foot," as it's called, the people are treated as little better than herd animals, where they are fed only gelatinous protein bars and forced to suffer regular abuse.

Curtis and a handful of others from the rear mount a revolt towards the front of the train, in an attempt to find better treatment, as well as some children who have been taken from the rear. As the revolutionaries grit out their struggle forwards, the successive trains become both more luxurious and more horrifying and bizarre.

This is one of the earliest obstacles that Curtis and his rebels
encounter on their revolution towards the front of the train.
Things only get wilder and more insane as they go.
These basic concepts make for a solid framework, but it's a framework that could easily have been mishandled and resulted in a far weaker film. Not so, thanks to director Joon-ho Bong and the other writers. While there are certainly some elements that are strange merely for strangeness' sake, most of the oddities or seeming non-sequiters do represent grander ideas. These make for some curious food for thought, and many of the outlandish questions that we viewers may ask ourselves are, in fact, answered by movie's end.

The cast is excellent, featuring U.S. and British A-listers such as John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and even Chris Evans (far better known as Captain America). The non-English speaking actors are just as good, with an especially great turn by Kang-ho Song. There's a great balance between manic caricature and appropriate gravity, which seems tough for so stylish a picture.

Snowpiercer is nothing if not gutsy. It might not surprise astute viewers as much as it thinks it should, but any lack of surprise from attempted plot twists are made up for by the execution of the tale. It tries a lot of things, and though some of them fall a bit short of the mark, most of them fly true and are sure to entertain.

You won't see most movie vampires doing this.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

From the modern purveyor of cinematic cool, we get a very "Jarmusch" vampire movie. I even hesitate to use the director's name as an adjective, given that his style is not easy to pin down, except that his films are all very confident, more than a little off-beat, and always take an interesting approach to well-worn cinematic story conventions. Only Lovers Left Alive keeps this tradition well alive. With the undead.

You will most likely not enjoy this film if you are a fan of the following: Anne Rice vampire tales, The Twilight Saga, or any vampire stories that rely on the gothic romantic, bloodier, more carnal aspects of the mythical creatures of the night. Only Lovers assumes that you are aware of the basic mythology of vampires, and it narrows its focus to two of their kind - Eve and Adam, who may, as their names imply, be literally thousands of years old. The two are married, and yet they live thousands of miles apart, Eve in Morocco and Adam in Detroit. When Eve receives a call from her husband, she senses that he is going through one of his periodic and deep bout of melancholy over the human race, and she heads over the Atlantic (on red-eye flights, of course) to see him.

The interactions between Adam and Eve are hypnotic in many ways. Their supernatural powers are rarely displayed directly, and we are often left to marvel over their implied abilities. There are more than a few of the cliched references to famous historical people who the two have known over their millenia, but they are still amusing. What is most powerful is what they have seen and the perspectives that they have. Having observed human behavior for countless generations, the pair have alternating respect, anger, despair, and love for people. And one gets the sense that Jarmusch actually captured the attitudes of such creatures with incredible accuracy, and makes them endearing to boot. Adam is eminently musical, constantly composing and performing dark and alluring rock music to sooth himself. Eve consumes books at lightning speed, gaining an almost sexual satisfaction from drinking in the endless perspectives of humans. Undead they may be, but in most ways they do more living than people. And Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (yes, her again) play every subtlety perfectly.

The title pair can make you envious of their wisdom and love
for each other, but just as sad for the sorrow at the human
condition which they have witnessed for so long.
While much of the movie is far slower than your typical vampire movie, with Eve and Adam lounging around Adam's dilapidated and remote Detroit home, there are moments of horror and action. Much of the dynamic energy is provided when Eve's "sister" arrives from California, bringing her hedonistic impishness along to spoil Adam and Eve's serene contemplation. Blood is let, arguments are had, and there is some vampire-on-vampire verbal abuse. These moments keep things lively enough, but I found myself just as relieved as Adam when the nuisance of his sister-in-law was banished.

Most definitely not your typical vampire movie, but certainly a great addition to the historical canon of such films. I'm sure plenty of horror film aficionados will despise the measured pace and meditative tone of the movie, but those who are willing to meet the characters halfway are bound to be rewarded.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Lucky Number Slevin (2006); Gloria (1980); Point Blank (1967)

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Director: Paul McGuigan

A fun, stylish, rapid-fire gangster movie that carves out its own niche.

