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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) Review | Jamie Daily

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
86th Academy Awards 2014
2/5 Stars
Nominated for 2 awards.
Nominated for Best Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) and Best Sound Mixing (Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland, Skip Lievsay).
Watched May 30, 2014.

Inside Llewyn Davis is cyclical.  It is the depressing period in one’s life after the death of a loved one and partner.  It is also a behind the scenes peak at the life and struggled of a folk artist in 1961.  More specifically, it is a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).

At first we don’t know why, but Llewyn is extremely down on his luck.  He is hopping from couch to couch on the sometimes grudging shoulders of friends.  His sister is a hard love type of woman and his ex-secret lover is pregnant with his baby while her husband (Justin Timberlake) is helping him out with jobs and connections.  It is winter in New York and Llewyn can’t even afford a coat, that’s how unlucky his is.  We find out later why he is no longer a duo and his emotional scarring makes him refuse much musical help or the thought of joining a group.

He is a rough human being.  He heckles other singers and is angry and unforgiving, but somehow he is able to muster the responsibility of taking care of his friends’ cat who follows him out one day. His chase of the cat and his attempt to bring it home is a consistent theme in the film and adds a cute quirk to his character that was needed.  The snow, cold, and dark night clubs bring the depression level of the film down and Llewyn’s character arc doesn’t go very far in the span of a week.

It is clear that most of the characters in the film are sympathetic to Llewyn and what he has gone through.  He has a distinctive surliness that is tough to connect with, yet somehow I was rooting for him that somewhere in the film his life would turn around.  We know next to nothing about his history, which makes him a mystery.  That is definitely a weakness of the film, in my opinion.

It is very obviously a Coen brother film.  Having been away from art and filmmaking for a few years now, I find it a lot more difficult to appreciate dark and depressing films.  There are little to no redeeming qualities in Inside Llewyn Davis, and to be honest I was at a loss as to what the moral premise was.  I felt that the script needed to be more rounded out and complete.  However, the cinematography was certainly excellent and painted the mood of the film extremely loud.  The folk songs are particularly good and Isaac delivers a good performance.

I don’t think that I will ever watch the film again, but if you have love for the Coen brothers, Oscar Isaac, or especially a connection to music, this could be one that you would enjoy.

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American Hustle (2013) Review | Jamie Daily

American Hustle (2013)
86th Academy Awards 2014
4/5 Stars
Nominated for 10 awards.
Nominated for Best Picture (Charles Roven, Jonathan Gordon, Megan Ellison, Richard Suckle), Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Actress (Amy Adams), Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Costume Design (Michael Wilkinson), Best Director (David O. Russell), Best Film Editing (Jay Cassidy, Alan Baumgarten, Crispin Struthers), Best Production Design (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler), and Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell).
Watched June 5, 2014.

David O. Russell is becoming an unstoppable director in recent years.  From The Fighter to Silver Lining’s Playbook, and now onto American Hustle, he groups his favorite actors together in this film to punch out another excellently made, sharp piece with similar humor that we all loved in Playbook.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence are the revisiting dream teams, but their performances are complimented this time by Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K. and other big names in the industry.  The star studded cast combined with the fabulous director should be a recipe for greatness, and although the film took home zero Oscars on awards night, it was certainly a strong contender.

The story is a little unoriginal and one we have seen often.  It is the late 70s and early 80s.  Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a small time scammer married to a young woman named Rosalyn (Lawrence).  When he meets vivacious Sydney Prosser (Adams)–if that is her real name–he falls in love and ropes her into his business.  They’re eventually cracked by the feds and ambitious Richie DiMaso (Cooper) offers them a deal to get off the hook.  If they will help him to take town some big time scammers they’ll walk.

Irving is a piece of work, and an excellent character, which is probably what attracted Bale to the part.  The opening scene shows precisely how the man creates his masterpiece of a combover, complete with hair piece.  He knows what he wants and how to get it but he also knows when things aren’t right.  Sydney might turn out to be better than him, but I’ll let you decide on that front.

Despite the fact that Rosalyn knows about Sydney, she comes off as a few crayons short of a set and is constantly setting things on fire or talking about her manicures.  She is surprisingly dangerous and passive aggressive.  In true Lawrence-fan fashion, she was one of my favorite characters in the film.  She brings a different side to the comedy that the other characters don’t, although everyone seems a bit gaudy.  As Christy Lemire  from Roger Ebert says, “Her complexity and unpredictability make her fascinating to watch—she’s just unhinged enough to think she’s the voice of reason—and Lawrence is a radiant scene-stealer.”

