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.