There are a ton of influences at work in Lucky Number Slevin, which can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. Fortunately, director Paul McGuigan juggles and balances them all impressively well. While the result may not be an all-time classic, it is still a tight, fun viewing experience.

Without giving too much away, the basic story set up is that a young man named Slevin arrives in New York City to stay with a friend named Nick Fisher. All too soon, Slevin is whisked away by men who think he is Fisher, and Slevin is quickly embroiled in a bizarre gang cold war between two powerful yet reclusive crime lords known as "The Boss" and "The Rabbi," performed with playful menace by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, respectively.

It might be easy to write this movie off as one of the countless Tarantino Pulp Fiction clones, but this would be a slight injuctice. While the nonlinear narrative and rapid-fire dialogue might suggest that earlier modern crime classic, Slevin is much more in the style of The Boondock Saints. It leaves behind the endless pop culture references and isn't nearly as gritty as a Tarantino picture, but is rather more visually polished and overtly fun. The script has more in common with film noir, with its staccato back-and-forth sarcasm.

Odd scenes like this one are the norm. Some are trying a
little too hard to be quirky, but others are effective enough.
Much of the amusement of the movie comes from the disorientation of the tale. The lead character, Slevin (Josh Hartnett), is often whisked around by and between oddball gangsters, a la Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (which is openly referenced in Slevin). Slevin's wise-ass reactions to his surroundings and circumstances, along with their inevitable consequences, are often hilarious. And then there's the fun as the viewer of simply trying to piece together all of the seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, not unlike when one first watches The Usual Suspects. Of course, as is usually the case with such breakneck-paced films, the speed masks plot holes that are really only noticed when one has time to look back along the path. Still, it doesn't detract from the immediate experience, as the movie clearly doesn't take itself too seriously.

An interesting observation was how this movie might have the single longest "reveal" of any film I've ever seen. For the first 90 minutes or so, the story hustles along and teases a far more complex and sinister motive behind all of the actions. This motive is explained at the end but takes (no joke) twenty minutes to fully reveal all of the mysteries. This seems ridiculous because it is ridiculous, but the details are engaging enough to prevent boredom.

Gloria (1980)

Director: John Cassavetes

I'm not altogether sure why this movie gets so much acclaim. For my part, I just couldn't see it.

The movie tells the story of the eponymous Gloria, who finds herself protecting a 6-year old boy whose family has been murdered as part of a massive mafia hit. Gloria, though, is no ordinary neighbor. She happens to have been the mistress to the mafia overlord behind the massacre, although she has left that life behind her. As Gloria escorts and protects her charge, Phil, she wrestles with just how far she's willing to go to save him.

That basic premise is not a bad one at all, and it's one that was used in Luc Besson's 1994 film Leon: The Professional. To me, the latter film did a far better job of it, though. Gloria is a good idea completely mucked up by incoherent emotional tone, vague plot points, unimaginative mafia characters, and outright terrible acting and dialogue by child actor John Adames. This last one was the most intolerable for me, as Phil is in the vast majority of scenes, and it is his relationship with Gloria that is meant to be the lifeblood of the film. Alas, the script for Phil often comes off as unnatural, as if written by an adult with a point to make rather than as words of an actual child.

The setting is another bone of contention for me. Perhaps I simply wasn't in the right mood, but the film depicts the same New York City that we usually see in films from the late 70's - the grungy, grimy, scum-laden concrete jungle that seems to ooze depravity and hide menace around every corner. I'm not saying that this can't be effective, but it became tiresome and simply a chore to watch after about an hour.

I was expecting quite a bit more from this one, but hey, they can't all be winners.

Point Blank (1967)

Director: John Boorman

Not a bad movie, though not quite as strong as I was hoping for.

If you're like me, you pick up this movie because you want to see Lee Marvin (who I once saw referred to as "the toughest-looking son of a bitch who ever was born") wreck some serious shop. Well, you pretty much get that with Point Blank. The big drawback, though, is the aesthetic and settings within which he has to do it.

Marvin plays Walker (who, in classic tough guy fashion, adamantly never reveals his first name), who is out for revenge against a former friend who has double crossed him, shot him, and left him for dead in order to pay back a crime syndicate known as "The Organization." Well, Walker survives and comes back two years later to track down his betrayer between San Francisco and Los Angeles. He starts to target anyone who knows anything about his former friend, Reese (John Vernon), and he essentially kills his way up the criminal food chain to get to him.