The costuming is truly on point.  Sydney is obsessed with the plunging neckline.  Just as distracting is Richie’s head of incredibly curly hair (which he curls every night).  Each character is so delectably unique, and yet somehow the story line doesn’t get bogged down with their loud, semi-insane character arcs and holds things together surprisingly well.

Jeremy Renner plays the mayor, Carmine Polito, who is one of the many they are trying to scam.  He is a big time family man who passionately wants to make a difference in the city, but unfortunately his methods are against the law and Richie is chasing after him.  Irving and Sydney have no choice but to go along.  Rosalyn is the loose cannon that could ruin the entire operation, and everybody knows it.  Instead of keeping her at home, they continue to take her to all of the events and set her free.

The big personalities are a recipe for disaster within the film, but outside of that, everything came together fairly well.  Russell went at the con artist angle with more humor than we typically see.  This is perhaps an attempt to make the plot more unique, but really it’s just a rehash of everything we have all ready seen out of Hollywood.  Everything is executed well, as you can tell from the list of nominations, but what was missing was the twist of originality we typically see from the director and his star studded team.

The film is rated R, but is a great comedy with a lot of wit, laughs, and ridiculous situations.  I can appreciate this type of humor a lot more than something like “Ted.”  If American Hustle sounds like something you would enjoy, I would definitely recommend it.

The Grandmaster (2013) Review | Jamie Daily

The Grandmaster (2013)
86th Academy Awards 2014
2/5 Stars
Nominated for 2 awards.
Nominated for Best Cinematography (Philippe Le Sourd) and Best Costume Design (William Chang Suk Ping).
Watched May 24, 2014.

I wanted to like The Grandmaster so badly!  I was really unsure what I was getting into when I started watching it, but I roped my husband into it because I knew it was about martial arts.  It is certainly a unique shooting style with a lot of artistry and strong technique, however its plot was so slow moving that it lost my attention multiple times and I found myself caring little for what was going to happen in the end.

The film is the story and history of martial arts, but is specially focused around Ip Man (played by Tony Chiu Wai Leung), a martial arts master who would eventually train Bruce Lee.  Ip Man was a master during the republican era of China in which the dynasty falls.  He is surrounded by greatness and is inspired, patient, and a true believer in the art.  He becomes attracted to the daughter of a master from the north, despite already having a wife and children.  As the dynasty falls and Japan invades, he is forced to Hong Kong in search of work, but is stranded there when the borders close.  Everyone is claiming to be a martial arts master and fights break out everywhere.  There are very few true masters teaching the art and holding to the old ways.  Ip Man is hit on all sides by life, but is able to open a school that will one day attract the likes of Bruce Lee.

The film’s third main character is time.  Ip Man’s relationship with both kung fu and his love interest Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) are told through a manipulation of time.  Whether the story line is sped up or slowed down, the master is always a presence of calm in the storm.  A calm demeanor, however, does not always mean happiness.  Even the best can be overcome by emotion, especially if the emotion is revenge.  Gong Er’s legacy and family are practically stolen from her, and no matter what it means for herself, she seeks to restore her family honor above all else.  They are wise, but cannot escape time, just like the rest of us.

The cinematography is particularly dark.  When there are joyful times, there is light and color and tradition, but as the invasion happens, everything becomes shrouded in darkness pierced by sharp reds.  The film is truly a piece of art, but its style is a tad over exaggerated and over saturated for my taste.  It becomes so wrapped up in itself (most especially in its over-use of slow motion) that although the kung fu is truly magnificent, it gets lost in its presentation.  Perhaps it is good that it is not flashy and bright, or unrealistic like typical Hollywood.  It is much deeper and more meaningful this way–just very redundant.

If you enjoy films that are more pieces of art than entertainment, this could probably be one you would enjoy.  I don’t think that I will ever seek out The Grandmaster again, and nor do I think it impacted my life, but I don’t regret my time spent watching it either.

Buzkashi Boys (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

Buzkashi Boys (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
2/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Live Action Short Film (Sam French, Ariel Nasr).
Watched May 13, 2014.

