Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer-songwriter whose career is stuck in mud. He is certainly very talented but his unwillingness to bend from what he thinks is best has likely cost him a real shot at making it big. Combine his inflexibility with an inaccessible personality and circumstances that often lean toward bad luck, every day is an upstream battle. He does not even have a place to sleep.
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the look, the mood, and the right actors but it lacks one important element: a reason for us to wish to see the next scene. Though it is not without a sense of humor, the picture is one note in that things are simply allowed to happen to the main character. We watch Llewyn sleepwalk through his rotting career. Since a series of unfortunate turn of events do not have much depth to them, Llewyn’s journey is most depressing.
The film jolts to life when the protagonist performs with nothing but his voice and a guitar. I enjoyed the way Isaac allows Llewyn to be vulnerable when singing and a wall once again when the melody stops. It communicates that the man is not entirely incapable of connecting. Perhaps he is afraid or hurt or simply not ready. In a way, a part of him died after Mike, his musical partner, committed suicide.
The Coen brothers know how to frame the performances. Oftentimes the camera is up close: from the waist up with occasional close-ups during the chorus. They put us in the front row so that we can relish the tiny emotions of the faces and voices. Though the perspective pulls back once in a while to capture the space between the artist and the audiences, our connection to the performances are not allowed to waver. This is best shown when Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” to Mr. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a producer in Chicago.
When the songs stop, so does our involvement. The wait is about three to five scenes until the next one. In some ways, the structure of picture likens that of a mediocre album: the first two songs are great, the next three are passable followed by a good one, and then a few more fillers until a memorable track. There is an imbalance to film that I found almost unbearable. Couple that with a slow pacing, it becomes a challenge not to get frustrated.
Despite the dark brooding in the marrow of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the lack of substance is astonishing. Halfway through, I asked myself: “Am I enjoying this movie as a whole so far or are the songs keeping this thing afloat?” I leaned toward the latter. Since the centerpiece is the soundtrack with accompanying visuals, perhaps the Coen brothers might have been better off releasing a series of music videos.
In Time (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the near future, humans were genetically engineered not to live past the age of 25. Once a person turned of age, a green countdown of one year appeared on one’s arm. When it reached zero, death was a certainty. Will (Justin Timberlake) was twenty-seven years old which meant he’d been scavenging for minutes for two years. In world where time was used as currency, as one would use money to buy a bottle of pop or pay toll to be allowed to pass a certain area, a couple of years, let alone hours, wouldn’t get an individual very far, especially if one lived in the ghetto, as did Will and his mom (Olivia Wilde), a place known as a Time Zone, where the rich limited the circulation of time. “In Time” began like a great science fiction film: it left us in middle of a curious era, handed us the rules of the game, and allowed us to navigate through the necessary exceptions and recognize why they were justified. We observed what people did in the Will’s time zone which ranged from people trying to make an honest living to earn time (but were often short-changed) to thugs (Alex Pettyfer) who harassed others and stole their time via arm-to-arm contact. One of the most compelling early scenes involved a woman who had only an hour and a half on her arm but a bus ride required a fee of two hours. After much begging to no avail, despite explaining that her destination was approximately two hours away by bus, the driver coldly suggested that she ran as fast as she could to get to her destination on time. I liked that the director allowed the woman to have only one look at the people sitting on the bus where not one volunteered to give minutes. It wasn’t that they were required to but it was a decent thing to do. That scene gave me strong feelings anger and sadness because I had been in that situation before. A person couldn’t pay for the the fare and I just sat there, impatient as to when the driver would finally step on the gas. Unfortunately, I felt like the film’s grand ambitions were thrown out the window in the latter half in order to make room for romance and chase sequences. While there was undeniable chemistry between Will and Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of an influential and rich man (Vincent Kartheiser) who could live for thousands of years if he so chooses, their differences were not explored beyond the set-up of poor guy wanting more and rich girl wanting to be less suffocated by parental controls. Since the roots of the partnership was executed superficially and lackadaisically, when they decided to rob banks and give time to he impoverished à la Robin Hood alloyed with Bonnie and Clyde, there wasn’t much tension or excitement. We wanted to them to get away from Timekeepers Leon (Cillian Murphy), Korsqq (Toby Hemingway, sporting a runway-ready haircut), and Jaeger (Collins Pennie), assigned by the government to capture the duo, because they strived to do good for the downtrodden but it was a passive rather than an urgent experience. Finally, I yearned to see more scenes of Sylvia’s father do more than looking glamorous and serious. There could have been complexity in him because we saw that he, too, worked for higher, possibly more sinister, echelons. It was a slight disappointment that “In Time,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, circumvented daring intricacies for the sake of digestible answers. If it had maintained its initial promise–heavy on the concept, light on the adrenaline–and had been more careful about clunky details, it could have been a paragon of modern science fiction.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.