Watching Walker go to work is fairly satisfying, though it's a story that's been done better in movies like Get Carter (the original 1971 version), A History of Violence, and others. Sure, the bad guys are scuzzy enough, but Walker doesn't ever have to display overly exceptional wits or physical prowess. He's smart enough to see various double-crosses before they get to him, but his skills are more often implied rather than actually displayed.

If you think these outfits are terrible, they're actually some
of the tamer ones that you'll see in the movie. And the
seediness of this still frame also indicates a pervasive tone.
What weakens the movie and has caused it to fade so much over the years are the look and feel of the film. Filmed in 1967, it hurls every groovy, mod-tastic piece of dated music and fashion that it can manage at you. There are hinky jazz clubs, a bombastic musical score and sound effects, and costumes that might as well smack you in the mouth. These may all have been chic and cool when the movie was released, but they were undoubtedly rather comical a mere decade later. Forty-five years later, they have become an obnoxious distraction.

It also didn't help that, aside from Lee Marvin playing Walker, there aren't any other compelling characters. Reese and everyone in the organization is a one-dimensional egoist who first tries to placate Walker before trying to stab him in the back. Even Angie Dickinson, who is pleasant enough to look at, plays a character who is arguably the work of a obliviously misogynistic mind. Perhaps thinking they were creating a woman of "depth," they have her swing between raging at Walker, punching and cursing him, and then jumping into bed with him. In between these weird bouts, she plays it cool as a cucumber, though we never have any clear idea how or why the transitions are made. What we're left with is a woman who can only be described as a traumatized schizoid. Either that or just poorly conceived and written.

Fortunately, the film is only 93 minutes long, and it's fairly streamlined. There are a few throwaway scenes, but not many. The story clicks along fine, with Walker moving from one punching bag to the next, doling out underworld justice. I've no need to watch it again, but it was fine one-shot viewing. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Before I Die # 524: Tetsuo: The Ironman (1989)

If this movie poster seems bleak, horrific,
and claustrophobic, then you've got some
inkling as to the tone of the feature.
Director: Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Whoa. If you plan to watch Tetsuo, then you had better be mentally prepared. It is one trippy, disturbing piece of work, which wears its influences right on its sleeve.

The story, at its most basic, is that a young businessman in Japan suddenly finds different parts of his body turning into machinery. The process is slow at first, but then rages in fits and starts, so that the man soon begins to look like a moving, humanoid sculpture assembled out of scrap yard leavings.

Now, take that idea and imagine that the tale is directed by David Lynch in his most Eraserhead state of mind. Add in several dashes of David Cronenberg's grisly transformation horrors like The Fly and Videodrome, and blend in the psychological torture element of guilt over accidental murder as seen in the harrowing film The Machinist. Put all of those uncomfortable movies together, and you get Tetsuo.

If you're unfamiliar with the movies cited, you just need to know that the movie is stunningly brutal. And yet, its merits are there, for those who care to get past the grainy black and white filming, shocking imagery, and the breakneck editing. The result is that one feels claustrophobic and completely pinned down by the relentless onslaught of the machinery and technology that literally consumes the main characters. And this is clearly what director Shin'ya Tsukamoto was aiming to accomplish. For that, it is easy to see why this film is lauded in many circles.

The movie is taxing to watch. No particular shot lasts for more than four or five seconds before it jumps to another frenetic image, many of which utilize some very well-done stop-motion animation or skewed framing or constricted perspective. Fortunately, I was in the right head space to keep up with it, and the movie is a mere 64 minutes long. Any more than that, and I don't know that my brain would have been able to maintain pace.

File this one under the label of "interesting, experimental films that are good to watch once." If you're looking for a graphic, deeply frightening and challenging visual experience, Tetsuo will satisfy the urge. Just know what you're in for.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New Release: John Wick (2014)

Don't laugh just because it's Reeves.
He plays the hardcore title assassin far
better than you might expect.
Director: David Leitch & Chad Stahelski

A formula you may not realize works: Keanu Reeves + Action Revenge Story = Movie Gold.

I know, I know. That Keanu Reeves. It does actually make sense, if you think about it. One of the great knocks against Reeves has always been his laughably limited range. No matter what character he has been playing, he's never been able to shake his own valley dude monotone and dead black eyes. That's a problem when you're trying to play a Shakespeare character (which he did in Much Ado About Nothing) or a hopelessly romantic sycophant (which he did in Dangerous Liaisons). But if your playing a stone-cold killer who decides to start piling up the bodies, then it's a gift from the gods of cinema carnage, who must have smiled upon Reeves's casting as the title assassin.