Perhaps it was because of cultural differences, but I was pretty bored by Buzkashi Boys.  It was trying to make a statement about cultural differences, too.  Those of my generation are obsessed with the hashtag craze “#firstworldproblems,” in which one states something that is only deemed a problem in first world countries.  This film depicts the opposite of first world problems.  In fact, it is a story about a blacksmith’s son and a boy who lives on the street and how they both dream of a better life.

It is present day in Afghanistan and Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) doesn’t want to be a blacksmith.  He wants to hang out with his friend Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), an orphan who lives on the streets.  The blacksmith (Wali Talash) doesn’t want either of these things for his son.  He wants to teach him a trade and how to support himself when he is no longer around.  Rafi and Ahmad run off and witness a game of Buzkashi–a local sport somewhat like horse polo but involving a dead goat.  Ahmad dreams of leaving the streets and becoming a famous and successful Buzkashi player.

The short takes us around Afghanistan, giving a humanity to what us in outside countries likely only see on the news.  The boys explore what was once a palace but is now rubble.  We see a crowded street full of cars, shops, and people, where Ahmad sells whatever he can in order to get by.  Rafi’s home is small and dirty, but he has a lot more than his friend.

What is special about this film is that a team of international filmmakers have come to Afghanistan to teach the locals how to make films.  They want to educate them and encourage them.  I would say getting a project nominated for an Oscar is pretty good encouragement.

If we view this film as a project in filmmaking, it is certainly a step in the right direction.  If we view this film as an insight into the Afghani lifestyle, it can be powerful.  However, the story was lacking and listless.  Even though it was only a short, I felt that the story telling needed a lot more meat and direction to really be a success.  The character development was okay.  The filming itself was pretty good, and especially from a trainee director who has never been to school for the subject, it is very impressive.  I hope that he continues to pursue filmmaking and will bring his skills back to Afghanistan.

Philomena (2013) Review | Jamie Daily

Philomena (2013)
86th Academy Awards 2014
4/5 Stars
Nominated for 4 awards.
Nominated for Best Picture (Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward), Best Actress (Judi Dench), Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan).
Watched May 11, 2014.

 

Philomena is based on the 2009 book by Martin Sixsmith about a woman who conceives out of wedlock and is forced by an Irish convent to not only serve years for punishment, but also to give her son up for adoption.  She has spent decades struggling with her guilt and emotions on her own, but in a reckless moment, she opens up to her young daughter.

 

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has recently been disgraced in the media, but when he tries to make a comeback as a journalist for the BBC, he finds Philomena’s story fascinating.  While she would love to find her son, he isn’t necessarily interested in reuniting mother with child, but with the story and the secrets about the 1960s nuns that will disgrace the Irish-Catholic community.  Despite the fact that BBC pays for everything, Philomena (Judi Dench) is incredibly reluctant to open up to the media and to have her private life on display.  After all, she has kept this secret for most of her life and now all of a sudden, she fears everyone knowing.

 

Their search, of course, takes them to the convent, where they are run around in circles and get no real answers because she signed forms stating that she will never receive further information about her son.  After walking through a graveyard full of the bodies of babies and mothers, Sixsmith and Philomena continue looking and end up finding out that her son was adopted by Americans.

 

The relationship between the two characters makes Philomena such a strong film.  The New York Observer describes it as “an overpowering novel you cannot put down, this gripping real-life story allows you to share the journey, step by step, as Philomena, who still clings to her faith, and Martin, a lapsed Catholic and devoted atheist, leave no rock unturned in their search for answers.”  It is the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith and their battle of wits that earned the film four stars from yours truly.  Judi Dench does it again!  I forgot I was watching a film as I saw Philomena discover fact after fact about her son.  Some things will tear at your heart strings, others will exasperate you, and a lot of them will more than likely surprise you.

 

It is not a feel good story.  Based on real life events, it reveals a sad history in Ireland and most especially in this woman’s life.  Clearly, its strengths are Judi Dench and the writing.  While the film did not win, its nominations were deserved, albeit its Best Picture nod was probably a little low on the totem pole compared to the other nominees.  However, we all know how I love a good story driven film, and despite how sad this film left me, I loved it just the same.  Likewise, the score is properly haunting, full of nostalgia, sadness, and hope.

 

If you like a good story combined with an actress who can deliver, this would be a good film for you!  At only 98 minutes long it is the perfect length for a difficult subject matter that makes one think about family, morality, and Philomena’s ability to forgive.