Bad Teacher (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) was a gold-digger who taught middle school Language Arts. When she was dumped by her most recent rich boyfriend because she had been spending too much money, she started a quest to find another man who would be able to provide for her lavish desires. Her short-term goal: to get breast implants. She was convinced a new pair would help her seduce Scott (Justin Timberlake), the substitute teacher who happened to be romantically interested with Amy (Lucy Punch), the teacher across Elizabeth’s classroom. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, “Bad Teacher” was great fun because it was able to take stereotypes, bad habits, and unethical practices into more digestible small scenes with comedic punchlines. Once the joke was delivered, it was immediately onto the next scene to set up the next hilarious bit. It was fast-paced and smart. In its own way, it worked as a critique of an increasingly ineffective educational system and the educators who just couldn’t be bothered. I think it had a point: Elizabeth had needs. Her needs were not always be reasonable but they were needs nonetheless. Its inherent argument was, why should teachers be more motivated to go beyond expectations if they weren’t getting paid enough? Some could argue that teachers love their job and they’re very passionate. That very may well be, but in a practical sense, teachers are not rewarded, pocket-wise, as much as they should be, especially when teaching is, supposedly, considered one of the most important jobs in any nation. The material was elevated by the actors’ charm, particularly by the effervescent Diaz. Even though Elizabeth did drugs at the school parking lot, often went to class with a mean hangover, and only showed movies–some of which had no educational value–in her classroom instead of actively teaching, I ended up rooting for her and loving her for who she was. She knew she was bad and did it with a smile. I liked her frankness. For instance, when Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher, asked her out on a date, instead of playing games and stringing him along, she had the courage to just shut him down right away because he wasn’t rich enough. However, I did find some glaring plot holes in Elizabeth’s situation. For example, she had her eyes set on the vulnerable and sensitive Scott because of his last name. What bothered me was she didn’t make sure that he was 1) who he really claimed to be and 2) he was the only beneficiary of the family fortune. She put her faith in the fact that Scott wore a very expensive wristwatch. Later, it was proven to us that she was very resourceful. If I was in her shoes, I would plan to have all of my facts straight before I put in the effort to seduce someone. “Bad Teacher,” directed by Jake Kasdan, was often compared to Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” which I don’t think is fair. Although both are comedies about people doing bad (but hilarious) things, “Bad Teacher” is a more commercial breed. It needn’t be as edgy as the latter in order to be considered successful because it found a solid footing in terms of how it wished to deliver its jokes. And with so many trite comedies where “mean” characters eventually change for the better, I was more than happy Elizabeth didn’t lose her thorns.
The Social Network (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first thing I did after watching David Fincher’s “The Social Network” was log on Facebook to check if I had any notifications. Whether one’s feeling toward Facebook and other social networking sites be love or hate, no one can deny the fact that such simple inventions changed how people communicate. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) desperately wanted to fit in Harvard when he was an undergraduate. He wanted to get into a private club but he didn’t have the means. He was smart but he wasn’t likable. In fact, he was far from likable. When his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) broke up with him, he went up to his dorm room and posted insults about her body and her family on LiveJournal. His only real friend was Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who also wanted to belong. Eduardo’s emotional intelligence was higher than his friend’s. Eventually, the two became partners in creating Facebook but when it was launched, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) claimed that their idea was stolen. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), founder of Napster, came into the picture in order to bring Facebook to an international level. The film benefited from very strong performances from Eisenberg, Garfield, and Timberlake. I was delighted with Eisenberg’s performance because even though I’ve seen him play nerd-chic multiple times prior (with relative ease), I felt like this was his most complete and challenging performance yet. I hated him, I rooted for him, I hated him some more, and I felt sorry for him. The final shot of him refreshing a certain someone’s Facebook page was pitch-perfect because it showed that despite all the money and the acclaim, he had nobody so his life felt empty. Garfield, who’s been doing fantastic independent work for a while, is finally given the spotlight past overdue. He had a lot on his plate because he was the heart of the picture. He was David who had to face multiple Goliaths equipped with brains. We all knew it would take more than a slingshot and some pebbles for him to, not necessarily succeed because we all knew what would ultimately happen, but to take what he deserved. I was invested in his character because he struggled to remain loyal to his friend even though his friend had no sense of loyalty to him. Lastly, Timberlake did a wonderful job playing Parker, a fierce and forward-thinking businessman who knew exactly he wanted and wasn’t afraid to grab whatever he desired even if it was on someone’s else plate. His ego was probably as big as his ambition to be relevant again. Fincher’s confident direction mixed with Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent script made a wonderful film that highlighted not just the story of college students lives’ being broadcasted over the internet or the drama of the creation of Facebook, but also the highly ambitious, although sometimes misguided, natures of young adults today.