And so John Wick gets it right. Taking a page from recent action movie successes like Taken and Dredd, John Wick never tries to out-think itself. It knows exactly what it is - an excuse to watch one mean motor scooter shoot and pummel a bunch of scuzzy gangsters.

The set up is just what it needs to be. Wick's wife has died, and he laments the loss of the woman who pulled him away from his previously bloody life as a mafia hitman (Unforgiven, anyone?). Wick is brought to tears when he receives a surprise delivery of an oh-so-adorable puppy, which was arranged by his wife before she died. The scene is schmaltzy, yes, but it is very effective. We get to see Wick as a guy who does, indeed, have a heart.

And then it all goes south. The pampered son of the local Russian mafia boss, not knowing who Wick is, decides to break into Wick's house, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car. When John Wick regains consciousness to see the dog, he loses it. And then the fun begins for us viewers. What follows is a carnival of death. And boy, is it entertaining.

From the fight choreographers to the cinematographers to
Keanu Reeves himself, the action sequences are brilliantly
executed (pun highly intended).
I'm not especially a fan of action movies, especially some of the latest successful ones. Movies in the Jason Bourne series and its imitators are dull to me, for they show little style and make no great impression as to the physical feats that are merely implied rather than explicitly shown. Well John Wick shows it all to you. Never once relying on slow motion or ultra close-up, guerrilla-style cinematography, the lethal ballet that Wick displays is captured splendidly with long, wide shots and sustained sequences without overly choppy cuts or edits. The result is an impact and intensity that few Western action flicks have ever delivered.

Another merit is the element of mythical fantasy in John Wick's world. There's a hotel that caters solely to assassins, and fictional gold coins that serve as the currency of the realm. These things heighten the awareness of us viewers that this story is, indeed, a fantasy, and the writers were clever in their admission of it.

Of course, if nearly non-stop brutality and gun play have zero interest for you, then you won't care how it's dressed up. And truthfully, it was just starting to become a ever-so-slightly tiresome to me as the film neared its conclusion. Blessedly and perhaps ironically, the filmmakers avoid overkill by keeping the movie short and tight. At an efficient 93 minutes, the movie wraps ups just as things threaten to grow stale. I walked out well satisfied and ready to watch the movie again soon.

Action movie junkies will surely love this film. Even those like me who aren't die-hard fans of the genre will likely enjoy it, as long as high body counts and some rather brutal film violence don't put them off too much.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Before I Die #523: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Original Italian Title: L'ucello dalle piume di cristallo

Director: Dario Argento

It's a good movie, to be sure, but one that didn't quite live up to the cultist hype, in my view.

To be fair, my expectations were rather high, given how highly touted this film and director are by some cinephiles and film critics. Perhaps it is due to director Dario Argento's body of work and solid reputation as a solid suspense and horror filmmaker. I can't be sure, as this was the first of his films that I've ever seen. Therefore, I can only give my thoughts on this film based on its own merits, rather than where it fits into Argento's career arc.

The movie is often compared to several of Hitchcock's most famous suspense films, with good reason. There are Hitchcockian elements throughout the film - a bystander witnesses a brutal murder attempt (a la Rear Window), and he then gets wrapped up in a cat-and-mouse game with a psychopathic killer on the loose in Rome. There are plenty of well-executed moments of tension and fear, including a few pursuits through and around the winding streets of the ancient city.

Probably the most obvious strength of the movie is the visual technique. It's amazing to me just how many Italian filmmakers seem to have an innate knack for framing shots. Whenever I see a Da Sica, Leone, Fellini, or other Italian director's film, it's obvious that they have a portraitist's eye for composing a four-sided picture in the most beautiful manner. Dario Argento is another fine example. So many of the scenes are just enjoyable to drink in, thanks to a keen photographer's eye and some vibrant costumes and set designs.

Alas, the film wasn't what I would call a "masterpiece." There are some actions by the main characters that defy logic to a certain extent, and some of the dialogue is stilted and artificial (though I must admit that one line was hilarious - when a police inspector, without a trace of irony, asks for a suspect lineup with the line, "Bring in the perverts."). The acting was also a bit spotty, being what you would expect from a low-budget spaghetti Western. Somehow, I'm used to the amateurish acting in those more mythical Leone Westerns, but it seemed out of place in this more modern, realistic, urban setting.

One of many haunting, visceral, and masterfully framed shots
in the movie. The cinematography is an inarguable strength.
Those criticisms aside, I must confess that the movie did offer me something pleasantly unexpected - an interesting theme on human memory and psychology. In something one might ponder after reading or seeing Rashomon, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage finds its resolution to the mystery in a way that relies very heavily on the mental state of the witness - a mental state that can apply to many of us. It is this ultimate reveal that sets the movie apart from the great Hitchcock movies, though these latter may be superior in terms of coherence and overall execution.

I'll be eager to see some more of Argento, as I've heard some enthusiasts say that they consider a few of his other films even better than this one. If they are, then I expect some very impressive things. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Retro Trio: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Dredd (2012); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director: Anthony Minghella

Solid adaptation of an excellent book, though one that takes a few licenses.

The story of Tom Ripley in 1950s U.S. and Europe is a complex and unique one. Ripley has trouble fitting in. Though a decent-looking man, he simply can't quite find his niche in life, despite being a modestly talented musician and an excellent mimic of people. One gets the sense that, for some reason, he is uncomfortable in his own skin.

By chance, Ripley runs into a wealthy industrialist in New York who thinks that Ripley is a university friend of his son, Dickie Greenleaf, who is spending his post-college years lazing on the southern coast of Italy and trying his hand at jazz music. The elder Greenleaf offers Ripley sea passage and a healthy stipend to go to Italy and convince Dickie to return to the U.S. and get involved in the family business. Ripley, with no other prospects, capitalizes on Greeneleaf's mistake of identity and takes his offer.

Once in Italy, Tom's far more disturbing qualities begin to emerge. He befriends and becomes quite taken by the handsome and charming Dickie (Jude Law). He very quickly admits his true purpose there, and the two start to spend a great deal of time together, much to the chagrin of Dickie's seeming love interest, Meredith (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tom begins to exhibit a strange but subtle fixation with Dickie so strong that he begins to mimic his movements and even wear his clothes. Dickie grows vaguely aware of Tom's oddity, but mostly coasts along with their companionship.

Damon dies extremely well playing Ripley, who is only at ease
when he is mimicking a life of someone else. Unfortunately for
Dickie and Meredith, his envy finds purchase with Dickie's
freewheeling and affluent lifestyle.
On a trip up to Rome together, the final blow arrives, both figuratively and literally. While out on a tiny rowboat off of a beach resort, Dickie begins to tell Tom just how boring he finds him and that he plans to marry Meredith. Tom completely cracks. He bludgeons Dickie to death with an oar and sinks the body in the Mediterranean. This is horrific enough, but Tom doesn't opt for the typical escape. Instead, he adopts Dickie's identity and spends several weeks living as Dickie Greenleaf, complete with his access to the Greenleaf trust fund. Tom then goes around Italy, marveling in "being" Dicke Greenleaf.

On the surface, this movie seems to be about simple greed. But a slightly closer inspection reveals far more disturbing elements at work within Tom Ripley. Tom is not only after Dickie's impressive financial freedom. He is after Dickie's very essence of living. Dickie lives a free, bohemian lifestyle that Tom has only been able to dream of. The reasons for Tom's reserve and discomfort with himself are open to wide speculation, including being a homosexual. But it even goes far beyond that. Tom is a pitiful character, but unlike most pitiful characters, he he lethally dangerous in his psychosis.

It's this enigma of Tom Ripley that adds an extra dimension to what is already a pretty strong story of intrigue, in which the suspense starts to rise at around the halfway point in the film, and then gradually crescendos right up to the somewhat open ending. Though Minghella took certain debatable liberties with Patricia Highsmith's original 1955 novel, it's a strong film that's worth watching, even for dedicated fans of the source material.

Dredd (2012)

Director: Pete Travis

This movie is just the tonic for someone who misses the simpler tone of 1980s tough guy action flicks but doesn't quite feel like watching the original Robocop for the 47th time.

Based on the long-running serial featured in the classic British comic magazine 2000 A.D., Dredd follows the title character, who is a "Judge" in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where humanity has been crunched into a handful of "megacities" in the world. The cities are teeming with crime, as people do all they can to merely survive in the grungy, dilapidated concrete jungle engulfing them. While most citizens are common and easy victims of the criminal predators in this environment, the Judges are their one form of protection, though a scant one. Judges are granted the position of being one-person judges, juries, and executioners, in the name of carrying out the strict laws and punishments needed to cling to any semblance of order.

In this particular film story, Judge Dredd, a judge whose legendary sternness is matched only by his martial prowess, takes a call on a triple homicide at a towering apartment complex in Megacity One. Accompanying him is the rookie Anderson, a mutant with powerful psychic abilities but with perhaps a touch too much compassion to be an effective judge. Dredd and Anderson get to the scene, and they soon become trapped in the complex by the drug lord who controls it, the vicious former prostitute known as Ma Ma. Ma Ma locks down the entire 200-floor complex and sics her entire army of thugs on the two judges, who must fight their way up the complex to get Ma Ma's penthouse before her followers do them in.

You might think the constant sour puss looks a bit silly, until
watch Dredd go to work. His weapon, known as a
"Lawgiver," is a simple concept that has extremely cool and
brutal applications.
The movie is violent, action-packed, and filled with the gallows humor that one finds in the best Paul Verhoeven movies. The impressive thing about these films is that there is always a cartoon violence that masks certain true emotions about right and wrong. We all know that in the real world, true villains are very rare, which is why we can't go stomping around, vigilante-style, blowing people away. But in the movies, the grey areas can be stripped away, leaving us with archetypes to pit against one another. This is, actually, a more difficult task than it may seem. These movies work best when there is an actual nastiness to the characters, especially the villains. In Verhoeven movies, as with Dredd, the evil characters don't just do bad things; they revel in them. They are sadists who are beyond redemption. This is the only way that it can be satisfying as a viewer to see them dealt with in such a brutal fashion as the judges mete out in Dredd. It's a dark fantasy in which we viewers can easily identify the social cancer and watch a surgeon cut it out. With a fully-automatic weapon.

The character Judge Dredd is an ultimate bad-ass. Played to grim perfection by Keith Urban, Dredd is a smoldering cauldron of determination. He's not an invulnerable superhero. He takes hits. He bleeds. He is even caught off guard once in a rare while. But his skill and will carry him through the dozens of maniacs who have him in their sites. He is exactly the kind of character that an action fan is looking for, and Megacity One is the perfect environment for him.

Dredd is plain old, visceral fun. It's flashy and extremely violent, but it certainly satisfies. I can only hope that a sequel garners interest, as there are plenty of fun yarns that could be told.

The movie poster is surely meant to
evoke the cover of Bob Dylan's
"Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album
cover. The cat adds some levity.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director: Joel Coen

Inside Llewyn Davis is likely to be rather divisive. This was true with the critics, to an extent. While being given overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release, few critics were putting the film on the same level as other Coen Brothers "masterpieces" like No Country for Old Men or even Fargo. I myself was a tad conflicted both when I saw it in the theater and upon this second viewing.

The movie follows the title character mostly around Manhattan in 1961. Davis is a folk singer of considerable musical talent, though he is a mostly unlikable rake who manages to agitate nearly everyone around him with his condescension, sarcasm, and general irresponsibility. Between periodic performances at small venues for modest pay, he crashes on couches of fellow musicians, former friends, and even a few intellectuals who enjoy having a "folksinger friend" around from time to time.

The story doesn't have a clear, traditional arc. Llewyn flops on couches, plays music, and tries to scrape together enough cash to pay for an abortion (for a fellow musician's girlfriend whom he slept with). The most obvious struggle Davis deals with is just how long he continues to try and scrape out some form of subsistence, instead of getting a steady-paying but artistically vacant occupation. This aspect of the story does raise the larger question of what an artist is to do: suffer for his art, even after years of failure, or eventually give up the dream and settle into a "normal" job?

This question is actually what makes the film interesting to me. If Llewyn were a "nice" guy, we wouldn't be very conflicted. We would certainly hope that he would succeed, as he is clearly talented. However, because he's a complete jerk, it's not so easy, despite the fact that his musicianship shows great quality. Would we, as music lovers, wish for a greater wealth of good popular music, even coming from a bad person, or should we hope that he fails at his one passion and skill, maybe to make him a better human being? It's not a comfortable question to answer. This is why, I feel, the movie did not make a tremendous impression on the popular viewing audience. Most people didn't come away with any distinctive, recognizable feeling about the title character.

As for me, I still like the movie. However, I do not consider it one of the Coen Brothers' best movies. (If you're curious, I have Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, and one or two others ahead of it). I would recommend this one to most people, though I would caution them no to expect to come away feeling all warm or fuzzy. Or maybe even knowing exactly what to feel.